Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Mission Friendships with Our Islamic Neighbors
The Mission Dialogue Forum of Global Ministries in Atlanta invited an eminent Islamic educator, Dr. Khalid Siddiq, to speak on March 25, 2018.
Dr. Siddiq, who is a Pakistani national, is a medical doctor specialized in endocrinology. He also serves as the director of outreach at the Al Farooq Masjid in Atlanta, which was established in 1980 in response to growing Islamic communities in Atlanta, especially the migrant community. On a usual Friday, nearly 500 Muslims came for Salah. The Masjid founded the Dar-un-Noor School in 1990 that now has about 200 students in grades pre-K through 8, learning traditional academic subjects in addition to Islamic Studies and Arabic.
One of my very first encounters with the Muslim community in the United States was to visit Al Farooq Masjid in Atlanta in July 2017 with Candler School of Theology summer intern to Global Ministries, Luis Velasquez. We both had a wonderful exposure, good welcome and met several people including Dr. Khalid Siddiq at the mosque.
Dr. Siddiq, being a faithful follower of Islam and an academic, offered Global Ministries staff a wonderful introduction to the basics of Islam and what it means to be a Muslim. This session was most helpful as the work of the Global Ministries is spreading globally. Interfaith is also important in understanding an emerging U.S. context. I think churches should intentionally be doing more interfaith activities as our multi-cultural society grows.
Let us gather some recent empirical data on the religious landscape. Islam is predicted to rise in the United States. There were about 3.45 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States in 2017, and thus Muslims made up about 1.1% of the total U.S. population. By 2050, the U.S. Muslim population is projected to reach 8.1 million, or 2.1% of the nation’s total population—twice the share of today.
Looking at the global scale, it is estimated that by 2050 the number of Muslims worldwide will grow to 2.76 billion, or 29.7% of the world’s population. The share of the world’s Muslims who live in sub-Saharan Africa will increase from 15.5% in 2010 to 24.3%. Asia, which is home to more of the world’s Muslims (61.7%) than all the other regions combined, will continue to host most of the world’s Muslims (see http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/31/worlds-muslim-population-more-widespread-than-you-might-think/). So, Muslims with their global presence will have neighbors from other faiths in almost in every part of the world.
This changing religious landscape must be taken seriously, must be addressed creatively, and calls us to engage meaningfully if we are to have world peace. In this endeavor, the initiatives taken by Muslims for dialogue are of paramount significance while churches are continuing their interfaith ministries.
Our Islamic Neighbor
As Christians, should we not celebrate our neighbor? What is the significance of interfaith friendships in Mission of God today?
It is of prime importance that the Christians should deal with Islamophobia, prejudices, and misunderstandings that we have about Muslims. This is growing in general, even at the global level, and can be as dangerous as racism. While moderate citizens are very critical of Jihadist segments of the Muslim population, we must know that all Muslims are not extremists or fundamentalists. Quickening negative judgments is not the way.
Understanding the faith of the other is the way of wisdom. On a very basic level, we Christians need to improve our knowledge and awareness of the faiths of our neighbors. It is our missiological responsibility to understand and dialogue with our Muslim neighbors in these challenging times. Jesus’ golden commandment is “love your neighbor,” and loving our neighbor involves understanding her or his faith, culture and lifestyle. While academic study helps, we must go beyond academic knowledge and relate to our neighbor in a living manner in our day-to-day life. Interfaith relationships are not just a technical skill to acquire but also a gift from God to every Christian arising from God’s love.
Sri Lankan Dialogue Experiences
In Sri Lanka where I had my longest ministry thus far, four living major religions are present: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Communities of these faiths live and do things together in a multi-religious society. So, dialogue becomes a daily experience. We called this “dialogue of life.”
The Theological College of Lanka, Pilimatalawa (Kandy), where I taught and was the principal for five years (2010-2015), has a strong ecumenical tradition of interfaith education and work. We have Islamic leaders come and teach the seminary students, who will be in the ministry and mission in the future. Students along with the faculty regularly visit the mosques as part of their educational and cross-cultural exposures. This is a transformational experience for missions. This work helps the future theologians, ministers, and lay leaders to respond to conflict and tensions with more understanding, discernment, and peace-building, leading to reconciliation of all communities.
We have experienced the fruits of this interfaith work for harvesting peace. D.T. Niles, Lynn De Silva, W.J.T. Small, Basil Jackson, Soma Perera, D.K. Wilson, R.S. Sugirtharajah, and Wesley Ariarajah are some prominent Methodists from Sri Lanka who contributed to a greater interfaith understanding in mission and Christian witness in a multi-faith world. Their work reaches beyond Methodism.
The Other as a Partner in a Mission
Can we consider our Islamic neighbors as a partner in mission?
The World Council of Churches’ recent mission statement, Together Towards Life (TTL 2013) (para 93), challenges us in the right direction:
"In the plurality and complexity of today’s world, we encounter people of many different faiths, ideologies, and convictions. We believe that the Spirit of Life brings joy and fullness of life. God’s Spirit, therefore, can be found in all cultures that affirm life. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, and we do not fully understand the workings of the Spirit in other faith traditions. We acknowledge that there is inherent value and wisdom in diverse life-giving spiritualities. Therefore, authentic mission makes the “other” a partner in, not an “object” of mission."
I was also delighted to note the American Society of Missiology has chosen “Interfaith Friendship as an Incarnational Mission Practice’ as its yearly theme in 2018.
My Islamic neighbor is my FRIEND. Best wishes for greater interfaith friendships in God’s mission, and Salam, سلام, Shanthi, Peace!