Saturday, December 23, 2006

Happy Hajj! You're Not Invited

By Patrick Poole December 22, 2006

As Jews began their Hanukkah celebrations this week, commemorating the recovery of the Holy Land and the Temple from foreign invaders by Judas Maccabeus, and more than a billion Christians prepare for one of the holiest days of the church year, where the doors of Christian churches will be thrown open to anyone willing to hear the good news of Christ’s coming to earth as a human to redeem humanity, millions of Muslims are preparing for their own spiritual journey next week in the annual trek to Mecca to perform the Hajj.

But quite unlike the Jewish and Christian religious celebrations of Hanukkah and Christmas, if you are a non-Muslim, don’t plan on investigating the mysteries of Islam by joining your Muslim friends on their trip to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj – you’re not invited.

Perhaps no better contrast between Judaism, Christianity and Islam exists than the treatment of non-believers on the respective holy days of each religion. I recall fondly the many times that I have participated in the Passover seder at the invitation of Jewish friends and have each time been awed at the profound meaning attached to every element of the seder which is designed to illustrate the fascinating historical narrative of the Jewish people over the millennia that is the foundation of both the Christian and Islamic faiths.

I also remember the occasion several years ago when a Chinese friend of mine who was finishing his PhD at Ohio State joined my family and I for our Christmas Eve celebrations. After joining us for worship, he told us with tears in his eyes how that was the first time that he had ever heard the gospel message that Jesus Christ had come into the world to save sinners – a message that had been branded as counter-revolutionary and been outlawed in his own country. Needless to say, we were delighted when he joined us again the following year for Christmas Eve, where he was anxious to tell anyone at church who would listen how he had embraced the free offer of the gospel and become a Christian the previous year. Having returned home to China, my friend is now a leader in the underground Church there.

But if I wanted to join my Muslim friends next week on the Hajj, I would have to bear in mind that my reception would not be as friendly. I would be forbidden to bring my Bible or any Christian literature with me on my trip to Saudi Arabia, and be required to remove anything identifiably Christian from my person (crosses, etc.). There are no Christian churches allowed in the “Land of the Two Mosques”, so there would be no opportunity for me to join with fellow Christians there in our weekly celebration of the Lord’s Day, and I would constantly be under watch by the Wahhabi Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice police to ensure that I didn’t share my Christian faith with anyone else.

Even having arrived in Saudi Arabia and complying with the absolute ban of any expression of my faith, as I approached the holy city of Mecca, I would be denied entry. Despite all of the supposed Quranic endorsements of the “People of the Book” (i.e. Jews and Christians), as a kafir, my presence is not welcome at the Hajj. We should remember that the cardinal offense that prompted Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lackeys to declare war on the “Crusaders and Zionists” in 1996 was the presence of American troops in the Arabian Peninsula, though nowhere near the sacred cities of Mecca or Medina.

For Muslims in the West, they have as much freedom as any other to practice their faith openly and freely without any fear of being molested. The number of mosques popping up all over America is a testament to that freedom.

Such is not the case for Jews and Christians in Islamic lands, however, where people of those faiths are subject to countless acts of intimidation and violence on a daily basis. Even in their synagogues and sanctuaries, believers are not immune from attack. In fact, many are prevented from approaching their own holy sites. In the Holy Land, Muslims occupy the Temple Mount – the historic location of the ancient Jewish Temple – and Jewish worshippers are subject to regular assaults by stone-throwing Muslim crowds at the nearby Wailing Wall and other sacred sites. And it was the mere presence of a Jew – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – near the Temple Mount in September 2000 that sparked the second intifada that has claimed the lives of hundreds of Jews, Christians and Muslims in recent years. Jews have also been forbidden from visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron – Judaism’s second-most holy site – since it was converted to a mosque in 1266.

And earlier this month Turkish authorities feared that Pope Benedict might take the opportunity while touring the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – one of the greatest churches in the world that was seized by Muslims after 1,000 years of constant use by Christians – that he might actually try to pray there.

It isn’t just the Hagia Sophia that has suffered the inglorious fate of being converted from its original use as a Christian church to be taken over by invading Islamic forces and made into a mosque. In her book, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam. From Jihad to Dhimmitude, Bat Ye’or chronicles how innumerable Christian and Jewish holy sites, such as the Church of St. John in Damascus that was demolished by the Islamic Caliph Abd al-Malik in 705 and had the Umayyad Mosque built over it, were taken over for the exclusive use for Islamic worship during the constant waves of Islamic conquest. It is worth noting that even the Kaaba, the central location of worship in Mecca, was seized by Mohammad from non-Muslims.

Getting back to my original point – one of the constant complaints of Muslim apologists is that Westerners just don’t understand Islam. Fair enough; but is that entirely the fault of non-Muslims who are shut out of Islam’s most important rituals? And might it be the case that those of us, Christians and Jews alike, who are angered at the treatment of our brethren in Islamic lands do so not because of our alleged “Islamophobia”, but rather on the basis of real grievances?

As former President Jimmy Carter travels the country promoting his book identifying Israel as an apartheid state because they refuse to capitulate to Palestinian terrorism, perhaps he might take some time and try to join his Wahhabi patrons during the Hajj this year and see what religious apartheid is really all about. While believers and non-believers alike will enjoy the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays, the invitation for Jews and Christians to join their Muslim friends and neighbors for the Hajj this year didn’t get lost in the holiday mail. It was never sent.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Jesus Christ Our Lord Almighty

by Bassam Michael Madany

One of the main themes of the Book of Revelation is the sovereignty and omnipotence of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a central fact of Christianity, and is much needed during our times. The triumph of Christ is confessed in the oldest Christian Creed: “And He shall come again, with glory, to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.” (Nicea 325 A.D.) Nowadays, this Christian belief is being criticized as triumphalist and exclusivist. Let me give an example.

In the May 2003, issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Bernard Lewis who has taught Middle East history at the Universities of London, England, and at Princeton, New Jersey, contributed an article with this shocking title, “I'm Right, You're Wrong, Go To Hell: Religions and the Meeting of Civilization.”

I was both chagrined and disappointed that this great scholar posited equivalence between Christianity and Islam, in their respective outlook on the world; and more specifically, as they sought and still seek, to win converts to their specific faiths.

To begin with, Bernard Lewis reminds us in this article that, “only two civilizations have been defined by religion. Others have had religions but are identified primarily by region and ethnicity.” These two religions are Christianity and Islam, they “are the two religions that define civilizations, and they have much in common, along with some differences.”

Having thus set Christianity and Islam apart from the rest of world religions such as Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, professor Lewis classified the latter as relativist religions, while the former two as triumphalist religions. “For some religions, just as ‘civilization’ means us, and the rest are barbarians, so ‘religion’ means ours, and the rest are infidels. Other religions, such as Judaism and most of the religions of Asia, concede that human beings may use different religions to speak to God, as they use different languages to speak to one another. God understands them all… The relativist view was condemned and rejected by both Christians and Muslims, who shared the conviction that there was only one true faith, theirs, which it was their duty to bring to all humankind. The triumphalist view is increasingly under attack in Christendom, and is disavowed by significant numbers of Christian clerics. There is little sign as yet of a parallel development in Islam.”

Professor Lewis regards Islam and Christianity as triumphalist religions. Both faiths consider all “others” as infidels. While, according to him, some Christian leaders are nowadays “disavowing” the triumphalism that has marked Christianity throughout history, there is no such parallel movement among Muslim leaders. In our globalized world, triumphalism (whether Christian or Muslim) is not conducive to world peace. In order to put across his thesis in the clearest way, Bernard Lewis sums up his disapproval of triumphalism, both in Islam and Christianity, with these words:

For those taking the triumphalist approach (classically summed up in the formula "I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell”), tolerance is a problem. Because the triumphalist’s is the only true and complete religion, all other religions are at best incomplete and more probably false and evil; and since he is the privileged recipient of God’s final message to humankind, it is surely his duty to bring it to others rather than keep it selfishly for himself.”

The first point I would like to make is that, great as the scholarship of Bernard Lewis is, his lumping together of the “triumphalism” of the two religions is neither proper, nor objective. One has to be careful in categorizing the faith of others. As a Christian, I find the title of his article very offensive. It is a caricature of Christianity to sum up its attitude to the “other” as being, “I’m Right, You’re Wrong. Go to Hell.”

Throughout history, Christians, beginning with the apostolic age, sought to win converts through preaching and witnessing. It was none other than the Risen Lord that gave his church the marching orders: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18b-20 (NIV)

The greatest missionary of the First Century was Paul. After his conversion, his life was dedicated entirely to the spread of the faith, and the organization of churches in the Mediterranean world. He described his mandate in the opening words of his Letter to the Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” Romans 1:16 (NIV)

Paul’s message consumed him. He was absolutely convinced that the Risen Savior had entrusted with the message that brings salvation to all kinds of people regardless of their ethnic or religious background. As to the primary means for converting “others,” God had ordained the preaching of the Gospel. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” 1:21 (NIV)

In contrast with this peaceful spread of Christianity, Islam spread primarily through conquest. When studying the history of Islam back in Syria in the late forties, my teachers at the Syrian College used to glory in the “Futuhat” (Conquests) of the Arabs. By 732 A.D., one century after the death of Muhammad, Islam had conquered territories stretching from Spain in the west, to India in the east. While Christians and Jews were allowed to remain in their respective religions, pagans were forced to Islamize. Furthermore, the People of the Book (as Christians and Jews were called) had to submit to some stringent rules that greatly limited their freedoms. They were designated by the Arab invaders as Dhimmis (an Arabic word that means ‘protected.’) Their status is known as Dhimmitude. Originally, the Christians of the Middle East formed the majority population. A few centuries later, they became minorities in such areas as Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. The Church disappeared in North Africa.

Professor Lewis should not have posited equivalence between Christianity and Islam as far as the method for gaining converts. As a historian, he should know better than that!

The second point in my criticism of the article of Bernard Lewis is that he fails to see the great contrast between what he calls the “triumphalism” of the two religions. Yes, Christians do believe in the ultimate triumph of the Gospel. Their faith is summarized in these great words of Revelation 11:15b “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (NIV) And in one of the most familiar passages of this NT book, we hear the heavenly choir sing these triumphant words: “Hallelujah! For Lord God Almighty reigns.” 19:6b (NIV)

Islam, throughout history, has been triumphalist. Notwithstanding its many setbacks, especially after the leader of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, abolished the caliphate in 1924, Muslims have never ceased to believe in the final triumph of their faith.

Today, the inevitable triumph of Islam remains the core belief of the radical Islamists. They do not and would not hesitate to use any means to bring about the triumph of Islam, even if that meant total confrontation with the rest of the world.

On the other hand, if Christianity is described as a triumphalist faith, its triumphalism is related to an eschatological event. While the gospel has many implications and applications for the here and now, its complete fulfillment takes place beyond the horizon of this world order. Nowhere is this made plainer than in Romans 8. Let us listen to that great confession of Paul as he describes the ultimate triumph of the Christian faith:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits with eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. … For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. For who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Romans 8:18-21, 24, 25 (NIV)

Yes, I do believe in the ultimate triumph of my Christian faith. But I know that this triumph will not come because of any military campaign, or through any worldly means. The victory of Christ over the world will become visible and evident to all, at his Second Coming. Paul described the triumph of Jesus Christ in these memorable words: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.” Philippians 2: 9-11 (NIV)

Therefore, there is no equivalence between Christianity and Islam, neither in their core beliefs, nor in the way they conceive of history, and its End. Much as I still appreciate the works of Bernard Lewis, I am very, very disappointed with his article because his thesis is flawed, both historically and theologically.

Message was delivered at the Chapel of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Dyer, Indiana on Friday, March 12, 2004
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