It was the first day of our ten-week stay in the Palestinian section of Jerusalem. Every spring the school where I taught offered a study tour to the Middle East. The school where we were to stay was housed in a nice compound just five minutes from the Damascus Gate into the Old City. This was my first trip to this part of the world, and I was excited.
As the tour guide, I took my position in the jump seat at the front of the bus in close proximity to the driver, a genial and efficient Palestinian Muslim. We made our way over the hills east of Jerusalem and headed down the Jericho Road toward the Dead Sea. Along the way, the driver and I talked about the Bedouin tents we passed, the extreme dryness of the landscape, the story of the good Samaritan, and the observations that he had made from years of driving groups to Masada, Qumran (location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found), and Jericho. He was bemused at my interest in photographing Palestinian police (Palestinian self-rule had just begun in Jericho) and, because I had requested it, he drove us by Yassir Arafat’s house.
At the end of the day, as the bus groaned its way back up the Jericho Road, he stunned me with a question that I didn’t see coming.
“Are you really an American?”
“Yes,” I responded, wondering why he asked.
“Then how come you are not a Christian?”
At first, I was offended. How could he say such a thing? I protested his judgment, but he brushed me off.
“There is nothing Christian about you,” he said. “You are a better Muslim than I am.”
Soon after that, we arrived at the guest center in East Jerusalem and we, unfortunately, were unable to continue the conversation.
In the weeks that followed, I had many similar experiences. I never spent an hour with any Muslim without getting that same pair of questions:
“You’re an American, aren’t you?”
“Then how come you are not a Christian?”
Over time, I began to understand why they drew this conclusion. In the Middle East, there are several markers that distinguish Muslims and Christians from each other. These markers are universally accepted by both sides and clearly define each group.
The first of these markers? Alcohol. If you enter a grocery store in an Arab area and they sell alcohol, the store is Christian; if there is no alcohol, it is Muslim.
A second key marker? Pork. Good Muslims in the Middle East won’t eat it. In fact, if a Muslim converts to Christianity, the way to convincingly demonstrate that change to family and friends includes drinking a glass of wine and eating a piece of pork in front of them.
A third key marker? Dress. If you walk into an Arab travel agency and the women are dressed in the latest Western fashions, you know the agency as Christian; if the women dress much more modestly, you can identify the travel agency as Muslim.
Now, one might argue that these differences are relatively trivial, but that attitude reveals our Western bias. Trust me, these are not trivial issues in the Middle East. They are carefully considered markers, widely recognized and accepted. Christians and Muslims are well aware of them and watch carefully to see which side you are on.
Thus, because I am an Adventist, I can now see why some Muslims would be confused about me.
Indeed, I have learned that the common elements between Muslims and Adventists run a lot deeper than just these issues. I am beginning to believe that God carefully designed the remnant message as an end-time bridge between the Muslim world and the West.
Let me give you an important example.
What do you consider of value at the end of life? When you are at death’s door and look back on your life, what will really matter? Will you wish you had played more video games? Will you regret that you did not watch more comedy shows? Will you regret that you chose not to use alcohol or drugs? Will you wish you had spent more time following the lives of the rich and famous?
At the end of your life, death provides a keen focus on what truly matters. All the glitz, glamor, and An Adventist approach to Islam M I N I S T R Y 22 J U N E 2 0 0 9 trivia appear to be just that, and life’s true meaning and priorities come into focus. As the end of life approaches, lesser things fall away, and two main things appear clearer than ever: The first is God and the relationship (or lack of it) that one may have had with Him. The second is a review of what you have done with your life, choices you have made, and the kind of character you have developed and displayed.
Interestingly, these two points are at the core of Islamic faith. In the Christian West, Islam often seems an oppressive, outdated, violent form of thinly veiled paganism. Yet Islam is a deeply spiritual faith that has provided meaning and purpose for millions. More so, a strong correlation exists between the core values of Islam and of Seventh-day Adventism.
Both the Adventist and Muslim faiths are end-time oriented. We live life in the consciousness of final judgment and accountability for every thought and act. We are both aware of the centrality of God in a great cosmic confl ict and that character is the one thing we can carry with us into eternity. In their essences, Adventists and Muslims share a common perspective regarding the ultimate meaning of life.
Recently, an Islamic government requested that an Adventist institution organize a conference on spiritual life and wholeness as pertaining to the practice of medicine in Islamic countries. The request engendered a great deal of nervousness on the part of the leadership of the institution. How could they approach the issues of the Adventist faith in a country closed to evangelism? Should they hide their faith to some degree in order to carry out the request?
A Muslim physician who was born and raised in that particular country and now resides near the institution was invited to be part of the planning committee. As he listened to the concerns, he remained quiet, feeling his way through an unfamiliar situation. But after about 45 minutes of discussion, he raised his hand to speak.
“I really don’t think you need to worry about these issues,” he said. “Every Muslim familiar with Seventhday Adventists knows that, of all the other religions, Adventism is the closest to Islam. You are like spiritual cousins to us. Go ahead and plan this conference as you would any other. Just be yourselves and you will be welcome in my country. The Adventist values that this university stands for, values that I know from my own experiences with you, will resonate deeply with Muslims anywhere. We need the wholeness perspective that you will bring to us.”
Sure, there are significant points of difference between Adventists and Muslims. We all know that. But when Adventists approach Muslims at the point of common spiritual need, the encounter can lead both parties to a deeper appreciation of what matters in life before God. Adventists become excited to discover that others find some of their peculiar views spiritually uplifting and are often inspired by the devotion to duty and spiritual discipline seen in many Muslims. Muslims, in turn, feel affirmed that their core beliefs resonate with people in a Western context and are encouraged by the assurance Adventists find in Jesus as they prepare for the day of judgment.
If you give it half a chance, such spiritual affinity can be the basis of a beautiful friendship, which itself can open the door to witness. So, the next time a Muslim asks me if I am a Christian, I won’t be offended. I will take it as a great opportunity to share my faith with someone who already shares some of it with me.