Listening at the Mosque

Each year in my Dialogue with Asian Relgions class, I have my students visit a local mosque. I also have them visit the Sikh temple and the Budhist temple. And sometimes other places are visited. The Sikh temple has been the favorite so far. But I especially want them to visit the mosque and the Buddhist temple since those are the places of worship of the two groups that my students are most likely to interact with with regards to other world religions.

The experience at the mosque is always different. I tell my students, however, that they are not to proselytize. They are to listen and to learn.

Each year there is some small attempt by those at the mosque to try to persuade my students that they really should join their religion. I am glad they do this because I want my students to learn the art of listening. If they learn the art of listening, they learn a skill that few if any have mastered.

A few years ago, the presentation the imam used to try to gently suggest that the students should become Muslim was pretty abysmal. The argument boiled down to something like “Islam is not a religion but an ideology. It has adherents in every country on earth and is the fastest growing.” If one was of a mind to argue one might respond with “#1. There is no clear line separating ideology and religion, and since Islam has chosen to embrace most of the trappings of a traditional religion, calling it an ideology does nothing to enlighten. #2.  Christianity has adherents in every country on earth as well. It would be pretty likely that this would be true of Hinduism and Buddhism as well. Hardly an interesting bit of trivia. #3. In sheer numbers Islam is growing faster than Christianity right now, but both religions have gone back and forth over the centuries in who is winning the adherent race. Not very persuasive, and even less so in that many religions have a growth rate (including Evangelical Christianity) that far outstrips Islam. And finally, the ideology of secularism right now is almost certainly growing in numbers faster than either Christianity of Islam.”  Sorry, did not mean to turn it into an argument. But you can see that the presentation was really poor.

Last year one of the young men at the tawhid school there tentatively tried to start a debate. My students told him that they were not there to argue but to listen and learn. (I love it when my students listen to my instructions. Some years they do not.)

This year, my students described the presentation my the mosque leadership as “persuasive.” That is quite different from what has come back to me in the past. Therefore, I asked them to talk about the presentation. A few key points came up:

First, The presenters first noted the many things in common between Christianity and Islam. We worship the same God (well… sort of). They (Muslims) see the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as written by God, and they also see Jesus as a prophet of God and a miracle worker.

Second, They noted differences after first noting the similarities. They see the Bible as having become distorted due to copy errors and translation, thus explaining why it disagrees with the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic theology. They also noted that they do not see Jesus as being one with God.

So why did my students find this presentation to be more persuasive than that from previous years? Clearly, there were problems with their presenation. The part where they say that Jesus is not part of the Godhead is hardly new. Most people are well aware that Muslims see God as having oneness without discernible divisions. They also balk at most anything that presents God in terms of immanence (with the exception of some Sufist groups). The part where they suggest that the Bible would agree with the Quran and Islamic beliefs if it weren’t copy and translation errors… well as seminary students they knew that this is highly dubious. We have the Bible available in the original languages so there is no errors from that. As far as copy errors, perhaps 300 years ago that argument may have sounded plausible. But in the last couple of centuries there have been great strides in textual criticism. It is pretty clear that there are substantive differences between the message of the original autographs of the Bible and the message of the founder of Islam (as it was compiled a few decades after his death at least).

Since the second part of the presentation wasn’t very compelling, presumably what made it compelling would be the first pat. This was the part where the presenter pointed out all the things that Muslims and Christians can agree with. Of course, these agreements were a bit deceptive. To say that Muslims agree that the Bible was from God, but since they teach that it is reliable only to the extent that it was correctly transmitted– and correct transmission is only recognized if it doesn’t disagree with the Quran— the Bible is given NO AUTHORITY by the followers of Islamic teaching. However, that is not whay my students heard. They did not hear the presenters say that Muslims give the Bible no authority. What they heard was that Muslims believe they Bible was given by God.

This is classic marketing, right out of Dale Carnegie. Carnegie noted that to influence another person, get them as soon as possible to say “Yes” to you or “I agree.” Additionally, to get them to agree with you, you agree with them as much as you possibly can. A lot of Christian evangelists and evangelistic presentations seem more focused on disagreeing with or discounting others beliefs.

Interestingly, Paul focused on agreement in his presentation to the Athenians. He agreed with the philosophers on many many things, before finally bringing up the divisive point of the resurrection of Christ.

What the presenters at the mosque did was actually what we as Christians should be doing. Start with finding common ground and agrement, before bringing up differences. Although their argument was, to be honest here, a bit weak, it sounded strogner because they started with building agreement from the beginning.



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