Opinion: Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue is important

The Calvin College Middle East Club’s recent trip to Dearborn, Mich., has reaffirmed my belief that it is of the utmost importance for modern day Christians to understand Islam and that Christians should enter into dialogue with Muslims in order to understand rather than convert.

During Interim on Saturday, Jan. 17, I made arrangements for the Calvin College Middle East Club to take a group of 17 students and myself, including club members and non-members, on a trip to Dearborn, which is home to the highest population of Muslims in the nation.

While there, we visited the Islamic Center of America, the largest Shia mosque in the United States; the Arab-American National Museum; a Middle Eastern restaurant; an Arab bakery; and St. Mary’s Arab Orthodox Church, where we attended a vespers service.

It was the visit to the Islamic Center, however, that appeared to be of the greatest interest to the group, given how long we stayed. Rather than staying just an hour and a half as I had originally planned, we stayed at the mosque for almost three hours due to the great questions that people were asking and their intense curiosity about Islam.

Mr. Eide Alawan (who insisted on being just called Eide), the person in charge of the free tours that are offered daily at the mosque, acted as our guide. In addition to answering questions about the mosque, he engaged the group in a deep conversation about religion.

Eide talked at length about a wide variety of subjects, including the similarities between the Christian and Islamic traditions, the reverence that both Christians and Muslims have for both Old Testament figures and Jesus, and the differences between the two main sects of Islam, the Shi’ites and the Sunnis.

In response to a question by a student about Muslim extremists, he also explained how the Qur’an, just like the Bible, has verses advocating violence that can be taken out of context, and that Muslims are no more violent than the members of any other religious group.

Eide also talked about the importance of understanding other religious traditions. He himself makes a point to reach out to other religious groups.

Every year on Christmas Eve he takes several members of the mosque’s congregation to a Christmas Eve service at one of the local churches, a practice for which congregation members have accused him of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Humorously, he even tried to e-mail me while we were driving to Dearborn to ask if we could start the tour a half hour later because he was at a bat mitzvah and would be running late.

In connection to his respect for other religious traditions, a respect that he believes the Islamic tradition teaches, he pointed to a Qur’anic verse adorning the wall near the front of the sanctuary.

The verse reads: “Those who believe [in the Qur’an], those who follow the Jewish [scriptures] and the Sabians and the Christians—any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness—on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.”

Based on what Eide said, he clearly understands what is needed for civil interfaith dialogue to be possible, and I found many of his convictions about exchanges between religious traditions to be in line with my own.

We share the central belief that it is important for both sides to come to interfaith dialogue out of a desire for true understanding of the other.

One thing that Eide found particularly frustrating and undermining to interfaith understanding was the repeated arrival of overly-zealous Christians at the doors of the mosque with the intention to convert Muslims.

One of these instances included the infamous Terry Jones, a pastor who outraged many Muslims by burning the Qur’an. These actions disturbed both the congregation and Eide himself.

He said that he cannot understand why these Christians would feel that it was alright to come and try to convert Muslims inside their own place of worship, and he asked aloud if these Christians would also think it was fine to go to synagogues and try to evangelize Jews.

“They did not want to have a conversation about religion,” he said. “They wanted to convert us.” What Eide also noted is that—contrary to popular belief among Americans—most Muslims in the United States are largely uninterested in converting non-Muslims.

I think that Eide’s advice to reach out to Muslims should be taken into account by Christians both at Calvin College and across the world.

The importance and necessity of Christians to have a basic knowledge of Islam cannot be understated. As of 2010, 49 countries have Muslim majorities, and more than 1.6 billion people (or 23 percent of the world’s population) are Muslims.

Perhaps even more important than gaining an understanding of Islam, is for Christians to understand how to respectfully engage in interfaith dialogue.

In my opinion, the proper way for Christians to enter into religious conversations with Muslims is with the purpose of understanding, not conversion.

I understand for many students at Calvin, as well as many Christians in the United States, that this advice runs against what they have been taught about the importance of sharing the Gospel with everyone.

In interfaith dialogue, of course, one talks about what one believes and how one understands their own religious tradition. However, to come into an interfaith exchange with the intention to convert rather than to truly understand almost never results in the other person converting.

Instead, as can be seen in the case of members of the Muslim congregation in Dearborn, all it does is raise suspicion among Muslims that many Christians really have no interest in learning about Islam.

I sincerely believe that respectful interfaith dialogue is both possible and necessary in order to end prejudice and misunderstanding.

One hopeful sign I saw of positive Christian and Muslim exchange, besides the conversation that occurred between the Calvin students and Eide, was in the location of the Islamic Center itself.

Sitting along a small highway, the Center is in close proximity to five churches: a Lutheran church, a Catholic church, an Orthodox church, an Armenian Apostolic church and a nondenominational church.

To me, that is a sign of hope.