by Bryan Carey
The Refugee Highway Partnership conference was held in Sarajevo this month. I was asked to lead two break-out activities in which Protestant Christian conference participants from around the world could visit a mosque to learn from local Muslims about Islam, the refugee crisis, and the opportunities and challenges that occur when Christians and Muslims engage across religious barriers as they both do humanitarian work and talk about faith. On Tuesday, the focus of the mosque visit and conversation was all about Islam: learning about what motivates Muslims in Bosnia, witnessing Muslim prayers, freely asking questions, and listening to the advice of Muslim friends on how Christians can best serve Muslims refugees.
First the imam and another Muslim co-facilitator, both friends of mine, described the pillars of Islam. Islam has two usual meanings, the imam said: submission and peace. When we are submitting to God we have peace with God and others around us – everything else comes from that. We then witnessed the Muslim salat, or prayers, and the imam shared afterwards about how Muslims pray repeatedly throughout the day the equivalent of “Glory to God in the highest!” and “God forgive us our sins” while prostrating themselves in prayer, physically embodying submission to God. He repeatedly emphasized forgiveness and love in Islam. Every one of his responses to the Christian group was filled with such warmth and passion for his faith that several people commented about how deeply they had been touched by his words and presence.
- “I had always been really intimidated by Muslims before – but this was incredibly welcoming and positive!”
- “This was the highlight of the conference.”
- “I’ve heard mostly negative things about Islam and how strict it is. But these Muslims focused so much on forgiveness, love, and respect for differences.”
The conversation had been inviting and open, and the Christians noticed that they could relate to these Muslims more deeply, somehow, than they had been able to with Muslims in other situations.
As facilitators it was our hope to create such a space in which negative perceptions of the “other” could be nuanced and even challenged. There is a wide diversity of Muslim expression, just as there is a wide diversity of Christian expression. If we approach each and every Muslim we meet with curiosity, openness, and an expectation of encountering someone through whom God can teach or impact us, we then create for ourselves the possibility for collaboration, respect, openness, and mutual transformation with our Muslim neighbors.
To the extent that it may be of interest, we invite you to read the partial transcript of our conversation below.
Bryan: Christians like us are increasingly recognizing that there is an internal tension among Muslims. Of course, we know that we have a lot of disagreements within Christianity, among Christians. Christians often say, “Christians believe this,” but when we do, we are not recognizing the wide range of differences among Christians. So, can you talk to us a little about why some Muslims interpret the Qur’an in a violent way, and why are they wrong to interpret the Qur’an in that way?
Imam: Some Muslims put a label on their actions or beliefs as “Islam,” but it’s not really Islam. It’s impossible that someone commits violent actions from pure Islam. In Islam, to start any kind of war is wrong. When war is mentioned, it’s just for defense. There are two times as many situations when the Prophet Muhammad managed to prevent war than those times in which there was a war. If some people want to start a war or a fight, they have hidden intentions. It’s not Islam.
Imam’s father: The Qur’an says that even to kill one person is as if he has killed all of humankind.
Christian man from northern Serbia: I was born in the former Yugoslavia, in northern Serbia, so i was curious what happened in your life during the war in the 90’s? How do you feel today toward fellow citizens who are not Muslims, those who are on other sides?
Imam: First of all, I was small. My father is here, who participated in the war. No one likes evil. Everyone who did evil during the war should be punished. It doesn’t matter what his name is or whether he is Muslim or not Muslim. Whoever did bad things during the war must be responsible for his deeds. Who did more or less, that is politics. I believe that both Muslims and Christians did bad things, but they regret and repent of those bad things. Whoever repents of those bad things they did, the door of my heart is open to him. But whoever did those bad things, and they have not repented – no matter if they are Muslims or not – maybe even today they spread conflict and hatred – how do we forgive them? It’s human to not forgive those who want evil. But when they repent, we are ready to forgive.
In the time just before the prophet Muhammad, there was a man who killed 70 female children who were born to him. The Arabs before Muhammad’s time had these horrible customs where they were ashamed of having daughters. Everyone in the community knew this about this man who had killed many of his own daughters, so they kept a distance from him. But once he came and repented of this, the Lord forgave him and the community welcomed him back as part of the rest. That is my way and the way I think about all the horrors of the war. That is because even I have done wrong, not in the war, but I know what sin is – and we all do it. But we repent to God and he accepts us.
Muslim co-facilitator: Maybe your father has something to add about his experience?
Imam’s father (answering the Serbian man about the war): For example, statistics about destroyed mosques and churches. In BiH, there was intentional destruction of religious buildings, and you can count how many of these mosques and churches were destroyed to understand the situation. I don’t know exactly how many…
Imam: There were about 630 to 640 mosques which were destroyed. This mosque was destroyed as were all mosques in this town, but this church across the street – no one touched it during the war. When the Bosnian Army took control of this area, they did not destroy this church. In Islam it is forbidden to destroy any kind of house of God. Maybe there would be some crazy Muslim who would do that, but in Islam that is a sin.
Christian man from northern Serbia: What about the conflicts in the Middle East?
Imam: Whoever destroys a church – it is a sin.
Christian man from northern Serbia: In Iraq, there’s so much conflict between Sunnis and Shiites where there is so much destruction.
Imam: If there are conflicts between Muslims, it’s really that people don’t understand their own faith. It’s actually that people are trying to gain power over others and they justify what they do – they cover over what they do with faith.
Christian woman: Do all Muslims live by Sharia law? It’s often publicized that Muslims want to live under Sharia. The media makes it seem like all Muslims want to.
Imam’s father: Bosnia is a citizenship state, not a Sharia state. Our law is based on citizenship and not based on Sharia.
Bryan: There’s actually a really interesting article that I can send to everyone that came out in The Atlantic a few weeks ago. It talks about the unique contribution that Bosnian Islam can make to the world. A lot of European countries have been asking, “How can Islam integrate with the West?” And different Bosnians were saying, “Helllooo! We’ve been here for hundreds of years.” The article goes through several instances of how Islamic understanding and interpretation adapted under new circumstances. The first issue was whether Muslims can live in a state that is not Islamic. When the Austo-Hungarian empire came, a lot of Muslims started fleeing to Turkey, and different Islamic scholars were saying, “No, no! If we have rights, and we’re not persecuted, then we do not have to leave.” How Sharia courts might be integrated into and answer to state courts was another issue that the article discusses.
American woman: What would y’all’s opinions be then about the case where in Britain and in Dearborn, Michigan, that Muslims are seeking to apply Sharia law in America and Britain. What are your thoughts about that, because lots of people are afraid about Sharia law being applied more and more?
Imam: Whatever seems like it’s frightening other people is bad methodology – in whatever you do! I don’t know what that fear could come from, but if it is creating fear, then it’s bad methodology. Do you know any specific laws that they are trying to implement that you are afraid of?
American woman: Maybe if a certain leader would have the ability to enforce capital punishment, to kill a person. That people can be put to death as a punishment.
Imam: Do you know what the prescriptions are in Sharia for that punishment?
American woman: I thought maybe turning from Muslim faith; changing your faith. They say that if someone converts to a different religion it is punishable by death. Also, sexual sin.
Imam: This is a wrong understanding of the Sharia law. The Qur’an strictly says in the Qur’an that if someone believes in something else or wants to believe in something else, then you cannot insult what he believes in or wants to believe in. Also in the Qur’an there is a very strong line that there is no force in religion. It is nonsense that someone would be killed because of turning from Islam.
American woman: So, in Iran, in places where the government does things like this, it’s just a crazy government?
Imam: This is not Islam which prescribes this. There is a very strict line that there is no force in religion. Only God gives you in your heart what you believe. The way people approach Islam – sometimes they take moments from the time of the prophet Muhammad but Muslims don’t look at the context and why a certain decision was made. In Islam, it is forbidden in war to kill women and children and people without strength, like elderly people. Even when you are face to face in war, you must ask your enemy whether he relents, and only then, if he does not, can you kill him in battle.
American woman 2: I know that we don’t know the mind of God, but how does Allah view someone who converts from Islam to another religion? Are there some religions that are closer or close enough to Islam or better that others?
Imam: In my view, if someone chooses another worldview in which God does not exist, that seems to be worst, because it’s negating that God exists. You have the right to be whatever you want. There is no force to believe anything. Faith is given by God as an examination. If God wanted to make us all one religion, he would have made it so. But God wants to examine or test us with differences – how will we treat those who are different? God gave a lot of freedom for people to think for themselves, and often we go farther and farther from the truth.
Christian Hungarian man: It was very nice to me, when I saw the end of the prayer service (similar to the end of a church meeting!), the people turned to each other and began to greet each other. When I was in Sarajevo 5-10 years ago, and I saw around the city, I saw many newer big and fancy mosques which were being built by Malaysia, Saudia Arabia and other foreign groups. I saw an Iranian cultural center. So this is my question. How do you feel about this? They came from the East and they have other kinds of practices. Maybe they think, “Oh here in BiH is another kind of Islam, and we would like to teach you about true Islam!” [skepticism in his voice about the intentions of foreign Muslims]
Imam: We obviously have the same attitude! I have the same feeling. Eventually, Muslims here realized that there were a lot of Muslims with bad intentions who came to do that. Sometimes, it seems like they came to make some conflict between us. I cannot be sure, but it seems like that. I can see that they are Muslims. They recite Qur’an and pray the prayers, but it seems by their deeds that their intentions are not well. Whoever by their deeds brings conflict, he is not someone who is spreading Islam. For example, when we pray for the prayers while we are standing, I did not recite loudly. In the evening, I will recite loudly. The reason why this is the case is that in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, everyone lived around the Qibla, both Muslims and non-Muslims. While they would work during the day, Muhammad said that Muslims should not recite loudly. People are at work, and they shouldn’t be bothered all day long. After they leave their work and go home, then you can recite more loudly.
You noticed that we turn to each other and shake hands after the prayers. Muhammad said that when two believers meet, they should shake hands and with love look at each other. When we do that, God forgives our sins.
I would say to the Turkish, Saudi Arabian, and Iranian people, we love you and thank you for coming, but please do the work you need to do in your own countries. You have a lot of work to do there first. This is our challenge – that we as Muslims have more dialogue and more cooperation – that we learn more.
American woman 3: We have been talking about Christianity and Islam, but then there’s also Judaism and Israel. Do you think in the Middle East that other countries should have peace with Israel or should Palestinians fight for that land? And then what are your thoughts about Jewish people? What are your teachings as an imam about that?
Muslim co-facilitator: So you are asking about both the faith and about the politics?
American woman 2: So, is it okay to be violent? Is it right to be violent toward Israel or would you just teach peace?
Imam: Violence never has any kind of justification in Islam. The Lord never ordered that we fight those because they are different. Even if Muslims say that Jews are cursed, it’s about the characteristic of that state or some actions of certain people, not about the whole people or the whole land. We often find Christians and Muslims who are guilty of the same sins. It’s not just that one group is guilty. It’s not that Muslims have concerns about Israel because it’s the Jews or their faith or religion. The whole story of Israel and Palestine is all about power. It’s all about power. No faith can say that that situation is good. The Lord is always on the side of those who are victims, whoever they are. The Prophet Muhammad said, “Help the one who is a victim and help the violator.” And his followers asked, “How do we give help to the violator?” And he responded, “Help him to stop doing violence.”
Muslim co-facilitator: We are actually proud in Sarajevo that we have an Iranian center, because we are Sunni Muslims, and generally everywhere in the world Sunnis and Shiites are in conflict, but not in Sarajevo. We have all the interpretations of Islam and all the interpretations of Christianity – even the Protestant Church – Saša’s church and Tomo’s church – that’s why we are proud because of the Iranian Center, even though the majority of us don’t agree with the way they interpret Islam, and it’s not our way and things like that. But Sarajevans want to be able to offer a spiritual home to everyone, no matter what he believes.
Imam: Also, sometimes the way how people bring others to believe differently – it’s because people are poorer. You help people so that they convert, or something like that. You can say what you believe, but you should not have the intent to convert, because God is the one who gives belief to people.
Bryan: As we start to wrap up, I want to share a brief side bar. A lot of the refugees that you will be meeting may have a higher stake in the Israel-Palestine conversation, than Muslims in Bosnia. I would encourage you to ask Muslims how they see it, if it comes up, especially those who are from other Arab countries. I had a chance to sit down with Sheik Ihab Abu Libdeh, who is the teaching sheik at Al Aqsa, which is the Temple Mount according to Jews, according to Christians. He is the teaching sheik there, and he is incredible, but for a lot of Christians, to sit down with a sheik like this, Christians would often be thinking, “All the facts that you’re seeing are completely different than the facts that I know about.” It takes a lot of work for Christians to learn those facts so that we can even begin to understand and empathize with the Palestinian experience. So, I would encourage you to learn. For example, according to international law, if your land is being threatened, you have the right to self-defense. That’s according to international law. Palestinians have had their land systematically taken away from them, and so even if we disagree with the facts about how or why that happened, for Palestinians, they can say, ‘We’re resisting injustice, and we are allowed to do so even with violence, because we are being violated.’ There’s a logic there that makes sense, even if you disagree with the logic. So, I would encourage you to learn. It’s not that Palestinians are very violent. In my experience, they resist the use of violence an incredible amount given how much they have suffered.
Muslim co-facilitator: Yes, Bryan, but I must say that we really as Bosnian Muslims – that we have too many problems to advocate on behalf of some other people somewhere. Really, in such a discussion – “What do you think; is it Israel; is it Palestine?” I mean, we feel horrified by the fact that we had a genocide here 20 years ago against Muslims, and you could even just see the imam saying, “Please everyone. No violence, please!” We don’t want to be responsible for what Muslims did in this country or that country. We are here in this country and we want to share our open hearts with all of you. And that’s something that’s important for us.
Bryan: Yes, thank you. Amen.
I would encourage you, though, fellow Christians, that a lot of the Muslims you’re interacting with in your refugee ministries – they are from places where this is a burning issue. We must take time to listen to them. The imam and our Muslim co-facilitator have been an incredible example of what dialogue looks like with grace and patience, to hear us and to respond. Let’s try to show that same courtesy with Muslims from so many other countries where this question, about Israel and Palestine, is an important one. So, please don’t assume that all Muslims will have the same reaction to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but learning is the first step. And that’s why we bring it up.
Muslim co-facilitator: And each Muslim is a Muslim for himself or herself. You are all Christians and you are very different from one another. We can have Muslim-Christian dialogue, but essentially, it is always dialogue between us who are sitting here. And that’s why we (the imam and I) speak very strongly about our faith. We believe our faith is like what we’ve said, but I cannot guarantee that you will go somewhere else and have some other experience. I was watching while we were in the hotel lobby to see which Christians would be coming with us. Some Christians don’t want to be part of these conversations and don’t choose to be part of this. We have open hearts and that’s what we want to show.
Imam: One fact – how Islam is for openness. Each of us while we are standing for Muslim prayers, we recite Al Fatiha, which means ‘the opening.’ She’s the mother of the Qur’an. The most important is that we are open. We must understand that we are close to each other. There is no Islam without others. When the Prophet Muhammad came to Medina, there were Jews and Christians. It’s impossible to imagine Islam without others. And Muhammad guaranteed freedom to all these people of other faiths when they established their state.
Omer, the 2nd caliph after Muhammad – one Jew came to him and said his rights were disturbed. And in that moment, Omer asked him, “You still didn’t convert to Islam?” And when Omer turned his back, he repented, thinking to himself, “How could I say that?” He recognized that his obligation was to give his Jewish neighbor whatever he needed – not to ask him about his faith. And Omer was thinking, “My God – God gave him everything he needed his whole life and then just this once, when he asked for justice, I said to him, ‘Why are you not converting to Islam?’” That would be the real Islamic State. Whenever there is any fear or any compulsion in religion, that is not real Islam.
Imam’s father: It was the same when the Ottoman Empire came to this region. Everyone had rights. There was religious freedom for others to practice their faiths and many churches were built in this area during the Ottoman period.
Imam: Please don’t judge who Muslims are based on what some Muslims do. Take and read what Islam is, just like reading the Bible is the best way to know Christianity. I don’t want to judge about Christianity based on the deeds of some Christians.
Muslim co-facilitator: And you are ordered by Jesus to love us. If you leave this room and you don’t love us, then there is something wrong! [Laughter all around.]
Imam: We believe that God created everything for love. Love is the main word of our life.
Bryan: Last question before we go. All of these Christians are in some sense working with refugees, so generally, what advice would you have for these Christians who are working with refugees, and specifically what advice would you have for this group of Christians in how they talk about issues of faith with Muslim refugees, many who are meeting Christians for the very first time? What are respectful ways to talk about faith and when are conversations about faith see in some way as a violation or crossing a line?
Imam: First point – show compassion. Help with what is good and don’t be part of sin. Everyone has the right to help others. The only difference is what our intensions are. If our intentions are good deeds, just for the Lord, then the person will feel that. That person will understand that you came for good reasons. If you do help for any other reasons or with any other intentions, then people often feel insulted. As Muslims, I know that we often help Muslims, but there is one example in my city here of Muslims helping a Christian. There was an elderly Christian man who didn’t have any children. He lived alone in this place where mostly Muslims live. After this Christian man died, the imam of this place, and the people here, they organized his Christian funeral. The same had occurred when he needed food. Helping someone isn’t a problem. It’s just the intentions that can be a problem.
Muslim co-facilitator: So, please just don’t give Muslim refugees a Christian funeral! [General laughter.]
I think…Bryan was talking to us ahead of time about this question. It’s very frustrating to me, because you are approaching a person who is in need. Really, in that moment, it shouldn’t matter who that person is. It’s really frightening for me when I hear – you know about that small baby who passed away in the sea? You should hear all these Muslims talking about it – “Oh that Muslim child…the Muslim child.” For God’s sake, who cares about the faith of that child who died in the sea? And while we are counting the number of “our children” who are killed or who died, we are on the wrong path. No children should be killed, in any world. When you are approaching a refugee, you are not approaching a Muslim, you are approaching a human being. That is absolutely essential to me. He or she has their dignity, just like we would like to have our dignity. If you do something wrong that you didn’t know when helping refugees, but you were trying to help, everyone will forgive that.
Imam’s father: Please don’t put your attitudes or intentions about faith or politics on others who are in need.
Muslim co-facilitator: Yes, it’s impolite if somebody is hungry that you speak to him about politics or Israel and Palestine. They are searching for a piece of bread and a place to live, and whether they will finally get a job. While we can talk about it among us with our western salaries and our safe lives, this kind of conversation would be very uncomfortable to speak about when people are in need. It’s at least impolite, not to say rude or even cruel in some way. So just be a human being first and think about others as a human person. I would add – just think about, “What would Jesus do?” and how he would approach others who are different. But I’m sure, because you are working with refugees because of your faith, that you are already doing that.