A Glow on Capitol Hill

Religion News Service
June 04, 2003


(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. is author most recently of "Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World," published by Polity Press.)

A certain glow shines around caring and compassionate men and women. I saw a lot of glow April 4 in one of the grand Senate dining rooms where I had been invited as the luncheon speaker to address a distinguished group of guests invited by the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation.

The group was in Washington to participate in a symposium honoring a legendary couple who has dedicated their lives in the service of God: Bishop James and Eunice Mathews.

During Bishop Mathews long career in the United Methodist Church he served as a missionary in India and as an active bishop first in the Boston and then in the Washington Area. He retired from active duty in 1980, but has been "reactivated" three times, in one stint serving as bishop in Zimbabwe. He is the author of eight books and a renowned preacher. Mathews met his wife Eunice in India. Eunice's father was an equally famous preacher and evangelist, E. Stanley Jones.

I entered the discussion by focusing on the role of Jesus both as the common figure between Christianity and Islam and also a central figure for the 21st century. I pointed out something that comes as a bit of a surprise to many people: The love and reverence Muslims have for Jesus.

I quoted three different Muslims from three different regions of the world, the first living a thousand years before the third. These quotes and the diversity of the sources -- Arab, Persian, and Indian – should convince everyone of the deep love for Jesus in Islam.

My first quote was from the Prophet of Islam himself who said that there was no one closer to Jesus in love and affection than he was.

For my second example I quoted a verse:

“I am a hole in a flute that the Christ's breath moves through; listen to this music."

I asked the group to identify the author. It would be logical to assume the line is written by a Christian. After all, it is suffused with love for Jesus. But a Muslim, Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz living in 14th century Persia, wrote it. Hafiz is the most beloved poet of Persia and considered to be one of history's greatest lyrical geniuses.

My third example came from India, where the Mathews spent so much of their lives. It was a line inscribed on the imposing entrance of the new city Fatehpur Sikri built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great. It said:

"Jesus, on whom be peace, has said: `This world is a bridge. Pass over it. But build not your dwelling there.'"

In addition to Jesus, I pointed to the reverence Muslims have for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Indeed there is an entire chapter in the Quran named after her.

I talked of the closeness, but I also mentioned the conflict – the Crusades that took place a thousand years ago between Christians and Muslims; the more recent period of colonization during which Muslim peoples were colonized by Western powers; and the present clash in which many scholars see Islam and the West locked in a complicated and dangerous encounter.

Somewhere in these encounters the message of Jesus was getting lost. Considering how dangerous and complicated our world is, the message of Jesus has to be central to it if we are to move ahead in compassionate understanding.

The participants' questions revealed concern for what was happening in the world and a strong desire to introduce compassion and caring in it. We talked of post-Saddam Iraq, of the role of democracy and women in Islam, and the future of relations between Christianity and Islam. We appreciated that there is a crisis in relations between Christianity and Islam.

What is the way ahead?

Perhaps the first and most important step is to create greater understanding about each other. More people need to read about each other and to talk to each other. This dialogue needs to be conducted in the spirit of understanding not scoring points.

Above all, the understanding of what is common needs to be underlined: The figure of Jesus can act as a bridge. This example may come as a surprise to Christians and equally to many Muslims. The reason is that both view Jesus through the filter of the long history of political and military confrontation of the two religions.

Concentrating on the message of compassion Jesus embodies will help interfaith dialogue and be the most effective check to the growing violence in our world.

The Mathews shared with us their memory of having met the democratic leader M. A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.

I felt here was a living link with a strong democratic tradition in modern Islam. In the desperate search for democratic models in the Muslim world surely senior officials in Washington would benefit from the knowledge of and affection for Muslim peoples that the Mathews possess.

Copyright 2003 Religion News Service. Reproduced with permission.

David E. Anderson, Editor, RELIGION NEWS SERVICE, 1101 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Suite 350, Washington, DC 20036

(800) 767-6781 – Voice, (202) 463-0033 – Fax, E-mail: info@religionnews.com


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Akbar Ahmed




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