Lessons from an African university.
For most of the thirteen hundred years since Islam first surged westward from the Arabian desert across Africa, Muslims have been extremely resistant to Christianity. But now more Muslims are beginning to follow Jesus. They call him by his Arabic name, Isa, and worship him in Messianic mosques in several African cities. Most of these new followers of Isa have come from the uneducated classes, but recently God has begun to do a new thing among African university students, as Spring Arbor College professor Charles White recently discovered. White taught for a year in an African university under the aegis of the International Institute for Christian Studies.
As the school year began, 16 of us in the religious-studies department met to decide what courses to offer. The outcome was surprising.
Our department offered three majors: Islam, Christianity, and African traditional religion (ATR). In the past, those studying Christianity and ATR had to take courses in all three traditions, but the Muslims took courses only in Islam. The Christians had griped about this for years, but because the department was evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, they could never muster the votes to change the requirements.
Knowing nothing of this situation, I inspected the proposed curriculum and noticed the discrepancy. In all innocence, I said, “Mr. Chairman, it seems to me that our Islamic majors are being shortchanged. We are careful to give those who major in Christianity and ATR a wide exposure to other religions, but we restrict our Islamic majors to courses in their own tradition. Wouldn’t it be better if we insured that they had the widest possible exposure?”
Perhaps it was because I was the new kid on the block and had prestige as a foreigner and full professor, but the Muslims did not object. “Good idea,” they said. “We’ll let our majors take courses in Christianity as electives.”
“Elective courses are fine,” I responded, “but we realize many Christian students won’t immediately see the benefit of a broad education, and we require them to take courses in Islam. Might not some Muslim students be equally shortsighted? Let’s make the classes required.”
This motion passed without opposition, and so I found myself teaching the Life of Jesus to Islamic-studies majors.
Starting with a stumbling block
I decided to study Mark’s gospel as our primary source. Mark’s first sentence, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God …” (Phillips), is a major stumbling block to a Muslim’s understanding of Christianity. Many believe that in calling Jesus the Son of God, Christians mean that God had sexual intercourse with Mary to produce Jesus. They naturally find such an idea blasphemous. Surah 4:171 of the Qur’an states their response succinctly: “Far is it removed from His [Allah’s] transcendent Majesty that He should have a son.”
Happily, the idiom “son of” is not restricted to the Bible’s languages. Most of the students spoke their tribal language and then a trade language, as well as the language of instruction in the university. Their trade language uses this idiom the same way Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic do. For example, my students could refer to a merchant as a “son of a table.” They do not mean he is biologically descended from a table, of course, but that, like a table, he sits in one place all day in the market. Or they might call a policeman “son of a stick” because he wields the rod of authority.
To help the students understand the Christian concept, I explained that the Bible’s use of the idiom was similar. When the Bible calls Jesus the “Son of God” it does not mean to convey biological descent, but likeness.
Near the end of the class we explored the question, “Is Jesus God?” The answer is complex. Mark calls him the Son of God. A man and his son are not the same thing. Other passages in Mark imply that God and Jesus are not exactly the same: Jesus prays to God, he talks about being seated at the right hand of God, and so on.
The Muslims really loved this part. But the Isaiah quotation in Mark 1 calls Jesus Lord, and elsewhere Jesus forgives sin, refers to himself as David’s Lord, and says, “I am” to the question, “Are you the Christ?” I then pointed out that the Bible affirms that in some ways Jesus the Son is identical to God the Father and in other ways he is different.
Christians struggled with the tension of the identification and difference for 300 years before early church fathers articulated an explicit resolution in the doctrine of the Trinity, so how could I expect Muslim students to figure it out in 15 weeks? I reminded them of the biblical tension.
The better Word
I next asked a telling question: “What is the Word of God?” Of course, Muslims think the Qur’an is, but the Qur’an itself calls Jesus the Word of God (Surah 4:171). I asked them, “Which is the better communicator, a book or a person? Would you like it better if I just wrote out my lectures and sent them to you, or should I come to class where I can see your faces to figure out when you understand, and answer your questions?” They all said the live person is much better than the dead book. Then I asked, “If God is so great that he can do anything, and he wants to communicate with us, do you think he would merely send a book or would he send a person?”
“A person,” they replied.
Another stumbling block for Muslims is what they think is the Christian’s meager image of God. “Allahu Akbar!” they chant, proclaiming the greatness of the one they worship. My students seemed surprised when I declared that Christians also believe that God is great. They were intrigued when I went on to explain that there are two kinds of greatness. One kind of greatness is that possessed by an emperor. The emperor sits in luxury in his palace, surrounded by slaves who see to his comfort, and servants who see that his will is obeyed in the empire. His imperial majesty is far removed from the daily troubles of his people, and he may not even know of them.
I then mentioned a second kind of greatness. This is the greatness of a brilliant student who comes to the university and works hard to study medicine. After graduating, he does not establish a lucrative practice among wealthy people, but goes among the country’s poorest people to heal them. I could tell by the hush in the classroom that they understood how a God who stoops to save can be great.
“Jesus is my Lord”
Finally, I used the old story about the man who wanted to warn the ants to stay out of houses or they would be killed. He had special powers, so he became an ant to warn the other ants. That is what God did with us, I explained. He became a man to tell us how to be saved.
After that illustration a student said, “If that’s true, then Jesus is my Lord.”
I did not know exactly what he meant, nor do I think he knew all the implications of what he said, but those are his exact words. In my final lecture, I told them I knew of some Islamic scholars who were also followers of Jesus. I offered to arrange a meeting if the students were interested. Several students came on two occasions, but religious violence that killed 1,250 people in a nearby city (and keeps me from revealing the location of the university) prevented the Muslims who followed Jesus from appearing either time. We had to use a different method of follow-up.
In the city where the university is located, many Muslims have become followers of Jesus. Through dreams, visions, and the martyrdom of several believers, the church has been planted among the uneducated Muslims in the area. Almost a thousand now follow Jesus. Now, with this class in the university, the door has opened at the other end of Islamic society. We may be seeing the beginning of an unprecedented movement among Muslims.
Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
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