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MALIBU, Calif. — Saeed Khan wants to help you become a better Christian.
That may be the last thing followers of Christ would expect to hear from a devout Muslim, but the lecturer on classical and modern languages, literatures and cultures at Wayne State University in Detroit says it’s his genuine desire.
SECOND IN A SERIES “The relationship between Islam and Christianity is not one of antagonism — Muhammad versus Jesus or the Quran versus the Bible,” Khan said during a lecture on the campus of Pepperdine University.
There are significant “points of departure,” he acknowledged, between the two faiths — most notably, the nature of Jesus, whom Muslims view as a prophet and Christians revere as the Son of God.
Exploring the differences and similarities between the world’s two most dominant religions is one goal of “Muslim-Christian Interactions,” a class he teaches alongside two Christian professors at Rochester College, a school in Rochester Hills, Mich., associated with Churches of Christ. Across the U.S., other Christian universities and church members are engaged in similar dialogues with their Muslim neighbors.
Keith Huey, chair of Rochester’s Department of Religion and Bible, and John Barton, professor of philosophy and religion, invited Khan to help them teach the course — and to join them at Pepperdine.
Khan was the only Muslim on an all-Christian lectureship program. Arriving in Malibu, the university asked him and his fellow speakers to sign a statement that they would refrain from drinking alcohol or using illegal drugs on campus.
John Barton, Saeed Khan and Keith Huey review questions asked by students in their’ Muslim-Christian Interactions class at Rochester College during a presentation at Pepperdine University. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
In the U.S., more light moments and deep discussions are needed among Christians and Muslims, the professors said. About 2.6 million Muslims live in the country, according to the 2010 U.S. Religious Census. Researchers at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life predict that number will grow to 6.2 million by 2030.
How should Churches of Christ engage this growing demographic — one that inspires immense fear and distrust, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11?
At Rochester, the professors teach a curriculum based on “Allah: A Christian Response” by Miroslav Volf. Barton said the goal of the class is to encourage students, most of whom are Christians, to engage in “godly, genuine, respectful interactions” with followers of Islam.
“Christian-Muslim interactions are not just us talking about one another,” he said. “It’s not even primarily about us talking to one another. It’s about us talking with one another in respectful ways” — ways that show proponents of both faiths “truly want the good for the other.”
That takes time, said Khan, who was born in Pakistan and raised in the United Kingdom before moving to Detroit. He remembered one student who was deeply troubled by the presence of a Muslim on a Christian campus.
One day, after class, the student found Khan and told him about his experience of converting to Christianity. Khan gave the student advice on how he might better share that testimony with his friends.
At the end of the semester, the student told Khan that the class was the second-most significant event in his life, after his conversion.
While some members view Muslims as people of strong faith — worthy of dialogues such as the class at Rochester — others note that such dialogues occur only in countries where Muslims are the minority. In predominantly Muslim nations, non-Muslims may face persecution and be denied education or jobs.
Betty Choate and her husband, J.C., served as missionaries in countries with large Muslim populations, including Pakistan.
Church members who work in predominantly Muslim lands caution against ascribing any single goal to Islam — a faith practiced by an estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide.
“Islam is not just a religion,” said Mac Lynn, chancellor of NationsUniversity, a church-supported distance-learning program. Lynn has traveled extensively in the Middle East and taught courses on Islam at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. Islam “is an all-encompassing system of jurisprudence that covers all aspects of personal life and society,” he said, “and claims exclusive rights over other religious views.”
Missionary Barry Baggott works in French-speaking nations, many where Islam is the majority faith. He said that all three views of Muslims — tolerant, intolerant and domineering — are correct, depending on the circumstances.
But fear shouldn’t keep Christians from sharing their faith, he said.
He has authored an e-book, “Tearing Down the Walls: A Guide for Christians and Muslims Living in North America,” that advocates intentional conversations between the groups.
“I’m not convinced that the church can solve the global tension between half the world’s population,” he said, “but I do think we can set in motion a different way so that my kids and their kids might have an opportunity to have conversation — and a conversion story that we can’t even imagine to be possible right now.”
In the U.S., Muslims “prefer the American version of separation of church and state,” he says, and eschew terrorists who kill in the name of Allah.
• Congregations including the Brighton Church of Christ in Colorado and the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston have hosted speakers from the Middle East who converted from Islam to Christianity.
“I also believe it is crucial to maintain a missional mindset while engaged in any such experiences,” Carpenter said, “resisting any urge to compromise one’s commitment to uphold the truth of God’s word.”
‘THE OPPOSITE OF LUKEWARM’
Can followers of Christ find common ground with Muslims without compromising their beliefs, becoming lukewarm in their faith?
At least one student at Rochester College has asked that question, said the professors during their presentation at Pepperdine.
Huey shared his response: If practitioners of Christianity and Islam are “just sweeping our differences under the rug,” advocating “a lazy, mindless kind of pluralism” or “zero-calorie religion, OK, fine. That’s lukewarm.
“But to truly imitate Jesus, to pour yourself out for someone whose theology is different from yours … to me, that sounds like the opposite of lukewarm.”
Katelyn Brackney, a Rochester student who took the Muslim-Christian Interactions class, said the course was “eye-opening and faith-deepening.”
“I have gained a greater respect for Islam, thrown my stereotypes out the window,” she said, “and, as a Christian, have personally strengthened my faith while learning about mine and another side by side.”
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