Richard McCallum is an associate tutor at Wycliffe Hall and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies, Oxford. He is a sociologist with research interests in religion and society and the contemporary encounter of faith groups. His research projects include: Christians and Muslims in Public Life; evaluation of an inter-faith initiatives; and education about the religious other in theological colleges.
“Open Sesame” – Integrity and Courage in Christian-Muslim Encounter
When Jesus whispered “ephphatha” in the ear of the deaf man (Mark 7:34), any Arab bystander might well have understood his meaning. The Arabic command “iftaḥ”, immortalised in the magic words Iftaḥ Ya Simsim (“Open Sesame”) in the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, still holds the power to open doors – and ears – today.1 So, it is maybe a fitting title for a reflection on the need for Christians and Muslims to be open in their conversations together.
My first deep engagement with Muslim (and Jewish) academics and faith leaders came at the 2011 Building Hope Conference organised by the Reconciliation Program at the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture in New Haven, USA. The nine-day residential event – yes, nine days – brought together over two dozen Jewish, Christian and Muslim mid-career religious leaders to discuss issues of common concern. But this was not just another dialogue jamboree for those looking for the lowest common denominator between religions that they believe to share the same values of truth and harmony, inevitably leading to the same destination. No. This was a meeting of the passionate, those committed, who see something unique in their faith and yet remain open to meeting and learning from others.
I learned a lot in those days. A lot about the other two faiths, a lot about what faith means to people and a lot about openness. Openness in my thinking, in my attitudes and in my relationships. I hope this has carried over into my work at the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies (CMCS) in Oxford, an independent, Christian research centre that uniquely offers hospitality to both Christians and Muslims engaged in serious academic study of the encounter between the two faiths.
One of the programmes which CMCS Oxford runs is the Oxford Muslim-Christian Summer School, a residential week of shared study for faith leaders in training which allows them to explore the two traditions through lectures, workshops and text reading in the context of eating and spending time together. Friendships and trust are built amongst the participants whilst at the same time they engage in robust and often passionate discussion and questioning. This project, along with my experience at Yale and a similar project at Cambridge, have challenged me about the need for Christians and Muslims to engage with increasing openness in different ways.
I vividly remember as a student in the 1980s standing outside the Albert Hall in London surrounded by a crowd of young Muslim men shouting “Allahu akbar”. There was a debate in progress entitled “Is Jesus God?”, the venue was packed to overflowing, and the atmosphere outside felt distinctly threatening and confrontational. Fear was, as for so many Christians encountering Muslims, my natural response. Countering that fear, however, was the memory of my time spent with Muslims travelling in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco the previous summer. They offered me wonderful hospitality, fed me and invited me as a stranger to sleep in their homes. They too were passionate about their faith and wanted to explain Islam to me. But there was something honest and warm about their passion which seemed very different to the chanting crowd at the Albert Hall. Engagement and relationship can make all the difference. It is one thing to read a book or watch a documentary about another faith, it is something very different to actually meet and talk with someone from that background.
Often the best way to build relationship is through offering – and receiving – hospitality, opening our homes, our offices and our churches or mosques. This is costly and disruptive, but it can also be dangerous. When my Moroccan friends invited me to stay in their homes, they didn’t know me. I might have robbed them, challenged them or in some way abused their welcome. Martin Marty calls this “risky hospitality” as we open up and make ourselves vulnerable, emerging as “different beings than we were before the possibly tense but often enjoyable experience of mutual hospitality”.2 In offering hospitality, we risk being challenged and unsettled but also mirror the welcome that God has extended to us and experience “hospitality as holiness”.3
Of course, hospitality poses a threat not just for the host but for the guest too. There is a power dynamic at work which risks turning the experience into what Jacques Derrida called “hostipitality”. “A reaffirmation of mastery and being oneself in one’s own home” implies a conditionality to the hospitality which may become coercive and verge on hostility.4 We offer hospitality in order to subdue or subvert the guest, to let them know who is in control. This is not a holy hospitality but is born of fear and oppression.
This leads to another imperative in our encounter. We must be open about our reasons for engaging with each other. Our hospitality and relationships must have integrity. In a public debate, such as that at the Albert Hall, the motivations are plain for all to see. Win the argument, undermine the other, call to conversion. Polemical engagement, for all its failings, is admirably transparent. However, in building relationships and offering hospitality, it is all too easy for both Christians and Muslims to harbour underlying motivations, whether the subtle undermining of the other’s faith or the unspoken hope that the other might convert. It is much better when we are free to express our motivations, hopes and fears openly. This requires courage.
At the end of one summer school, a Muslim participant shared with the group that he had come to love and respect the Christians so much that he wished they would all become Muslims! And the Christians were able to express a similar sentiment. Despite their openness and honesty, they all remained friends, knowing that each person was fervent about their faith and was committed to an open conversation without hidden agendas which continues to this day.
However, the possibility of being convinced by our interlocutor always remains open. Whenever we talk, I might be convinced. The UK Christian-Muslim Forum (CMF) recognises that “both communities actively invite others to share their faith and acknowledge that all faiths have the same right to share their faith with others”. In its Ethical Guidelines for Christian and Muslim Witness in Britain, CMF hopes that “whilst we may feel hurt when someone we know and love chooses to leave our faith, we will respect their decision and will not force them to stay or harass them afterwards”.5 However, the reality of what happens if someone does convert – in either direction – is more visceral.
Such is the fear of this happening, that, in many Muslim-majority nations, it is illegal for Christians to engage in evangelism or for Muslims to become Christians. This presents a dilemma to Christians living and working in that context and wanting to share their faith. David Shenk, a Mennonite Christian with many years’ experience living and travelling in Muslim nations, says that “the calling of Christians to bear witness, and the freedom for people to accept the Christian invitation, are the most challenging issues that come my way again and again in dialogue with Muslims". He believes that the "Christian presence everywhere, including in Muslim societies, must be grounded in … the salt of integrity".6 This means Christians must be open and honest about the reasons for their presence and yet they need to be wise in the way that they explain them, distancing themselves from perceived western or colonial agendas. It also requires Muslims to be open to freedom of religious choice and conscience as some increasingly are.7
Such conversations obviously raise difficult topics. Christians and Muslims both need to be open to frank discussions about issues on which they disagree. The desire for relationship and acceptance must not dumb down or foreclose deeper conversations. Christians, especially in the West, need to face up to grievances that Muslims feel around colonialism, Western domination and perceived global injustices. They need to stop proof texting from the English Qur’an and take seriously Muslim efforts to (re)interpret their texts and traditions.
That said, it is not good enough for Muslim accusations of Orientalism to silence anyone who raises probing questions about Islamic texts. Christians and others have the right to read and challenge Islamic texts and traditions, whilst needing to learn to listen and take seriously explanations given by Muslim expositors. There are difficult texts and painful historical events to be interpreted and explained on both sides.
When it comes to discussing society today there are also difficult questions for all to face. Why is it that no nation that incorporates the shari‘ah today is apparently doing it right, according to many Muslims I talk to? Why does it not result in freedom and flourishing for all? At the same time Christians need to articulate a clear political theology. What sort of society do Christians hope to help build? Have they succumbed to secularism in its different forms? Why is it that rampant capitalism goes unchallenged?
These are just some of the many challenging topics that Christians and Muslims need to talk about. Of course, there is still a need to engage the age-old questions that Muslims have about Christian concepts of the trinity, the incarnation and salvation. However, oftentimes, we need to move beyond those rather hackneyed debates, as important as they are, and explore other issues of shared concern. The environment, climate change, race relations, poverty and personal identity are all topics which Christians and Muslims could – and should – usefully talk about.
One increasingly common way to open up such new avenues of conversation is to engage in reading scriptures together. Maybe the best-known method for this is Scriptural Reasoning. Typically, short texts are chosen from the Hebrew Scriptures, New Testament and Qur’an around a chosen theme. Sometimes this theme may be random, such as trees, animals or boats, with the idea of exploring the process by which Christians, Muslims and Jews, if present, understand and interpret their texts. It’s amazing what can come out of such simple-seeming topics! Other times it might be a more content-laden theme, such as mercy, prayer, one of the prophets or paradise. After reading the texts together and clearing up any issues of basic understanding or background, participants are encouraged to share what struck them or to ask questions. This often catalyses deep conversations about things which might not normally be discussed. Such reading reveals the different ways in which the concept of revelation, the words of the text and authority in the community are understood.8
Of course, there is no magic word, no “open sesame”, that will change Christian-Muslim relations overnight. No silver bullet that will heal community divisions, or suddenly make everything plain to those we engage with. However, being open to the above practices can go a very long way. As one participant said after the Oxford summer school:
Inter-faith dialogue is all a bit wishy-washy, isn't it? I used to think so. It seemed a futile attempt at squaring the circle. This summer school has helped me see otherwise. I've appreciated teachers stating clearly and honestly beliefs they hold about my faith which I find offensive. Without compromising our own faiths, we've been able to listen and learn from one another. I knew something special was happening when we no longer felt the need to present our own faiths in an unremittingly positive light but could talk about some of the challenges we face. I don't think this could have happened if we hadn't established a level of trust and friendship.
Not a bad model to follow and it might just lead to a cave of wonders.9
1. The ‘Fatiha’ is also the opening Surah of the Qur’an.
2. Marty, Martin. 2005. When Faiths Collide (Oxford: Blackwell), 130.
3. Bretherton, Luke. 2006. Hospitality as Holiness (Aldershot: Ashgate).
4. Derrida, Jacques. 2000. 'Hostipitality', Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 5/3: 3-18, 14.
6. Shenk, David. 2014. Christian. Muslim. Friend: Twelve Paths to Real Relationship (Herald Press), 31-32, 37.
7. e.g. Saeed, Abdullah. 2017. Islam and Belief: At home with religious freedom (Washington D.C.: Center for Islam and Religious Freedom) and Sachedina, Abdulaziz. 2014. Islam and the challenge of human rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
8. A collection of texts we have used at CMCS can be found at https://www.cmcsoxford.org.uk/resources/quran-bible-readings.
9. Find out more about how you can attend or support the Oxford Muslim-Christian Summer School at https://www.cmcsoxford.org.uk/studying/summer-courses.
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