Thursday, March 10, 2016

Interfaith Series: Islam

This semester, I'm working as a teaching assistant in a non-Western religions course. A couple of weeks ago, the professor asked me to write a series of devotionals for the students, relevant to the ideas they would be discussing each week. So my task was to write Bible-based devotions for students at a Christian university who are studying non-Christian religions. Fun, right? It was. So I thought I'd take a few days and share some of these devotionals in this space.

Today: Islam.

There is, of course, a tremendous interest in Islam as it continues to become a large player on the world stage. And when we talk about Islam from a biblical perspective, there are really a couple of things we need to look at - one which helps us to understand Islam, and one which draws us deeper into the heart of God.

Islam is the great untold story of our Christian Bible. It traces its roots all the way back to the early chapters of Genesis, to Abraham himself. You may remember part of this story. Abraham is promised a child by God, a son who will be an heir. Abraham himself will be the father of many nations. But it's taking a little longer than Abraham and Sarah would like, so they enlist Sarah's maidservant, Hagar, to become a surrogate. She then gives birth to Ishmael, Abraham's first-born son. 

It's easy for us, at this point, to skip ahead through the Ishmael narratives until Sarah has her own son, Isaac, and then we start really engaging with the story of Abraham. But that's a mistake. Because between Ishmael and Isaac, something interesting happens: God makes a covenant with Abraham.

Yes, Ishmael is a young man and Isaac is still only a promise when God initiates the covenant ritual of circumcision among Abraham, his household, and his descendants. Which means...Ishmael is part of this covenant. Ishmael is the son who is circumcised with his father. He witnesses first-hand, and participates in, this new thing that God has called Abraham to do. 

So when Muslims say that they have this ultimate, important relationship with God, they're right. They do. They were there at the sealing of the covenant. They were circumcised along with Abraham. They were part of this thing that Isaac would never understand in exactly the same way. They're there when God starts doing this new thing. And they're still talking about this new thing God is doing. The image of God that stems from this may be quite the diversion from the image of God that comes through Isaac for Christians, but that doesn't mean their claim is illegitimate. They are, indeed, children of Ishmael, descendants of Abraham.

The very same Abraham.

This gives us a little background on the bold claims of Islam. Now, when we keep reading Ishmael's story, we come necessarily to the moment when Ishmael is sent away with his mother, Hagar. Sarah has become jealous and demanded that Abraham send away his firstborn for the sake of his promised son, Isaac, and he does so. This story will draw us deeper into the heart of God.

Abraham was not a poor man; he had a great richness of resources. But he essentially sends the maidservant and his son away with little more than a snack. No livestock. No goods. No servants. Nothing but a little bite to eat and a little bit of water. As they travel further and further away from Abraham's land in search of a place to settle, the rations run out with no home in sight. Hagar begins to mourn. She leaves her son and goes a short distance away from him so that she doesn't have to watch him die...and so that he doesn't have to watch her do the same.

It's heartbreaking. (And, I must say, a poignant reminder for us, as Christians, who are often so tempted to send others away with little more than a snack when we have such great wealth of mercy, grace, and love within us.)

But when she looks up, she sees an oasis. Fresh water. Living water. A new hope. She takes the boy and goes running to respite.

And isn't this just what our God is like? 

I think sometimes, we're upset that God doesn't seem to give us enough to get us from point A to point B. We feel like we run out of everything we need in the middle of our journey. We get halfway there, and then we feel stuck. Like we can't possibly go another step, like maybe there's not another step even to take, like there's no such place any more as home. We're going nowhere, and maybe...we've arrived. 

Then God shows up at just the right time. Just when we feel that we don't have enough to make it all the way, just when we feel like God doesn't love us, we discover just how much He loves us. He gives us just enough to get us to the middle of nowhere and then, when our hope has all but died, He shows Himself once more and provides an oasis - living water and a new hope. It's the story of Ishmael and Hagar. And it's the story of us.

Because it's the story of God.

So when we talk about Islam, we must look deeply into the story of Ishmael. It is in this story that we find the roots of this religion that, now more than ever, is shaping the landscape of the world that we live in, and it is in this story that we are drawn deeper into the heart of God. Ishmael, then, has much to say to us. Then...and now. The question is: are we listening?

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