One of the first pieces of writing that I ever had published was a book review.  Early in my ministry, a book on Muslim – Christian dialogue came across my desk.  I was interested in it, as I had been in conversation with the imam of the nearby Islamic Center.  The book is: Muslim-Christian Research Group. The Challenge of the Scriptures. The Bible and the Qur’ n. Translated by Stuart E. Brown. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989.

Thanks to a rather thorough undergraduate education and a seminary experience that encouraged dialogue, I was no stranger to Islam.

No sooner had this casual dialogue with my Muslim friend begun, than the first gulf war was ignited.  Although technically this was a conflict between the United Nations and Iraq, most of my folks in the pews saw this as ‘our’ war (which it was).  A consequence of this combat was a rise in the ire of certain sects of Islam in the region. You might remember back to 1990 when the first serious conflicts between Islamic fundamentalist and the west began.

One evening, in the middle of a choir practice, a dear saint in the alto section turned around to me (in the tenor section) and asked me, “Pastor, what kind of God do those people worship?”  I was a young pastor, freshly minted, and without thinking, I said: “The same one you do.”

As you can imagine, that comment took me several weeks of discussion to explain why a people who trace their roots back to Abraham and Sarah, a monotheistic religion such as ours, worship the same God of Abraham, Sarah, and, well, Ishmael that we do.

What I learned from my friend was that Islam is at its core, a religion of peace.  The entirety of its discipleship is about submission to the will of Allah.  He once described this to me this way, “we are similar to the camel with a bit in its mouth, our master is Allah, and if we submit to His direction we live in peace, but if we fight it, well, life is miserable.”

I made similar statements about Christianity.  You know, Jesus as the “Prince of Peace,” and all that.  We wondered together why, then, there has been such historical animosity?  His description, not mine, was one word: “Fundamentalism.”  Today, I pulled out the Webster’s Dictionary and looked up this word (ok, I did it on the internet, but everything on the internet is true right?) and found that fundamentalism means a strict adherence to the fundamental principles of any belief.

What was ironic is that only two religious expressions of fundamentalism were listed, Islam, and Christianity.  I thought to myself, are there no fundamentalist Jews, Mormons, Hindus?

The point my friend was trying to make was that anytime a group seeks to adhere to ‘fundamental principles’ a certain amount of selection occurs.  This is as true for Christians as it is for Muslims.   Christians who do this have been called ‘leviticans,’ but it is painfully obvious to me that even these ‘leviticans’ are quite selective.  Some say there are 613 laws in the first five books of the bible (the idea was 365 days a year + 248 bones in your body= 615 laws, or a law for every day, and your ‘whole’ self.).  These folks cite certain ‘laws’ and casually reject others.  It is part and parcel to any kind of fundamentalism that choices must be made to select certain things to emphasize.

I think my friend was right.  In inter-religious dialogue, we often must make choices about what to emphasize and what to ‘put on the back burner’ if we seek to have some kind of meaningful dialogue.

This whole train of thought has been stimulated by the news (and boy is it getting the press!) of a ‘fundamentalist’ pastor in Florida who is sponsoring a burning of the Koran(s).   There are two things that trouble me about this.  First, while it may well be an expression of ‘free speech,’ my Christian conscience continually curbs what I say in public.  This is not about being reticent to speak of the Gospel, it is about my greater interest in dialogue than in shouting at each other.  It is better to create a space where we can talk than simply hurl epitahs across the ramparts.  This ‘burning’ is a particularly offensive act to Muslims because of their view of their scripture.  Why would we want to intentionally offend?  Second, such an offensive action does not seem to have any real value other than provocation; and the very people who are likely to experience retaliation are our soldiers who are in ‘harm’s way’ as it is.  I do not see how this sort of thing can reveal one ounce of commitment to our holy writ, nor do I see it as able to glorify God. It bothers me because I believe it does nothing except further a ‘cartoonish’ image of American Christians.  I guess I naievely hope we are not really like that, on the whole.

There are many days when the faith of my Muslim friend makes more sense to me than the faith of that pastor in Florida.   I feel sad.  I feel disappointed, but it isn’t the first time.

If I was to pick a verse to lift up to my Christian brother in Florida, from the Koran, it would be this:

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full Knowledge and is well-acquainted (with all things).” (Surah 49, Verse 13).

And remembering the ‘geneological’ connection I mentioned above, I’d offer this from Psalm 133 as well:

1 How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity!

2 It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down upon the collar of his robes.

3 It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.