originally published at ABTS Lebanon
Last week I found myself reading a dialogue—an actual conversation—between a Muslim government official, Abu al-Qasim, and an Eastern Orthodox bishop—Elias. You may suspect that the conversation grew out of the recent unrest in Syria, Egypt, Iran or some other hotspot, but, no. This conversation took place a long time ago—in the eleventh century. Nevertheless, I found it strangely applicable to the modern question of Christian witness in an Islamic context. As I read it, I found myself saying ‘hmm…’ or ‘how about that?’ I couldn’t shake the feeling that Abu al-Qasim and Elias were saying something worth hearing today.
Abu al-Qasim had quite a history. It seems his entire family had been executed at the hands of a Caliph (that’s the leader of the Muslim community) who was known for his extravagance as well as his fits of rage. Abu al-Qasim ran for his life, twice in fact, from two different cities, and managed to escape. Barely. However, by the time he encounters Elias, his situation has taken a turn for the better. He is in the employ of the government and by virtue of his high position, he seeks an audience with the local bishop.
At first, Elias seemed hesitant to pursue the conversation. He wanted to make sure Abu al-Qasim was asking all these questions for honest reasons, not just to get the goods on the Christians. The way Abu al-Qasim assured Elias of the honesty of his pursuit struck a chord with me. I should preface this by saying that though exaggerations and myths make their way into ancient literature, it seems this report was factual as it was made public during the lifetime of Elias and Abu al-Qasim. What Abu al-Qasim related to his interlocutor demonstrated a different spirit—one that can still be found, thankfully, among Muslims (and hopefully Christians), even today.
The story goes that during Abu al-Qasim’s travels, he fell ill and found shelter at one of those ancient monasteries that dotted the landscape of the medieval Middle East. He showed up at the monastery gate in desperate straits—deathly ill, dehydrated and unable to keep nourishment in. He was at death’s door. One of the brothers of the monastery encouraged Abu al-Qasim to take some of the pomegranates grown by the monks. These pomegranates were thought to have healing powers having been blessed by the consecrated soil in which they were grown and the communal prayers sung in that holy place. Despite his inability to keep nourishment in, Abu al-Qasim ate the pomegranates and to his own amazement he made a miraculous recovery. That’s the story Abu al-Qasim shared with Elias. That’s the story that opened the door to the dialogue, convincing Elias that the official in front of him was a sincere inquirer. Abu al-Qasim’s experience in the monastery had made him suspicious of the conventional wisdom that these Christians were idolaters or perhaps worse. Now he comes to Elias to get the truth from somebody who should know.
So, after being roughed up by his own Muslim overlords, pursued like a wild animal and now lying on death’s door, a kindly old monk gave Abu al-Qasim some fruit. And he lived…and asked questions.
Abu al-Qasim still lives. You may meet him in the refugee in your town—the one that fled for his life from Muslim militias in Iraq or Syria and now finds himself in a place where he can hardly speak the language, where football is played with an oblong ball, where his college degree gets him nothing more than a cleaning job at a local fastfood. Abu al-Qasim has been beaten up, kicked around and left for dead. He fled and now he shows up on our doorstep.
Psst…got any pomegranates???
Speaking as a Christian who has lived a number of years in Muslim countries, I am well aware that kindness flows across the religious divide in both directions. I have been the beneficiary of many acts of kindness and generosity from Muslim neighbors, friends and acquaintances. Such acts create a bond of trust with an amazing ability to heal old wounds and birth acceptance and hope.
The Abu al-Qasim of the 11th century got holy fruit—the simple care of a kindly saint who looked with empathetic eyes and thought that this dying man should have the best nourishment his monastic order could provide. The Abu al-Qasim of the 21st century…what will he get? There’s a menu of choices. He could get a warm welcome over a cup of tea, English lessons, tutoring for his 9 year old daughter, a house-warming party, and a baby shower for his wife who’s expecting their fourth—all offered freely and without condition. Now that would be fresh vision—something akin to what Jesus commended to his disciples in John 4 (‘lift up your eyes’). But all too many times, the Abu al-Qasim of the 21st century gets a sneer, a chilly and fearful reception or, in some cases, an insult directed at him, his family or even his prophet.
On Feb 11, we will be holding a discussion at ABTS/IMES about a relatively recent document titled Christian Witness in a Multi-religious World, developed over five years and finalized in 2011. Among the twelve “principles of conduct” that it promotes, it refers to the healing ministry which Christians undertake among people of other faiths. The document states “as an integral part of their witness to the gospel, Christians exercise ministries of healing. They are called to exercise discernment as they carry out these ministries, fully respecting human dignity and ensuring that the vulnerability of people and their need for healing are not exploited.” That Middle Eastern monastery modeled this principle well one thousand years before the document was produced! They offered what they had unconditionally, without exploiting Abu al-Qasim’s momentary vulnerability. It was later, when Abu al-Qasim had recovered both his physical health and his political clout that he took initiative to seek out Elias of Nisibis and ask his questions.
So Abu al-Qasim (back to the 11th century now) went on to discuss Elias’s faith with him at length. In fact they met together for several sessions with Elias explaining in detail aspects of his faith in response to Abu al-Qasim’s sincere questions. It’s all recorded for posterity. I guess you never know what a few pomegranates can accomplish.
1 Their full names are Elias Bishop of Nisibis and Abū al-Qasim al-Husayn Ibn ‘Alī al-Maghribī. A French translation can be found in an article by Fr. Samir Khalil Samir titled “Entretien d’Élie de Nisibe avec le Vizir Ibn ‘Ali al-Maghribi sur l’Unité et la Trinité,” in Islamochristiana, 5, (1979): 31-117. An Arabic version of all seven sessions can be found in L. Cheikho, ‘Majālis Iliyya mutran Nasībīn’, Al-Mashriq 20 (1922) 35-44 (first session), 112-17 (second session), 117-22 (third session), 267-70 (fourth session), 270-72 (fifth session), 366-77 (sixth session), 425-35 (seventh session).
2 See the announcement of this event here: http://imeslebanon.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/event-announcement-christian-witness-in-a-multi-religious-world-recommendations-for-conduct/
3 The document was produced as a joint effort by the World Council of Churches, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Evangelical Alliance. See it here: http://www.worldevangelicals.org/resources/source.htm?id=288