My friend Andres and I visit regularly with the imam of the mosque in downtown Lancaster, Pa., and occasionally with others who are part of the community that worships there. After a recent visit, I left deeply concerned about the content of the Friday sermon that focused on a bloody battle in which Muhammad’s followers took vengeance on someone who had mocked him early on in his preaching in Mecca.
The man’s severed head was dragged to Muhammad, who declared that divine justice had been achieved. I left wondering if the point of the message was that modern day followers of Islam should defend the honor of their prophet in like fashion. After consultation with my teammates (of EMM’s Christian/Muslim Relations Team), I called the imam and asked for an appointment.
When I shared my concerns with the imam, he assured me that his intentions were not to promote violence, but rather to tell an important story from Islamic history, a story that shows that God avenges His prophets.
I replied that while he was preaching, I had been comparing his story to the one of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. When Peter took out his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told Peter to put away his sword and healed the man’s ear. Then, after Jesus had been nailed to the cross, He prayed, “Father, forgive them.”
The imam answered, “Islam and Christian faith are different. In Islam, God gave a law that allows people to pay back those who hurt them, up to the same amount they were hurt. This is practical and makes people feel justice has been done. However, the Qur’an does say that to forgive is even better.”
My response was to again ask him to consider the way of Jesus, to which he again replied that Islam takes us a different way.
As we prepared to leave, Andres asked the imam, “If you preach on violent passages again, could you please tell people explicitly that this is a history lesson and not something to be repeated or put into practice today?”
As we approached the door of the mosque to leave, the imam thanked us profusely for visiting him and sharing our concerns with him. He said, “I have learned something today. [In my sermons] I need to tell people clearly that I am not promoting violence.” After more goodbyes and a strong invitation to come back as often as we are able, we left the mosque.
I was surprised at the freedom we had to share our apprehensions, the openness with which he listened to us, and the warm welcome to come back as often as possible. Two years of building relationship with him has led to an open door for productive dialogue.
Jonathan Bornman and Andres Prins are members of EMM’s Christian/Muslim Relations Team.
Jonathan served with his family among the Muslim people of Senegal from 1999-2009. Read his full article here.