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Facing Islam

"Facing Islam" Continued...

Issue: "2008 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 13, 2008

The shock of 9/11 was similar in many ways to the shock of Constantinople's fall. Many people prayed more, especially at first. Many with a biblical perspective emphasized the importance of knowing the differences between Christianity and Islam. Others emphasized the need for a military response, which came quickly, and still others the need for stronger Christian faith. But some argued, as had John of Segovia and Nicholas of Cusa for a time, that we should deemphasize the differences between Christianity and Islam.

A thoughtful former GOP congressman, Mark Siljander, came out this fall with a new book, A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman's Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide (HarperOne). But that's not the only reason Siljander has received some press attention: Earlier this year Siljander, who represented a conservative western Michigan district from 1981 to 1987, came under indictment for money laundering, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice.

Even though the case probably won't hit the courtrooms until next year or perhaps even 2010, the press verdict wasn't hard to predict: Another Republican gone wrong. Siljander was working with a Muslim organization that had attempted to disguise its "misuse of taxpayer money that the government had provided for humanitarian purposes." Some thought the worst: Jihad Watch quoted Debbie Schlussel, who worked in Siljander's congressional office, saying, "I think this was about money. . . . Desperation and money do bad things."

Siljander's side of the story is radically different. He argues rightly that ecumenical talk by the religious left in the United States has not built spiritual bridges to Islam. He notes that military action by itself merely blows up material bridges. His proposal: Sow the seeds that can yield "an organic movement within Islam that can work in the Muslim context [and] strengthen moderates rather than militants."

Siljander says those seeds are present in the Quran, which 90 times cites a name that both Christians and Muslims revere-Isa, which is Arabic for Jesus. The Quran refers to Isa performing miracles, healing the sick, breathing life into clay, and raising the dead-all things that suggest He is God. Siljander acknowledges that Muslims traditionally have interpreted the Quran as saying that Jesus was not begotten by God, but he says that's because they want to separate Jesus' conception from a physical act: He argues that Muslims can buy into the conception as spiritual generation, similar to God saying, "Let there be light."

Siljander points out that the Quran 11 times refers to Jesus as the Messiah. He acknowledges that Islam does not have the concept of original sin and, logically, does not see the need for a Savior-Muslims abhor the whole concept of a suffering servant and substitutionary atonement-but says it's not surprising that the concept of the Messiah in Islam is that of a great military leader, because that's what Jews 2,000 years ago also thought.

That part of Siljander's analysis is helpfully provocative: Many evangelicals have found that they can speak of "Jesus" in Muslim lands where mention of "Christianity" is anathema. But Siljander goes on to claim that the New Testament emphasis is "Submit to God. Be at peace"-and that's like the Quranic emphasis, because "Islam" means submission. The Arabic word shalem means "surrender" and "Muslim" comes from mu-shalem, which means "one who has surrendered." Thus Siljander believes it's fine for a Christian, one who has surrendered to God, to call himself a Muslim.

That skips over the sharp differences between Christianity and Islam. And more astounding: Siljander notes that the Hebrew word sh'ma means "to hear" but also "to proclaim, witness, or testify." The famous verse that begins sh'ma yisroel reads, "Hear O Israel, the Lord [is] our God, the Lord is One." Jesus cited that as part of the first commandment: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength." Siljander says the Muslim proclamation of shahada-There is no God but Allah . . ."-is essentially the same as the sh'ma.

Siljander asserts that Christians and Jews could say the shahada-he skips by the second part of it, "and Muhammad is his prophet"-and could thus be considered Muslims. The shahada is the first of the "five pillars of Islam," and Siljander says that the other four in principle could also be upheld by Christians and Jews: praying five times a day, fasting during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan, giving 2.5 percent of material wealth to charity, and going on a pilgrimage to Mecca. That's a startling notion, especially since the apostle Paul emphasized the need to change from an acts-oriented Phariseeism to an understanding of grace.

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