I was once again reminded of the amazing degree of religious tolerance that many Christians in this country display habitually. Last Sunday, on the 29th of June, I had the rare honor of giving the sermon in a Christian service at the St. Thomas Episcopalian Church in Newark, Delaware. I have given the Islamic sermon (Khutbah) at mosques but giving one at a Church was an extraordinary ecumenical experience.
Quran, the holy book of Muslims, teaches that diversity has a divine purpose. God could have created us all the same if He chose to, but in his infinite wisdom he created us as people of different ethnicities, races and beliefs in order that we get to know each other, and compete in doing good (Quran: 49:13, 2:148) . It was in this spirit that I visited with the Episcopalian community.
The history of conflict between Islam and Christendom is well known. The crusades, the Muslim conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul), and the Spanish inquisition have all been the fodder of folklores for centuries. The contemporary conflicts in the Middle East also get more than their fair share of media coverage. What escapes attention are the many gestures of goodwill that Muslims and Christians make to each other routinely all over the world. St. Thomas community’s invitation to me was one such gesture that merits celebration.
Christian hospitality to Islam is neither new nor unusual. It is a 1400 year old Islamo-Christian tradition. It all began in 614 AD. Muhammed the Prophet of Islam started preaching his message of one God in Mecca around 610 AD. He gathered a few followers around him, who for years were tortured and prosecuted by the pagan majority in Mecca. Five years into his ministry, Muhammed asked some of his followers who suffered the most to migrate to Abyssinia which was ruled by a Christian King. King Negus was a pious man who gave the immigrants refuge and the protection to live safely and to practice their faith. Muslims to this day remember and cherish King Negus.
Within five years of the birth of Islam, Muslims were migrating to Christian lands in search of religious freedom. While 1400 years ago, only fifteen Muslims, 11 men and four women sought safe haven in Christian Abyssinia; today nearly three million Muslims enjoy the same in the US. Many prominent American Muslims have gone on record saying that they feel freer to practice Islam in America than in their country of origin.
Islam does not just thrive in the secular democracy of the US. It also thrives on the sacred grounds of this nation. All across the country there are scores of churches which routinely allow Muslims to offer their Friday prayers on their premises. Even where Muslims have the critical mass and resources to build a mosque, on Fridays they still park in the parking lots of churches.
I lived outside Washington DC in Northern Virginia from 1995-2000. At that time there were about five places on route seven where you could catch a Friday prayer – two churches, one mosque, the back of a store and a convention hall at a Best Western hotel. The mosque had a capacity for over 600 worshippers and 200 cars. The rest of the cars were parked, with permission and free of charge, in the lots of two churches in the vicinity of the mosque. This situation was not and is not unusual.
After the sermon, I chatted with the congregationists about the common ground between Islam and Christianity. I felt genuine fellowship and realized that in spite of everything that has happened in global politics, Islam in America prospers in the benign embrace of Christianity.
However, not all is hunky dory. In the US nearly 40% Americans today have a negative view of Muslims and many preachers continue to demonize Islam. Only last month Republican candidate John McCain repudiated the endorsement of prominent pastor Rod Parsely who preaches that America was created to destroy Islam and calls for a new crusade to eradicate it. More Parsleys are emerging everyday.
The Quran says about Christians that among them there are those who do good, forbid evil and are in the ranks of the righteous (3:113-114), I believe that last Sunday, I was in the midst of just such a community.