Christian Heritage and the Rise of Islam in Somalia
The idea that Christianity is the white man’s religion exported to Africa recently is a vast misconception that is deeply detrimental to missionary efforts across the continent. Very early Arab sources indicate a Christian presence in Somalia beginning in the 10th century. It is speculated that Christianity remained in Somalia as late as 1500 until Islam overtook and became the religion of the nation.
Islamic traditions about Jesus are one indication of how much Muslims respect Jesus. When Muhammad took over Mecca in AD 630, he cleansed the Ka’aba of idols, and destroyed all icons except the Virgin Mary and her son. Those he covered with his coat. Another tradition says that in all humanity only Jesus and his mother were not touched by Satan at birth. Muslims say they honor Jesus more than Christians who claim he was crucified by the hands of cruel men. They reject the cross for these reasons: theologically it need not happen; morally it should not happen; historically it did not happen. As someone succinctly put it: “Without the cross, there is no Christianity, and with the cross there is no Islam.” This article suggests that by building on what is known of Christ in the Qur’an, Christians can lead Muslims to consider God’s plan of redemption in the Bible. Jesus had to die and Easter is God’s vindication. We have a message of hope for Muslim friends.
Missionaries among Muslims often testify that the most effective apologetic the Christian worker has is the power of the simple gospel, rooted in Old Testament prophecies. Thus, when Jesus faced the cross, he appealed to Scripture. In talking to Muslims, Christians must stress that the cross was not a mistake, or a defeat, but the redemptive act of Almighty God, planned before the world began (Gen. 3:15; Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-28; Mt. 1:21).
Prior to the cross, Jesus said to his mystified disciples: “We are going up to Jerusalem and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled . . . They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again” (Lk. 18:31-33). In witness, Christ must never be left in Galilee, when he set his face toward Jerusalem. Only there “by his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:6). We must not join those who say, “Come down from the cross” (Mt. 27:40). After his passion, Jesus asked a penetrating question of two disciples on the way to Emmaus: “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Lk. 24:26). This is the same question we must ask Muslims. Later, in order to convince some in the “upper room” who doubted, Scripture says he showed them his hands and his feet (Lk. 24:40).
In conclusion, Christians have much in common with Muslims, but in the end, we must focus on the message of Easter. Samuel Zwemer’s comment bears repeating, that the Qur’an leaves the door open for dialog, and that a loving but bold presentation of the surpassing grandeur and beauty of Jesus will not alienate the Muslim heart. We can make much of titles and miracles that describe the person and work of Jesus in the sources of Islam, but must move on to terms, like “Light of the World,” “Bread of Life,” and “Resurrection and the Life.” We must stress that through his death and resurrection, Christ defeated Satan and triumphed over the last enemy, death (I Cor. 15; Heb. 2:5-18). The cross is central to the Gospel (I Cor. 1:23; 15:3-4). In the Qur’an, Jesus is embryonic and mysterious, but Muslims can be encouraged to seek Christ above and beyond their own book: “We made her [Mary] and her son a sign for all peoples” (21:91). I will never forget a Pakistani Muslim villager who gave three reasons why he thought Jesus was greater than Muhammad: “Your Prophet was a Prophet from birth, ours became one at age 40; your Prophet did miracles, ours did none; your Prophet is alive, ours is dead.”
Perhaps my loneliness was intensified that first year because I felt as though I was being treated like a trophy. I was a token Muslim who’d become Christian and all that went along with an externally imposed status. There were labels, such as MBB (Muslim background believer), as if my identity was still wrapped up in Islam, and felt like there was no exit–not from Muslims–but by Christians. I didn’t want to be…
Last night my church held a Seder (a special meal during Pesach—Passover). Over 280 people showed up to have a rabbi lead us through the Haggadah (a booklet containing the prayers and actions comprising the Seder) and explain the symbolism in the celebration. The attendees were Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
The conversation at our table was very interesting. We agreed that we would all share a typical prayer that we offer up before a meal began. The rabbi mentioned how hand washing was an important part of the initial ceremonies and the Muslims were able to tie this to the ritual ablution Muslims perform before their daily prayers. All of us were able to relate to the Passover theme of God rescuing people from oppressions of all sorts as well as His faithfulness in the presence of our repeated disobedience.
An interesting thing happened when the conversation came to the relationship between God’s grace and God’s justice in the world. The Jews and the Muslims were on the same page with this issue, but they listened very carefully when the Christians spoke about how they see God’s grace is larger than His justice. One of the Muslims jumped in and said that a hadith qudsi (a saying of Muhammad where the words were believed to have come from Allah but voiced by Muhammad) said that God’s mercy prevails over his wrath. The rabbi said that this is exactly how Judaism saw it. It didn’t need to be spoken how close we were on this issue but how we voiced it in very different terms that often get confused.
We had covered some sticky points that are often exploited in the media, and there are many more difficult questions of faith to be touched upon, but we had developed the beginnings of important relationships. I didn’t have a word for what had happened, but then I remembered one of the parts of the Seder in which the Jews chant “Da-yenu” which means “and that would have been enough.” One of the phrases in the chant is, “and He fed us with manna in the wilderness’ everyone then responding “Da-yenu.” I remembered that the word “manna” means “what is it?” It is a question that is the recognition of a miracle while also recognizing that there are things we still don’t know about it. I like it. This Seder was manna. *
*The word “manna” also appears within the Qur’an at least three times. One time in a phrase that means “food from heaven.”