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Muslims as friends
by Rev. drs. Marten de Vries
Bediüzzaman Said Nursi has, in varying contexts and times, expressed his view on the Christian religion, Christians and the relations between Muslims and Christians. There is not much more to be said about this as it has been reviewed more than once from both the Muslim and the Christian angle (Michel, 2005: 25-42; Saritoprak, 2008; Vahide 2005.) In this essay I would therefore like to recapitulate and, in the process, attempt to distillate the image that this Muslim theologian had of Christians, including the agenda deduced from that image. Whether it was in the context of Qur`ân exegeses (Nursi, 2004) or otherwise, what Nursi brought forward was limited to his particular times and circumstances - and that was his very purpose (Nursi, 1996a: 26.70).
Notwithstanding some doubts, which I will sketch later, it is not difficult for a Christian to respect Nursis sincere attempt at getting closer to Christians, especially because of the specific circumstances in which he did this. Both Muslims and Christians can certainly learn something from it today. I myself, as a Christian, would even be prepared to take a step further in the direction of Muslims than Nursi did in the direction of Christians.
In the meantime times have however changed drastically. Furthermore, it makes quite a difference whether Muslims are determining their attitude towards Christians while they themselves, be it in a secular state, form a majority, or whether they form but a small percentage of the population. It would be in keeping with Nursis flexible hermeneutics if we were to assume that the practical applications of his Islamic principles would be different in todays circumstances.
Muslims and Christians in our times simply have to deal with each other and also have a communal mission. Their leaders have an obligation to be a good example for their own followers and for the society that they are part of. As Christian I cannot - and would not wish to - lay down the law to Muslims, but I would like to fold out what the agenda should be of Christians in the West with regard to interaction with their new Muslim neighbours. Thereby I am convinced that a mutual temporary adjournment of critical dialogue it is no longer of these times. Christians should react positively when Muslims, in a polarised 21st century Europe, wish to enter into discussion, whether or not inspired by Nursi. They should be happy when Muslims invite them to get acquainted and may expect their own invitations also to be accepted by Muslims. If Christians and Muslims together succeed in respectfully and peacefully confronting their differences as mutual friends, they create a credible basis for a mutual cooperation on points in opposing the currently dominant doctrinal form of liberalism. At the same time they also make a statement together and communicate a strong message contra politicians and others who are out to instigate fear.
Nursi on Christians
One can distinguish between Nursis view on Christians and the program connected to his view. There could well be a development taking place on a parallel with the Old Said´ and ´the new Said´ (Vahide, 2005). In Nursi´s theology, in complete accordance with the Islam, Muslims have a special relationship with Christians, who, together with Jews, according to the Qur`ân are reckoned to be ´people of the Book´. Christians believe be it in their own (according to the Qur`ân: exaggerated) (Surat An-Nisâ, 171: يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ لاَ تَغْلُواْ فِي دِينِكُمْ.) manner in the same God as Muslims. They believe in the books that were revealed before the Qur`ân and which - in their alleged original form are also holy to Muslims. They are people who nevertheless should and must acknowledge Mohammed on the grounds of their own Bible.
Muslims should, according to Nursi, be willing to live together with Christians in one society. The peaceful coexistence that he propagates is not a parallel society in which both groups and their members leave each be within their own state. Nursi visualises a society in which Muslims and Christians do not live alongside each other but with each other and in which both religions associate with each other on an equal footing. Where Muslims have the political power, Christians have every right to freedom. But within a secular constitutional regime, as is the case in Turkey after the abolishment of the caliphate, there need even be no objection to Christians taking up positions in Parliament. A servant of the government has but a serving position (as does, for example, a doorman). His religion is just as (ir)relevant to someone else as that of the baker. Muslims therefore need not fear being ruled by Christians (Nursi, 1996:70).
Muslims and Christians can even be friends. True, the Qur`ân says that Muslims should not make friends with Christians (Surat Al-Mâidah, 51: لا تَتَّخِذُواْ الْيَهُودَ وَالنَّصَارَى أَوْلِيَاء.), but it is not a prohibition that should be seen as mutlaq (Kamali, 2008:34). The prohibition is valid in times of great tension between Muslims and Christians, in a situation in which it would be hypocritical as a Muslim to have Christian friends. A general commandment to treat Christians as enemies cannot be the meaning of the Qur`ân as that would be in contradiction with the possibility of an Islamic man marrying a Christian woman. Muslims are even called upon to love Christians, not forced, with teeth clenched, but with genuine love (Michel, 2005:24).
In the end, again according to Nursi, the Muslims enemies are not people, but political, social and moral ailments. Christians are people together with whom you should be fighting against those enemies. Christians and Muslims have mutual goals to strive for: a just society, the struggle against poverty, education for the people and a healthy environment. In view of this, Muslims and Christians had better cease their disputes and debates on their mutual differences. The dialogue should be entered into, not against each other, but together against the secular world, the communistic atheism.
Nursi motivated his friendliness and love for Christians by making a distinction between ´Christians´ and ´Christians´. There are ´true Christians´ who display Islamic characteristics (as there are also Muslims who have non-Islamic characteristics.) Devout Christians can and will become one with Muslims, according to Nursi´s allegoric interpretation of the traditional story of Jesus and the Mahdi, who will together come to conquer the eschatological figures of Dajjal: atheistic materialism, and Sufyan (Nursi, 2001:76-80): the destroyer of the sharî`ah. This hadith refers, in accordance with Nursi´s exegesis, on the time to come in the future when the devout Christians will join their Muslim brothers. They need not become Muslim, but their religion will be purified of (illogical) superstition and transformed into what Islam is (Nursi, 2001:515).
The times and circumstances in which Nursi made his statements, as well as the public to whom he unfolded his views, are what give true credibility to Nursi´s open attitude to Christians. During the Ottoman Empire the population had been more or less split along a religious divisive line for hundreds of years, into an Islamic, two Christian (Greek and Armenian) and a Jewish millet (that was granted a certain amount of autonomy under the supremacy of the Islam). In our present times Islamophobic Western people fear the doom-scenario of parallel societies bearing the possibility of a special sharî`ah legislation for Muslims or even of the Islamic laws imposed on non-Muslims as well. Nursi however pleaded integration of all Turkish citizens, without the one ruling over the other: Said Nursi is not in favor of religiously segregated societies, but advocates societies in which each individual and religious community had an inalienable right to their proper freedom (Michel, 2005:23). And that in times when there was no talk at all of a mutual rapprochement between Muslims and Christians, neither within Turkey or outside it.
Nursis famous Hutbe-i Şamiye was held in 1911, so before the First World War. While there is, in the beginning of the 21st century, suspicious talk and many publications about a future - but still virtual - Islamic hegemony, the Western hegemony over the greatest part of the Islamic world in the beginning of the 20th century was still a fact. And as in the West the fearful image of the Turkish who tried to conquer Vienna in 1529 and 1683 is until today still very alive, the East had certainly not forgotten the Islamic suffering caused by the crusades. Nursi was capable of broadminded thinking, going against the grain, distinguishing not only between ´Europe´ and ´Christianity´ but also between Christianity and Christians and between one Christian and the other.
The First World War was not at all the appropriate time to start feeling more sympathetic towards the Christian world and even less so for Nursi, as he was a prisoner of war from 1916 - 1918 of (the then not yet communistic) Russia. However one may judge the Armenian question on hindsight, there was certainly tension between Islamic Turks and Armenian and Greek Christians. The image of Christians in Nursi´s context cannot have been any better than that of the Muslims in the West after 2001. That did not stop Nursi from, rather than trying to provoke Muslims against Christians, expressing himself with great sympathy and empathy towards Christian citizens of the empire of which he was a part, both before and after the reforming of the state in the 20´s by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Nursi felt deeply for the innocent victims of the war, without distinguishing between Muslim and Christian victims and even giving Christians the status of ´martyr´ for which they were to receive divine reward (Nursi, 1960:45).
You cannot therefore suspect Nursi of speaking to please the public. Muslims, as Tariq Ramadan today in The Netherlands, are often suspected of communicating differently internally an outwardly. Only halfway the 20th century did Nursi send a part of his work to pope Pius XII, but with regard to his Hutbe-i Şamiye, he spoke to a public of scholars and other mosque visitors in the Ummayyad Mosque. He did not speak to please the Kurdish tribal heads of Eastern Anatolia when they showed themselves concerned about more privileges or even equal rights for Greek and Armenian Christians, but pointed out to them, with Mohammed´s son-in-law Ali and the Kurd Saladin as examples, their obligation to view Jews and Christians as people of their own level (Nursi, 1996a: 1943.1945).
In all truth reading what Nursi writes about Christians sometimes causes ambivalent feelings within me, as a Christian Netherlander. A great deal is extraordinarily sympathetic and can be presented as an example to Muslims and, just as well, to Christians, no less today in the 21st century than 50 or 100 years ago. More about that later. Nursi also assumes that Muslims and Christians serve the same deity. It is, contrary to what some Christians think and assert, honest and respectable to take this Islamic pretention seriously. The ´image´ of God may vary: Christians, as opposed to Muslims, believe in Jesus Christ as ´image of the invisible God (Colossians 1,15: ov estin eikwn tou yeou tou aoratou), but when Muslims themselves conclude that Christians do not believe in their God, it is early enough to agree.
At the same time the embrace of the ustadh from time to time feels somewhat stifling, even though I well understand that it is meant as a means of approach. From a Christian perspective however, Nursis inclusive attitude sometimes seems a form of typical Islamic annexing. It gives me a feeling similar to what the rabbinic Jews must have when Christians interpret the Old Testament Christologically, experiencing this as unjust.
Christians are not really ahl al-kitâb. Both the Dutch theologian and Islam expert Johannes Verkuyl (1995:37v) and Ian Markham (2002:160) have pointed out that the theologian equivalent for the Qur`ân is not the Bible but Jesus Christ. Ergo: however kindly meant, by accepting Christians as spiritual family because they are ´people of the Book´, Christians are, strictly spoken, not recognised in their authenticity. For, according to the Christian conviction, the transcendent God does not make contact with humans through the descending of a holy book, but through Gods eternal Word that became a man of flesh and blood (John 1,1-14: o logov sarx egeneto.). And as far as the Holy Scripture is concerned, it does one good to hear Muslims say that they accept all the books of the Old and New Testament as Gods revelation. To a Christian partaking in interreligious dialogue for the first time, it always comes as a pleasant surprise. But Christians in their turn are obliged to take the word of Jesus seriously when He said to the Jews: the Scriptures testify about Me` (John 5,39: ereunate tav grafav (...) kai ekeinai eisin ai marturousai peri emou.) but of course Muslims wont agree with this.
I also feel somewhat confined when I read that a Christian is devout because he displays typical Islamic characteristics and when he is embraced because the true form of his religion will be complete when, freed of superstition, it becomes a kind of Islam. When that ´superstition´ is the so-called ´exaggeration´ of the confession of the Trinity than it even hurts to read this, because this concerns the heart of the Christian Faith. We must, following the call in the Surat al-Imrân indeed aspire towards ´a common word (Surat Al-`Imrân, 64: قُلْ يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ تَعَالَوْاْ إِلَى كَلَمَةٍ سَوَاء بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَكُمْ.) but we should first discover together that the real question is not if but how we should all be monotheists.
I feel uncomfortable when John Travis makes a distinction between ´non-Messianic Muslims´ and ´Messianic Muslims´, where the latter are Muslims on the road to becoming Christians (Travis, 2000), but just as much so when Nursi allows me to be a `Muslim Christian`, in the assumption that ´the true religion of Jesus´ will be united with the reality of the Islam (Nursi 2001:515).
Following through the lessons of Nursi
It is a fruitful undertaking, not only for Muslims, to gain knowledge of Nursis opera omnia. Ian Markham takes four lessons from it, of which the first is: remain rooted. Adaptation and capitulation to positivism and modernism leads nowhere, neither for the Islam as for Christianity (Markham, 2002:96). I would like to extrapolate this to the Christian confession and Islam. Christianity and Islam are mutually related but not the same, and adaptation leads to a sort of syncretism and a speaking with two tongues. The discovery by Muslims that Christians word their faith differently internally than in discussions with Muslims, will not help the mutual relations between Muslims and Christians, just as this is also true the other way around.
But Christians also with respect to the position of Muslims Christians Muslims can learn from what Nursi has to say. Christians should accept Nursi´s principal that the freedom of the other entails everyone´s freedom (Nursi, 1996a:21; Michel 2005:34). They should fully realise that retrenchment of religious freedom for Muslims would suit the program of godless liberalism all too well, but that they themselves will also take their turn as a victim. In the politics of The Netherlands the freedom of non-public education plays a specific role: when Islamic primary- and middle schools have to be closed, not because of lacking educational quality or due to explicit anti- Western propaganda, but purely because they are Islamic, then Christians also lose their right to run their own special schools according to Article 23 of the Dutch Constitution, which they have so dearly fought for in the past.
I would even like to take it a step further in the direction of Muslims than Nursi did in the direction of Christians. We must not just accept Muslims in as far as they display Christian characteristics or move in the direction of the Christian faith, but as they are in their authenticity. We do not call Muslims `Mohammedians,` because their prophet is not to them what the Lord Jesus Christ is to us. We, as Christians, do not have the right to determine what a true Muslim is, just as non-Muslim Netherlanders do not have the right to promote a so-called ´liberal Islam´. Mutual respectful treatment of each other can be the only condition for dialogue.
Even when Muslims do not want to be, or according to their conviction, are not allowed to be, friends with Christians, Christians who take their faith seriously have an obligation to love Muslims in all humility. For the apostle Paul says: `God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5,8: sunisthsin de thn eautou agaphn eiv hmav o yeov oti eti amartwlwn ontwn hmwn cristov uper hmwn apeyanen.)
Nursi´s Ottoman or Turkish world is not the world of the Nurçular in The Netherlands. In the times of the Caliphate empire but also in the subsequent secular state, Nursi´s country was mainly populated by people who counted themselves as Muslim, belonging to the ummah, while the rest saw themselves as religious to say the least. In the Netherlands not only Muslims, but also Christians, and even the two together, are in the minority and it does not look as if this will change in the years to come. Partly this is not a matter of secularisation. Christians who do not pray and do not go to church - rightly no longer call themselves Christian and it would appear that in this context also the difference between true Muslims and Muslims who are only so in name will also reveal itself. Of course there are cultural believers who in times of tension will call themselves ´Muslim´, Christian or Jewish-Christian´ out of loyalty, but they will not come into action against the trend that religion should be banned from the public domain. At the same time, in this context, serious Muslims and devoted Christians become more aware of their own religion, which, even without polarisation, is strengthened by the interaction with people of the other religion. Whether you exchange your religion, or become even more Muslim or more Christian: you always come out of the dialogue differently to the way you entered into it (Markham, 2002:101). Muslims feel the need to profile themselves, just as Christians and believers of other religions do. The typical Dutch environment can serve as an extra stimulant: the environment where it is acceptable and even desirable to communicate in an open and direct manner, not just anonymously on the internet but also in public. All emphasis on the resemblances without naming the differences soon feels as uninteresting and irrelevant.
Muslims and Christians have a mutual interest in opposing secularism. Todays secularism does not just see religion as an obstacle towards intellectual or social development so that religion is pushed to the margins of society, nor is it simply an atheistic communism that calls religion opium for the people´- today we are dealing with an aggressive liberalism in which godlessness is forced upon society as a dogma. What you believe yourself is your business but in the whole design of society you are expected to confess the liberal conviction that people are free to be their own law and to dwell in an excess of immorality. Whoever dares raise his voice today against abortion, euthanasia or homosexual marriage with a right to adopt, is more or less excommunicated by society.
Christians and Muslims have to deal with each other, not just walking around each other but in respectful association. A theocracy is not something Christians should wish for. The New Testament does not offer a blueprint for a political program, nor does the embracing of a (so-called)´Jewish-Christian´ culture, which as such has never existed, have any Christian origins. We all greatly respect the Islamic mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb. We do not just tolerate Muslims, we accept them as full fellow-citizens. On a governmental level opportunity coalitions can be useful - in the Dutch context to guarantee freedom of education, hold high the right to protect life, even that which is considered economically useless, and to oppose ethical licentiousness that corrupts society. Another possibility is the joint publication of scientific papers. On a local level, dialogue groups can bring people together and promote cohesion within society. In Rotterdam we have ten years of good experience with this as Nurçular and orthodox Protestants. (I hereby leave out of consideration two projects in which I myself was able to participate: the interreligious Theologian circle that came together during these last years at the Islamic University in Rotterdam and the friendly discussions of a group of Christians with Muslims at the Dialogue Academy of the Gülen Movement).
After some initial case discussions people of the madrasa in the Rotterdam area of Delfshaven and of the church which I serve as a pastor, came together for the first time for an in-depth discussion on the day after September 11 of 2001. We explicitly agreed that we would not let ourselves be driven apart by what some fanatics do and the conclusions derived from that by others. After six years of twice monthly gatherings, we organised a symposium together on the comparison between the theology of Said Nursi and Klaas Schilder, who can be seen as founding fathers of our denominations. After that the working groups of Het Gemeentelicht of the Nurçular, and Het Kruispunt of the Reformed organised four symposia on a smaller scale. Many subjects were tackled: Islamic and Christian feasts, Qur`ânic names of God and Biblical names of Jesus, persons that appear in both Bible and Qur`ân, ´peace´, ´prayer´, praxis of faith´. We ate together, were present at each others rituals, and still we are not fed up with each other! We look forward to the following discussions and are interested in each others welfare.
The secret is neither that we hush up our differences and concentrate as much as possible on our resemblances, nor that we ban all hint of a missionary motive; that would be an unreasonable demand from people who wish to share the best that, in their conviction, they have received, with the other. A double agenda is allowed, a hidden agenda is not. What we strive for is a transparent and equal discussion in which no one need fear expressing his own conviction, where participants have a wish to understand each other and are prepared to feel the pain that comes with rejection by others of what is most precious to oneself: the example of Mohammed or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Meetings in which the other is allowed to be different, not a friend only on the condition of conversion. It is an exciting adventure when people who recognise each other as family not only discover what binds them but also what separates them. It is because of this family relationship that the gaps that cannot be abridged, can easily estrange us from each other and even bring animosity: do not family arguments escalate far more easily than wars between strangers? We have not achieved perfection, but we are convinced that if we manage, with the help of God, and with preservation of our exclusive doctrines, to take up an inclusive attitude towards the other and when necessity calls for it, to stand together as friends, we can be an example to others and form a sign of hope for all those fellow citizens among whom we live and work.
List of references
Abstract for a paper to be presented at the International Symposium: The Risale-i Nur : Knowledge, Faith, Morality and the Future of Humankind 3-5 October 2010 in Istanbul.
Solutions for Problems Stemming from Religious Differences
Muslims as friends
By Drs. Marten de Vries
Protestant minister in Rotterdam
Migration flows, globalisation and political developments put new pressure on interreligious tensions. An unfavourable image of the Islam in Western Europe causes social tension.
The Risale-I Nur presents tools to ease the pressure. Muslims and Christians can learn from Bediüzzaman Said Nursi and enable others to profit.
Nursi spoke positively about Christians. He wanted not oppression, but friendship with Christians. He acknowledged the differences but saw Christianity as a purification process. Muslims and Christians should temporarily cease their disputes and join together to resist communist atheism. Nursi, based on Soerat Al-`Imrân, called upon both to enter jointly into a critical dialogue with the godless society.
Nursi negotiated in his own time and circumstances. The current day context differs drastically from that.
Minority Muslims feel urged to profile themselves. Partly because of a culture of openness and directness of communication, stressing the similarities without naming the contradictions feels irrelevant to them.
Christianity implies religious freedom: Christian theology excludes theocracy. Christians should accept Nursis principal that the freedom of the other entails everyones freedom.
Today doctrinal liberalism forms a common threat. In The Netherlands this regards the freedom of nonpublic education.
On a governmental level Opportunity Coalitions could be beneficial. For it could be a challenge to participants of the interreligious dialogue to be an example.
Possibly by, while preserving exclusive doctrines and without the other having to see himself as candidate confessor of your religion, approaching discussion partners with an inclusive attitude.
Muslims can present themselves as friends, Christians receive them as friends: that is the experience of the Rotterdam Nurçuluk and Reformed groups.
CV accompanying paper Rev. Drs. M. de Vries
Rev. Drs. Marten de Vries (1955) took his masters degree in Theology at the Theological University of Kampen (Netherlands) in 1984. He has served as a minister in the Reformed Churches (Liberated) in the Netherlands since 1985.
He served in two congregations, one in the rural area in the North, and one in the urban area of the West Netherlands. From 1990 1994 he was committed as a missionary to a black congregation in the township Mamelodi, near Pretoria in South Africa.
From 2000 on, he has been working for an organization of 18 churches, for the benefit of the inter-religious dialogue with Muslims in the Rijnmond area. Last year he initiated Het Kruispunt (The Crossing), a committee which coordinates, amongst other things, various discussion groups and public debates. Furthermore, he conducts courses in Rotterdam and Cyprus; gives readings and lectures at high schools and incidentally lectures at universities and colleges as a guest-speaker. He regularly publishes opinionating articles, columns or book-reviews in Dutch or English newspapers or magazines.
During his active service as a minister, he did several studies. He studied missionary subjects at the Reformed Missionary Training School (in those days linked to the University of Kampen) and learned a Bantu language; Introduction to Islam at the Catholic University of Nijmegen; Arabic and Middle East Cultures at the University of Utrecht. He took a summer course at the Dutch Institute for Academic Studies in Damascus and private lessons in Arabic in Jordan and Egypt.
From 2006 he studied Islamic Theology at the University of Leiden. Subsequently he will write his thesis at the VU University of Amsterdam, a comparative study of the theology of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi and the contemporary Dutch Theologian Klaas Schilder, in which he concentrates on the theological anthropology of both theologians, comparing the position of the Koran in Nursis thinking with the position of Jesus Christus in Schilders work. He was co-initiator in the committee organizing a symposium on Nursi and Schilder in Rotterdam in February 2008. Renowned speakers from the Nurçuluk and from the Reformed tradition highlighted different topics .