ramadan is seeking god

The ABC, the seekers, and the One God

Tuesday 9 April 2024 11:33 PM

As the Islamic fast of Ramadan ends for this year, now might be a suitable time for Christians in particular to reflect on how we engage and relate to other faith communities in general and the Islamic community especially. Every year the news media at the very least acknowledges the start and perhaps also the end of Ramadan which plays a central part in Islamic observance and cultural life. Increasingly too political leaders take opportunities to wish the Muslim community well, as the fast approaches and/or ends. In a secular multicultural and multi-faith nation such as Australia, such reports and greetings are the least that should happen in the cause of respect, harmony and common courtesy. 

Yet the broad Christian community evidences a confused and confusing array of expressions. It’s tempting to suggest that there are just two groups of Christian leaders: the one group who issue generous public recognition of the importance of Ramadan to our Muslim neighbours, often with warm wishes for a good fast; and the other group whose focus is condemning the former group. 

Mostly, at least to my awareness, the former practice has played out for many years relatively quietly, with little attention from the latter group. But this year as it seems to me, there’s been a little more noise of the critical kind. I’m not sure why this would be so, but I suspect the Gaza situation may have something to do with it. For there we have zealously competing narratives about who’s at fault, which people group is the aggressor and which the victim. The more popular view, at least tacitly endorsed by most media, is that the Muslim majority Palestinians (too commonly equated with Hamas) are the aggressor. It will be evident from other recent posts here that that is not my view of the conflict. Nevertheless it is the favoured view in the western world.

Whether or not I’m correct in drawing this connection to the current crisis in Israel-Palestine, there has been more angst than usual particularly in Britain, and among some Anglicans more broadly. This is because of a prerecorded video of a month ago in which the Archbishop of Canterbury (colloquially “the ABC”) , Justin Welby, wished “all Muslims peace and joy” as Ramadan approached, calling Ramadan a “special time of prayer, fasting and spiritual reflection.” One commentator went so far as to protest that the archbishop was “doing more to promote Islam than Christianity”. Others called the greeting “anti-Christian”. 

It won’t have helped that Welby has been on the nose with many orthodox Anglicans globally in recent years, thanks to his apparent legitimising of a revisionist doctrine and practice around marriage. (I’m one who shares the historic orthodox view of Christian marriage. But I’m also concerned about the message the orthodox protest conveys). So many orthodox Anglican Christians are hot on Welby's case.

Yet I’m perplexed by the reaction, and for more reasons than one. For starters it’s not as if this year’s Ramadan greeting is any kind of novelty. Not only, as I’ve noted above, have many Christian leaders of the orthodox kind been doing similarly for years, Welby himself has done so in various forms since becoming ABC 11 years ago. He’s regularly acknowledged Ramadan and also the positive contribution of Muslims to British life. And he’s spoken more than once of enjoying the hospitality of Muslims at Iftar feasts associated with communal Ramadan observance. Maybe few have noticed enough to complain? But it’s all been on public record, as a simple Internet search would make clear.

More importantly, for me it’s precisely because of my orthodox and reformed Biblical convictions that this present angst over a greeting to the Muslim community is concerning. I’m troubled from a missiological point of view. Interfaith dialogue has formed an intentional part of Christian world mission for over a century. Among other benefits it brings the potential of gospel conversations emerging as common meeting points are identified. That too seems to have escaped the notice of too many evangelicals. And among the reports of Welby’s interactions with Muslims as ABC have been reflections of his on the experience of listening and noting points of both agreement and disagreement.

Even more to the point, what also hasn’t been noticed in evangelical criticisms and reactions is one of the key biblical texts generations of Christians have turned to when thinking missiologically; namely Acts 17:22-34, the Apostle Paul’s apologetic address to the Council at Athens. “People of Athens!”, says the Apostle, “I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Ac 17:22-23). “Very religious” may not be a compliment exactly. But that day on Mars Hill, as recorded for us by Luke, Paul set us an example of speaking the Gospel into the face of scepticism; one which has served as a model for mission since, including in our day and post-Christian context. The Apostle first studied the religious interests of the philosophy-addicted Greeks, expressed in their statuary, identified in it an entry point for engagement, and then used that as a platform on which to build the case for Christ. 

Missiologist Miroslav Volf has been writing, teaching and engaging fellow evangelicals on just this question for decades. His insistent teaching is that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, for there is but One God. He observes from church history that “even in times of Muslim cultural ascendency, military conquests, and grave threat to Christianity in the whole of Europe” Christian teachers have for centuries past “believed that Muslims worship the same God as they do — the same God, though differently understood, of course”.  Paul’s address at Athens is foundational to this approach. It is shared too by many Christians who live and serve in the Islamic world.

Returning to Justin Welby and other Christian leaders like him, let me suggest that encouraging Muslim participation in Ramadan - an intent seeking of God, far from being syncretistic as some claim, is in fact faithful Pauline mission. There is One God. ‘Yahweh’ in the Hebrew Scriptures. ‘Allah’ on the lips of Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians since well before the birth of Mohammed, and still today. The One God who has made himself fully and savingly known in Jesus the Living Word and Lamb of God. “The very thing you worship”, said the Apostle, “— … this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Ac 17:23). An encouragement to seek the only God may be the door to finding the only Saviour. And such it has been many many times, as Christian intercessors know.

May all who seek find.