On debating an imam

Life has a way of putting people in weird situations.

It is that awkward moment when you realize you are sitting in the wrong classroom on the first day of school, or perhaps, it is that instance when your boss randomly asks for your opinion about something you really do not understand during a staff meeting. In those moments, you can feel the stares.

While I was in New York, I had one of those moments.

I, along with two other gentlemen on our team, debated an imam (a muslim cleric) in a mosque. It was a back and forth discussion that lasted for almost two hours. Now, before you start imagining two podiums and questions on note cards, let me assuage that caricature. Instead, we were sitting on the floor in a small circle with a handful of other men after the weekly service.

Nevertheless, it was an intimidating event.

The fiasco started when a member of our team was invited to attend the service. The day before, he initiated a spiritual conversation with a young man studying to be an imam and, by the end of the chat, was asked to come to the weekly service.

In Africa, I attended Islamic gatherings on occasion, so this was not completely new; however, the atmosphere was quite different. Instead of an open structure with wide windows or pillars so the breeze could flow through the building, this little mosque was a converted office building squeezed into a row of similar buildings in Harlem. The result was a space that felt tight and secluded on the inside.

As the call to prayer began, we were relegated to a tight corner in fold-out chairs. Men poured into the cramped space, filling the two small stories with well over a hundred bodies. The vast majority was West African, many wearing familiar African clothing, but it was not a homogenous group. Some were Lebanese, others of varying North African descent.

The service was longer than I expected, as the imam delivered something akin to a sermon. However, it was a loosely organized discussion of various points. The lesson was not based directly in the Koran but constantly appealed to its teaching. At a few points it was more an apologetic against certain Christian teachings, such as the divinity of Christ, than a positive affirmation of their own beliefs. (However, this is no different than many Christian sermons.)

The liturgy was rote and methodical. As the imam spoke, weaving through three or four different languages, always basing back in Arabic, the crowd of men would chant their assent to his words. At times, without prompting, they would rise to their feet, or prostrate themselves. Like mechanical pieces in a giant clock, the crowd moved together. This worship was not for a spectator, as all worked together to perform for Allah. The success of this venture was dependent on the involvement of everyone. Simply sitting and watching the people on the stage would not do, a lesson that Christians should perhaps learn in their worship.

Huddled over in the corner, our little group was the pink elephant.

We were the most conspicuous things in the room, but everyone pretended not to notice. We were on display yet officially invisible. And for us, the real fun did not begin until after the service.

Just as they poured into the building, men began to flow back out, some greeting us as they passed. As the majority left, the young man who invited us made his way over to greet. Within a few minutes, we were whisked away to meet the imam.

Then it got interesting.

We found a circle of men, sitting on the carpeted floor upstairs, waiting on our arrival. It felt like an ambush. However, we were cordially greeted and asked to join the men. Of course, the West African etiquette prevailed as the men avoided the point of this gathering, speaking in generalities and off-the-mark questions about life, family, and our studies. Nonetheless, the air was heavy and the tone pregnant with an intensity that revealed the purpose. This gathering was no mere chat, it was a match, their religion against ours, the Koran against the Bible, and Jesus against Mohammed.

As the necessary layers of hospitality eroded, the real content of this debate became clear. What took place was a mutual exchange of questions, each trying to reveal weakness in the other party’s argument while providing an opportunity to defend one’s own.

During this exchange, two key differences surfaced. The gravity of these two significant points was so much that the conversation began to revolve around them. Every rabbit trail eventually moved back to one of two ideas: namely, the nature of the Scriptures and the Koran and the person of Jesus Christ. Despite the great number of similarities in belief, our differences on these two points made both sides agree our faiths are irreconcilable.

The conversation revealed a deep need for Christians to be clear about how we understand each of these points. Over the next couple of weeks, I will address both of these topics, comparing the imam’s discussion of each with an orthodox Christian response.

In the end, the three of us left with a far better understanding of Islam, and those men left with what may have been the clearest presentation of the gospel they have ever received.

Moments such as these are important. For in them, many truths are revealed and lessons learned. For instance, debates such as these have no winner. As a Christian, to leave this setting feeling as though you “bested” an opponent misunderstands your mission. What is more, the temptation arises to think that something you did proved the gospel, that your masterful performance really made the gospel look good. To be clear, the gospel does not need you to protect it.

Stand for the gospel? Yes. Proclaim the gospel? Yes. Protect the gospel as though someone may prove it wrong? No.

Our job is not to convince people with our “superior intelligence” but to simply proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. God is the one who saves. The Holy Spirit is the one who convinces, and it is he who will reach inside of a person’s soul and replace a dead heart with one that beats for worship of its creator.

 

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