[In 2007 I wrote this article. A colleague recently sent me a National Geographic Article about Islam in Mexico. It prompted me to return to these words and update them to publish here]
“Come, all you who are thirsty … and your soul will delight in the richest of fare”. Isaiah 55:1&2
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”. Matthew 5:6
There’s a restaurant in Australia’s New South Wales where you can drink coffee for $65 a cup. The world’s most expensive coffee, and possibly most expensive beverage, is named Kopi Lewak. Connoisseurs travel for miles to try a sample. London’s luxury department store, Harrods, sells it online for $340 for a quarter pound.
Over the last two decades Starbucks have done an incredible job of turning a common drink into an experience, and now, just as the London coffee houses first popularized the drink in eighteenth century Britain, today’s coffee houses are exploiting a worldwide addiction. Many, in search of their next caffeine fix are chasing after the new and trendy flavors on offer, getting their fill of fantasies before the next headache of withdrawal arrives.
But Kopi Lewak is not what one would otherwise choose to drink. In Indonesia and the Philippines coffee beans fall from the bushes and are feasted on by the civet, a small rodent. Unfortunately, the civet cannot consume them entirely and the half-digested beans, having been harvested from faeces, are ground up to make this most expensive of coffees[i]. Literally, something that should not pass examination by Health and Safety Inspectors, becomes, when passed by rats, acceptable!
There is a subtle spiritual agenda at work in the western world today. Secular communicators who make their living by sharing new ideas with a tired world are naively presenting Islam as the religious experience of the future. Whether writing about the order and discipline brought to troubled lives by the daily practice of the din (Ceremonial Duties) or communicating how Muslim refugees are making new lives for themselves in the West despite the suspicions surrounding them, they are presenting the face of Islam as acceptable. Describing the faith as the third of the great Abrahamic faiths, casually offers it as the latter and therefore, by inference, more complete form of monotheism.
It is this acceptable face of Islam that prompted the Muslim community in Swansea, South Wales to carefully communicate their plans to convert St. Andrew’s United Reform Church into a mosque during the first decade of the Millennium. In 2007 their web-page declared: Learn about the renovation of this 150-year-old landmark building, the protection of Swansea’s heritage, and how with your donations and prayers it can once again be utilized for the worship of God[ii].
Today, that same web-page has no reference to the past role of the building as a church and is filled with references to Islam that are unintelligible to the average reader.
The acceptable face of Islam was also presented in a 2013 episode of the CBS TV drama, NCIS Los Angeles. The agents of the Office of Special Projects team confront Islamic militants. An Afghan kills his own nephew to stop him from harming someone else. Sam Hanna, the character played by actor LL Cool J, who is portrayed as a practicing Muslim, is shown in the closing scene talking to the Afghan, whom he has known for several years. The Afghan says: The taking of one innocent life is like the taking of the life of all mankind. I made the decisions I believed to be right in my heart – Allah will forgive me![iii]
A colleague recently drew my attention to a November 2017 National Geographic article about Islam in Mexico where the Muslim population has grown over the last couple of decades (5,270 – up 40% since 2010[iv]). It stated: Converts are fueling the growth in Mexico City, while high birthrates and large families spur it on in rural regions. This is not new revelation; it is the experience of many communities, whether Islam is the majority or the minority.
The narrative follows an Italian photographer who lived with the Muslim community in Mexico City for a year and then visited a village of 400 in Chiapas State that has blended indigenous religious practices into their practice of Islam. What is pleasing about Islam is that it brings practical actions in daily life: You have to pray five times each day. You can’t eat pork and you can’t drink alcohol, stated the photographer, in a comment that would not be new information to educated readers.
The article represents another example of a media endeavor to present Islam as a benign religious presence. While relevant to any ethnographic study of the world, a community of 5,000 Muslims in a nation of 124,000,000 is barely worthy of comment. I felt disappointed that a magazine of the quality of National Geographic would invest space in such an article, so I did a few searches of their website. Entering the term Growing Muslim Community produced the Mexico article and another about Muslim minority communities thriving in the USA at the top of the search list. However, entering the term: Christian Minority Communities, revealed a 2013 article about the Boston Marathon bombings[v] while entering the term: Growth of Christianity, produced a list headed by an article entitled: How Early Islamic Science Advanced Medicine.[vi]
Regrettably, despite the acceptable face of Islam, and the peace-loving life-styles of the great majority of Muslims, there is a darker side to Islam that needs to be revealed. Christians are called to love their neighbors and their enemies. We love Muslims because we are commanded to do so, because they are our brothers and sisters and because we long for them to know the life in Christ that we experience. We want them to know true eternal life.
Graciousness and tolerance in the Western world are principles drawn from a strong Christian heritage. Our graciousness and tolerance should however never serve to obscure the truth. In 2013 I attended a conference at Georgetown University in Washington on the theme of Religious Pluralism & Freedom. Speaking to the issue of religious freedom in the majority Muslim world, Farid Esack, Head of the Dept of Religion at Johannesburg University and Professor of Islam, gave a rambling presentation. Regarding freedom of religious practice, he said: In the parts of the Muslim world which I am most familiar with, … We don’t affirm the value and centrality of religious freedom. …Notions of freedom do not come automatically to our religious language. And so, at the end of the day, … for the vast majority of people in the Muslim world, and Muslim authority figures, whether they are government or scholarly figures who interact with the non-Muslim world. … it is still very much the age-old principle that Islam is meant to dominate and Islam is not to be dominated.[vii]
It is the intolerant aspect of Islam that I find unacceptable. Unfortunately, it has become politically incorrect to present it. Our own western lens of tolerance seems not to allow us to accept that those of another religious or cultural heritage would not be equally tolerant in our increasingly globalized world. It is this intolerance that causes a nation like Turkey to so equate national identity with religious identity that the idea of a Turkish Christian becomes anathema. It is this intolerance that must factor into Arab views of Israel with an attitude among some that cannot accept the idea of land once Muslim being dominated by peoples of another religion[viii]. One scholar has described Muslim reaction to the loss of territory in Spain and the Balkans as Islamic lands, wrongfully taken from Islam and destined ultimately to be restored.[ix] In the words of Nobel Prize winner V.S.Naipaul: Islamic Fundamentalism has the basic cruelty of allowing only one people The Arabs, the original people of the Prophet, a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and earth reverence[x].
A 2007 episode of PBS’ Globetrekker[xi] traveled to three states in the Arabian peninsular; Kuwait, UAE and Oman. In the latter, the viewer was taken to the Boswellia trees at a desert oasis in the Nejd. It is the slowly dripping gum-resin of these trees that produces Frankincense. The aroma produced by this resin permeates life in Oman. Government buildings are censed daily with it. Omani hospitality is delivered daily in an atmosphere perfumed by Frankincense. For millennia, this incomparable odor has carried the fame of Arabia around the world.
Drawing the program to a conclusion, Megan McCormick, the presenting journalist summed up her observations of the three nations. Though describing their differences, she ended with the words: Whatever the differences, these nations are held together by the common presence and practice of the Muslim religion. One cannot but be impressed by the beauty and power of Islam! Just as this mysterious fragrance has enticed and attracted millions down the ages, so Islam is being presented as a worthy attraction. Saddest perhaps of all is that the very scent that became synonymous with the gift of a wise man to the Christ child has subsequently become associated with a religious spirit of Anti-Christ!
The prophet Isaiah issues the invitation to: “Come, all you who are thirsty!” while Jesus tells us that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are blessed and shall be filled. In a world where Western Christendom is in severe decline, the call to the church is to not only proclaim again the great truths of the Good News, but to live them to the fullest. In Christ is the only answer for the nations; in Christ is the only answer for the Muslim world.
In his letter, the apostle James tells us: “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows”. (Jas 1:16-17) The coffee known as Kopi Lewak is from the ground, in more ways than one. The faith of Islam is from the dusts of the desert. The truth of God our heavenly father and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ, is from above and the invitation to “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8) extends to all.