By: Dr. Ant Greenham
Before the US reached its still-to-be-ratified deal with Iran on its nuclear program, before Muhammad Yusuf Abdulaziz killed five unarmed military personnel in Chattanooga, and before Franklin Graham urged a moratorium on Muslim immigration to America, I paid a brief visit to a Shi’ite mosque in north Raleigh. I would do it again in an instant, and indeed, hope to build on a relationship I began that Friday evening in Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting) in mid-July 2015.
I went because I want to introduce Southeastern students to Shi’ite Islam, in addition to the mainstream Sunni variety, the next time I lead the World Religions Practicum. However, you need a contact before coming with a group. Well, I knew where they were, and wrote them a letter at the beginning of the year. The USPS returned it as undeliverable. So I would have to show up when someone was there, having failed the first time, during the winter. And I knew there would be folks there on a Ramadan Friday evening.
I took my wife, Eva, along, and she had a plate of cookies with her, just in case we were invited to an iftar, the communal meal Muslims share when they break the fast after sundown. The parking lot was full of cars this time, unlike the situation earlier in the year, so that was promising. However, we saw only men milling around, which made Eva uncomfortable. I parked some distance from the entrance and left her in the car (with the cookies). Right outside, I addressed an older man with an As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you, in Arabic) and asked (in English) if I could see the imam. He took me inside and I began removing my shoes. A guy called Akbar greeted me and I told him about the practicum I lead every year, explaining that I lacked any contact with Shi’ites in the Raleigh area, and that was a pity. He offered me some water, which I declined, since the sun was still up and they hadn’t broken the fast yet, and I didn’t want to drink in front of them after a long, thirsty day. Anyway, he went and got Ahmad, who turned out to be the imam.
Ahmad suggested we talk outside, where it was quieter, and I put my shoes back on and accompanied him out the door. Like the older man I addressed earlier (and Akbar), he was clearly suspicious of me. So I explained how the practicum worked (essentially I ask practitioners of various religions if they would kindly address a group of students on what they believe, at their place of worship, so we can hear from them in their own words). I also took a calculated guess and asked him if he was from Iran (since a significant number of Shi’ites are Iranian). He sure was, and I told him about a fascinating five weeks I spent there in 1999.
The conversation was much more relaxed after that. He told me how the mosque started, almost accidentally, years ago (when he simply taught a few kids about their heritage, after hours) and how significant numbers of people had joined them in more recent days, most from Afghanistan. Anyway, it became clear this would not be the time to join them for an iftar (so Eva and I would eat the cookies ourselves). I thanked him for talking to me and we made sure we both had each other’s contact information, since we certainly planned to see each other again. As he went back inside, I wished him Khoda Hafez (a pre-Islamic Farsi expression meaning God keep you), and he responded enthusiastically, using the same words.
So, what’s my point? Very simply, there are Muslims who need Jesus right on our doorstep. We need to reach out to them. Things might be a little awkward at first, but despite their attachment to a belief system we strongly reject, our common humanity and a little respect and sensitivity can get the ball rolling. I know most readers will lack my Middle Eastern experience. Never mind. Approaching a Muslim with a smile, asking how long they’ve been here and how they’re settling in, would be a good way to start.
To close, I would like to echo Lauren’s words. She took my practicum class this year and is currently on mission in California. She had a great chat with some Sikhs in a restaurant recently, and specifically thanked me for helping her see folks like that as people, not as exotic foreigners. Well, guess what? Muslims are people too.
Dr. Ant Greenham is Associate Professor of Missions and Islamic Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.