Ant Greenham: Friendship and the Great Commission, Part 2

[Editor’s Note: Dr. Ant Greenahm is Associate Professor of Missions and Islamic Studies at Southeastern. A specialist on the Middle East, he is author of Muslim Conversions to Christ: An Investigation of Palestinian Converts Living in the Holy Land (WICU, 2011), and co-author (with David Black and Allan Bevere) of The Questioning God: An Inquiry for Muslims, Jews, and Christians (Areopagus, 2012). He is also passionate about helping students see the breadth of the Great Commission. To that end, he writes below about the nature of friendship in the Great Commission. This is the first post in a three-part series. Come back next Monday for part two.]

As we continue our exploration of friendship, let’s consider an insight from Bernard Lewis, the renowned scholar of Islam and the Middle East. Before he left Britain permanently for America in 1974, “an old friend and colleague” had the following to say: “Here in London . . . you have friends. In Princeton you will have colleagues, neighbors and in certain situations, allies, but you will not have friends as you understand and use that word here.”[1] Lewis shares this conversation at a crucial juncture in his narrative, at the point where he began a new life in the United States. I think that’s significant. Almost 40 years later, it seems he hadn’t experienced friendship in America in the way he had before he came here. The reason, I believe, is the nature of activity-based friendship in the US.

Considering the rest of his reflections, it’s fair to say Lewis was involved in valuable academic and institutional activities with colleagues, got along (for the most part) with neighbors at the office and at home, and found allies to help him in battles fought along the way. But it seems that none of these shared activities led to an overarching friendship. In other words, different elements of life, shared in a friendly way, did not (and do not) translate into friendship for the long haul.

Essentially, friendliness and friendship are different. But they may be hard to distinguish because of our use of the word, friend. Colleagues, neighbors and allies call each other friends. Celebrities pursuing an agenda, who don’t know me from Adam, address me as friend. A favorite bakery has a sign telling anyone at the door: “Arrive as a Customer, Leave as a Friend.” And the problem is enhanced by the explosion of “friends,” people you hardly know, on Facebook. Just about anyone can be your friend.

This cultural notion of friend is certainly far removed from the friendship demanded by the Great Commission. When I discussed it in class last semester, a student, Zach, had an interesting anecdote to add. He had been abroad, met a local he liked and then introduced him to someone else as his “friend.” To Zach’s surprise, his new acquaintance immediately corrected him with the words, “I’m not your friend!” What he meant, it seems, is being someone’s friend goes way beyond initial friendliness. A commitment, proven over time, is required.

So how do we get from friendliness to true friendship? I hope to end with three practical suggestions in my third and final post on the subject. Here though, I’d like to linger over a key difference between friendliness and friendship: I believe that friendly expressions easily mask the absence of a deeper relationship.

How often have you used the words “thank you for asking” when a colleague asked you to follow up on a prayer request you shared publicly? Or when you’ve had a decent conversation with someone you don’t know well, ended with “it was nice talking to you?” Typically, such words are sincere, and I have no quarrel with them as they stand. However, they express an element of surprise that person X cared enough to ask, or that conversation with person Y had meaning beyond the mundane.

In contrast, my wife and I don’t say those words in our relationship. We repeatedly express our love for each other, but it’s established that we care for each other’s welfare and enjoy each other’s company. Of course we do—we’re very good friends. In fact, saying those words in a truly close companionship becomes biting sarcasm if something’s amiss. That’s because they are properly reserved for superficial interactions. My suggestion then, when you use them, is to ask yourself whether the surface level is where you want things to stay. Often that is quite appropriate. We can’t get close to everyone. But don’t kid yourself that the people concerned are friends in any meaningful sense of the word—or that this encapsulates disciple-making in the way of Jesus.

Instead, if you want to explore taking the relationship further (and it has to be reciprocated, of course), enquire after the other person’s welfare (and possibly elicit a prayer request) when you thank them for asking. And at the end of a surprisingly good conversation with a mere acquaintance, raise the possibility of having another, not in general terms but at a specific time and place. Finally, if things are going to develop in the direction of true friendship, anticipate, pray for, and work towards that end.

More about all this next time!


[1] Bernard Lewis with Buntzie Ellis Churchill, Notes On A Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian (New York: Viking, 2012), 171.

Global Context (NAME): The Arabs in History

This series of posts deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

Bernard Lewis’ The Arabs in History is was first published in 1958, revised in 1993, and is still fruitful for the beginning student of Arab history. It is a very concise history, weighing in at only 240 pages, and therefore necessarily does history by a “broad-brush” approach.

For those who have read introductory material about Islam and have been exposed to current affairs in the Middle East through the media, but are not able to put such knowledge in historical context, Lewis’ book is perfect. He begins by giving a brief treatment of Arabia before Islam, which helps uninitiated reader to understand the Middle Eastern context into which Muhammad was about to walk. The second chapter introduces Muhammand and describes the early rise of Islam. In the remaining eight chapters, Lewis gives a lucid and concise exposition of the major events, people, and patterns in Arab history, never failing to show the interconnection of Islam and Arabia.

Lewis’ detractors repeatedly berate him for his essentialist view of Islam and his belief that Islam is fundamentally anti-modern, and reviewers of this book have been no exception. I’ll put my cards on the table here and say both “yes” and “no” to his detractors (with an emphasis on the “no.”) As for essentialism, Muhammad intended for Islam to have an unchanging essence, and expressed his intention very clearly in the Qur’an and in the hadith. Islam is a “religion of the books,” firmly standing on the shoulders of the Qur’an and the hadith. The Qur’an and the official collections of hadith will never change and unless Muslims forsake their belief in authorial intent, original Islam will always be accessible to Muslims through those texts. This does not mean that Muslims and Muslim societies will always look the same across the reaches of the globe or the eras of history. Muslim societies and cultures are necessarily affected by the contingencies of historical, geographical, and chronological context, and further some Muslims are willing to tamper with “original Islam.” For this reasons, Muslim beliefs and practices vary (sometimes wildly) depending upon such contingencies.

As for whether or not Islam is fundamentally anti-modern, “original Islam” is fundamentally anti-modern, primarily because of the intersection of two characteristics of the religion: (1) Islam is not only a religion but a socio-cultural and political system. The religious, socio-cultural, and political cannot be separated while remaining faithful to Muhammad’s message. (2) Islam was founded as an early medieval religious, socio-cultural, and political system and must fundamentally alter itself if it is to be at home in the modern world.

This book is highly recommended as a basic introduction to the Arabs in history.

Book: The Arabs in History (1958, 2002)

Author: Bernard Lewis

Region: North Africa & Middle East

Genre: History

Length: 240 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate

Global Context (International): The Crisis of Islam

This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions in particular. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in an increasingly complex and hyper-connected world.

Bernard Lewis is the doyen of Middle Eastern studies. In this slim little volume, he provides the reader with a concise, level-headed, and very reasonable overview of the crisis within Islam. He gives a brief history of the rise and development of Islam, the Crusades, and of the conflict between Islam, Christianity, and modern western culture.

Lewis traces the rise and development of Islam, showing how medieval Islamic civilization was the most advanced in the world, as well as one of the most militant. Muslims overthrew Persia, and then in short succession conquered the Christian provinces of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. By the 8th century, they had advanced as far as the Pyrenees. They launched several waves of crusades, conquering the birthplace of Christ and attempting to conquer Europe.

He refuses to lay most (or even much) of the blame for the Crusades at the feet of the Christian world. For him, “The Crusade is a late development in Christian history, and, in a sense, marks a radical departure from basic Christian values as expressed in the gospels. But jihad is a Muslim essential, present from the beginning, in Muhammad himself.” It is for this reason that Lewis finds it ironic that Muslims like to blame the West for the Crusades, particularly for the purpose of making them a prototype of European expansionism.

As Lewis tells it, European countries (“Christian” countries) did expand, as they expelled the Tatars from Russia and the Moors from Spain. Napoleon struck at the heart of the Islamic world as he raided Egypt. Muslims thought it was dandy for Muslims to conquer and rule Europe, but not vice-versa. The same goes for religious conversion. By the early 20th century, nearly all Muslims were ruled by European countries, and even worse, the Jews set up the state of Israel in 1948. This humiliated the Muslim world.

The late 20th century brought a bipolar world, ruled by two mighty powers, the USA and the USSR. Then the USSR collapsed, leaving the US as the lone world power. Muslim “freedom fighters” were central to the overthrow of the USSR in Afghanistan; indeed, Osama bin Ladin repeatedly has pointed out that Muslims defeated the mighty USSR. Bin Laden and others thought that the US would be an easier foe. “In their view,” Lewis writes, “the United States had become morally corrupt, socially degenerate, and in consequence, politically and militarily enfeebled.”

In fact, bin Ladin speaks to this theme in his November 2002 “Letter to America.” He accuses America of being an oppressive, deceitful country, full of debauchery, and without principles or manners. He argues that America should pack her bags and get out of Muslim lands so that he is not forced to send Americans “back as cargo in coffins.” The letter ends with bin Ladin saying that if Americans do not take his advice, “their fate will be that of the Soviets who fled from Afghanistan to deal with their military defeat, political breakup, ideological downfall, and economic bankruptcy.

All of this brings us to the heart of Lewis’ book, which is his answer to the question: What is happening in the world of Islam to bring about the “revolutionary” Islam we have seen in recent years? As Lewis sees it, there are four major components of revolutionary Islam: (1) Humiliation: Muslims see themselves as the sole guardians of God’s truth, and believe that they will subjugate the world for Allah’s sake, but at present they clearly are not able to subdue the infidels; (2) Frustration: Muslims have tried to remedy this humiliation in various ways, but have failed; (3) Confidence: The economic power of oil, and the words of the Qur’an, have given Muslims a new confidence and sense of empowerment; and (4) Contempt: Muslims see the moral decadence, and therefore the weakness, of the Western world.

Perhaps the one thing that Lewis should have included in his discussion of the major components of revolutionary Islam (although mentioned elsewhere in the book) is an extensive discussion of a fifth component which might be called “Mission.” Muhammad made clear to his followers that there are only two ways to live: One can live in submission to Allah, or in the way of ignorance. Those who live in submission to Allah live in Dar al-Islam, meaning “the territory of Islam.” Those who live in ignorance live in Dar al-harb, meaning “the territory of war.” The missionary program of Muhammad and early Muslims was to extend the territory of Islam over the territory of war by any means necessary, including military jihad.

This can be seen in numerous passages in the Qur’an. Take, for example, Surah 2:244: “Then fight in the cause of Allah…” Or Surah 9:5: “Then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them.”Or Surah 47:4: “When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly.” Furthermore, those who do fight for Allah are rewarded with Paradise. In Surah 9:111, we see that “Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth.” But perhaps the most enlightening thing to read is Guillame’s The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Rasul Allah (Oxford University Press, 1995). This translation of the classic biography of Muhammad, written by a pious Muslim, makes clear on every page that Muhammad was not a peaceful man.

In spite of this and other minor issues, The Crisis of Islam is a very helpful book for those who are seeking to understand the complex and significant issues surrounding contemporary Islam.

Book: The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003)
Author: Bernard Lewis
Region: The Middle East
Length: 184 pp.
Difficulty: Intermediate