Missio Dei’s standard copyright does not apply to this article. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group ().
This article is an adaptation of chapter eighteen of Who Is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves.1 It recounts personal stories that humanize the Christian-Muslim interfaith dialogue. Muslim hospitality in these encounters provides a space to reconsider assumptions and reframe the dialogue. Such hospitality therefore commends itself to the church as a missional practice to be learned from Muslim conversation partners.
One does not entertain “inter-faith” conversations long without the “clash of civilizations” thesis arising: “western culture” and “Islamic culture” cannot peaceably co-exist side-by-side because one will necessarily triumph over the other. There are numerous difficulties with such a position: “cultures” can be neither rejected nor accepted as a whole, because a “culture” is by definition an amalgamation of practices and assumptions, and we never reject or accept or defeat a culture as a whole. Instead, particular cultures will have practices some of which we celebrate, some of which we will want to modify or transform, and some of which we will need to altogether reject.
For Christians, who after the apostle Paul see ourselves as ministers of reconciliation, such an observation is particularly helpful I think, as it allows us to first look for common practices which we can celebrate. So far as my own particularities, I tend to think that “southern hospitality” is an example of an American cultural practice that Christians, Jews, and Muslims can all celebrate: the guest received with honor, regardless of social status or position or wealth. It has been my privilege to sit at tables set by other hosts at which the homeless and the blind and the poor and the wealthy and the glamorous and the homely have all been welcomed. My parents and my in-laws and my wife and my extended family and my church family and my university family have all exhibited this good practice, and I have learned much watching them. It is part of the ancient wisdom, going back to Abraham, the patriarch of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, that one may entertain angels unawares; it is part of the ancient story of Jesus, especially as told by the Gospel of Luke, that the table embodies a special place of grace, in which the reconciliation offered by God to the world may be made manifest. The table is a sacred place, where one may encounter all sorts of mysteries, may encounter manifestations of reconciliation unexpected and surprising. And I also suspect that the political shape of Christian discipleship will have a much more profound impact upon the world by taking the table seriously than will any sort of quest for dominating power.
A similar sort of tradition around the table exists in Islam. Snjezana Akpinar notes that
for Muslims, the concept of hospitality goes deeper into history than is commonly understood in the West. It is a virtue that lies at the very basis of the Islamic ethical system. For Arabs in particular, hospitality is an ancient concept. Pre-Islamic Arab civilization saw hospitality as a humanizing element that involves both the guest and host, creates trust between them, leads to an ennobling and transformative moment, and evokes a restorative energy crucial for the survival of the human race. Linked closely with honor and chivalry, hospitality was considered an act of unconditional surrender to the needs of others. Islam accepted this heritage at its very inception.2
Until a few years ago, I had never eaten or taken tea or drunk coffee with Muslims, either as host or guest. In the meanwhile, it has been a grand adventure: drinking a Coca-Cola with a twenty-year member of the PLO, a colleague of Arafat, at a tiny shop in Hebron; breaking Ramadan fast at the local mosque here on Twelfth Avenue in Nashville, the same mosque about which I had been told that all the Muslims there wanted to “kill us”; taking tea with Professor Sari Nusseibeh, activist, author of a beautiful memoir on his life in Palestine, and president of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem; eating breakfast in Istanbul, complete with cream and honey, with a writer and a university administrator; eating pizza with the spokesperson for the Nashville Islamic community, a highly trained specialist and medical doctor at one of the world’s leading research institutions—immediately following which I received an email from the physician showing that some vandals had defaced a local mosque, spray-painting Crusader crosses, along with an inscription telling the Nashville Muslims to “go home.”
My first meal as a guest in a Muslim home was fabulous. I found myself along with an esteemed professor and priest, Fr. David Burrell—whom I had known in passing as a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame—trekking through the streets of East Jerusalem, a stone’s throw from the Garden of Gethsemane. We made our way to the home of an equally esteemed Muslim professor of theology, Professor Mustafa Abu Sway, a theologian at Al Quds University, the Arab-Palestinian university in East Jerusalem. Welcomed warmly by the family, we removed our shoes (yet another southern tradition I rather appreciate) and sat in the living room, where we enjoyed a spectacular view of the Dome of the Rock, just across the valley below us. We enjoyed, too, a fantastic meal, wonderful conversation, and numerous kind gestures of hospitality.
I would have several opportunities to meet with Mustafa during my stay in Jerusalem: he would patiently tutor me on some basic considerations and issues of Islam, would suggest questions I had not yet considered, would show me ways to transliterate important Arab words. We would spend some hours together later at the American Colony Hotel, and then later again at Tantur, the study institute near Bethlehem owned by the Vatican. While his knowledge of Islam and the particular research questions I raised was immensely helpful, perhaps more important was what often happens when one eats with another: I encountered him as a kind and caring human being, struggling with the realities of existence in occupied Palestinian territory. His children were respectful and gracious, his wife welcoming and well attired. She had cooked all day for us; meanwhile, Mustafa had done the dishes. (“I am no good at cooking,” he said with a smile.) I came to understand that though we were very different and had different ultimate claims upon our lives—he the Qur’an and the teaching of Muhammad, I the lordship of Jesus and the calling to Christian discipleship—we still could and did share all sorts of important commonalities.
I would come to realize, for example, that his academic work entailed critiques of both the West and of the Islamic tradition that paralleled the sort of anti-imperialist critiques I had been trying to make in my own academic work. We were both trying to sort out what it meant to take seriously one’s faith in the midst of competing powers. Unlike the too commonly heard stereotypes of Muslims as self-serving and concerned only with acquiring an indulgent eternity in the afterlife, Mustafa had written his dissertation on Al Ghazali, the medieval professor par excellence in the Islamic world, who realized upon introspection that he performed his work and faith not simply for the sake of the love of God, so he gave up fame and wealth, and lived an unknown life for eleven years.3
I would quickly come to realize as well that Palestinians face hardships we Americans would find intolerable. For instance, Mustafa and his family had spent nearly US $70,000 in an attempt to acquire a building permit over three years’ time, to build a new home, while a block away another illegal Israeli-settlement high-rise was going up. I came to appreciate that he would say what, as noted earlier, I heard other Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, say: that the conflict in Palestine is not about “religion,” but about land, and sustaining a living, and justice, and the dehumanizing effects of the existing “security” policies. I came to appreciate his concerns over raising families; he said in a lecture I heard him deliver, when asked what he worries about regarding raising a family in Palestine: “I worry about my children being exposed to radical political movements, too much materialism, the electronic jungle too many are surrounded with.” And I knew that I was concerned with the very same questions in raising a family in the buckle of the Bible Belt; and I knew that my own Western culture was, on the whole, contributing more to the problem than to the solution.
The media can so narrow our fears upon “the enemy” that we fail to see common enemies we may face along with our Muslim neighbor: threats to family life, to sober life, to quiet and sensible work. The enemy identified centuries ago by Hilary of Poitiers is the same that many Muslims face and see with greater clarity than Westerners so deeply shaped by consumerist impulses: “We are fighting today against a wily persecutor, an insinuating enemy, against Constantius the antichrist, who does not scourge the back, but tickles the belly, who does not condemn to life but enriches to death, who instead of thrusting men into the liberty of prison, honours them in the slavery of the palace . . . who does not cut off the head with the sword, but slays the soul with gold.”4
This was not to say that Mustafa had no cautionary or critical words for the West. When one audience member asked, “Do you have any fear of nuclear annihilation from Iran?” he promptly responded, “Never. We know the country that has used it: neither Sunni, nor Shiite, and it’s not Iran.” All we Americans knew the country that had used them too. Indeed, he knew the issue was very often about profits and power: “Nuclear proliferation is lucrative, and allows defiance.” Just as many Western Christians grapple with such questions, so did he: the immense expenditures on nuclear arsenals, he described as “absolutely harmful.” It was “immoral,” he said, that Arabs accounted for the purchase of such a large percentage of the weapons purchased from 1980 to 1990. Such a social strategy he described as “bunk.” There is plenty of wealth, but it is wasted on extravagant city projects and weapons, instead of spent building universities and cultivating spirit. Technology, which should be employed in useful fashion, is instead often wasted on extravagance and “is an addiction sometimes.” We spend exorbitant amounts on sending space probes to Mars; perhaps we should first put our own planet in order, raising questions about the shameful discrepancies of wealth between Northern and Southern hemispheres.
The question of consumerism was, he said, “a difference of loss of way of life,” and it brings about a strange sort of prioritization. Thus, he recounted that while traveling in a rural, impoverished area of South Africa, he came upon a Kentucky Fried Chicken; upon leaving the mosque in Mecca on hajj, he found a Starbucks. “A hamburger is a hamburger,” he would go on to say, “but the question is one of deforestation.” The Qur’an teaches, on the one hand, not to be cheap, and on the other, not to be extravagant. Muhammad taught that men ought not to wear gold or silk (but permitted it for women), and that women’s dresses should not have trains. That is, wealth should serve you, not overwhelm you; do not busy yourself with it, accumulating it, for the pursuit becomes a wall between yourself and the spiritual life. Echoes of Walden Pond? “Yes,” he admitted, “I love it. And I love the place. I went there.”
Regarding warfare, there are of course, he said, Islamic militants. “They are militant because of their context, and they don’t flip [read] the Qur’an,” and those who do don’t really have access to it in Arabic. “The invasion of Iraq is a shame. All the pretexts were shown to be false.” Saddam was a dictator, yes, but there are others. And if a country decides to deal with a dictator, they should operate within sanctions and auspices of the UN. The militants are such because of colonial and neocolonial projects, he said, and some of them defy the Islamic code of ethics. The earliest Muslims, he noted—and as we have already seen—were strict pacifists, but then war came to be treated as a last resort; and if it comes, there are strict limits. Today these conditions are impossible to keep in war. Thus, we must not go to war. And in order not to go to war, we need to know each other. And knowing each other—as in marriage—entails difficult issues that must be dealt with and worked through. We Muslims and Christians, he continued, will continue to have substantive theological differences, as do Catholics and Protestants, but essentially we must respect each other as different but having a shared humanity.
“In one case,” he said, “my mother breast-fed the baby of her Christian neighbor” who was unable to do so herself. Mustafa’s mother, he continued, “understood Islamic jurisprudence,” so that he and his siblings “became brothers and sisters” with the Christian child and thus “could not marry.”
Farther north in East Jerusalem, I made my way one day to the office of Professor Sari Nusseibeh. The president of Al Quds University, an activist for peace and a well-respected academic, Nusseibeh is well known in Israel and Palestine. He graciously made time for tea and conversation in the midst of a hectic schedule. I was met first by his security detail and then ushered in after a brief wait. Nusseibeh’s beautiful memoir Once upon a Country: A Palestinian Life5 provides a Palestinian perspective on the current impasse and hostility. But what I found most striking, both about his book and about Nusseibeh himself, was his graciousness in the midst of a situation in which his family and he himself had faced so many difficulties and persecution. Nusseibeh would be struck early in his life with the importance of the attempt to see the world from one’s opponent’s point-of-view. He grew up in the city of Jerusalem, after the 1948 war, in which there was a no-man’s-land that divided Jews from Arabs. He would gaze across the no-man’s-land at bearded men wearing black clothing and wide-brimmed hats, and wonder who they were, these Others across the chasm. Reading Jewish author Amos Oz’s account of Oz’s own childhood—imagining military strategies for defending the Jews from perpetrators of new crimes against his people—Nusseibeh realized Oz had no good stories of Arabs in his childhood. And then Nusseibeh wondered about his own childhood: “What had my parents known of [the Jews’] world? Did they know about the death camps? Weren’t both sides to the conflict totally immersed in their own tragedies, each one oblivious to, or even antagonistic toward, the narrative of the other? Isn’t this inability to imagine the lives of the ‘other’ at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?”6
Nusseibeh’s family story is one of loss: of property, community, and health. His father, a prominent figure, lost his leg in the fighting of the war of 1948. His mother’s family lost their estate, and the mother would tell for years of the rolling hills covered with groves of fruit trees that extended down toward the Mediterranean Sea. His mother habitually struggled with resentment toward the Zionists “who plotted to take over her country, who’d shot her husband’s leg off, and whom she held responsible for her father’s early death, the uprooting of her ancient roots on the coastal plain, the despoiling of her homeland, and the exile of her mother. Even her dear father’s grave was now in inaccessible enemy territory.”7
For Nusseibeh, “religion” was meant to be a unifying rather than an estranging force: quoting from his father’s manuscript describing the days around the war of 1948, “Religion, being essentially universal and one, should be made to serve the end of uniting the world rather than separating it.” His mother’s version of Islam “inculcated in us . . . a religion with minimal miracles—Mohammed’s nocturnal ride on his magical steed is one of the few I can think of—and a cornucopia of rock-solid humanistic values. For her, Islam taught dignity, honesty, self-worth, simplicity, kindness, and of course love. Endless love. It was also flexible enough to change with the times. . . . In her Islam, there was also no competition among faiths.”8 In contrast, “the only place to meet the sort of wild-eyed fanatics who pose as Islam’s spokesmen today would have been in old musty stories of Sheikh Qassam, or in St. George’s library collection of Victorian-era horror novels.”9
Nusseibeh sought opportunity to understand the Other, as, when a young man, he sought the opportunity to stay at a kibbutz, which was an agricultural settlement, an experiment in socialist living. From the perspective of the Palestinians, the kibbutzniks “were the shock troops of the Israeli system, merciless Spartan soldier-farmers on the front line of every fight. I wanted to see for myself where the swords of Zion were being fashioned.”10 And he reports that he found fascinating, “high-caliber” people in the “enemy territory.” They were idealistic, well-meaning people, with high humanist values, who simply gave little consideration to the fact that the land on which they were living, and the freedom they were enjoying, had been extracted at a high price from the Arab Palestinians, who never crossed their minds. From 1948 to 1967, the Arab Palestinians were “out of sight, out of mind.” And the fact that they thought little of this cost to the Arabs was, he discovered, not due to ill will or malevolence. It was simply that “their humanism never had to face us.”11 It is—it occurred to me—the same as our good Christian living in the Bible Belt: we too celebrate our freedoms and way of life, and it never crosses our minds that such enjoyment was extracted at such a high price to those who lived on the land prior to us.
So on a number of occasions Nusseibeh says that he simply did not know what to do with such situations. What should be done? Who was to blame? “They were without question fine people, despite their blind spots. Didn’t we have our own? I concluded from all this that ignorance, rather than some undefined evil intent, had to be at the core of our conflict.”12 He recounts that part of the wisdom he lives by, taken from the Muslim philosopher upon whom he wrote his dissertation, is “quietly doing your best to humanize an ‘imperfect society.’ ”13 Engaging both Christian and Muslim activists as a university teacher, he and his wife, Lucy, would join Palestinian Christian Mubarak Awad, “a crusader for nonviolence and a proponent of Gandhi’s civil disobedience.” Lucy later joined Awad to start the Palestinian Center for the Study of Non-Violence, in Jerusalem.14
Near the end of our conversation, realizing the toll his work and convictions had cost him, I asked him one last question: “What has kept you going?”
“Islam,” he said, “that is, ‘submission to God.’ ”
I went away humbled and grateful for having had the opportunity to visit with him. He asked his bodyguard to drive me back into the city. On the return trip, the bodyguard told stories of the dangers Nusseibeh has faced. He clearly cared very much for his boss and obviously and dearly loved his own wife and children. I exited the SUV, stepping into the bustle and noise of East Jerusalem, wishing more knew of the compassion and humility and self-sacrificial service of the good Muslims I was meeting, and would continue to meet.
Lee C. Camp is Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. This article is an excerpt from Lee’s book Who Is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves (Brazos Press, 2011), used by permission. Lee is also the host and curator of the Tokens show ( ).
Akpinar, Snjezana. “Hospitality in Islam.” Religion East & West 7 (October 1, 2007): 23–27.
Nusseibeh, Sari, with Anthony David. Once upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).
Hilary of Poitiers. Contra Constantium imperatorem 5, cited in Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of the European Unity (1932; repr., New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 54–55.
1 Lee C. Camp, Who Is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011). Missio Dei ’s standard copyright does not apply to this article. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group ( ).
2 Snjezana Akpinar, “Hospitality in Islam,” Religion East & West 7 (October 1, 2007): 23.
3 The “Sufis” are a sect of Islam who reject the material order. While this very rejection can and has been critiqued on numerous levels, what is attractive about it is the question that, so far as I can tell, drives it: the question of whether the life of faith is ultimately self-serving or for the sake of one’s love of God.
4 St. Hilary of Poitiers, Contra Constantium imperatorem 5, cited in Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity (1932; repr., New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 54–55.
5 Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David, Once upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).
6 Ibid., 12.
7 Ibid., 66.
8 Ibid., 65.
9 Ibid., 66.
10 Ibid., 113.
11 Ibid., 114.
12 Ibid., 115.
13 Ibid., 146.
14 Ibid., 179–80.