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England’s growing Islamic awakening

england-mosque-open

Visitors read information board about Muslims in Britain during an open day at Finsbury Mosque in London. Photography: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Islam becoming the dominant faith in England

england-church-presbyterian-bar

O’Neill’s Pub now occupies the former Muswell Hill Presbyterian Church in North London. The church closed for lack of interest and contributions.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the United Kingdom. Most of my time was spent in my ancestral homeland Shropshire County on the border of Wales.

I went there to get a close look at the spiritual history of the land; and what I discovered was profoundly surprising. I found that the God of Abraham the English once sought in Christian churches and Jewish synagogues is now more likely to be worshiped in Muslim mosques! Sadly many churches have closed, and many of the buildings have been converted to bars, dance clubs, skate boarding rinks and grocery stores. There are now six mosques in Shropshire–five of them opened in former church buildings.

It does appear that over the past 50 years the British people have lost faith in organized religion much faster and more completely than many other western states. The most recent survey to show this comes from Win/Gallup, which found that Britain now appears to be one of the most irreligious countries on earth, with only 30% of Brits calling themselves “religious.”

Quite apparent in Shropshire County

Mohammed Abbasi of Football for Peace with Paul Armstrong, director of Association of British Muslims.

Mohammed Abbasi of Football for Peace with Paul Armstrong, director of the Association of British Muslims.

In England Islam is growing rapidly, and the numbers of Muslims worshiping faithfully is increasing daily. Islam is expected to become the most dynamic religion in the United Kingdom in just 10 more years.

According to the British online journal The Mail (2 September 2016), “Mohammed,” for the second year in a row, remains at the top of the list of most popular baby boy names in England and Wales.

Quite a few former Christians are finding Islam to be more loving, kind and emotionally supportive than the cold, dying Christianity offered by the more traditional denominations. As British men and women are finding Islam to be a “living faith” to their liking, closed church buildings are finding new life in Islam.

An Englishman by the name of George, in his mid-sixties, shared his observation with me. When I told him I was Muslim, he said, “I’m not interested in converting to Islam, but I do think Islam has more to offer the people of England than the passive, fake religiosity and unconcern that has taken hold in many Christian churches.”

He told me he identified with the concerns of Muslims who preach modesty and dedication to family life and service to others. “They are more what I think Christians ought to be,” he said.

International growth of Islam

According to the Pew Research Center, worldwide, “The number of Muslims will grow more than twice as fast as the world’s population from now until 2050.”

While the world’s population is projected to grow 35 per cent before the middle of the century, the number of Muslims is expected to increase by 73 per cent–from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.8 billion.

In 2010, Muslims made up 23.2 per cent of the global population. Four decades later, they are expected to make up about three-in-ten of the world’s people (29.7per cent), the Washington, DC-based think tank said.

Muslim leaders in Shropshire

Sam met with Abdurraheem Green, an English

Sam met with Abdurraheem Green, an English convert to Islam and founder of Islamic Education & Research Academy (iERA).

In the short time I was here I was able to a number of Muslim leaders here in Shropshire County.

I was particularly impressed by the outreach of the faithful at Telford Central Mosque and the Shropshire Islamic Foundation.

Members of the six Shropshire mosques are offering spiritual counseling and organizing shelter to the homeless. They are reaching out to refugees who are fleeing war and offering healthcare and other assistance to needy British individuals and families.

I was honored also to meet Abdurraheem Green, founder of the Islamic Education & Research Academy (iERA), a dynamic organization based in Shropshire. Abdurraheem is a Muslim convert who is known in Muslim communities for his work on Peace TV and Huda TV and on college and university campuses. For the better part of 30 years, Green has been active in the field of dawah, inviting people to Islam.

I am grateful to Abdurraheem for having invited me to his home for dinner and introducing me to his wonderful family. (He has been blessed with 10 children!) He told me about his work with iERA. I was captivated by his genuine, meek and beautiful spirit. I found him to be a man full of God’s grace and mercy.

Also, meeting with me at the Telford Central Mosque were Mohammed Abbasi of Football for Peace and Paul Salahuddin Armstrong, director of the Association of British Muslims–the UK’s oldest Muslim organization. I was deeply impressed by the fervent spirit of all these leaders and all the Shropshire Muslims I met. Their desire to make a positive difference in the lives of broken and needy people was clear.

What we Muslims must consider

The question we Muslims must ask is, what kind of Muslims will be produced simply by birth statistics? It is not enough to say that one is Muslim simply because he or she was born to a Muslim family.

Yes! Those who are born Muslim must be imbued with a living faith–given to self-denial and to prayer and service to others.

I have heard it said often by Muslim leaders travelling from the Middle East to the West, “In the West we have seen ‘Muslims’ without Islam, and here in the Middle East we often find Islam without Muslims.” In other words the outward manifestation of faith is not always evident in the lives of those who consider themselves Muslim simply by birth.

Further thoughts

Since 2011 Muslim Relief for victims of war has expanded nationwide.

Since 2011 Islamic Relief for victims of war has expanded nationwide. Thousands of British Muslim men and women serve as volunteers.

It is not enough to say one is born Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

Truly, a vibrant, heart-felt, life-changing Islam is needed in England and our world today—not a religion of just traditionally “born Muslims.”  I am talking about a living faith most evidenced by the truly concerned humanitarian servants it produces.

One must believe and act accordingly to the dictates of faith! Of what value is a Jew who does not truly worship wholeheartedly the God of Abraham? Of what value is a Christian who does not follow and obey the teachings of Jesus (pbuh)? And similarly, what good is a Muslim who simply says he is Muslim by birth, but does not submit daily to God, observing and obeying the truths of the Qur’an and all God’s prophets?

Among early Christians the issue of faith and works was fiercely debated. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Injil / Epistle of James 2:15-17).

And we have this promise from God in the holy Qur’an, “Those who believed and did good works, We shall blot out their transgressions and shall reward them according to the best of that which they used to do” (Qur’an / Al Ankabut 29:7).

It is absolutely true that genuine faith will be evidenced by the good works we are commanded to do. God desires obedience from each of us. Ours must be a pure faith planted miraculously in the hearts of men, women and children by the very God of Abraham (pbuh), transforming those who believe into servants of God and providing hope and direction for all mankind.

Islam’s English history and interfaith outreach

The British Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), one of the oldest Christian denominations in England, has developed strong ties with Muslims in a number of communities. Most recently, Quakers and Muslims have realized a working union on several levels–a powerful force for reconciliation and peace. These positive dimensions, they say, stem from “the love of God and of neighbor, and are at the heart of both Muslim and Christian faiths.”  Quakers are working to develop peaceful understanding both locally, nationally and internationally with their Muslim brothers and sisters.

Islam is not new to England. Its positive influence on British society began in the 19th century.

Please take a few minutes to watch the following BBC documentary about the history of Islam in England. Here you will hear the little-known story of three British leaders–William Quilliam, Baron Headley and Marmaduke Pickthall–who embraced Islam at a time when to be a Muslim was to be seen as a traitor to the Church of England and to the Crown.

This superb BBC program looks at the amazing achievements (good works!) of these three men and how their legacy lives on today.

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November 29, 2016 Posted by | Interfaith, Islam, Refugees, Religious architecture, Religious Reconciliation, Travel, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Heavy metal, Middle Eastern band of brothers!

Who knew heavy metal could promote peace?  But that’s just what’s happening as the Israeli band, Orphaned Land, and the Palestinian band, Khalas, have toured Britain.  They come from different countries.  They even write different kinds of lyrics. But they have shown how art has an ability to transcend lines that politics often can’t.

Who knew heavy metal could promote peace? But that’s just what’s happening as the Israeli band, Orphaned Land, and the Palestinian band, Khalas, have toured Britain. They come from different countries. They even write different kinds of lyrics. But they have shown how art has an ability to transcend lines that politics often can’t.

We’re constantly bombarded by implicit and explicit images of the relationship that Jews and Muslims supposedly have in today’s world. We are bombarded with the cliched reminder that we “used to get along” but recently have become enemies.

We’ve almost become used to it, accepted it as some sort of reality.

And, ironically, all these “interfaith” events can often cause us to feel even more disconnected. They just don’t seem as genuine as a true connection. It would seem the only people you would need to show such “unity” with is people you don’t get along with.

Which is why we need to look deeper. We need to look wider. We need to see that “unity” doesn’t mean press. It doesn’t mean “shows of support”. It means genuine connection and giving.

And the truth is that the world is scattered with that. The truth is that the press likes to say just one side of the story, likes to focus on conflict. But there is unity. There is connection.

All we need to do is look!

Listen as the tour leaders speak of their unity and message:

Sources: Sky News, PopChassid, metalinjection.net, The Guardian, alarabiya.net, cnn.com

March 26, 2015 Posted by | Arab lifestyle, Geography, Human Rights, Interfaith, Peace, Religious Reconciliation, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Myanmar and the Rohingya genocide

More than 2 million Rohingya men, women and children have fled the ethnic cleansing of the Myanmar military government. Few know or care about this modern-day holocaust.

More than 2 million Rohingya men, women and children have fled the ethnic cleansing of the Myanmar military government. Few know or care about this modern-day holocaust.

My interest and travel to Myanmar

Sam Shropshire discussed Rohingya persecution with Myanmar Buddhist leaders.

Samuel Shropshire recently discussed Rohingya persecution with Buddhist leaders inside Myanmar. (Click photos to enlarge.)

It was through my close friend Shafik Zubir, the mu’adhin (“caller to prayer”) at Taqwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that I gained a strong interest in the fate of the millions of Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Shafik’s parents immigrated from Myanmar to Saudi Arabia in 1985. Shafik and his family have shared with me the plight of Myanmar’s Muslims. Now I find myself travelling to Myanmar to personally investigate the horrific genocide that has been committed against these noble people during the past century.

Approximately 1.5 millions Rohingya men, women and children remain in Myanmar. More than 2 million Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, on foot or by boat, and from there have sought refuge in other nations. The death toll of those fleeing this modern-day holocaust is unknown, but it is, no doubt, in the hundreds of thousands.

Greater than 300 thousand Rohingyas now reside in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It has been my privilege to meet and speak with many of them.

A history of totalitarianism

Myanmar was ruled with an iron fist long before the current regime came to power. From the early 19th century until World War II, the insatiable machine that was the British Empire held sway over Burma. Before the British, there were the kings of old, who rose to power by eliminating rivals with claims to the throne.

Tracing the conflicts back to the 9th century, we find the Himalayan Bamar people, who comprise two-thirds of the population, at war with the Tibetan Plateau’s Mon people. The fight went on for so long that by the time the Bamar came out on top, the two cultures had effectively merged.

The 11th-century Bamar king Anawrahta converted the land to Theravada Buddhism, and inaugurated what many consider to be its golden age. He used his war spoils to build the first temples at Bagan (Pagan). Stupa after stupa sprouted under successive kings, but the vast money and effort poured into their construction weakened the kingdom. Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes swept through Bagan in 1287, hastening Myanmar’s decline into the dark ages.

British colonialism

The British governor, left , and Burma's first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, stand at attention as the new nation's flag is raised on January 4, 1948.

The British governor, left, and Burma’s first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, stand at attention as the new nation’s flag is raised on January 4, 1948.

There’s not much known about the centuries that followed. History picks up again with the arrival of the Europeans – first the Portuguese, in the 16th century, and then the British, who had already colonised India and were looking for more territory in the East. In three moves (1824, 1852 and 1885), the British took over all of Myanmar. The Burmese king and queen were exiled to India and their grand palace at Mandalay was looted and used as a barracks to quarter British and Indian troops.

The colonial era wrought great changes in Myanmar’s demographics and infrastructure. Large numbers of Indians were brought in to work as civil servants, and Chinese were encouraged to immigrate and stimulate trade. The British built railways and ports, and many British companies grew wealthy trading in teak and rice.

Many Burmese were unhappy with the colonial status quo. A nationalist movement developed, and there were demonstrations, often led, in true Burmese fashion, by Buddhist monks. Two famous nationalist monks, U Ottama and U Wizaya, died in a British prison and are revered to this day.

World War II and early independence

During World War II, the Japanese, linked with the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), drove the British out of Myanmar and declared it an independent country. But the Japanese were able to maintain Burmese political support for only a short time before their harsh and arrogant conduct alienated the Burmese people. Towards the end of the war, the Burmese switched sides and fought with the Allies to drive out the Japanese.

Bogyoke Aung San emerged from the haze of war as the country’s natural leader. An early activist for nationalism, then defence minister in the Burma National Army, Aung San was the man to hold the country together through the transition to independence. When elections were held in 1947, Aung San’s party won an overwhelming majority. But before he could take office, he was assassinated by a rival, along with most of his cabinet. Independence followed in 1948, with Aung San’s protégé U Nu at the helm. Ethnic conflicts raged and chaos ensued.

Ne Win’s coup d’etat

On 2 March 1962, Ne Win again seized power in a coup d'état. He became head of state as Chairman of the Union Revolutionary Council and also Prime Minister. The coup was characterized as "bloodless" by the world's media. Declaring that "parliamentary democracy was not suitable for Burma," the new regime suspended the constitution and dissolved the legislature.

Since 1962, when the Ne Win government seized power in a military coup, Myanmar has been under the vice like grip of successive regimes that have ruled the country through oppression and fear.

In 1962 General Ne Win led a left-wing army takeover and set the country on the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. He nationalised everything, including retail shops, and quickly crippled the country’s economy. By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government.

By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government. In early 1988, they packed the streets and there were massive confrontations between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military that resulted in an estimated 3000 deaths over a six-week period.

Once again, monks were at the helm. They turned their alms bowls upside down (the Buddhist symbol of condemnation) and insisted that Ne Win had to go. He finally did, in July 1988, but he retained a vestige of his old dictatorial power from behind the scenes.

The 1989 election

The shaken government quickly formed the Orwellian-sounding SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), declared martial law and promised to hold democratic elections in May 1989. The opposition, led by Bogyoke Aung San’s charismatic daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, organised an opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Around the same time, Slorc changed the country’s official name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, claiming ‘Burma’ was a vestige of European colonialism.

While the Burmese population rallied around the NLD, the SLORC grew increasingly nervous. It placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and postponed the election. In spite of this and other dirty tactics, the NLD won more than 85% of the vote. Sore losers, Slorc refused to allow the NLD to assume its parliamentary seats and arrested most of the party leadership.

Aung San Suu Kyi: house arrest, release and election

Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters from her house compound after her release from house arrest.

Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters from her house compound after her release from house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was finally released from house arrest in July 1995. She was arrested again in 2000 and held in her home until the UN brokered her unconditional release in May 2002.

She was rearrested in May 2003 and released in November 2010 by the military authorities. During her arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi continually refused offers of freedom in exchange for exile from the country and, despite an ongoing debate in the pro-democracy movement over future strategy, her stature throughout Myanmar remained strong.

In moves symbolic of the positive momentum in the country, in 2011 Suu Kyi left Yangon for the first time in eight years, and in May 2012 Suu Kyi entered the lower house of the Burmese parliament as an MP. Much more remains to be done, but the hope is that decades of isolation may be coming to an end.

Ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan state

However after nearly 50 years of military rule, the apparatus of the state is entrenched in the fabric of Burmese society and as the pogrom continues in Arakan state, the back story provides unnerving evidence that systematic official behavior has lead to the current crisis.

Debris is scattered among the ruins of the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School in the Mingalar Zayone neighborhood of Meikhtila, Myanmar. (AP photo)

Debris is scattered among the ruins of the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School in the Mingalar Zayone neighborhood of Meikhtila, Myanmar. (AP photo)

What has occurred in western Burma has been described as a sectarian conflict between two communities who simply hate each other. This prognosis is demonstrably false, and a look at the situation in Arakan provides ample evidence that there is a systematic pattern, which in most cases would amount to crimes against humanity.

One element of this picture is the improbability of a “sectarian conflict.” Arakan (Rakhine) state has a population of almost 4 million, making the Muslim or Rohingya population less than quarter of the inhabitants, thus making a two-sided conflict highly illogical.

Further, the minority population has been controlled by the state to the extent that they are unable to travel between towns, renovate a mosque or even have a child or marry without a permit from the military.

The control of this population has long been perpetuated not just by uniformed military or Nasaka (border guard) personnel but also by quasi-civilian militias, as has been the case in much of the country. Indeed in Burma the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) grew out of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

A Rohingya mother holds her child close as she flees persecution by boat.

A Rohingya mother holds her child close as she flees persecution by boat.

This organisation had perhaps its most notorious hour in 2003, when it attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy in central Burma. The authorities naturally tried to portray it as a clash between two rival political groups. However, only one side, the National League for Democracy (NLD), suffered 70 deaths and only one side’s supporters were arrested – also the NLD.

In the wake of the Depayin massacre, the US embassy dispatched a cable back to Washington entitled: “MOSQUE RAZED, PARAMILITARIES TRAINED.”

In the cable, one of the militia’s discussed was, “the USDP-affiliated ‘Power Ranger’ militia” that was receiving “rudimentary riot-control and military training.” One of its other jobs was to hold up the Americans in case of an invasion, while the government was “training a paramilitary ‘Peoples Militia’ in Arakan state to assist in putting down any general uprising.”

“Rohingya Muslims specifically, suffer from an aggravated, systematic, institutionalised form of persecution”

According to the cable, “Local officials on July 22 (2003) reportedly tore down a mosque in Sittwe, 70 miles SE of the Bangladeshi border, and arrested seven Muslims, one of whom subsequently died in custody.”

The dispatch goes on to explain that the mosque was demolished because the worshippers “made unauthorized improvements to the structure, resulting in the decision by local authorities to tear down the whole building.”

The embassy concludes that, “We frequently hear stories of pro-SPDC ‘fake monks’ allegedly inciting violence against Muslims to deflect anti-regime ire.”

Muslims around the world decry the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples.

Muslims and human rights organizations around the world decry the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples.

Dr Kyaw Yin Hlaing, who is now on the commission to investigate June’s violence in Arakan state, also notes this type of tactic being used. In 2008, he wrote in a US legal journal that:

“Before former intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt was dismissed and his intelligence agency disbanded, the junta could almost always uncover opposition groups that were planning to organise protests. In 1997, for instance, the junta became aware of monks’ plans to protest a regional commander’s improper renovation of a famous Buddha statue in Mandalay. Before the monks could launch the protest, a rumour emerged that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Muslim businessman. The government diverted their attention from the regional commander to the Muslim businessman, eventually causing an anti-Muslim riot.”

He concludes that: “intelligence agents have often instigated anti-Muslim riots in order to prevent angry monks from engaging in anti-government activities.”

Given the uncanny resemblance of this case and the details surrounding late May’s ‘spark incident’, one must ask questions about the current government and the legitimacy of the reform process.

Khin Nyunt was not only adept at preventing anti-government actions, he was also good at neutralising ethnic insurgent groups and casually referred to the entire nation of India as “kalars” – a pejorative term used in Burma to describe Muslims and individuals of South Asian descent.

Government policy then was described as “pervasive and sometimes aggressive religious discrimination that favours Burma’s Buddhist majority.”

The world watches practically in silence

Obama called Myanmar to end discrimination against Rohingya people, urging in his strongest comments on the persecuted Muslim minority that the government grant them equal rights.

In November 2014 US President Barack Obama called on Myanmar to end discrimination against Rohingya people, urging in his strongest comments on the persecuted Muslim minority that the government grant them equal rights.

While the US embassy noted in a cable in 2005 that the UNHCR head at the time Jean-François Durieux described “the situation in northern Arakan as ‘shocking,’ with the GOB [government of Burma] in constant denial of the true situation. Although Muslims have some religious freedom in Rangoon, the GOB has a policy of ‘complete repression’ of Rohingyas in northern Arakan. He noted that Buddhist temples are ‘springing up everywhere,’ although he estimates the Buddhist population as only one percent of the population [in northern Arakan].”

If there is any doubt that there is systematic repression against the population, the US embassy noted that, “The military has effectively sealed the Rohingyas off from the world and keeps them at the bare subsistence level – it is an internment camp.” They further correctly forecasted that, “We should not assume that any future democratic government will accord these people their basic human rights.”

Needless to say, however, despite this and the accumulated evidence, the US government has lifted punitive measures against the Myanmar government.

The lack of civil rights is overshadowed, moreover, by the basic human indicators that have been thrust on the population by the government, as the US embassy noted: “Infant mortality is four times the national average (71 per 1000 births); 64% of children under five are chronically malnourished, and stunted growth is common.” Infant mortality then is roughly equivalent to that of Ethiopia, which is chronically affected by drought, and 80% of the population is illiterate with one teacher for every 79 students.

If this were not systematic, the discrepancies with other regions of the country would not be so severe. The government has been more than able to prevent freedom of movement for the roughly 850,000 Rohingya still in existence in the area, it would then seem that with one of the largest armed forces in Asia controlling the movement of mobs would be easy.

According to jurist Guy Horton writing in 2005, “the Rohingya Muslims specifically, suffer from an aggravated, systematic, institutionalised form of persecution designed to destroy them through exclusion, rather than assimilation.”

According to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Given that Thein Sein has attempted to off load the entire population onto the UNHCR, it is evident that he too is in favour of removing the population. With the well-documented government abuses against the population, there is not much of a case to suggest that what is occurring now in Arakan state is anything less than genocide.

Take a few minutes to watch this Press TV documentary account of the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples:

Sources: Joseph Alchin on DVB, Associated Press, VOA, wikipedia.org, BBC, presstv.com, New York Times, Al Jazeera News, Time Magazine, A History of Asia

March 19, 2015 Posted by | Geography, Human Rights, Islam, Terrorism, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Merry Christmas to you all!

"The angels said, 'O Mary, indeed God gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary - distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to God ] (The Quran / Family of Imran 3:45).

“The angels said, ‘O Mary, indeed God gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near to God'” (The Quran / Family of Imran 3:45).

Dear Friends,

I wish all who love and seek to honor Jesus a very merry Christmas!

While Jesus’ birth year is estimated among most modern historians to have actually been between 7 and 2 BC, the exact month and day of Jesus’ birth are unknown. Western Catholic and Protestant Christians have chosen to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th while Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate January 7th as Jesus’ birthday.

But did you know that the same story about Jesus’ miraculous virgin birth is also told in the Qur’an?

In fact, there are two chapters of the Qur’an which tell the story of Mary’s life and Jesus’ birth. One chapter is entitled “Mary,” and the second is entitled “The Family Imran” (or “Mary’s Family”).

Here one reads about the birth of Jesus (also known in the Qur’an as “the Christ”–“the Messiah of God”). Here there is detail about the life of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. One reads the same story about Jesus’ virgin birth that is allso told in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke.

In the Qur’an one reads, “”The angels said, ‘O Mary, indeed God gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near to God…’ She said, ‘O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man has touched me?’ He (the Archangel Gabriel) said, ‘Even so: God creates what He wills. When He has decreed a plan, He only says to it, ‘Be!’ and it is'” (Qur’an / The Family of Imran 45-47).

During this season and the coming year 2014, may we all seek to honor Jesus’ words and teachings by loving God immensely and by loving others as much as we love ourselves!

Sam Shropshire

December 24, 2013 Posted by | Interfaith, Religious Reconciliation, The Quran, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Merry Christmas to you all!

Praying to the God of Abraham

Left:  Muslim pray at the Kaaba in Mecca. Right: Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Left: Muslims pray at the Kaaba in Mecca. Right: Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Both pleading to the God of Abraham.

Praying to Abraham’s God 

Sam, Shafik and Muhammad in front of the holy Kaaba in Mecca.

Sam, Shafik and Muhammad in front of the holy Kaaba in Mecca. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Last night I was invited by three Muslim friends to join them in the holy city of Mecca.

I took this photo (above left) of my Muslim brothers praying at the Kaaba (a worship place built by Prophet Abraham). It reminded me of another photo (above right) I had seen of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem (the foundation stones of the worship place built by Prophet Solomon).

These stone buildings are not objects of worship. They are merely places to focus one’s attention on the one and only God of the universe.

We must remind ourselves that both Jews and Arabs are genetically descendant from Prophet Abraham. They are “cousins.” They both pray to Abraham’s God.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer

As I joined hundreds of men and women in making the ritual tawaf (the prayerful circumambulation of the holy Kaaba), Scriptures came to mind reminding me that disagreements, no matter how difficult, must never lead to hatred. Hatred has no place in true faith.

While I praised God for his loving kindness, I tearfully prayed as the great Messiah Jesus taught us to pray, “God, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven… and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The context of Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of Matthew, known to Christians as “the Lord’s Prayer,” outlines a heartfelt appeal to all of us (men and women) who make a public show of prayer. We are in essence told to humble ourselves in our relationships with others;  seeking not to offend but rather to make amends.

Praise to the God of Abraham

In many Christian congregations (especially the Methodist), congregants stand and sing the hymn “The God of Abraham Praise.” This old hymn has an interesting background

One night in 1865, the English hymnist Thomas Olivers was attract­ed to a service in a London Jew­ish syn­a­gogue where he heard an inspiring soloist, Le­o­ni, sing an an­cient He­brew mel­o­dy. His baritone voice was filled with deeply profound emotion. Olivers was im­pressed and immediately was moved to write a hymn to the same tune. The re­sult was the hymn, “The God of Abra­ham Praise.” This hymn is actually a par­a­phrase of an an­cient He­brew yig­dal, or dox­ol­o­gy:

The God of Abraham praise,
who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of everlasting days,
and God of love;
Jehovah, great I AM,
by earth and heaven confessed:
I bow and bless the sacred Name
for ever blessed.

Films you should see

There are a number of award-winning films that have been released during the past few years that help one to understand what’s behind the conflict between Israel and Palestine–the heart of the Middle East crisis.

Below you will see the closing scene from a great film Language of the Enemy (2008) about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its resulting calamity. In the film an American Jewish university student falls in love with a Muslim Palestinian doctor. The young man is tragically killed by Israeli soldiers. This scene depicts the heart-rending despair separating Jews and Arab Muslims. It ends with an agonizing cry “Abraham!”  If you haven’t seen this movie, get a copy and watch it.

I also highly recommend the award-winning films The GatekeepersFive Broken Cameras and the recently released Omar.

Unless we feel their pain we will never understand their suffering. Please join us in praying and working for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. Our collective hope and faith is in Abraham’s God

September 13, 2013 Posted by | Human Rights, Religious Reconciliation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

King Fahd’s Fountain reminds me of a story…

Jeddah’s famous King Fahd’s Fountain–the highest fountain in the world. Eighteen tons of water at any given moment, looking as though suspended in air, towering more than 800 feet above the Red Sea.

I grabbed a taxi and was off to the fountain

I’ve been living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for six months now. I had seen the famous King Fahd’s Fountain from the rooftop of my building here, but never up close. So last night I flagged down a taxi and took off for the fountain! Water makes me think, and a lot of water makes me think a lot.

Seeing King Faud’s Fountain last evening brought back  a couple of memories. For one thing, it reminded me of the great Jet d’Eau  fountain in Geneva, Switzerland. The Jet d’Eau (French for “water jet”) is one of Geneva’s most famous landmarks.

I saw Geneva’s Jet d’Eau for the first time when I was beginning my world travels. I had just graduated high school from Bob Jones Academy and was working in France during the summer with the Evangelical Reformed Church. At the end of the summer I spent time in Switzerland and Germany before returning to the US to begin college.

The fountain reminded of Jesus’ story about a woman

Seeing King Fahd’s Fountain also reminded me of some words from Jesus–something about a “fountain” in our hearts that would spring up in our lives giving life to people. This morning I pulled out my Bible—a book, by the way that Muslims throughout the world hold in great respect. (The Qur’an refers often to the writings of the Bible. The Bible, in the Quran, is called “the Book.” And Jews and Christians are referred to respectfully in the Qur’an as “the people of the Book.”) So, being a “person of the Book,” I was eager to find this passage.

Christ and the woman of Samaria as depicted by Italian artist Giovanni Francesco Guercino.

My Bible search took me to the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John. And, here’s the picture. Jesus was in Samaria—a nation disrespected by the Jews. We read that the hatred for Samaritan people was so strong among the Jews that they would have absolutely no association or business with them. Jews had been taught by their religious leaders to not even speak to a Samaritan. When travelling north toward Nazareth, the Jews would go out of their way to avoid Samaria and its population. The Samaritan people, in their opinion were evil–the “scum of the earth.” To even speak to one of them or shake hands with one of them would make you “unclean.”

Jesus abhorred racism and hatred

Jesus, when travelling north to the region of Lake Galilee (or Nazareth), didn’t avoid Samaria. We read in the Gospel of John, “Now it was necessary for him to go through Samaria.” In other words he had some work to do in Samaria—some compelling mission there. He simply had to go there.

From this story we can see that Jesus was not a racist or xenophobic. The religious leaders of Jerusalem were teaching people to hate the Samaritans. We know Jesus had no hate towards anyone; however, he did have some pretty harsh words for religious leaders of his day.

Jesus was full of God’s love and mercy! It had been a long trip—a lot of walking for many miles, probably at least 60 miles. Jesus and his disciples were tired and hungry. Arriving in Samaria, his disciples took off in search of food, while Jesus sat down  and rested alone at a public well. And there at that well his mission was accomplished.

While Jesus is sitting by the well, a strange woman comes to draw water. He speaks to her. He asks her, “Will you give me a drink?” Now she recognizes that Jesus is a Jew, and she knows the Jews hate Samaritans, and she asks, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”

Then we read that not only did Jesus continue the conversation with her, but he revealed many things to her about her life. He told her things that even some of her closest friends didn’t know.

Marriage laws

Sam with Saudi and Syrian friends having dinner Bedouin-style. Two huge platters of lamb and rice, complete with individual large bowls of fresh camel milk!

The religious laws regarding marriage and divorce were extremely strict at that time. This woman had lived with six different men—without ever being married. Jesus asked her if she were married. She responded, “I have no husband.”  Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands (lovers), and the man you now have is not your husband.”

Now this would have been extremely disconcerting to the Jewish religious leaders back in Jerusalem! They would have condemned Jesus for talking to her and then stoned the woman to death.

Not only did Jesus go to Samaria, not only did he speak with a Samaritan woman at the well, not only was she a Samaritan woman—the Jewish religious leaders would have also considered her a horrible sinner—a prostitute, and, in their opinion, certainly no one should associate with such a disgusting, immoral person.

Now the “fountain” part of the story!

But here sat Jesus in Samaria, totally at ease, talking with someone others would have rejected out of hand as a mere “piece of human garbage”—or worse. We read that Jesus, speaking about the water from that well, said, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life!”

And then it’s said that the disciples returned, and were shocked to see him sitting with this strange Samaritan woman in public—talking so freely with her.

Even today we disassociate ourselves from certain types of people who don’t behave as we behave. Many Christians and Jews today will not associate with Muslims. They are either afraid of Muslims, or they are offended by what they think Muslims believe about them.

Before I came to live in Saudi Arabia many of my friends and family members questioned my actions. “Aren’t you afraid of getting kidnapped?” I did go online to the US State Department website, and there was prominently displayed a warning for Americans not to travel in certain parts of Saudi Arabia. (By the way, I’d probably warn my Muslim friends, when travelling in the US to avoid Alabama and a couple of other states!)

Some very convinced Christians, say terrible things about Muslims. “They’re all terrorists,” I’ve been told. “Muslims hate Christians and Jews.” “Muslims stone people to death.” I’ve been told that Muslims hate this kind of people or that kind of people. Saudi Arabia is dangerous. And on and on…

“You’re a Christian, and I’m a Muslim. Why are you talking to me?”

Sam with Muhammed and Waleed. We have no problem appreciating and caring about each other.

Now, when I first arrived in Saudi Arabia some Muslims were suspicious of me, an American Christian. They were of the impression that most Americans and western Christians hate Muslims. They heard from a relative living in the US about how Muslims are sometimes treated in the US. They see on TV that American Christians and Jews are protesting the construction of mosques in Tennessee or near Ground Zero in New York. Or they read about some ill-informed, fundamentalist Christian pastor who’s publicly burning “Qur’ans.”

There is so much misunderstanding in the world today, and if people would just communicate, as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman, a lot of the hate, bigotry and cruelty on all sides would dissipate. The disinformation about what the Bible says or the Qur’an says would be overcome if we would just sit down and talk.

Are we different?

We ask, are there important differences between us Christians, Jews and Muslims? Yes. Do we agree on all aspects of theology? No—we never will.

But we can also ask, do we Muslims and Christians have anything in common? Yes, both in our faiths and as members of the human race! Can we be friends? Yes! I now know that as fact.

We all claim to worship the God of Abraham. We can kneel or bow in prayer and worship together. (I am doing that with my friends here!) We can show respect and love to each other. We can look at past injustices that were committed and injustices that persist today and seek to right wrongs and commit to doing right towards each other now and in the future. We can all be like Jesus who was tolerant and non-condemning of others who were different.

All my friends here are Muslims. They are from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Yemen and Pakistan. We have already learned to pray together and to trust one another–but also important we love and respect one another as human beings. We work side by side, supporting and helping one another as we pursue forgiveness and reconciliation in the Middle East and around the world.

What should we do?

Somehow, after reading this story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman, I just can’t picture Jesus rallying people to stone prostitutes, or to somehow make life more difficult for them than other types of sinners. I can’t picture Jesus organizing his disciples in North Carolina, to make certain lifestyles illegal or telling people to “break wrists” or “punch” people until they are just like you and me.  

The person of Jesus is greatly respected, not only by Christians, but also by Muslims and Jews. Muslims consider Jesus as a great Prophet and the Messiah. The Jews, certainly think of him as an important, wise rabbi, and they would admit that he remains the most famous Jew that ever walked the earth.  So Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman have meaning to all of the Abrahamic faiths. We can all picture Jesus reaching out to people who are despised, rejected or different, saying, “I love you. I offer you God’s water–like a fountain that will spring up, gush up inside your hearts. The water I’m talking about gives life and hope!”

So all of these thoughts came to my mind when I was standing alone last night gazing at King Fahd’s Fountain. Now that you know what I was thinking, here is what I saw:

May 11, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments