Monday, September 22, 2008

Understanding Eid-al Adha and the Hajj

Understanding Eid al-Adha
Ryan Keating

Eid al-Adha, is the Islamic festival that coincides with the end of the annual pilgrimage in Mecca and is marked by sacrificing an animal such as a sheep, goat, or bull.

It is the most important festival in Islam, followed by the Eid al-fitr, which marks the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan.

It begins on the tenth day of the month of Dhu al-Hijja on the Muslim calendar and continues for four days.

The basic theological meaning is to identify with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice everything, including his son, to Allah, and to celebrate God’s deliverance of Abraham by providing a sheep as a substitute.

Hajj: Tracing Abraham’s steps

It is impossible to understand the significance of Eid al-Adha without placing it in its context within the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Hajj, or “pilgrimage” is the fifth pillar of Islam, marking one of the most basic Muslim practices. All Muslims who are financially and physically able are required to make at least one trip to Mecca during their lifetime. While a Muslim may visit Mecca at any time of year, the Hajj is only recognized if it is performed during the assigned days on the Muslim calendar, that is during the second week of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah.

The rituals of the pilgrimage center around reenacting important episodes from the life of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael. It begins with “tawaf”, circumambulating the Ka’ba seven times. The Ka’ba is said to have been rebuilt by Abraham and consecrated to Allah as a center of pilgrimage. Pilgrims pray for the cleansing of their sins and often try to kiss or touch the Black Stone which is lodged into one corner of the Ka’ba.

Pilgrims then perform “say” a ceremonial running back and forth between two hills in a reenactment of Hagar’s desperate search for water for her son Ishmael after she was shunned by Sarah, Abraham’s wife. The well of Zamzam is said to have appeared under Ishmael’s feet to save them from death. Pilgrims bathe in and drink this water during this ceremony.

Then the actual “pilgrimage” takes place as pilgrims make the trip to Arafat to gather in tents for prayer and conversation from noon until sunset. Prayers are said to be especially effective during this time.

After spending the night under stars at Muzdalifa pilgrims proceed to Mina where the ritual “stoning of Satan” occurs. Pilgrims throw seven rocks at large stone pillars said to represent Satan. This ceremony reenacts Abraham’s stern rejection of the temptation by Satan to refuse to obey God’s command to sacrifice Ishmael.

This ritual is followed by the offering of an animal sacrifice by each pilgrim, identifying with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael and God’s provision of a sheep as a reward for Abraham’s complete faithfulness in Allah. It is on this same day that Eid al-Adha begins and many Muslims around the world participate vicariously in this Hajj ritual by sacrificing an animal themselves.

Muslims believe that if the Hajj has been performed properly, without violating the important regulations regarding ceremonial purity, and with the right intention of approaching God, then all previous sins are absolved. However, a Muslim cannot ever be certain that his Hajj has been accepted in this way.

Sacrifice in Islam: Eid al-Adha

Throughout the Muslim world, the festival of Eid al-Adha begins with morning prayers in the mosque followed by a sermon. This is in accordance with a hadith attributed to Muhammad:

Narrated Al-Bara: I heard the Prophet delivering a Khutba (hutbe) saying, "The first thing to be done on this day (the first day of 'Id-ul-Adha) is to pray; and after returning from the prayer we slaughter our sacrifices (in the name of Allah), and whoever does so, he acted according to our Sunna (traditions) " (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 2, p. 37).

As with the hajj itself, the sacrifice must be performed with the pure intention of approaching God. Sacrificing an animal is not considered to be merely an optional or advantageous ritual, but a religious commandment signifying one’s readiness to surrender everything to Allah.

The Qur’an depicts Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in Sura 37:

“We gave him [Abraham] news of a gentle son. And when he reached the age when he could work with him, his father said to him: ‘My son, I dreamt that I was sacrificing you. Tell me what you think.’ He replied: ‘Father, do as you are bidden. God willing, you shall find me steadfast.’ And when they had both submitted to God, and Abraham had laid down his son prostrate upon his face, We called out to him, saying: ‘Abraham, you have fulfilled your vision.’ Thus do we reward the righteous. That was indeed a bitter test. We ransomed his son with a noble sacrifice and bestowed on him the praise of later generations. ‘Peace be on Abraham!’

And the commandment to sacrifice an animal annually is understood from Surah 22:28, which is referring to the pilgrimage rituals:

“they will come to avail themselves of many a benefit, and to pronounce on the appointed days the name of God over the cattle which He has given them for food. Eat of their flesh, and feed the poor and the unfortunate.”

The sacrifice is to be performed by anyone who is financially able to do so. Guests in someone else’s household are understood to be exempt as are travelers and the poor. The sacrifice is considered an individual act, but if a wife and children are completely dependent on the income of the husband, then they are not required to sacrifice. Similarly, a sheep or goat cannot be shared between men or families as a joint sacrifice, but a larger animal such as an ox, camel, or cow can be shared by up to seven people as having fulfilled the sacrifice requirement of all of them.

While the 10th of Dhu al-Hijjah is the most spiritually profitable day on which to sacrifice the animal, many Muslims believe that it may also be performed on either of the following two days as well.

The animal must be without blemish and smaller animals such as chickens are not acceptable for sacrifice. The sacrifice should be performed with care not to cause unnecessary suffering to the animal, and small children and other animals should are often excluded to prevent them from being traumatized. While the animal is being cut, the name of Allah is pronounced and a ritual prayer is usually recited:

In the name of Allah.
Allah is the greatest.
O Allah, this is indeed from you and for you.
O Allah accept [this] from me.

The meat should be divided into three portions, with one third given to the poor, one third given to friends, family, and neighbors, and one-third reserved to eat. According to some, poorer families may reserve a larger portion for themselves to eat. The hide should also be donated and cannot be sold for profit.

Celebrating Eid al-Adha

The festival often includes visits to family members, beginning with parents and then extended family, friends and neighbors. A trip to distribute meat to friends and family is often an occasion for a social visit as well. The graves of relatives are also visited during this time and mosque visits are often made more frequently.

Special foods, most of which include meat, are prepared during this time, and large family gatherings occur during the evenings of the festival. As with Eid al-fitr, traditional deserts and candy are also given as gifts and included in family celebrations.

Since many businesses are closed during these days, families often take the opportunity to go on vacations or to visit out-of-town family members. In Turkey, during years when the festival falls in summer months, the beaches are full of vacationers, for example.

Sacrifice as a Theological Bridge: Ransoming Ishmael with a lamb

The Qur’anic story of Allah saving Ishmael’s life by substituting a lamb has obvious value as a bridge for sharing the gospel. Just as Allah honored the faith of Abraham by ransoming Ishmael with a sacrificial lamb, Christians believe that Allah ransomed all of humanity with the life of Jesus, who is called the Lamb of Allah, and that by exercising the same kind of faith that Abraham had, that is, a willingness to surrender everything we have to God, we are able to be saved from the death that we otherwise deserved in Hell.

Also, just as Muslims believe that faithful participation in the Hajj results in absolution of all previous sins, Christians believe that faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, the substitute lamb of Allah, guarantees that our sins are also forgiven.

In more simple terms, Christians can affirm the value of Abraham’s faith, which is also recorded in the Taurat. It is the kind of faith that is willing to surrender everything to God. And we can identify with the concept of sacrifice because of its Old Testament parallel in Abraham and the system of temple sacrifice as well as its New Testament fulfillment in Jesus.

Of course, Muslims often respond to this kind of presentation by arguing that the sacrifice in Islam is different from the sacrifice in Judaism and that it doesn’t wash away our sins the way that we believe Jesus does. For example, the Qur’an says about the sacrificed animal:

“Their flesh and blood does not reach God: it is your piety that reaches Him.” (Sura 22:37)

Muslims sometimes use this verse to show that it is not the sacrificed animal itself that has any value to God, but the faith of the person performing the sacrifice. In this way, they might argue, a more perfect sacrifice does not have a greater effect, the way that Christians believe Jesus’ sacrifice is effective for providing forgiveness for the sins of the whole world.

Still, the parallel is helpful for Muslims to understand what Christians believe about the sacrifice of Jesus.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Using the Qur’an in Evangelism with Muslims

Can Christians use the Qur’an when sharing the gospel with Muslims? And, more importantly, should we use the Qur’an as part of our evangelistic approach?

Scripturally, the closest parallel to this kind of approach is found in Acts 17:22-31. Paul, at the Areopagus, is asked to explain the gospel that he had been preaching in Athens. As part of his explanation, he begins by commending the Athenians for being “religious,” and refers to the various idols and temples around the city. He then refers specifically to an altar dedicated “To an unknown god,” explaining that he would reveal the unknown God to them. During his presentation, Paul also refers to, and quotes from, a Greek poet.

This passage gives solid Biblical precedent for a limited use of non-Christian religious sources as a means of drawing parallels to the gospel and explaining it in light of familiar illustrations. However, many Christians are apprehensive about using the Qur’an in a similar way. Their concern is often expressed in terms of theological or philosophical problems with this kind of approach. However, it seems to me that the root source of the apprehension is uncertainty about how a Christian should approach the Qur’an and perhaps an unhealthy fear of the Qur’an itself.

To overcome this uncertainty, it may be helpful to have a concrete methodology for how to use the Qur’an in evangelism, and a criteria for evaluating whether a particular use of the Qur’an is appropriate. The following taxonomy offers a way to approach this subject. There are essentially three different ways that a Christian might use the Qur’an in evangelism. The first two can be incorporated into a biblical model of evangelism, while the third goes too far to be commended in this way.

1. Using the Qur’an to explore a Muslim’s own beliefs.

For example, as a way of responding to the accusation that the Bible has been changed, it is helpful to point out that Qur’an itself does not make this claim. In fact, the Qur’an affirms the truth of the “previous scriptures”. In explaining this point, we can look at the following verses with Muslims:

o Sura 10:64 says that God’s word doesn’t change.
o Sura 10:94 instructs Muslims to ask Christians about the Bible.
o Sura 4:136 commands Muslims and Christians to believe the Bible.

In this approach we are not commending the Qur’an or using it’s content to teach the gospel, we are simply exploring the plain meaning of it as it is interpreted by Muslims. In the example I have given, the effect is to show that although I don’t believe that the Qur’an is the Word of God, even if I did, it wouldn’t make sense to say that the Bible has been changed. It’s important to make the distinction here that we are not asking a Muslim to believe the Bible on the basis of the Qur’an’s authority, rather we are showing that the claim of Biblical corruption doesn’t make sense, even within a Muslim framework. We are simply pointing out something that the Qur’an doesn’t teach, without appealing to its authority.

There are many other examples of this kind of approach that invite a Muslim to consider with us what the Qur’an actually teaches. A willingness to explore the Qur’an honestly is a powerful demonstration of our own confidence in the gospel. If a person we hope to reach has an interest in sharing something from the Qur’an, our sincerity in reading with them can inspire the same kind of vulnerability that we want from them in considering the gospel. This is Paul’s own example.

2. Using the Qur’an to draw a parallel or to illustrate an aspect of the gospel.

For example, just as Paul affirmed the religiosity of the Athenians, we can affirm a Muslim’s commitment to Jesus. Reading the Qur’an, one can see that Muslims have a great deal of respect for Jesus. The Qur’an affirms his virgin birth, that he was the Messiah, that he performed many miracles, that he is the Word of God, and that he will participate in the Final Judgment. Reading some of these verses with a Muslim can be a helpful bridge to talking about the gospel. However, the message of Jesus in the Bible is significantly different from the message of Jesus in the Qur’an, so we need a criteria to decide between them. If we want to learn about Jesus, who lived in the first century, why would we go to the Qur’an, which wasn’t available until the 7th century?

Another example of this approach is using the Qur’anic story of Abraham. In Sura 37, the Qur’an teaches that Abraham was going to sacrifice his son, but God intervened, saving his life by providing a ram as a “ransom” (fidye) to die in his place. This is very similar to what the Bible teaches about Jesus. Our sins condemned us to an eternity in Hell, but God intervened, saving our lives by providing Jesus as a ransom to die in our place.

This approach also doesn’t assume the truth of the Qur’an. We are simply using familiar stories to explain an aspect of the gospel which is otherwise unfamiliar to Muslims. This has a strong parallel with Paul’s own use of the Athenian poets. We can explain that we don’t believe the Qur’an to be the word of God, and still use this familiar story as a point of reference to illustrate the Christian concept of redemption.

3. Using a Christian reinterpretation of the Qur’an

For example, some Christians attempt to use verses from the Qur’an to prove the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, or to show that Jesus was actually raised from the dead. In fact, some approaches to the Muslim evangelism attempt to use only verses from the Qur’an to lead a Muslim to faith in Christ.

This approach is vulnerable to the common objections to a Christian use of the Qur’an in evangelism. By appealing to the authority of the Qur’an in order to lead a person to faith in Jesus as depicted in the gospels, this approach may be deceptive. And by reinterpreting verses of the Qur’an in light of the Bible, this approach may also be offensive, since it presumes to understand the “real meaning” of the Qur’an, robbing Muslims of 1500 years of interpretive tradition.

Three Questions:

As an criteria for determining whether a particular use of the Qur’an is appropriate, three questions may be helpful.

· Will it move my audience closer to an understanding of an aspect of the gospel?
· Does it appeal to the authority of the Qur’an?
· Does it distort or reinterpret the meaning of the Qur’an?

If using the Qur’an in a given situation isn’t likely to contribute to an understanding of the gospel; for example, if we haven’t thought through how to use the passage as a bridge to the gospel, then it would be difficult to justify using the Qur’an for its own sake. Appealing to the authority of the Qur’an in order to lead someone to the gospel, and distorting the meaning of the Qur’an to prove a Christian doctrine both have insurmountable ethical and theological problems, and so, should be avoided. However, this criteria still leaves a broad spectrum of biblically appropriate uses of the Qur’an in evangelism with Muslims. It would be worth our effort to investigate this area and emulate Paul’s own evangelistic approach.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Has The Bible Been Changed?

1. The Doctrine of Tahrif

Most Sunni Muslims today maintain that the previous scriptures have been corrupted. This accusation is called tahrif (in Turkish also). Turkish textbooks teach this doctrine to schoolchildren in religion lessons and imams teach it in mosques throughout the country. In Turkey, it is an almost universal assumption that the Bible has been changed or corrupted. It is common to hear something like this: “Allah revealed the Injil to Isa but it was eventually lost. By the time the Christians came together at Iznik (Nicea) in 325 to decide on their Bible, there were dozens and dozens of books claiming to be the Injil. Since the Christians couldn’t agree which one was the original, they kept four: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They decided on these because they wanted to teach that Jesus was the son of God, etc...”

Historically, the doctrine of tahrif didn’t appear until the 11th century with the writings of Ibn Hazm. Since Muslims had accepted the Qur’an as the final installment in a series of revelations that began with the Torah and continued with the Zabur (Psalms), and Injil (Gospels), they had to reconcile the profound discrepancies between the messages of those books and that of the Qur’an. If the Qur’an is the perfect word of Allah, and it doesn’t agree with the holy books that preceded it, then the only explanation is that the previous books have been corrupted. From that argument, Islamic theology proceeded to explain that the Qur’an was necessary because the previous scriptures had been corrupted.

However, the Qur’an never claims that the Bible has been changed.

2. The Problem in Evangelism

When Christians begin to share the gospel in Turkey, the question of whether the Bible has been changed inevitably surfaces. If a person is convinced that the Bible has been changed, then it will of course be difficult for them to take seriously the claims of Jesus, for example; and they won’t be surprised to see discrepancies between the Qur’an and the Bible.

For some people, it is enough to initially respond simply by saying: “No, the Bible has never been changed,” and ask them to consider the claims of Scripture. For others, a more involved argument is necessary. In any case, of course, a single objection shouldn’t prevent us from continuing to share the message of the gospel. The Holy Spirit doesn’t have to defeat every objection before moving a person’s heart. On the other hand, it is important for believers and seekers to know the truth about the Bible. If Christians could turn the tide of public opinion about whether the Bible has been changed, a significant barrier to the gospel would be lifted.

3. Responding to the Accusation: Has the Bible been changed?

When a Muslim claims that the Bible has been changed, it is useful to turn the question around and ask “When and Where was the Bible changed? Was it before Muhammad or after Muhammad?

If a Muslim claims that it was changed before Muhammad, there are a number of verses from the Qur’an that are helpful in showing that the Qur’an disagrees with that accusation:

· Several verses say that God’s word doesn’t change:
Sura 6.34; 10.64; 50.28-29
· Some verses instruct Muslims to ask Christians about the Bible:
Sura 10.94; 21.7
· Several verses instruct Muslims and Christians to believe the Bible:
Sura 4.136; Sura 5.46-47, 68

Would Allah refer people to a corrupted book? Why is there no warning in the Qur’an about the Bible’s corruption? Why did the accusation of corruption not appear until the 11th century?

If a Muslim claims that it was corrupted after Muhammad, how can we explain the manuscript evidence that supports the trustworthiness of the New Testament?

There are more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts in existence. (The original was written in Greek). Some are as old as 125 AD, and 230 are older than Muhammad.

• John Rylands Fragment: Some verses of the Gospel of John. Found in
Egypt, far from Asia Minor where it was written. The oldest existing manuscript, from around 125.
• Bodmer Papyrus II: Most of John, Jude, 1 Peter and 2 Peter. From around 150 - 200 AD.
• Chester Beatty Papyri: Most of the NT. From around 250 AD.

We have more than 9,000 ancient manusripts of the New Testament in other languages, including Arabic, Latin, Coptic, Aramaic.

The first Christian writers after the apostles, called the “Early Church Fathers,” wrote hundreds of books and letters beginning with Clement in 96 and ending with Eusebius in 339. These men included a total of 36,289 quotations of the New Testament in their writings. From these quotations alone, the entire New Testament can be reconstructed except for 11 verses.

All of the New Testament manuscripts agree with eachother, with some minor discrepancies that amount to about a half page of Greek text. And even if all of our old Greek manuscripts were destroyed we would still have the translations. And if all of the translations were destroyed we would still have an ancient testimony to the trustworthiness of the New Testament in the writings of the Church Fathers.

If the Old Testament was corrupted after Muhammad, who changed it? Jews or Christians? Why do they use the same Hebrew Bible?

4. Some Simple Responses: Has the Bible been changed?
A simple answer is often enough to move the conversation forward

· There has never been any evidence that the Bible was changed. Do you have evidence?

· The accusation of corruption did not appear until long after Islam arrived. Why do you think that is?

· Why would God protect some of His books and not the others? It sounds like you are saying that God made a mistake with the Tevrat, Zebur, and Injil and he corrected it with the Quran.

· If the New Testament account of Jesus isn’t accurate, is there any historical evidence to support what the Qur’an says about Jesus? If I want to learn about something that happened in the 1st century why would I believe a 7th century book instead of a 1st century book?

5. Some verses about the Bible’s immutability

Seekers often find these verses signficant as they consider the claims of the Bible.

Matthew 5:18
I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

Luke 21:33
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

Mezmur 119:89
Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.

6. Some helpful facts about the Bible

  • The New Testament was completed within the lifetimes of the apostles (John died in 90 AD)

  • The apostles supervised the compilation of the New Testament, preventing errors or fraud

  • There were always 4 Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life.

  • The councils (including the Council of Nicea) didn’t “decide” on scripture, it only officially recognized what was already decided by the church as a whole.

  • Jesus didn’t come to bring the Word of God, he is the Word of God.

  • God used the experiences and individual perspectives of the Biblical authors, inspiring them to write scripture. This is a more miraculous view of inspiration than receiving revelation verbatim.

    [i] I am indebted to Jay Smith for this strategy.