The dialogue itself
Readers of the Standard Bearer are perhaps familiar with Dr. James White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries in Phoenix, Arizona. White is famous as a Christian apologist, having debated atheists, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims around the world. Some of his debates with Muslims, held in Mosques in England, South Africa, and other places, include titles such as “Trinity and Tawhid” (Yusuf Bux), “Is the Qur’an the Word of God?” (Muhammad Musri), “Did Jesus and Mohammed Preach the Same Thing?” (Adnan Rashid), “Is the New Testament We Possess Today Inspired?” (Shabir Ally), “Is the Qur’an a Reliable Record of the Teaching of Mohammed?” (Yusuf Ismail), “Crucifixion or Crucifiction?” (Ahmed Deedat), and “Could God Become a Man?” (Abdullah Kunde).1
White considers himself a student of Islam, not because he wants to convert to Islam—he certainly does not—but because he desires accurately to represent his opponent in debate, which is a worthy and laudable goal. Christian honesty demands that we “falsify [no] man’s words” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 112). To that end, White has learned Arabic in order to understand the Qur’an in its original language and he has sought out the best in Muslim scholarship. Again, such commitment to understanding one’s neighbor’s religion so that one can witness to him effectively is admirable. His quest brought him into contact with Dr. Yasir Qadhi.
Dr. Qadhi is the resident scholar at the Memphis Islamic Center in Memphis, Tennessee. He is an expert on the hadith (plural: ahadith), the sayings of Mohammed, an authoritative Islamic source alongside, although not equal to, the Qur’an in the Islamic religion. Having corresponded for years, the two men finally met in January 2017 in Memphis.
Although White is an accomplished debater, the meeting was not a debate, but a dialogue held on two consecutive evenings, advertised as “Christians and Muslims: Agreements and Differences.” It could be designated as “inter-faith dialogue,” although I prefer to avoid the term because it conjures up ideas of ecumenical and even syncretistic compromise, which the event certainly was not, although it has been criticized as such in the intervening months. Both Dr. White and Dr. Qadhi entered the “dialogue” committed to their respective beliefs, but seeking, with their respective communities, to understand one another.
The reason that I specifically sought out [Dr. Qadhi] is that I sense in him a kindred spirit on the other side of the chasm that divides us as regards our theology and our beliefs. He is a consistent Muslim. He believes what he says. He wants to seek for consistency amongst his people and in his own practice. And so when you have two believing people, one Christian and one Muslim, come together and say, we need to discuss not only what divides us, but also where do we have similarities? How can we live in the same community? … As a Christian I want you not to have fear of the Muslim people, but to have love for the Muslim people…. We are not seeking this evening to sweep our differences under the rug and say that they don’t matter…. How do we get along? How do our communities talk to one another? The sad fact of the matter is that those conversations simply are not happening…. There won’t be any compromise because we both believe very firmly in what we believe and what we profess, but how in light of that do we get along (JW1, 1-5)?2
You will notice from White’s opening statement that the purpose of the discussion is not how to worship together (that is impossible), but how to be good neighbors with respect to one another, and how to understand one another. Qadhi echoes White’s sentiment:
Our commitments are not going to be watered down, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t get along…and have genuine love and care and concern together as peaceful neighbours…. We desire to remove fear, distrust, hatred, and suspicion (YQ1, 6-9).
We have some serious theological differences, but…we are commanded to treat everyone with love, kindness, compassion, and mercy (YQ1, 61).
In the second video, when he introduces White to the Muslims gathered in the Memphis Islamic Center, Qadhi explains his motivations:
[I sense in White] a brother in a faithfulness that is very similar to mine—it is not the same faith, but I do not question his integrity, I do not doubt his commitment, and I do not challenge his sincerity. And I know he feels the same way about me (YQ2, 9).
Rather than come together for debating, which has its place…why not introduce one another to our respective communities and show that, you know what, we can fundamentally disagree without hating one another (YQ2, 10-11)?
At the end of the second video, White laments:
Many of my people [Christians] fear you [Muslims] when we are commanded to love you (JW2, 50).
I can disagree with you openly and firmly, but as long as I have demonstrated to you that I want to know you by accurately representing you, you folks [Muslims] are the best people in the world (JW2, 51).
What White and Qadhi did, therefore, was to begin to tear down the walls of suspicion that have been erected between Christians and Muslims with the result that they cannot even talk to one another about their respective beliefs. If the Christian harbors suspicion against his Muslim neighbor that he (supposedly like all Muslims) is an ISIS-sympathizer who is simply biding his time before he kills him, how can there be any meaningful dialogue? If the Muslim thinks that his Christian neighbor worships three gods and has committed the unpardonable sin of shirk (shirk is the sin in Islam of associating creatures with Allah), how can they get along as neighbors? How can doors be opened to present the gospel to Muslims?
We may add here that one does not present the gospel to Muslims—or to anyone else—by ranting at them or even insulting them with inflammatory rhetoric with respect to their deeply held religious beliefs. One witnesses by explaining carefully and respectfully who Jesus is and what salvation is, while contrasting the gospel with the errors of Islam.
Indeed, part way through the first video White and Qadhi express the conviction that the other is not on the path to salvation, so far are they from considering one another fellow believers in the same God.
I pray for Yasir Qadhi. If I am praying for Yasir Qadhi, I am not changing God’s heart, but he is changing my heart. He is making me into the kind of person who is going to be concerned about your welfare, concerned about your health, concerned about your safety, concerned about your family. He’s changing me (JW1, 88-89).
On the first evening (held in Grace Bible Church, Olive Branch, Memphis), Qadhi was able to explain the Five Pillars of Islam, the sources of Islamic doctrine (the Qur’an and the ahadith), the Islamic understanding of Jesus (as a prophet of Islam, virgin-born, but not crucified or resurrected), the Islamic view of salvation, and why he disagrees with ISIS. In fact, Qadhi has received death threats because of his condemnation of ISIS (YQ1, 58-59). His explanation and contextualization of some of the Jihadist texts in the Qur’an, for example, is interesting and merits further study. With respect to Surah 9, for example, Qadhi contends that the non-Muslims were given four months to vacate Mecca, during which time they would be given safe passage, before they would be subject to execution: “this verse does not provide a carte blanche to kill all infidels” (YQ1, 73). Incidentally, White argues elsewhere that the Islamic sources (Qur’an, ahadith, etc.) are not consistent, but if we are permitted to contextualize the slaughter of the Canaanites in the Bible, are Muslim scholars not permitted to contextualize their texts in the Qur’an?
On the second evening (held in Memphis Islamic Center), White was privileged to present important Christian concepts to a Muslim audience: the Trinity, the death of Jesus Christ, the justice and mercy of God, original sin, justification, and the differences between different branches of Christianity (Protestants and Roman Catholics, and so on). These opportunities would simply not have occurred had White not shown the Muslim people love and respect.
The Christian fallout
Sadly, since the events in Memphis have become more widely known, White has received heavy criticism from Christians. The event has been misrepresented; White has been attacked as a compromiser and a “useful idiot” for Islam; and he has had to devote considerable time and effort to defending his actions. Some have objected to the promotional banner’s use of the word “fellowship”: “stay with us afterwards for a time of hospitality and fellowship.” While “fellowship” was an unfortunate choice of words, the context (which determines the meaning) is clearly a reference to conversation over refreshments: throughout the two evenings White and Qadhi rejected the notion of spiritual fellowship. Others have objected to the idea of co-belligerency with Muslims, which is a legitimate concern: I personally do not believe that Christians and Muslims should cooperate in culture wars over the sanctity of marriage, abortion, and other issues, but since that was not the main point of the evening, it is a stretch to accuse White of establishing an “unequal yoke” with Qadhi. Still others do not like White’s use of “believing Muslim.” But, clearly, White means that Qadhi sincerely believes in Islam, not that he is a believer in the biblical sense! Others are aghast that White should give a platform to a Muslim to speak in a Christian church. However, this was not a worship service or Bible study, and no one was sneaking a heretic into the church to deceive the sheep: everyone knew that Qadhi is a Muslim! Still others are politically motivated—it suits them to have Christians and Muslims live in mutual suspicion.
We have to ask ourselves—what do we think about the Muslim people? Do we fear them; do we resent them; or do we view them with disgust and hatred? If we do, we have precisely the kind of attitude toward Muslims that the Jews had toward the Samaritans and Gentiles in the New Testament, an attitude that Jesus condemns.
We must get beyond our political objections to the mass immigration that has brought so many Muslims into Europe and America—and we can have legitimate concerns about that. We must love our Muslim neighbor, whether or not we agree with the policy that brought him here. Our neighbor is the person whom God has placed on our pathway, regardless of how he came to be on our pathway. When God puts the neighbor before us, he says, “Love this neighbor—love him by respecting him and by seeking his welfare.” Love him, even if he is a Muslim. We cannot do that if we label all Muslims filthy dogs, for example, or share unflattering memes about Muslims on social media: “[I must not] dishonor, hate, wound, or kill my [Muslim—MMcG] neighbor… [I must] show patience, peace, meekness, mercy, and all kindness toward him” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 105, 107).
If the blasphemous and injurious persecutor of the church, Saul of Tarsus, could be saved (I Tim. 1:12-16), is it not possible that some of our Muslim neighbors belong to the election of grace? Shall we not, like White, seek to become all things to all men—without compromising the truth of the gospel—that we might win some (I Cor. 9:19-22)?
1 These and many other debates can be found on the YouTube channel of Alpha and Omega Ministries, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiQJ59Y5z6__BaV35G-9j-g.
2 The two videos can be found on the YouTube channel of Memphis Islamic Center: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=updtj99Fp80 (Christian Muslim Dialogue Part 1) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2tPHLOej1w (Christian Muslim Dialogue Part 2). In quoting from the two videos, I use the following key: JW (James White), YQ (Yasir Qadhi), 1 (first video), 2 (second video), with the number referring to the approximate time in the video. Thus, JW1, 1-5 means, “James White, first video, 1-5 minutes” and YQ2, 9 means, “Yasir Qadhi, second video, 9 minutes.”