Travels With Jesus Among Muslims

We’re still on the east side of the Jordan, in the rocky footpaths walked by Moses, Ruth, John the Baptist, and Jesus.  We spent the week discovering a half-dozen sacred sites, but spent the weekends before and after in Amman with Lynnell’s childhood friend Doug and his wife Patti at their center for Middle Eastern studies.  With their sixteen or so North American students and Jordanian guests, we got to join in some wonderful conversations.

Doug and Patti Magnuson, Lynnell, and John at MESP, Amman, Jordan

Last weekend, we got to meet Carl Medearis, a Gulf-based American business developer who started out as a somewhat bumbling missionary in Lebanon.  He talked to us about making friendships across cultures, letting religious doctrine go and focusing on our common humanity best exemplified in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  When you’re in conversation in the Middle East, he told the students, and the topic comes to religion, as it will, think of a good Jesus story to illustrate the way people ought to live.  He found himself on live TV once, asked a very one-sided question about Israel and Palestine.  He gulped and said what he always tries to say, “that reminds me of a story Jesus told.  A man had two sons and the younger one asked for his inheritance….”  The reporter and cameraman were wide-eyed at the shocking disrespect of the young man, and more so when the father agreed.  Carl proceeded to tell the Prodigal Son story, in which the father rejoices at having his son back, forgiving everything, much to the anger and dismay of the older one, who is obedient and hard-working.  Jesus taught that love is stronger than hate, and forgiveness is more powerful than vengeance.

Carl and plenty of other Christians active in the Middle East have discovered that asking Muslims or Jews to convert is like asking them to give up their families or change their gender.  But helping them to know Jesus, who in the case of Islam is a very important part of their religion anyway, is welcome.  The kind of radical love that fueled Gandhi’s anti-British campaign or the nonviolent Christian tactics of the Civil rights movement in the US, that is a part of Jesus’ genius that is not well-known.  Forgiveness rather than vengeance is rare in Islam, and I dare say in Christian America.  Shame your enemies by really loving them.

Carl reminded the group that Jesus was not a Christian.  He did not start a religion or define the Trinity or Original Sin.  He simply showed others what God is like.

The next day, we went to see where Jesus was baptized by John, beginning his public career as a wandering healer and teacher.  The traditional site has marble steps leading down to the cross-shaped place where for 2000 years pilgrims have commemorated Jesus’ baptism by John.  In those days it was really a river, with a lot of water in it.  There are remains of several churches from the early church there.  {Photo public domain from wikipedia,”Al-Maghtas”}

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We also visited a nearby, muddier, section of the Jordan River where a Russian Orthodox group in white robes was going down into the water, one by one.

Further south, we came to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth, 1300 feet below Sea Level.  In fact, it may be lower than that, because almost no water is left to flow in after Jordan and Israel take the upstream waters for irrigation.  We stayed at a hotel built on the shoreline 30 years ago, and had to walk a couple of hundred yards to get down to the shore.

Dead Sea Level 2005

Of course, even though the temperature was in the upper 60’s, we had to go for a swim, or float.  Since the Dead Sea is about 35% salts, it’s hilariously buoyant.  A sign warns you not to put your face in the water, because it would sting even your closed eyes; and not to try floating on your stomach, I think because the buoyancy would arch your spine uncomfortably.  So we just floated on our backs:

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In the first centuries after Christ, the majority of people here were Christians, though members of denominations that we don’t hear of back in the west: Ebionites, Monophysites, Nestorians, Jacobites, and many others.  Around the Mediterranean, they worshipped in Greek, and further east in Syriac or Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke).

And then the Muslims came, bringing a great empire and religious tolerance, although nonmuslims had to pay a tax to support the military which ensured peace in the region.  Gradually, however, folks converted, finding few differences in belief and very much appreciating the use of their own language, Arabic.

Returning north toward Amman, we stopped in the mosaic-rich city of Madaba, which once upon a time was visited by Moses and the Children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land.  It’s flatter and greener country than the bleak gravel hills of Moab, and during Byzantine and Umayyad Muslim times, quite a few grand houses and places of worship were built, featuring mosaics on floors and walls.  Two earthquakes and years of settlements combined to bury these ruins, which laid underground until the 1880’s, when 90 Arab Christian families moved to Madaba from farther south after a dispute with their former neighbors, and while digging foundations for their new houses, they came across some fantastic mosaics.  The most famous one is a map of Palestine from the 500’s, on the original floor of St. George’s Greek Orthodox Basilica, now known as the Map Church.  It has more than 2,000,000 pieces, and the colors are still vivid.  The squiggly Jordan River and the Dead Sea are easy to spot, as is the town of Jericho [ΙΕΡΙΧω}.

Jordan River, Jericho and Dead Sea on Floor Mosaic Map

We also visited the Shrine of the Beheading of John The Baptist, which despite the grisly name was a very welcoming place.  King Herod had a palace in the area, and imprisoned John there for daring to criticize him and his wife, who until recently had been his sister-in-law.  The original church is now about ten feet underground, and in pretty good condition.  It has four wells, including this one, which still works.  We pulled up a leather bucket full of quite drinkable water from maybe 40 feet down.  John and his jailers may have drunk from this same source.

3000 year old well below St. John The Baptist Beheading Shrine

Spectacular floor mosaics in a restored building depicted churches in Philadelphia (Amman), Madaba, Jerusalem, Nablus, and Gaza, all towns with bishops and majority-Christian populations.

Our hosts invited us to look around the parish elementary school, see the icons and mosaics in the church, and climb the bell tower.  Here’s Lynnell about halfway up.

Lynnell in bell tower of St. John The Baptist Beheading Shrine Church

We were even invited to ring the bells for Evening Prayer, as twenty or more parishoners were already gathered, saying the rosary in Arabic…

Ya kadisa Maryam    (O Holy Mary)                                                                                                                           Ya Wahlidata Allah     (O Mother of God),                                                                                                             sahli ăzlinah nahanu ha’tah’ah       (Pray for us sinners)                                                                                ahlen wa fi sahati mahutina,  Amin        (Now and in the hour of our death, Amen).

Lynnell Ringing Bells at St. John's Beheading Shrine

The most important part of our week, though, was coming back to the Middle East Semester Abroad program in the capital city, Amman.  It was called Philadelphia in Greek times, which means City of Brotherly Love.  Our friends Patti and Doug have dedicated their professional lives to helping students from Christian colleges back home learn about Brotherly and Sisterly Love while studying the language, religions, history, food, politics, and culture of the Middle East.

The guests of honor were Safi and Iman Kaskas. Originally from Lebanon, they immigrated to the US in the late sixties, became American citizens, and went into business, raising three kids in Fairfax, VA, and later Saudi Arabia.  They now have four grandchildren and divide their time between houses in both those places.   They’re Muslims, and now travel the world helping Muslims and Christians understand each other by means of a terrific new translation of the Holy Qur’an Safi took six years of eighteen-hour days to complete.

John, Safi, Iman, and Lynnell at MESP, Amman, Jordan

Frustrated by Americans’ lack of knowledge about Islam, which is based on God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in the early 600’s, and seeing biased and hostile interpretations based on slanted translations of the original Arabic into English, Safi put his consulting business aside and developed a methodology for figuring out how to express all the shades of meaning found in the Holy Book.  For example, one word for the Maker of the Universe might mean “Creator,” but a different word is better translated “Programmer,” and yet another, “Everlasting One.”

Yet they spoke lovingly of their American Christian friends, including a woman who prayed aloud for Osama bin Laden at a church service Iman was brought to on the awful evening of September 11, 2001.  She had never heard of praying for your enemy, and it led her to an intense study of the life and teachings of Jesus who, as I mentioned, is a very important prophet in Islam but not well-known.

And you can see why.  Prominent American Christians are among the leading voices seeking to exclude Muslims from our country.  Crusaders spent 200 years attacking non-Christians in the Holy Land and non-Catholics along the way.  Colonialists whitewashed their economic exploitation with pious claims of saving people from hell through Christ.  So just like any one of us, when someone brings up Jesus, we know a sales pitch is coming, and we close our minds.

Iman and Safi love Jesus, but have no intention of ever converting to Christianity.  Safi prays five times a day, and produced this fantastic translation of the Qur’an with zillions of footnotes so American Christians (and Jews) could read it for themselves and see the underlying Biblical assumptions and references.  The Qur’anic Voice assumed that Muhammad and his followers would know the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, Moses bringing the Law, Jesus the Messiah, and his mother, the Virgin Mary.  The Qur’an comments on all those stories, but does not repeat them.

I’m hoping to be able to teach a new course at Breck called The Islamic World, if enough students sign up for it.  We’re definitely going to use Safi’s translation.  

Today, we hit the road for Petra, where some of King Herod’s ancestors came from, and then down to the Gulf off Aqaba, which is a branch of the Red Sea.  Next weekend, we’ll cross the Jordan ourselves and head for Jerusalem.  To all our readers, thanks for accompanying us and drive safely…

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John.bellaimey@breckschool.org

I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on amazon.com. I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

2 thoughts on “Travels With Jesus Among Muslims”

  1. We are so enjoying going along on this trip with you both – and yes, if you teach the course at Breck, make certain there will be room for those of us slightly past high school age to attend as well – Be well, Mary

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