I am not usually a big fan of apologetics. As a progressive Christian passionate about interreligious dialogue, far too often I have seen apologists distort other religious traditions, presenting them in an uncharitable light or only discussing their worst manifestations. So when I picked up ex-Muslim and Christian apologist Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity, I was only expecting more of the same polemic I had seen in the past.
I am glad to say I was wrong. Not only was I wrong, but Qureshi’s book is (in my mind) a success story in interfaith dialogue. He models how apologists and interfaith leaders can together build bridges of Christian-Muslim cooperation to build a better world.
Qureshi’s book presents many of the major Christian arguments against Islam: alleged changes to the text of the Qur’an, the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection, the violence of Muhammad as the leader of early Islam. But what makes Qureshi’s book more readable than a typical book of theology is that he interweaves these arguments throughout a memoir of his deconversion from Islam and conversion to Christianity. The main instigator of his conversion was his college friendship with Christian apologist David Wood. Wood and Qureshi were not only best friends, but also fellow members of their college debate team. As they grew closer practicing for debate tournaments together, they engaged in their own years-long debates over the rationality of belief in Islam versus Christianity.
These debates culminate in the end of the book in Qureshi’s accepting Christ. But for most of the book, Qureshi is a Muslim – and his best friend is a Christian. For Qureshi, their friendship was precisely what allowed them to debate their deeply-held personal beliefs:
Our argument over [the apostle] Paul was not the only time David and I butted heads. Our emotions often got heated as we spoke about our core beliefs. … This is only one of the reasons why a strong friendship is critical. A surface-level relationship might snap under the tension of disagreement, but by living our lives together, we were forced to reconcile. (190)
Their conversations arose from being in the same classes, going to the same debate tournaments, and being best friends. Throughout it is clear to me that Wood cares about Qureshi as a person, not just as a person to be converted. Their amiable religious rivalry emerged first and foremost from love and friendship.
In other words: they were doing interfaith dialogue.
To many, “interfaith dialogue” is a loaded word, as loaded as the term “apologetics” is in the circles I walk in. “Interfaith” conjures up ideas of religious relativism, of denying that anyone’s religion can be Truth, of flattening differences between creeds into a big soup of bland love and compassion. But to me, dialogue is not relativism, nor is it a denial of anyone’s particular beliefs. I accept Paul Griffith’s contention in An Apology for Apologetics that respectful religious debate can be a form of interreligious dialogue. For faiths that strongly emphasize proselytism, such as Christianity and Islam, prohibiting those debates actually excludes people from interfaith dialogue. And to me, dialogue should try to include as many people as possible.
The way I practice it, dialogue is simply love and friendship across religious differences. And what Christian would disagree with love and friendship?
Qureshi even explicitly makes love and friendship across faiths one of the aims of this book. In his introduction, he writes that one of his purposes is:
[T]o tear down walls by giving non-Muslim readers an insider’s perspective into a Muslim’s heart and mind. The mystical beauty of Islam that enchants billions cannot be grasped by merely sharing facts. But it is my prayer that by entering my world, you will come to understand your Muslim neighbor, so you can love him as yourself. The first two sections of the book are especially designed for this purpose, and if they seem pro-Islamic, they are serving their purposes of conveying a past love for my former faith. (17-18)
And Qureshi delivers on his promise. Unlike some deconversion narratives, his does not depict his previous religion and its adherents as depraved, violent, or monolithic. Instead, he stresses the diversity of Muslims (57), emphasizes that Islam is not as rigid as some think (69), mentions that Islam has a “highly developed notion of morality” (110), and honestly assesses that “if by Islam we mean the beliefs of Muslims, then Islam can be a religion of peace or a religion of terror, depending on how it is taught” (115). Qureshi doesn’t paint all Muslims with the same brush or attack their religion in unfair ways. He is charitable.
Qureshi was not a convicted life-long Christian who read a few books on Islam to refute it, but a Muslim from birth who loved his faith. Throughout the book he makes it clear that it very painful for him to come to the conclusion that the central Islamic tenets he was taught growing up were not rationally defensible. Muslims for him were not some far-away group of people, but his parents, whom he loves so much that he dedicated this book to them. Even though many Muslims would disagree with his conclusions, and I don’t agree with all of them either, to me he speaks more authentically because of his personal journey.
In this book and in other ways, Qureshi continues to act as a bridge between Christians and Muslims. In a recent blog post, Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?, Qureshi answers “one can both love Muslims and insist that the God they worship is not the same as the Christian God.” He observes:
As a former Muslim, I have many Muslim family members and friends that I spend time with regularly, and I often adjure Christians to consider gestures of solidarity with the hope that, somehow, this affection will trickle down to the Muslims I know and love. I have even recommended that Christian women consider wearing the hijab in certain circumstances, as well as counseled Christian men to consider fasting with their Muslim neighbors during the month of Ramadan, as long as it is clear these gestures are out of Christian love and not submission to Islam.
Qureshi again shows his tone of charity in the midst of criticism in a video he posted in response to the Paris attacks. In the video, he argues that the texts of Islam are full of calls to violence, but emphasizes that “Muslims are generally loving, peaceful people.”
So, as a Christian engaged in interfaith dialogue, I ask apologists: can we build that bridge between Christians and Muslims?
Because both religions emphasize sharing their faith, a true bridge between Christians and Muslims would also be a bridge between dialogue and apologetics. This bridge would have to be built on the twin pillars of shared similarities and respectfully acknowledged differences. In my experience, interfaith dialogue emphasizes similarities, and often lacks the courage to discuss differences. Similarities are important, for love can emerge from an understanding of our common humanity. But at its worst, the result of exploring only commonalities is a bland Kumbaya feeling. On the other hand, too often I have read works of apologetics that only discuss differences. These apologists fail to recognize the common ground of love and compassion across religions and cultures, and that do not seem to be written from places of love and friendship for their religious rivals.
Taking Aristotle’s definition of a virtue as a golden mean between two extremes, perhaps the bridge between apologetics and dialogue can be the golden mean between the two. I hope that we can work together to cultivate this golden mean.
Jonathan Homrighausen is an MA student in Biblical Studies and Islamic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. His main focus is in reading Abrahamic scriptures in the light of interreligious dialogue. His work can be found in Religion Dispatches, Buddhist-Christian Studies, and at his personal blog at jdhomie.com.