My Visit to a Mosque in Connecticut
John C. Rankin (December 8, 2006)
I recently visited a mosque outside Hartford, Connecticut, as I am studying Islam and Arabic. I met with a Sheikh from Washington, D.C., I invited him to address a Mars Hill Forum with me, but he declined. I also met the Imam, and was given a place of honor as I observed the Ramadan prayers and recitation of the Qur’an among some 250 Muslim men. And though only the Sheikh and Imam knew who I was, many Muslim men (from many nations) went out of their way to greet me, initiate conversation and thank me for being there. They were truly grateful that I was interested in being in their presence, and to learn about Islam as an unabashed and convinced Christian minister.
Toward the end and on his way out of the mosque, an elderly man in Arab dress with a closely trimmed white beard, and with whom I had not spoken, bowed his head with clasped hands, then looked up and said: “May Allah reward you.” The spirit of the man was humble and grateful that I cared enough to be in his presence. Now I do not believe Allah is the same as the God of the Bible. So how should we answer such a surprising entreaty?
In the Bible, the defining Hebrew name for God is Yahweh Elohim. Yahweh is the covenantal name for the “I AM” who revealed himself to Moses. Elohim is the honorific plural for the one Creator — he who is greater than all the so-called gods of paganism. El is the masculine singular for Elohim, translated as “Lord,” and is used in pagan religions too – tracing eventually back to the true God, but having diverted seriously from the truth in the process. Allah in the Arabic may have roots in El as well as being the chief god of historic Arab pantheism – such as Zeus was to the Greeks.
In Acts 17, when the apostle Paul preached to the pagan Greek philosophers in Athens, he quoted the Cretan poet Epimenides, the Cilician poet Aratus and the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes in his “Hymn to Zeus.” These pagans believed that Zeus was the creator, with the words Paul quoted, “For in him we live and move and have our being” and “We are his offspring.”
In service to the true Creator, Paul is free to take poems written for a false god, Zeus, redeem and apply them to the true Creator who is incarnate in Jesus the Messiah. Paul is looking for those hearts which, while enslaved to a false religion, were seeking the true God. This is what C.S. Lewis does with the servant of the false god Tash in the last book of The Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan, the Christ figure, receives him to himself, for while serving and only knowing of the false god, the servant of Tash was looking for the true One.
This reality is true for so many in the world of Islam, where the veil of spiritual enslavement is both the strongest and most brittle in the world. So I answered the elderly Muslim man, “thank you,” reflected later on my on-the-spot response, and was satisfied.
The challenge is how to both speak the truth with boldness (identifying Islam for what is it is on its own terms in the Qur’an on forward), while listening well to the souls of Muslim people to see where the Holy Spirit finds an opening. By definition, darkness flees the light, and based on this reality, we need God’s wisdom on how to rebuke the demonic spirit of terrorism.