The other day, I enthusiastically invited a Christian friend of mine to attend the 2016 Missiology Lectures at Fuller Theological Seminary on November 3-4. After glancing at the invitation website he remarked: Why are you not focusing on the two hottest issues currently debated in churches, namely the refugee crisis in the Middle East and the ongoing violence by ISIS and other related groups? I reassured him that they would be addressed during the lectures and are regularly discussed on campus. But he insisted. “Why such a broad theme like ‘Dynamics of Contemporary Muslim Societies: Christian Theological and Missiological Implications’”? I replied that it is precisely to help Christians make sense of the cacophony of ideas, voices, and rumors about Islam they are presented with every day.
In order to develop a robust understanding of Muslim people, it is essential to grapple with the concept of unity and diversity within Muslim societies. I first attempted to understand the Muslim world solely through its sacred texts. I fervently delved into the study of the Qur’an, the Hadith (Muslim Tradition) and the Sīra (biography of Muhammad). I soon found out that the plethora of interpretations of the Qur’an and other authoritative texts made it impossible to summarize Islam in a nutshell (although some people in search of a quick-fix to Islam-related issues sometimes try!). Then, when I started engaging with Muslims on a personal level, I discovered another layer of diversity generated by cultural and social factors shaping Muslim societies. The worldwide Muslim community differs widely in matters of beliefs, behaviors, and religious belonging. In my former neighborhood in Paris, where hundreds of Muslims are living, they share the same confession of faith affirming that there is no other god than Allah and Muhammad is his prophet, but show vastly diverse levels of religiosity and personal definitions of Muslimness.
For that reason, without abandoning the exploration of theological textbooks on Islam, I looked at the “living” Islam (as anthropologists like to call their object of study). Likewise at Fuller Theological Seminary, students are required to take two foundational classes within the Islamic Studies emphasis. The first is entitled “Introduction to Islam” and deals with theology and history. Students learn, for example, how Islamic schools of laws and thoughts have disputed throughout centuries the exact meaning of Qur’anic passages on peace and violence. The second course, entitled “Muslim Societies,” explores Islam by studying people and their social networks through the lenses of anthropology and sociology. Given that mission is about loving and caring for people, one cannot bypass the study of Islam that looks at how Muslim individuals, families, and communities live, think, feel, and relate with others.
Now my friend is excited to attend the Missiology Lectures, knowing that they will weave together the threads of culture, society, and Islamic faith to give him deeper insight into Muslim societies and current events affecting Muslim-Christian relations. But he is especially lookingforward to hearing how scholars and practitioners will weave a fourth thread, Christian mission, into their presentations and discussions. Me too!
Register for the 2016 Missiology Lectures and view the list of speakers here.
Evelyne Reisacher is associate professor of Islamic studies and intercultural relations in Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies. This year she was featured as a keynote speaker at the Urbana Student Missions Conference. Her new book, Joyful Witness in the Muslim World, will be released this summer.