Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

We Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 and then spent much of the next nine years fighting “to win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi population. Imagine the leader of that insurgency becoming so popular in the US that our president handed him the Medal of Honor, and a town, say, in the UK was named after him. That man would have been the Emir Abd el-Kader.

The French invaded Algeria in 1830, and despite some initial goodwill soon alienated the various constituencies. A Qadiri Sufi master in the west was elected by the local tribes to lead the fight against the French – a task he promptly delegated to his twenty-four year old son, Abd el-Kader. Years later in Damascus, the emir used his Algerian militia to save up to 10,000 Christians from the Druze bent on wiping them out. Oh yes, and thanks to his artful diplomacy, the French were able to build the Suez Canal with the blessings of the Arab leaders.

What is most amazing for us today is that this chivalrous foe of the French became in time a paragon of virtue and honor among European leaders and notables. The French gave him their highest mark of distinction and Abraham Lincoln sent him a gift with thanks for what he had done for the Christians of Syria. The leader of a new settlement in 1846, just north of Dubuque, Iowa, was so taken with the international news about this courageous Arab fighter, that he named their new town ElKader. The Elkader High School class of 1915 made a plaque with the following inscription:


“…Such is the history of the man for whom our town is named. A scholar, a philosopher, a lover of liberty; a champion of his religion, a born leader of men, a great soldier, a capable administrator, a persuasive orator, a chivalrous opponent; the selection was well made, and with those pioneers of seventy years ago, we do honor The Sheik.”


Before digging deeper into the emir’s life, let me reveal to you my two sources – and what triggered my interest in this man. First, I spent nine years in Algeria (1978-1987) and heard a good deal about this great national hero. But more recently I wrote a review of an excellent book for the journal Contemporary Islam (see my very condensed version on the MEE website), Algerians without Borders: The Making of a Global Frontier Society, by historian Allan Christelow. He also presented some intriguing material on the emir’s sons and grandsons – one of the later was very involved with T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame), the British and the French against the Ottomans, but fell out with him in the end. Yet at the same time, one of his cousins was fighting the French in Morocco. History is messy.

The second source I also highly recommend, is John Kiser’s Commander of the Faithful: A Story of True Jihad (2008). In 2002 Kiser had published Monks of Tibhirine: Faith Love and Terror in Algeria (winning the French Siloe Prize for that in 2006). The film Of Gods and Men (1st Prize at the 2010 Cannes Festival) was based on his book. While researching his topic, Kiser was told that a large cliff near the monastery was named after the Emir Abd el-Kader (French spelling – you will also find Abd al-Qadir), the famous nineteenth-century Algerian hero. Kiser then looked into his life, and was hooked.


A brief biography of the emir

The Emir Abd el-Kader (1808-1883) was born into a leading family of a Berber tribe in western Algeria. His father, Muhyi al-Din al-Hasani, was a Sufi Shaykh of the Qadiriya order (founded by Abd al-Qadir Jilani, buried in Baghdad in 1166). Clearly, the father was grooming his gifted son to take his place. Abd el-Kader received the best possible training in the Islamic sciences and philosophy, mathematics and rhetoric, as well as in horsemanship and combat. His father brought him along to make the pilgrimage (Hajj) in 1825; he then introduced him to friends in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, visiting the tombs of at least two famous Sufi saints, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani and Ibn Arabi. This trip sparked both his religious fervor and his interest in the reforms that Muhammad Ali was instituting in Egypt.

As mentioned above, two years after the French invasion Abd el-Kader found himself leading a revolt against the French in western Algeria. During the first ten years he met with many victories, using guerilla tactics, his great skills as an orator, and his diplomatic gifts evident in rallying the various Berber and Arab tribes and the network of Jewish businessmen both in Europe and Algeria who fed him valuable information. Also from the start, he was famous for his chivalry. Though the French resorted to torture and the random killing of civilians, Abd el-Kader always treated his prisoners well and at least on one occasion released them, because he was running out of food to feed them.

Yet when the emir realized that the French would stop at nothing to “pacify” the territory and that protracted fighting would only prolong his people’s suffering, he surrendered to the French, with the promise that he would be allowed to go into exile in the east and never set foot in Algeria again. Unfortunately, Napoleon III’s government was overturned by the Second Republic two months later, which promptly walked away from the agreement. In the end, he and his family were detained in 1848 at the chateau d’Amboise in France. Until he was released four years later with a sizable state pension, Abd el-Kader regularly entertained a string of foreign dignitaries from all over Europe. Unsurprisingly, his release was the result of persistent lobbying on the part of French officers, ex-prisoners, intellectuals and Catholic clergy.

He then went to Bursa (today’s Turkey), then three years later to Damascus, which had an important Algerian population. It was there he spent the rest of his life, devoting himself to writing and spiritual direction, informal diplomacy on a variety of fronts and some travel. Yet he kept his word – he never went back to Algeria.

He was a great horseman too, and while in Damascus wrote a book on Arabian horses.

In another vein, the emir wrote a philosophical book in Arabic, which was translated in French with the title, Rappel à l’intelligent. Avis à l’indifferent (“Reminder to the Intelligent. Warning to the Indifferent”). Clearly, he was reaching out to a much wider audience than simply a Mideastern or a North African Muslim one. He seemed more interested in drawing out the implications of the various faiths’ theological convergences – maybe even their ritual similarities.

Perhaps this is why some claim the emir was inducted into the Masons while on a visit to Paris in 1865 (or the year before in Alexandria). Christelow, leaning on a French book on the issue written by a distinguished academic (see this review), cautiously supports this thesis. True, several names of Algerians can be found on the annals of nineteenth-century Freemasonry and four out of his seven sons were Masons. But if you scour the Internet in French, as I did, you will find that this has been fiercely debated over the last decade. More conservative Muslims, understandably, find it impossible to believe that such a great Muslim leader could have joined forces with a secretive sect known for its anti-religious stance (and they would add, “and pro-Zionist”).

What we do know with certainty is that a dispute between the Druze and the Maronite Christians of Lebanon spread to Damascus and that the Druze were intent on killing the Christians. Making use of his own militia he was able to rescue several thousand Maronites, as well as some European diplomats, by sheltering them in his compound and the citadel. This is the act that prompted the French government to decorate him with La Légion d’Honneur and to substantially increase his monthly pension. While visiting Rome, the Pope decorated him. It was on this occasion too that President Abraham Lincoln sent him the gift of two Colts, which are now on display in an Algiers museum.

Abd el-Kader died in 1883 and was buried in Damascus alongside his own spiritual father, the Sufi master and mystical writer Ibn Arabi (d. 1240).


What the emir can teach us

While doing his research on the emir, a Catholic nun in Algeria gave Kiser this quote from one of Abd el-Kader’s spiritual writings. It emphasizes his Sufi outlook, which, because it is so focused on the love of God, easily found affinities with other God seekers, and particularly among the other monotheistic faiths:


“… If you think God is what the different communities believe—the Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, polytheists and others—He is that, but also more. If you think and believe what the prophets, saints and angels profess—He is that, but he is still more. None of his creatures worships him in his entirety. No one is an infidel in all the ways relating to God. No one knows all God’s facets. Each of his creatures worships and knows him in a certain way and is ignorant of Him in others. Error does not exist in this world except in a relative manner.”


Perhaps we could all internalize some of this sense of mystery and awe in our worship of the Godhead – however we conceive of Him. Though I’m not one to believe all spiritual paths lead to the summit of the One Mountain, I also know from experience that I continue to learn important truth from other traditions. Then too, when it comes to final ends, I believe that some humility is in order. “God’s ways are above our ways,” as the prophet Isaiah declared.

So what else can we all learn from the emir? In a day when populations flow in many directions for economic or political reasons and when, more than anything, forces of globalization along with the Internet lead very different people into conversation, we can look back to figures like the Emir Abd el-Kader as pioneers of dialog and promoters of peace and understanding. Happily, there are many such role models for Muslims today. I received notice this morning of the new issue of Arches Quarterly, a publication of the UK-based Cordoba Foundation, which the emir would certainly have supported.

So my point is this: let’s join hands across our cultural, religious and national barriers, in order to meet the pressing challenges of our day. I believe we can do this, as people like Eboo Patel have demonstrated, as convinced Muslims, Jews, Buddhists or Christians. The emir is indeed a good role model for all of us. This Algerian exile crossed numerous borders both literally and metaphorically, pointing people to God, who alone has the power to teach us love and respect for our fellow creatures.

This exciting website just came online in June 2012 and it is already attracting lots of attention. A brain child of Carl Medearis, it is a great place for news on the Middle East from a variety of perspectives. The main items are Books Reviews (I have two already), Blogs (from a variety of religious and national perspectives), Israeli-Palestinian Issues, The Modern Middle East, and Video of the Day. It's very lively, interactive, diverse, thought-provoking, yet always seeking to facilitate conversation between parties not used to listening to each other.

In their own words, "Middle East Experience is dedicated to providing an open-source forum for all the varied voices from today’s Middle East. Whether the voice is Sunni Muslim or Shia Muslim, Christian or Jewish, religious or non-religious, all these distinct voices can be found in one place. From war, oil, economics, the environment, to religious extremism; what happens in the Middle East today affects everyone."


It’s not that Nigeria is at war. But it does feel like that for many Nigerians, and especially the Christians.

I begin to write this blog as my students take their final exam. I’m here in Lagos at the West Africa Theological Seminary to teach a two-week intensive course on Islam. From what I hear from my Nigerian colleagues and students, the recent campaign of church bombings by Boko Haram in the north is reopening old wounds and leading many to revive the old mantra of secession.

The Boko Haram (“Western education is forbidden,” or “a sacrilege”) phenomenon is fairly recent. Around 2002 a Salafi preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, started a school in the northeast state of Borno, an impoverished area, even by Nigerian standards. The word spread and soon children from many others parts of the north enrolled in his school, known for "its strict adherence to Islamic law."

The emerging group was also known for its violent attacks, which continued, virtually unhindered in the north until 2009. By then, the Nigerian government had begun to investigate their activities and soon mounted a raid on their compound. In the course of the attack 700 Boko Haram members were killed and their leader was taken prisoner. He died shortly thereafter – “mysteriously” – in police custody.

Revenge and retaliation were soon the order of the day. Besides a number of attacks on police barracks, many of them targeted civilians, Muslims and Christians. On August 26, 2011, a Boko Haram member blew up the SUV he was driving into the fortified headquarters of the United Nations in the capital city, Abuja. The whole first floor was gutted. Twenty-three people lost their lives and seventy-six were injured. Ominously, this was taking terrorism to a higher, more sophisticated level.

Yet it would foolhardy to ascribe all the recent attacks on churches to Boco Haram (there have been well over 12 so far this year). For one, the group only claimed some of them; for two, some level of violence has been endemic to the Middle Belt of Nigeria (especially mwo4m) for years now. What is troubling, however, is that Boco Haram’s apparent strategy of fanning the flames of sectarian strife is beginning to work.

Actually, hundreds have died in such attacks, including Muslims, as Christians begin to retaliate. On June 17th three churches in Kaduna State alone were bombed: the ECWA (Evangelical Church of West Africa) church of Wusasa, the Catholic cathedral of Christ the King in Zaria, and a third at Shalom Church in Trikania.

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) issued a statement two days later, indicating that this violence meant that Boko Haram “had declared war on Christians and Christianity in Nigeria.” It then went on to state, “The pattern of bombings and gun attacks suggests to us a systematic religious cleansing which reminds Christians of the genesis of a Jihad.”

Yet for all its bravado – and real capacity to deliver terror – Boco Haram is just a recent thorn in the flesh of the Nigerian Federal Republic. Many other challenges stand in the way of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims here. And it’s mostly not about religion. But first, we have to take a step backwards to look at the bigger picture.


“Nigeria as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World”

John N. Paden, Clarence Robinson Professor of International Studies at George Mason University, taught for many years in Nigeria, and in 2008 wrote a fascinating book, Faith and Politics in Nigeria: Nigeria as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World. There are three main powers in Africa, he wrote. South Africa is mostly Christian. Egypt to the north is mostly Muslim. And in the middle you have Nigeria, containing the largest population of Christians and the largest population of Muslims. For that reason, it is “pivotal,” not only in Africa, but also in the wider Islamic world. If Muslims and Christians can work out their differences there, this can have repercussions elsewhere.

As Paden puts it, “Nigeria should not be considered a Muslim state in Africa, but rather a multireligious country with a secular constitution that serves as a bridge between Muslims and Christians in Africa” (23).

Of course, Nigeria is pivotal for other reasons. Their soldiers provide most of the manpower for peacekeeping missions run by the UN and the African Union. These have served in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Darfur, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a regional power as well, as it dominates the other states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In addition, Nigeria is the fourth largest member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), with the largest Muslim population after Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Egypt. Finally, Nigeria is a member of OPEC and the 7th largest producer of oil.

In 2005 Nigeria was considered a candidate for permanent membership on the UN Security Council; that same year Cardinal Francis Arinze from southern Nigeria was a possible candidate as the next pope, mostly because of his experience with Muslims.

But what about Muslim-Christian tensions? Having now seen Nigeria’s global reach and the potentially “contagious” paradigm of Muslim-Christian harmony, we must look at its history to understand the longstanding wounds and tensions.


A very brief history of Nigeria’s north-south relations

The British brought together north and south Nigeria as one entity in 1914, though in practice they managed the territory as two separate colonies. Under the Sultan of Sokoto in the north they allowed the region to be ruled by the traditional mix of local customs and shari’a law, while grooming the military elite from their ranks. The south, on the other hand was favored in terms of education and industrialization. The north, as a result, remained relatively impoverished. After World War II, with the advent of decolonization, the British and the Nigerians moved in the direction of unified country (unlike Rhodesia, which split into Zimbabwe and Zambia, for instance). Patten calls this a “fateful decision.”

To be fair, the British had also made an effort to reconcile the two regions, mostly by using the qur’anic paradigm of “the people of the book.” With time, it seemed that the northern rulers had absorbed this paradigm, and Christians and Muslims came to feel that they had more in common as followers of an Abrahamic faith than they had with the devotees of traditional African religion. Patten puts it this way:


“During the early independence era, there was close cooperation in the north between Muslims (whether emirs, civil servants, or teachers) and their Christian counterparts (whether chiefs, civil servants, or teachers). During this period, the premier of the Northern Region, Ahmadu Bello, initiated the northernization policy in which Muslim and Christian northerners were promoted rapidly, both at the regional and the national levels” (22).


This policy generally continued, though three events revived old tensions and created new wounds. The first was the 1966 coup in which junior officers mostly from the Christian southeast killed “key northern Muslim leaders, including Bello.” After a countercoup, however, the northerners selected from their midst a Christian officer, Yakubu Gowon, as chief commander of Nigeria’s army.

The other stress on the “people of the book” paradigm was the decision made by military ruler Ibrahim Bagangida in 1986 to have Nigeria enter the OIC. As a reaction, Middle Belt officers attempted a coup to overthrow Bagangida, but failed. Tensions, needless to say, persisted.

The third great stress to the system had been building for a long time. On several occasions, there had been talk at the federal level about “adopting shari’a law.” But starting in 2000, twelve states in all (out of a total of 36), with great fanfare, declared shari’a the law of their state. In practice, it only meant the establishment of shari’a courts which were to adjudicate cases of crimes specified in the Qur’an and Sunna – the hudud laws, or simply penal law.

In a chapter entitled “Politics and Sharia in Northern Nigeria,” from a book edited by Benjamin F. Soares and René Otayek (Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa), Sanusi Lamido Sanusi wrote this in 2007 about the aftermath of the “the shari’a affair”:

“Over a period of four years, the euphoria seems to have fizzled out. After the initial sensational sentences of amputations and caning, and even stoning to death (which was not carried out) the people have come to realize that nothing in reality has changed and that the poor seem to be the only ones facing the wrath of the law. There is now a focus on the real problems facing the people, and questions are being asked about good governance, competence, and genuine commitment to the welfare of the people” (185).


Sanusi, himself a Muslim, now Director of Nigeria’s Central Bank (my students pointed this out to me), continues with this thought, “The dialogue between Muslims and other Nigerians, as well as among Muslims, is ongoing.” One of the key questions to be discussed is this, he adds: “The role and limits of religion and religious laws in a liberal sense must be defined.”

Then he quotes the German philosopher Habermas, along with scholars of Islamic law I have often quoted myself, like the Harvard professor from Sudan, Abdullahi An-Nai’im, who argues that for Muslims to be faithful to Islam today, they must demand a secular state. After all, the sacred texts can be interpreted variously, so that if the state should impose one particular version, then those who disagreed would be violated in their conscience. States cannot impose theology, for fear of corrupting the essence of what it means to be a believer accountable to one’s Creator.

Sanusi then goes on to describe the spectrum of Muslim views in Nigeria, from very conservative and unbending, to very open and secular. He then concludes in these terms:


“The reality of the world in which we live, the demands of women for greater freedom, the requirements of good governance, and increased awareness of the capacity of religious demagogues for mischief will all push the debate toward more secular areas and reduce the religious tension. Ultimately, improvements in Muslims’ understanding not just of the law but also of the meaning of citizenship and the importance of personal liberty, are crucial to the future of this debate. Only then will it become difficult to use religion as a divisive tool for the attainment of political ends” (186).


Certainly, these are values crucial for nurturing the fabric of any democratic society – citizenship, civil and religious freedom, government accountable to the people, etc. But can both sides leave behind past grievances and prejudice to work together on building this kind of nation?


Where to from here?

Bill Hansen, Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the American University of Nigeria (AUN), in Yola (Adamawa State in the northeast), has worked at AUN for over twenty years. In March 2012 in a Sociology of Islam listserv I follow, he reacted strongly to the allegation that Boco Haram was behind all the recent violence:


“There has been a tendency over the past few months by both the Nigerian state and the international media to blame anything and everything on Boko Haram and some sort of ‘jihadist/islamist’ uprising. For example, the violence of January 13/14 in Adamawa state, where I live, was initially attributed to Boko Haram. Now it looks increasingly like it was an intra-ethnic factional struggle in which neither of the parties were Muslim. Furthermore, there's often a sort of ‘wild west’ atmosphere in certain parts of Nigeria replete with bank and ‘stagecoach’ (car) robberies. Often these common crimes are attributed to BH.”


Then he pointed to the wider context, and in particular, to a lack of good governance over time:


“Nigerian society – all of it, Muslim as well as Christian – has been victimized by a half century of unremitting venality, brutality and predation by a predatory political class. Some (many) people, faced with what seems to be the absolute failure of the bourgeois, post-colonial state and its alleged democratic institutions (sufficient primarily for extracting oil for the benefit of foreigners and rich Nigerians), seek and think they'll find solutions in religious mysticism and some imagined 7th century political utopia they think they can (re)create.”


I certainly am no expert on Nigeria. Three two-week visits and some reading don’t count for much. Yet I was so heartened by the reaction of my Christian students while discussing Sanusi’s article, that I come away with the hope that enough Muslims and Christians at the grassroots will not only be reconciled, but also roll up their sleeves, work together to improve their country’s functioning at every level, and initiate a movement that will spread.


Three elements in that discussion gave me that hope:


1. My teaching about “religion” as a complex phenomenon shaped by and constantly remolded by a people’s history, politics, culture, economic realities, and sociology, was finally sinking in.

2. As a result, they were beginning to understand that not all Muslims conformed to their stereotypes – that Sanusi was also speaking for many Nigerian Muslims as well.

3. They were embracing Jesus’ message of transforming initiatives to build reconciliation and peace (yes, and in case you were wondering, they were required to read my three blogs on “Jesus: A Sunna of Peace”).

My Christian and Muslim readers, can I ask you to pray earnestly, with faith, that God will bless Nigeria with peace and prosperity for all? And, by all means, if you personally can do something about it, please do it!

Over the last ten years, four Muslims have been Nobel Peace Prize Laureates – two women, and two men. Just last year (2011), the prize was awarded to three women, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”: the Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; her younger compatriot, Leymah Gbowee; and Yemeni activist, Tawakkol Karman. In 2003 it was Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi’s turn; then Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005) and Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Bangladeshi Grameen Bank.

This is good to keep in mind – especially in light of the very real issues of Islamic-related terrorism (which kills many more Muslims than non-Muslims, by the way) and the media’s tendency to focus on the egregious rather than on the peaceful and constructive.

I have in my hands a 92-page booklet published in 2007 by the Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan: Islam, Peace and Tolerance (it is available online in pdf form). The Ahmadiyyas, who consider themselves Sunni Muslims, are viewed as heretical by many Muslims and hence persecuted, especially in Pakistan, Bengladesh and Indonesia. This is because they believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908), was the Messiah or Mahdi. Still, they are perhaps the most effective Muslim missionaries worldwide, specializing in Qur’anic translation and distribution.

This booklet could have been written by any mainstream Sunni. Perhaps, I would venture, it fulfills a double function: defending Islam and urging fellow Muslims to treat them better. The author, Zahid Aziz, writes in his Preface that he aims to refute three common misperceptions: a) Islam is violent and intolerant to the point of waging jihad against all unbelievers; b) apostasy (leaving Islam) is punishable by death; c) Muslims are commanded to kill all who speak out against Islam. He goes on,

“These misconceptions have aroused a great deal of hostility against Islam in the West … Unfortunately, some sections of Muslims, by their own intemperate words and actions, are reinforcing exactly this alarming message of Islam. The vast majority of Muslims do not, of course, accept these extreme doctrines but have generally not realised the urgent and vital necessity of making strong, sustained efforts to remove these grave slurs from the good name of Islam and its Prophet Muhammad” (p. 1).

Aziz is right. For the reasons mentioned above, Muslims literally have to go out of their way to spell out the reasons for calling Islam “a religion of peace,” as President Bush put it, days after the September 2001 attacks.

Yet Muslims have been writing volumes on the subject, starting in the last century. I just picked out a dozen such books today from the U. of Penn library, maybe only one third of what is available; and there is so much more online.

In the little space I have here, allow me to make three points: some of the literature is defensive, even apologetic (especially online); how the classical shari’a worldview has evolved; research on nonviolence and peacebuilding in parallel with other faith traditions is on the rise.

A defensive, even apologetic discourse

When you think about the current international climate, it makes perfect sense. Islamophobia, especially in Europe, lurks behind every magazine, behind every gaze as Muslims walk the streets, ready to pounce and reinforce their sense of being marginalized and unwanted. With books like, Because they Hate (Brigitte Gabrielle) or The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran (Robert Spencer), many Muslims have developed a fortress mentality. So one bends over backwards to prove, with Qur’anic verses in support, that Islam is all about peace with God and peace with one’s neighbor.

In this respect, Zahid Aziz’s book is a perfect example. The title of the first chapter says it all: “Prophet Muhammad’s life: offering friendship and peace to the world.” Chapter 2 deals with “Freedom of religion in Islam,” Chapter 3 with “Islam’s teaching on response to abuse and mockery,” and Chapters 4 and 5 on jihad and just war theory (“When is war allowed?”). In the chapter on martyrdom, Aziz offers a helpful widening of the meaning of “martyrs” in the Qur’an and shows that suicide was always considered a sin in Islam. Then he totally spiritualizes the “virgins in heaven,” failing to mention that this is a very recent twist on an ancient tradition, still a popular view today.

“Defensive” is about an attitude – you feel embattled, so you defend yourself. “Apologetic” is about a strategy. You are not just defending your faith from slander; you are promoting it so as to make it as attractive as possible to your non-believing reader. In so doing, it doesn’t hurt (though it may hurt in the long run) to put the other down, ever so slightly. So his Chapter 8 is about “The Bible and war.” I mentioned some of this in one of my blogs about jihad. But I do find objectionable that the only passages he quotes from Jesus are: “I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mat. 10:34) and “I came to send fire on the earth … division” (Luke 12:49, 51). Yes, he admits, these statements don’t necessarily refer to war.

Aziz should have also quoted what Jesus told the disciple who had just used his sword to cut off the ear of the man who was arresting Jesus in the garden. He said, "Put away your sword. Those who use the sword will die by the sword" (Mat. 26:52). As it is, Aziz has distorted Jesus’ message for his own purposes.

Reinterpreting the classical shari’a worldview

I’ll keep this short, since I’ve written about jihad elsewhere. Islamic legal theory of the classical period (from the ninth to the thirteenth century) held that the world was divided into two spheres: the Abode of Islam (dar al-islam) and the Abode of War (dar al-harb). Islam is to spread, either by means of conversion and/or by force of arms, until the whole world comes under the sway of Islamic rule. Notice, however, that this twofold division of the world is not in the Qur’an – it was a definition put forward by the jurists.

As mentioned elsewhere too, the jurists stipulated many rules of engagement in war – no harming the environment, and no killing of civilians, and especially women, children and monks. War had to be officially declared, truces and agreements with adversaries respected, and the like.

So in theory the natural state of international relations is war. In practice, though, Muslim leaders entered into agreements with their enemies, whether for truces or for long lasting covenants. Yitzhak Reiter, a senior fellow of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and a veteran of Jewish-Muslim dialog in Israel, recently studied key legal opinions by prominent Muslim jurists (fatwas) relating to the issue of war and peace with the State of Israel (War, Peace & International Relations in Islam, 2011). He shows that historically, not only were the jurists much more flexible in their theory (some had a third category, “the Abode of Covenant”), but in practice, after the conquests and up to the fifteenth century, “Muslims reconciled themselves to a practical situation of ‘dormant jihad’, that is, jihad as a war only in theory” (p. 26).

Even the Ottomans, who claimed to reunite the Muslim world through their dramatic conquests from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, gave in to the idea that in light of the fact that the European powers had gained the upper hand (especially after the second siege of Vienna in 1683) peace treaties were an acceptable state of affairs. By the 19th century – the Treaty of Paris (1856) was a watershed in this regard – the Ottoman Empire had joined the international order, in effect exchanging shari’a for the prevailing legal norms of the time.

The same can be said for the twentieth century during which most prominent Muslim jurists followed the great Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) in developing a new, pragmatic and adaptive interpretation of the Islamic sacred texts (Qur’an and Sunna). For them, jihad is mostly of the spiritual kind (controlling one’s base instincts in order to obey God); and when it comes to war, only a defensive jihad can be justified.

Notice that more than anything, this is a fundamental worldview shift: peace and not war is the natural state of international relations. Muslim majority states after WWII, after all, had to pay at least lip service to the canons of international law. At the same time, rogue groups following Sayyid Qutb (executed in 1966) espoused a radical interpretation that harkened back to the classical doctrine of the two abodes.

Peacebuilding and nonviolence

With the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christianity went from being a persecuted, minority faith, to one that came to be associated with the Empire itself. In light of the new reality, St. Ambrose and Augustine began a tradition of Just War theory, that is, counseling rulers on principles that in particular circumstances justify going to war or not. In essence, this is what the Muslim jurists were doing all along. And though Christians didn’t have (at least theologically) a similar dichotomous view of the world, the Crusades, the Reconquista and the extermination of native peoples in the Americas did find “Christian” justifications.

In my series on Jesus’ Sunna of Peace, I highlighted Glen Stassen’s pioneering work on “just peacemaking.” So I commend to you a recent book that builds on this paradigm (Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, ed.). Each of the ten principles is introduced, followed by a Muslim, Christian and Jewish reflection by a different author (and in different order each time). If you count the Muslim preface (there are two others), then eleven different Muslim scholars/activists contributed to this book. And they do so from very different angles, because this approach seeks to transcend the traditional dichotomy between Just War theory and pacifism. Leave the theory aside for a while, suggests Stassen, and adopt practices that have actually worked and brought about peace.

In the remaining space I have here, allow me to recommend six other books – in order of publication:

Said, Abdul Aziz, Nathan C. Funk and Ayse S. Kadayifci, eds., Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam: Precept and Practice (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2001).

Under the auspices of the Center for Global Peace at American University, this is a book seeking to focus on Islam and peace by examining “a great living tradition and its role in the world today.” The editors add, “We have sought to present a selection from the best scholarly writings available on peace and conflict resolution in Islam, and organize them in one volume in relation to their differing interpretive, conceptual, and practical foundations” (3-4). What I find especially fascinating in this book, is its progression from the reality of the Muslim conquests, to the importance of good governance and laws, to conflict resolution, to nonviolence, and finally to the power of Sufism, Islam’s mystical stream: “peace through the power of love.” This section includes a chapter by the Sri Lankan Sufi shaykh who finished his career and was buried in Philadelphia.

Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Nonviolence and Peacebuilding in Islam: Theory and Practice (Gainesville, FL: U. Press of Florida, 2003).

Director of American University’s Peacebuilding and Development Institute, Abu-Nimer has been circling the globe teaching and practicing conflict resolution in many zones of conflict. This book summarizes some of the recent theory and goes into detail with regard to concrete efforts at peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians – an interesting contribution in light of his own Israeli-Palestinian background. Abu-Nimer is also the founder of the Salam Institute for Peace and Justice and was the main partner in the Evangelical-Muslim dialog sponsored by Fuller Seminar in the mid 2000s. I too was a participant and contributed a chapter to the book that came out of those two conferences, Peace-Building By, Between and Beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians (Mohammed Abu-Nimer and David Augsburger, eds.).

Delhi Policy Group, War and Peace in Islam: Seminar Proceedings (Delhi Policy Group, 2003).

More difficult to obtain than the others, this book nevertheless is a goldmine if you want to get a feel for contemporary reformist Islam in India. At least one is from the ulama establishment, but most of the fifteen are influential scholars who seek to promote a progressive interpretation of the sources in an effort to counter the conservative (and they would add, “repressive” and “warmongering”) voices in many circles of the Subcontinent.

J. Dudley Woodberry, Osman Zümrüt, and Mustafa Köylü, eds. Muslim and Christian Reflections on Peace: Divine and Human Dimensions (University Press of America, 2005)

This is a collection of papers presented by Muslim and Evangelical scholars in a 2001 conference in Samsun, Turkey. What is particularly helpful is the place given to the contentious issue of missionary activity on both sides.

Qamar-Ul Huda, ed., Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam. Preface by HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010).

My top choice for a book introducing state-of-the-art peacebuilding from a Muslim perspective is this one. Its editor, Qamar-Ul Huda, is both senior program officer at the US Institute of Peace and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Here he brings together the contribution of nine other Muslim experts on the issue, including Abu-Nimer and the prominent Turkish scholar, Ibrahim Kalin. The other reason this book is so important is that after the expected first part which reexamines the sacred texts, the second part focuses on peacemaking education among Muslims, without forgetting the crucial role played by women in the home and within grassroots movements.

Amitabh Pal, “Islam” Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011).

Managing Editor for The Progressive, Amitabh Pal is a writer who fondly remembers growing up in India with many Muslim friends. Here he seeks to set the record straight on the issue of Islam and violence, both from the religious texts and from many examples of peacebuilding, from the “pacifist sects” (like the Sufis and Ahmadiyyas), to the interfaith peace movement in Israel-Palestine, to the peaceful struggle of the Kosovar Albanians, to the amazing story of nonviolence among the Pashtuns of Afghanistan-Pakistan (I will come back to this). Despite Pal’s painstaking research, however, he is no specialist in Islam and he has clear political leanings. On the other hand, this serves as a useful antidote to the writings and activism of people like Mark Steyn, Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, David Horrowitz and Daniel Pipes.

Concluding this three-part series, I remind you of my purpose: “in the spirit of religious dialog, I am proposing Muslims join Christians in a new reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount” in order to highlight practical peacemaking strategies. Our main finding was that Jesus proposed (and led by example) “transforming initiatives” – bold actions stemming from a forgiving heart that surprised opponents into considering reconciliation and even friendship.

We often referred to the writing of leading Christian ethicist, Glen Stassen, and in particular his groundbreaking work, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (1992). Besides his innovative and insightful focus on the Sermon on the Mount, Stassen also outlined “The Seven Steps of Just Peacemaking.” Partly through his leadership in the 1980s International Freeze Campaign (to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons), Stassen’s seven steps quickly became the “ten practices” that have now gained international recognition (see the 2nd edition of his edited work, with the contribution of thirty other academics and peace activists: Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War.

I will briefly summarize the ten practices; then offer a bare-bones summary of how they were successfully applied for the sake of dramatically reducing the nuclear arsenals of both the US and the Soviet Union in the 1980s; and finally, I’ll highlight just a few initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian front.


Ten Practices for Abolishing War

In the following list (see Stassen’s homepage on this), notice the three headings under which the ten practices fall: “peacemaking initiatives,” justice,” and “love and community.” Think about our previous discussion about how Jesus consistently drew on the “Servant passages” of the prophet Isaiah and how justice was mentioned 16 times and peace 14 times. Add to this his incessant call to love even enemies and work at strengthening human solidarity, as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for example.

Here are the ten practices with a very short commentary:



1. Support nonviolent direct action.

Nonviolent Direct Action has been gaining dramatically worldwide, ending dictatorships in Iran in 1979, the Philippines in 1986, the nonviolent revolutions in Poland, East Germany, and Central Europe, human rights advocacy in Latin America, South Africa; more recently, the Arab Spring.

2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.

3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.

4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.



5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.

6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.



7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.

8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.

9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.

10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

On this last point Stassen writes,

“The existence of a growing worldwide people's movement constitutes one more historical force that makes just peacemaking theory possible. They learn peacemaking practices and press governments to employ these practices; governments should protect such associations in law, and give them accurate information.”


These principles of just peacemaking are on one level compatible with both just war theory and pacifism; it also challenges each one in practice. Here is Stassen’s evaluation,


“Each practice is recent in its widespread use, and is causing significant change. Together they exert strong influence, decreasing wars. Each is empirically happening and being effective in abolishing some wars. Each faces significant obstacles and blocking forces that are named in the chapters. We contend that just peacemaking practices are ethically obligatory for persons, groups, and governments to strengthen them and help overcome the blocking forces.”


Stassen offered a thought-provoking commentary on President Obama’s 2009 speech in Oslo (“What the Media missed in Obama’s Nobel Prize Address”). Though Obama mentioned “just war” three times, more importantly he spelled out all of the ten just peacemaking practices. Writing at that time, he seemed optimistic: “Missing his emphasis on the ten practices of just peacemaking makes us miss his intention, and makes us miss the new paradigm for the ethics of peace and war that gives us new hope.”

Still, he cautiously ended with this: “Let us pray, realistically, that he doesn’t end up remembered as the Afghan War President.” Obama’s record on that issue, with the increase of troops in 2010 and the expansion of drone-initiated assassinations, is doubtful at best. It speaks more of realpolitik and of reelection calculus.

That said, his emphasis on the need to negotiate directly with Teheran, thereby sidelining the prevailing hawkish discourse in Congress, is spot-on. Along these lines, Congressman Dennis Kucinich boldly outlines a just peacemaking strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and bellicose rhetoric toward Israel in particular.


“How Just Peacemaking Got Rid of the Missiles in Europe”

This is the title of Chapter 5 in Stassen’s 1992 Just Peacemaking book. An apt case study, here are its main lines. But first, consider the bleak Cold War reality of 1981:

“The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a buildup of dangerous medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Afghanistan was being invaded and oppressed. The Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) II Treaty was not being submitted for ratification. President Reagan was opposing the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign and attacking the Soviet Union as the evil empire. The Soviet Union was blaming the United States for the nuclear buildup. Prospects for arms control were bleaker than they had been for years. We felt powerless, defeated, despairing. European distrust of the United States was growing visibly, focused especially by the rejection of SALT II, the buildup of medium-range Euromissiles, new Cold War rhetoric, and a statement made by President Reagan that nuclear war in Europe was fightable. The long friendship built up by cooperation and sacrifice in World War II and the Marshall Plan was (sic) painfully crumbling” (p. 114-115).

Over the next few years dramatic steps were taken on all sides, starting with the peace movement in Europe – unsurprisingly powerful in Germany, as the Germans in particular were ground-zero for a potential nuclear war. Due to strong popular opposition to the Euromissiles on the domestic front, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (Social Democratic Party) proposed a “mutual zero solution” at his party’s congress in 1981. This was the idea that Randall Fosberg had presented two years earlier at a conference in Louisville, KY, giving birth to the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. Stassen was in attendance.

Increasingly, the Freeze Strategy Committee, on which Stassen served for three years, came to realize that pushing for zero new US deployments and opposing the Soviet medium-range missiles was in the interest of both parties. A mutual freeze could then lead to actual reductions in each party’s arsenal. This made sense not only because these weapons were so costly but also because Pershing II and cruise missiles could destroy the Soviet heartland. And even if the US refrained from using them, so many false warnings had already occurred in the Soviet defense system that the likelihood of a catastrophe was extremely high.

During the school year 1981-1982 Stassen was on sabbatical in Germany, during which time he was the Freeze Campaign’s International Task Force representative to the European peace movement. While attending the annual meeting of the Christian Council on Approaches to Defense and Disarmament, he met General Wolf Graf von Baudissin, former commander of the NATO Defense College and founder/leader of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy. He was also connected to several influential politicians in the West German government.

Stassen asked to meet with him, which he accepted. Realizing the momentous implication of this meeting, Stassen first devoted himself to prayer. “But who was I to be suggesting a transforming initiative by the West German government?” he mused.

Amazingly, Stassen’s plea fell on willing ears. General van Baudissin, who was hearing this scheme for the first time, answered that if the Germans and the Dutch proposed the Freeze idea NATO might accept. Then within weeks, in October 1981, Bonn, West Germany’s capital, witnessed the largest peace demonstration in its history, with several others following. In the next few days, over a million Germans marched for peace and for an end to the deployment of medium-range missiles, whether by the US or the Soviet Union.

On October 21, 1981, at the NATO meeting “the German and Dutch ministers initiated the zero solution proposal: NATO would agree to zero US deployments if the Soviet Union would reduce their medium-range missiles to zero” (p. 122). All agreed, except the US. But then, realizing that popular opinion had shifted dramatically, President Reagan announced on November 18, 1981 that he would support the zero solution.

To make a long story short, after much political wrangling between Congress and the White House and at least nine dramatic independent initiatives put forward by the new Soviet premier Gorbachev in 1987, the zero solution became reality.

What in the end broke the vicious cycle of nuclear buildup? Stassen cites three new factors: “the strategy of independent initiatives, the pressure of the people, and Gorbachev’s perception of the needs and opportunities of his situation” (p. 133). Notice too the heavy irony of it all:


“The Reagan Administration, which worked to undermine the Freeze Campaign, was led to its greatest foreign policy success by the very Freeze Campaign it had opposed. And the Freeze Campaign, which had been so maligned by President Reagan, was given its greatest success because President Reagan agreed that the solution should be simple and readily communicated to the people. Both were thinking the key is the grass roots, the people. God works in mysterious ways, God’s wonders to perform. Thanks be to God. Thanks also to the people” (133-4).


Israeli-Palestinian just peacemaking

I will no doubt write more on this topic later, so just a few comments for now … Perhaps the oldest transformative initiative since the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel was the founding of the peace village, Neve Shalom (Hebrew), or Wahat al-Salam (Arabic), “Oasis of Peace." Just off the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway is the Trappist abbey of Latrun, known for its spirituality, hospitality, and wine (maybe not in that order!).

In 1970, a Dominican brother, Bruno Hussar, obtained about one hundred acres of land from the Latrun abbey in order to start the village of peace so close to his heart. Born in Egypt from a Jewish family, Hussar was no stranger to the contradictions, humiliation, and conflict that comes from being part of a minority, branded as the “other” by the mainstream. He was dreaming of a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians could live together in mutual respect and peace. In a book that tells his story, he writes that such people “would find in this diversity a source of personal enrichment.”

And enrichment they did find … today there’s a waiting list of 500 families! Though new land is cleared for houses and agriculture every year, growth will have to stay limited. Yet the dream of having our children learn about their faith and the faith of their neighbors in elementary school and sharing religious holidays can be realized in many other settings as well.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about much more than just religion. Still, neighbors in this Oasis of Peace can sit under a Jewish Sukah during the Feast of Tabernacles or partake in a Ramadan fast-breaking meal, and the conversation, while still heated at times, can be very productive. After all, the conflict at heart is about two national groups learning to live together in dignity, justice and peace. Bruno Hussar’s transforming initiative is helping people on both sides (and beyond) visualize what it might take to get there.

Very briefly, let me end with two other initiatives. The first one I wrote about at length in my last chapter of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text – the Christians Peacemaker Teams, who just celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2011. I had the privilege of visiting the team in Hebron several times while doing research in that city in 1999. They do amazing work in the footsteps of Jesus by coming alongside existing peace and human rights groups in areas of conflict. They only come by invitation. They now have active projects in Columbia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Hebron and the village of At-Tuwani, the US-Mexican border, and among First-Nation peoples in both the US and Canada. Take a look at their introduction video.

The photo above pictures some of the participants of the 7th Bili’in Conference held in Hebron in April 2012 knocked to the ground by Israeli soldiers. A nonviolent grassroots Palestinian movement, these yearly conferences are led by the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee and the Bil’in Popular Committee against the Wall and Settlements. Bili’in is a Palestinian village that, like many others near the 1967 “Green Line,” has suffered immensely as a result of the Israeli separation wall. Yet more than any other villages, it has been the site for concerted, consistent and extremely courageous protests against the wall and Israeli occupation in general.

The highlight of the first day of the conference in Bili'in was an address by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; the second day was spent in the old city of Hebron, and the third in East Jerusalem. EU member of parliament Louisa Morgantini was in attendance for the three days, as were many internationals from various NGOs.

A group from the conference had decided to eat at the Ibrahimi School, one of the oldest schools in the West Bank (see a video shot by the students in 2011), no doubt out of solidarity. CPTers have famously accompanied children to school to protect them from the attacks of local Israeli settlers. But coming out after lunch, as the group walked back on the Palestinian side of the street (Palestinians are not allowed to walk on the much wider Israeli side), they were violently beaten by Israeli soldiers. Just to say, nonviolent protest in the West Bank is not for the fainthearted!

Second, I want to recommend to you a 2010 documentary that powerfully fleshes out Jesus’ sunna of peace. I have commented it in more detail in a blog about Bethlehem posted elsewhere. Its title is Little Town of Bethlehem and it weaves the stories of three peace activists now working together – an Israeli Jew, a Palestinian Muslim from a Bethlehem refugee camp and a Palestinian Christian, whose father founded the Bethlehem Bible College where I taught for three years. The film’s official launch in 2011 was coordinated with an international campaign for nonviolence.

So my final word is this. Jesus as prophet, or simply as a sage who taught by word and deed how to love enemies and make peace, can inspire and guide people of all faiths today. Naturally, as a Christian, I believe he’s much more than that. But as I have argued in these three blogs, nonviolent direct action was famously developed by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others – and it can be traced back to the “transforming initiatives” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That’s a great place to start. Other faiths have their own resources for peace, as does Islam in particular – the subject of a coming blog.

Before I get to the third and last installment of this series on Jesus as the sunna (“way,” or “example”) of peace, here is some research on the Sermon on the Mount I’ve found very helpful. I write this with both trepidation and excitement, as events continue to unfold in places like Syria and Yemen, where students and ordinary people continue to risk their lives to fight tyranny in a nonviolent way. This is where we are headed in the third blog – to the now well accepted “Just Peacemaking” theory, which includes the nonviolent direct action that Gandhi and others saw in Jesus’ life and teaching.

In Gandhi’s own words, “The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount…. It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me…. The message, to my mind, has suffered distortion in the West…. Much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount” (Pinchas Lapide, The Sermon on the Mount: Utopia or Program for Action? p. 3).

Let me emphasize once more that … Jesus isn’t just for Christians, or Muslims who hold him in the highest regard, for that matter! I teach comparative religion and I have found much to learn from and emulate in the lives of religious exemplars like Muhammad, Sidharta Gautama (the Buddha), Confucius, Lao Tzu, or Ramakhrishna. But when it comes to laying out practical strategy for building peace in a world of conflict, Jesus’ example and teaching (especially the Sermon on the Mount) is indispensable.

In particular, as Muslims and Christians discuss these issues, it really helps that Jesus saw himself in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. Here is how New Testament scholar N. T. Wright makes this point:

“Jesus was proclaiming a message from the covenant God, and living it out with symbolic actions. He was confronting the people with the folly of their ways, summoning them to a different way, and expecting to take the consequences of doing so. Elijah had stood alone against the prophets of Baal, and against the wickedness of King Ahab. Jeremiah had announced the doom of the Temple and the nation, in the face of royalty, priests and official prophets … all were accused of troubling the status quo. When people ‘saw’ Jesus as a prophet, this was the kind of model they had in mind” (Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 167-8).

First we’ll dig a bit deeper into the central message Jesus proclaimed and embodied – the Kingdom of God – and in particular its interweaving of peace, justice and nonviolence. Then we’ll look again at the Sermon on the Mount.


A Kingdom of Peace and Restorative Justice

To begin, let’s revisit the prophetic actions on the day Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, while the crowds jubilantly proclaimed him Messiah. Intentionally fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9), Jesus directly confronted the ideology of the zealots who claimed violence was the only way to deal with the Roman occupation. Yes, he was the promised King; no, he was not mounted on a war horse, but rather on a donkey that had never been ridden.

Another clue pointing to Jesus as a king of peace and nonviolence is found in Zechariah’s original prophecy, when he wrote, “Look, your king is coming to you … humble, riding on a donkey.” The word for “humble” either in Hebrew or Greek is used, and especially by Matthew, to mean “nonviolent” – as in this Beatitude: “God blesses those who are humble [or meek], for they will inherit the whole earth.”

Clarence Jordan in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount notes that this word is used of two men in the Bible who were anything but doormats. Moses, the great prophet who confronted the power and wrath of Pharaoh, was also described as “more humble than any person on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Then Jesus himself once said to the crowd,


“Come to me, all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mat. 11:29).


Jordan concludes that the word “tamed” is more appropriate than “meek” or “humble.” He goes on, “Both of them [Moses and Jesus] seemed absolutely fearless, … and completely surrendered to the will of God” (quoted in Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p. 40).

Back to Jesus’ riding on a donkey as he approached Jerusalem, and the last blog … At one point Jesus begins to weep, saying, “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.” Foremost on his mind, Israel’s king is thinking about peace. Yet this only deepens his sorrow, for he knows that his people’s inclination toward rebellion and violence will only lead to the city’s destruction. It’s just a matter of time.

Then he enters the Temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and chasing out the merchants of animals for the sacrifices. Recent scholarship has confirmed that this is no “cleansing” of the Temple, as was often put in the past. This is no reform movement. Rather, as someone who has already predicted on six occasions that the Temple was going to be razed, Jesus symbolically declares the Temple’s function null and void. Tragically, it now awaits destruction.

This said, as the John’s gospel emphasizes so clearly, Jesus is the new Temple. In fact, Jesus chases the merchants right at the beginning of his ministry, and in response to the Jewish leaders’ ire, he responds, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). John then explains that by “temple” Jesus meant his own body. Thus for Christians, Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate sacrifice, rendering the Jerusalem Temple and its animal sacrifices obsolete. Judaism too was moving on – and especially after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.

While carrying out this action, Jesus quotes from two prophets. The first is Isaiah, from a passage in chapter 56, in which God says, “… my Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (v. 7). God mourns the exclusion of so many people, like the eunuchs, the foreigners and the outcasts. David Garland in his NIV Application Commentary (p. 438), connects this passage to Jesus’ action in the Temple:

“During his entire ministry Jesus has been gathering in the impure outcasts and the physically maimed, and has even reached out to Gentiles. He expects the temple to embody this inclusive love…. In Jesus’ day the temple had become a nationalistic symbol that served only to divide Israel from the nations.”


The Temple system was not only excluding those God longed to reconcile to himself. Even on its own terms, it was patently unjust. As Oxford scholar Markus Bockmuehl shows, the Temple operations were overseen by a wealthy religious and political elite who only recently had brought traders into the outer courtyard (“the Court of the Gentiles”). The picture painted by historians demonstrates how courageous and radical Jesus was on that day – and why he was killed:


“The Mishnah [Jewish oral tradition that was gradually being written down at the time] gives evidence of hugely inflated price fixing for sacrificial doves, which were the offering of the poor…. During those two decades (of Jesus’ teenage years and adulthood) Annas and Caiaphas together enjoyed unrivalled power as a result of successful collaboration with the occupation forces of Rome…. mwo4mephus and the rabbinic writings also concur in offering some most remarkable descriptions of the utter luxury and extravagance of the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem” (This Jesus: Martyr, Lord, Messiah, p. 70-1).

This brings me to highlight the astounding match between Jesus’ deliberate confrontation of the powers and authorities of his day on the issue of justice (Stassen and Gushee count 40 such occasions in the Synoptic Gospels) and the sixteen passages in Isaiah announcing God’s coming reign in terms of justice. Specifically in Isaiah, God’s justice is seen as “deliverance of the outcasts, the poor and the oppressed from the domination of greed and concentrated power, and the restoration of community with peace. It called for repentance for injustice” (Stassen and Gushee, p. 355). Stassen and Gushee catalog in great detail the many instances in the gospels where Jesus confronts injustice in the four areas that Isaiah was also concerned about:


  • injustice of greed (aggravating the poverty and hunger of the masses)
  • injustice of domination (e.g., the Pharisees’ exclusionary interpretation of the law, or Caesar’s divine claim on a coin)
  • injustice of violence (the killing of the prophets before him, including his cousin, John the Baptist, and the violent tactics of the zealots; when the war comes to you, said Jesus, don’t participate in the fighting, but rather “flee to the mountains,” Mark 13:14)
  • injustice of exclusion from community (Jesus reached out to women, lepers, tax collectors, Roman officers, etc.)

As just one example, here is a key Isaiah passage Jesus draws from in his ministry – a passage that intimately connects peace, justice and nonviolence:


“Look at my servant, whom I strengthen.

He is my chosen one, who pleases me.

I have put my Spirit upon him.

He will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or raise his voice in public.

He will not crush the weakest reed

            or put out the a flickering candle.

He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.

He will not falter or lose heart

            until justice prevails throughout the earth.

I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.

I will take you by the hand and guard you,

            and I will give you to my people, Israel,

            as a symbol of my covenant with them.

And you will a light to guide the nations.

You will open the eyes of the blind.

You will free the captives from prison,

            releasing those who sit in dark dungeons” (Is. 42:1-4; 6-7)



God’s reign of peace in the Sermon on the Mount

Once more, it truly pays to know the immediate backdrop of Jesus’ teaching, so as to be able to understand it in context. Recall that out of the seventeen passages in Isaiah that describe God’s future reign of deliverance, sixteen of them mention justice (like the one above) and fourteen mention peace.

Jewish indignation and anger at Rome’s domination was at an all-time high in Jesus’ day. His message of peace and reconciliation was sorely needed – and angrily resisted in some quarters. Here is how Stassen and Gushee put it:


“Scholars confirm that in Jesus’ time Jewish hatred of Rome was based on the religious drive for purity from corruption by foreign influences and power, on the political drive for independence and on economic resentment of the injustice of Roman taxes. Hatred and resentment often boiled up into guerilla movements and insurrections against Roman rule. Violent resistance was supported not only by the insurrectionists, who were later called ‘Zealots’, but by most groups in Israel, including most Pharisees” (Kingdom Ethics, p. 152).

In fact, the Jewish followers of Jesus did flee Jerusalem in 70 CE and until Constantine’s rise to power in the fourth century, the church, both Jewish and Gentile, did obey Jesus’ mandate of nonviolence and love of enemy. The last book written in the New Testament, John’s Revelation, draws a sharp contrast between the wanton violence of the Beasts and the faithful martyrdom of the Lamb’s disciples. Rome can never win by brute force.

What about the Sermon on the Mount? Recall that it is actually fourteen triads of traditional righteousness, followed by a vicious circle, and then a transforming initiative meant to deliver a person from that bondage (for more details, click on "14 Triads of the Sermon on the Mount" on Glen Stassen's faculty page).  So for example …


“You shall not kill” leads to the trap of escalating anger; the only escape is to “go and be reconciled” (Mat. 5:24).

“You shall not commit adultery” gets one stuck with a lustful eye and adultery of the heart; the only way out is to remove the cause of temptation – Jesus’ graphic hyperbole of gouging out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand (5:29-30). He might have said today, “destroy your laptop so as to starve your addiction to pornography.”

“Do not judge, lest you be judged” will mean you will be judged by the same measure – a scary thought! The solution is to “first take the log out of your own eye” (7:5).


In the last blog, we saw the four transforming initiatives that lead us out of the vicious cycle of revenge and violence. I want to end here with the follow-up to that paragraph.

Jesus says, “you have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy” (5:44). In this case he follows up with three transforming initiatives and then showcases the vicious circle this leads to – here, ending up like the pagans who only love those who love them, or the tax collectors who are only kind to their friends. That’s a deplorable situation to be in, Jesus implies!

This traditional teaching (actually coming from the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Qumran Community) leads to the climax of the six teachings in chapter five. The three transforming initiatives are: “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (5:44-45).

“Love you enemies” is not about some drippy sentimentality. It’s about doing good to one’s enemy, returning good for evil, and breaking a dangerous cycle. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “Never pay back evil with more evil.” He then quotes Proverbs 25:21-22:


“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.

If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads” (Rom. 12:17, 20).


What is also clear, as is throughout Jesus’ teaching, is that God’s kingdom of righteousness and peace floods into human experience as pure grace and mercy. Then on that basis we are given the privilege to participate in that gracious reign. Here, we are called to become like our Father who gives rain and sunshine to all by offering love and prayers to our enemies.

After the vicious cycle, Jesus offers a summary verse (as he does in 7:12, the famous “Golden Rule”): “But you are to be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” But, this is not moral perfection – Greek style – Stassen and Gushee hasten to add. The Hebrew and Aramaic meaning behind the Greek word means “complete” or “all-inclusive.” Love should encompass everyone, enemies included, Jesus is saying. So the transforming initiative here – and with it the apprenticeship of a whole new lifestyle and worldview – is to show love and kindness to all, with no exceptions.

Much more could be said, naturally. But hopefully this background will open the way for the next piece – how Jesus’ way can help guide us Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths and no faith, to make this a more peaceful world.

In the earliest documents of the Islamic community, we find that the word sunna (the path, or the example of a tribal leader in seventh-century Arabia) was applied to the new religious leaders – Muhammad, of course, but also the first caliphs (or successors) like Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and even governors of far-flung provinces. Within a century or so, sunna was used almost exclusively of the Prophet himself; and still later, “the Sunna” referred to the growing collection of hadiths (oral reports about what he had said or done), which by the third century were being weeded out in order to find the most reliable accounts, which were then included in the most authoritative written collections. Hence arose the “tradition” of the Prophet Muhammad, or simply, the Sunna, the second most authoritative text for Muslims after the Qur’an.

Here, in the spirit of religious dialog, I am proposing Muslims join Christians in a new reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the longest single teaching of the gospels in Matthew 5-7. The path of Jesus that I highlight here is peacemaking.

Isa bnu Maryam, or “Jesus, son of Mary” is mentioned in 93 qur’anic verses, where we read the following facts, among others:

- A whole sura is named after Mary (Sura 19) and the Qur’an says much more about her than does the New Testament

- Mary gave birth to Jesus a virgin (3:47; 19:20-21)

- He was given “clear signs” and God “strengthened him with the Holy Spirit” (2:87)

- By God’s leave he cured the lepers, opened the eyes of the blind and raised the dead (5:110)

- Isa is a “word” God “cast upon Mary, and a spirit from him” (4:171)

- Eleven times he is given the title “Messiah”

- He is a prophet of God, the one directly preceding Muhammad (33:7; 57:26, and elsewhere)


These statements and others are also found the gospels. And though Jesus does not call himself a prophet (others do), he certainly stands in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, both in his message and in his deeds. On the mount of transfiguration (see Matthew 17 and Mark 9), both Moses and Elijah appear, while Jesus is transformed into a dazzling white figure before the eyes of Peter, James and John. Hence, the title of this blog, “Jesus: A Sunna of Peace.”

A quick parenthesis: the English translation I’ll be using is the New Living Translation (2nd edition, 2004), which I consider to be the state-of-the-art translation, both because of the team of scholars who worked on it and because of its philosophy of translation (“dynamic equivalence”) drawn from the fields of linguistics and anthropology. The result is a text, which in the words of the editors, seeks to “communicate as clearly and powerfully to today’s readers as the original texts did to readers and listeners in the ancient biblical world.”

Now to he Sermon on the Mount, which begins with a series of blessings Jesus pronounces, the Beatitudes (Mat. 5:3-10):


3 “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,

   for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

4 God blesses those who mourn,

   for they will be comforted.

5 God blesses those who are humble,

   for they will inherit the whole earth.

6 God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,

   for they will be satisfied.

7 God blesses those who are merciful,

   for they will be shown mercy.

8 God blesses those whose hearts are pure,

   for they will see God.

9 God blesses those who work for peace,

   for they will be called the children of God.

10 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right,

   for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”


Note that the first and last blessing are about receiving or belonging to the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which in Mark and Luke is rendered “Kingdom of God.” Mark tells us that Jesus’ first preaching was on this theme:


“The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15)


Notice too those who are singled out for God’s blessing: the poor and spiritually hungry, those who mourn, who are humble, who “hunger and thirst for justice” (or “righteousness”); the merciful, the pure in heart, the “persecuted for doing right” and the peacemakers. It’s the last category I am highlighting here.

Coming into Jerusalem for what he knows is his last week on earth, Jesus rode on a donkey, no doubt reenacting the prophetic words of Zechariah, “Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey – riding on a donkey’s colt” (Zech. 9:9).

Spontaneously, the crowds threw their cloaks on the donkey’s path and waved olive branches, crying out, “Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38)

As it turns out, the prophet that Jesus quotes the most is Isaiah, and for Isaiah peace is one of the five characteristics of the coming reign of God (which will be inaugurated through the coming of his “Servant,” or Messiah): 1) deliverance or salvation (17 times); 2) righteousness/justice (16 times); 3) peace (14 times); 4) joy (12 times); 5) God’s presence as Spirit or Light (9 times).

Then Luke, just after depicting Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, describes the following scene:


41 But as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep. 42 “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. 43 Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. 44 … Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not accept your opportunity for salvation.”


Jesus weeps over the city that has killed so many prophets in the past, and which is now missing its greatest opportunity – in fact, its very salvation. If only it “would understand the way to peace,” Jesus mourns. But it’s too late, as “peace is hidden” from their eyes. Had they recognized and embraced him as their Messiah, this tragedy would have been averted.

Making peace is also the focus of Jesus’ teaching later in Matthew five. But just before that, allow me to interject a thought that I will pursue in greater detail in the next blog. Glen Stassen and David Gushee in their book, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, argue convincingly (following other New Testament scholars) that the Sermon on the Mount has mostly been misunderstood in the past. Instead of seeing it as a series of dyads (“you have heard it said … but I tell you”), we should rather see it as a series of fourteen triads (traditional righteousness – vicious cycle – transforming initiative).

So the paragraph entitled “teaching about revenge” should be read as a triad (and here I follow their translation):


Traditional Righteousness:

Mat. 5:38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

Vicious Cycle:

Mat. 5:39: “But I say to you, do not retaliate revengefully by evil means.”

Transforming Initiative:

Mat. 5:40-42: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse one who would borrow from you.”


The law of the talion (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) is mentioned three times in the Torah (in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy); it also appears in the Qur’an. In the context of the Ancient Near East, it goes back to Babylonian law. But Jesus warns that this seemingly just path of revenge is in fact a dead end. Literally, Jesus says, “do not resist evil.” But that makes no sense, since Jesus often confronted evil, not least when he chased the money changers from the Temple with a whip, while overturning their tables.

Evil here in the Greek can either mean “an evil person” or “by evil means.” Further, Walter Wink showed that the Greek word “resist” or “retaliate” was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (The Septuagint) and in the literature of the time (mwo4mephus and Philo) and most often meant “armed resistance in military encounters.” Hence, Stassen and Gushee’s translation here.

So if we are not to retaliate, even within the confines of the law of the talion, what are we to do? Is Jesus asking us to passively sit by, absorb the blows and shut up? No, he is calling for action, but one the adversary is not expecting. The action called for is a “transforming initiative” – an act that springs out of a forgiving heart; yet an act too, which forces the other to confront his or her wrongdoing and consider changing directions. It’s an initiative that seeks to change the adversarial dynamics into friendly ones; to disarm haughtiness and aggression and open the way for a human relationship built on respect.

The “transforming initiative” section here contains four imperatives in the Greek text: “turn,” “give,” “go,” and “give.” This is how Stassen and Gushee explain the “turning of the other cheek”:


“Turning the other cheek has been misunderstood in Western culture that thought there were only two alternatives – violence or passivity. But since Gandhi and King, we can appreciate Jesus’ teaching better. In Jesus’ culture, ‘to be struck on the right cheek was to be given a hostile, back-handed insult’ with the back of the right hand. In that culture, it was forbidden to touch or strike anyone with the left hand; the left hand was for dirty things. To turn the other cheek was to surprise the insulter, saying, nonviolently, ‘you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal.’ Jesus is saying: if you are slapped on the cheek of inferiority, turn the cheek of equal dignity.”

Turning the other cheek in this case, then, is to resist evil in a nonviolent way.

What about the coat? According to the Law of Moses (Exodus 22:25-27; Deut. 24:10-13), a creditor who lends something to a needy person may take his or her coat as a guarantee, but must give it back before sundown in case that person needs it to keep warm at night. Here the rich person sees a loophole: he’ll take the poor guy’s shirt as a guarantee and not have to give it back until he’s repaid – likely with interest. What Jesus says next is both humorous and shocking: “give him your coat too,” means that you, the poor one, will stand naked in court, so as to graphically expose the rich man’s greed, pour ridicule upon him and hopefully lead him to repent of his evil ways. The weak person thus seizes the initiative and confronts the injustice; and in so doing, he displays courage and strength of character.

Going the extra mile with a Roman soldier is to show kindness to one’s enemy. A hated symbol of Rome’s military occupation of “Palestine” (its Roman name at the time), the soldier was in fact just a pawn in a wider system of oppression. While some Jewish men, the so-called “zealots,” chose to kill Roman soldiers when possible, Jesus calls instead to offer blessing. By walking an extra mile, the Jew had the chance to catch the soldier “off guard” and initiate friendship. This initiative too aims toward peace and reconciliation. We know of course the story about the Roman centurion who pleaded with Jesus to heal his young servant – and do so at a distance, because he did not consider himself worthy enough to have Jesus enter his home. Jesus turned to the crowd, saying, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Mat. 8:10)

“Give to the one who begs.” This last transforming initiative must be read in context. Jesus spent his ministry mostly in the Galilee, a depressed area at the time, as many farmers had been driven off their lands by a combination of unfair taxation (both Roman and Jewish) and the practices of rapacious absentee landlords from Jerusalem’s wealthy elite. In fact, giving to beggars, or any kind of charity for that matter, was the only way of doing justice to the most vulnerable in a day when the gap between rich and poor had grown scandalously wide. Almsgiving is the only remedy when there is no other welfare system and injustice grinds the poor into the dust.

As I have written recently, justice was woven into the fabric of the Mosaic Law. Not just the command to harvest fields only once and allowing for the poor to glean, or even the right of the needy to glean the fields left fallow every seventh year; the centerpiece of the divine blueprint for social justice was the Jubilee Year. All debts had to be forgiven and all property acquired in the last forty nine years had to revert to the original owner. Justice meant the poor got a chance to climb out of poverty when the playing field was leveled every fifty years.

These were all meant to be signs – the sunna, if you will – of the coming Messiah: he would bring peace between nations, justice for the most disadvantaged, welcome to foreigners, friendship and reconciliation with enemies. In the words of the prophet Isaiah some seven hundred years earlier,


“For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion;

   his word will go out from Jerusalem.

The Lord will mediate between nations

   and will settle international disputes.

They will hammer their swords into plowshares

   and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will no longer fight against nation,

   nor train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:3-4).


What this practice of peace means in the wider context of the Sermon on the Mount is the subject of the next blog.

In the first two blogs in this Lenten series we’ve seen that poverty can only be remedied in a holistic way. Now, having examined how Christians struggle with this concept, I turn to Muslims and show how alleviating poverty represents a challenge for them too.

Though less than the Bible, the Qur’an often speaks of the poor and of the duty of believers to care for them. The word most used today for a poor person is faqir, which is found in this sense seven times in the Qur’an. Another common word is maskin (needy, with the connotation of helpless). Its plural form is used twenty-two times in the Qur’an. The biblical expression of caring for widows and orphans is missing, though verses drawing attention to the plight of orphans are frequent (twenty-three times – Muhammad himself had been one).

The two passages I offer here come from suras (chapters) of the Meccan period (between 610 and 622, before the Muslims emigrated to Medina). Notice in the first one that believers should take Judgment Day with the utmost seriousness, and that charity is first about one’s relationship with God, and only secondarily for the poor themselves. The givers’ motive is God’s pleasure; not people’s thanks or praise:


As for the virtuous, they will drink from cups spiced with nectar.

A spring that is reserved for God’s servants; it will gush out as they will.

They fulfill their pledges, and reverence a day that is extremely difficult.

They donate their favorite food to the poor, the orphan, and the captive.

“We feed you for the sake of God; we expect no reward from you, nor thanks.

We fear from our Lord a day that is full of misery and trouble” (Q. 76:5-10, Rashad Khalifa).


A similar passage alludes to the Qur’an’s cardinal virtue, gratitude. An ungrateful person will tend to hoard his or her possessions – hence the scourge of greed:


When the human being is tested by his Lord, through blessings and joy, he says, “My Lord is generous towards me.”

But if He tests him through reduction in provisions, he says, “My Lord is humiliating me!”

Wrong! It is you who brought it on yourselves by not regarding the orphan.

And not advocating charity towards the poor,

And consuming the inheritance of helpless orphans,

And loving the money too much (Q. 89:15-20, Rashad Khalifa).


So Muslims are called to give freewill offerings as often as possible, but they are also enjoined to reserve yearly one fortieth of their total assets to be distributed to the needy. This is one of Islam’s five “pillars,” zakat. That word’s verbal root means “to purify.” In that sense, this is a duty, which, once discharged, purifies the donor by atoning for several of his or her sins. But a question arises: practically, how has zakat functioned in Muslim societies to reduce poverty? Has it worked in the past and how relevant is it today?


A rosy but fuzzy narrative

In a rather scathing article in a journal published in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Journal of Islamic Economics, Banking and Finance), Mohammad Omar Farooq explains that against the backdrop of the resurgence of Islam in the 1970s and 1980s …


“…Muslims were reminded that it is religiously important to recognize that Islam has complete guidance and solution of all the social problems and not only they must seek such solutions from within Islam as a holistic source, but also Islam’s comprehensive guidance is superior to any other solution from the world-shelf.”


In other words, according the slogan of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (and all islamist groups in general), “Islam is the solution.” But what about poverty? “Islam solves the problem of poverty,” goes the standard reply, “since God instituted zakat, enjoining the wealthy to share with their poorer fellow citizens.”

According to Farooq, professor of economics at Upper Iowa University (see his 2011 book, Toward Our Reformation), the “fuzzy narrative” among fellow Muslims goes like this:


“Based on the Qur’anic revelation and the Prophetic leadership, a caring Islamic society was established. The Islamic state founded by the Prophet brought in reforms in people’s attitude and institutional policies and frameworks to help those in poverty. Within the period of Hadrat Umar’s rule (the second caliph) poverty was addressed. The measure of this success with poverty was cited as qualified zakat payers used to roam the streets to find qualified zakat recipients, but were unsuccessful.”


In other words, poverty was eliminated. History does not bear this out, however. The common Muslim explanation is that Islamic governance since the Umayyads (the first dynasty based in Damascus) devolved into quasi-secular dynasties, which were notoriously unsuccessful in even reducing poverty. The reason must be that the political authorities simply neglected the “institutional policies” for a “caring Islamic society.”

Farooq doesn’t buy that answer. Any kind of lesson drawn from the rule of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” (632-661), he says, is unlikely to apply to other periods of history. This is because poverty alleviation was merely redistribution from rich to poor by dipping into the state coffers dramatically swelled at the time by the booty of a rapidly expanding empire. To assert that zakat was and still is a panacea for reducing economic disparities is an argument from silence. The historical data are simply not there.

So if the solution to widespread and endemic poverty in much of today’s Muslim word is to apply “Islamic economics,” then what are we talking about? Farooq’s contention is that despite the enthusiasm for an “Islamic” middle way between capitalism and socialism starting in the 1960s, “Islamic economics” never got off the ground. What happened, in fact, was an almost immediate diversion created by the fad of Islamic banking and finance – what Farooq calls “primarily a prohibition-driven industry with a legalistic bent.” Yes, it prohibits usury (as does the law of Moses, because charging exorbitant interest rates exploits the poor), but it offers no positive strategies to stimulate the economy and empower the poor to climb out their hole.


The challenge of rethinking zakat today

So the rosy picture of Islam’s solution to poverty, according to Farooq, is just that – “a romanticized reading of our history.” Nor is there any systematic effort on the part of Muslim economists to actually focus on this glaring weakness:


“Even the field of Islamic economics has not quite picked up and focused on the challenge of poverty. Indeed, if the contemporary literature is any indication, poverty as an independent theme seems to have been ignored. For example, as much as the issue of development and growth are mentioned in the pertinent Islamic literature, focused attention to or studies of poverty is rather absent.”


Then Farooq comes back to the “golden age” of the Rightly Guided Caliphs and examines the efforts to redistribute the monies produced by the wars of conquest. For two reasons, this cannot provide any help for the war against poverty today.


First, redistribution schemes, by definition, don’t “help the poor to increase their productive capacity leading to long term earning opportunity.”

Second, wealth pouring in from the war chest of a dominant imperial army has no relevance whatsoever to the contemporary situation in Muslim countries.

On the positive side, “The Prophet did leave with us profoundly practical examples to help people become economically self-reliant, as exemplified in his guidance to a poor person to acquire an axe to gather wood and sell for income; unfortunately, such examples were not taken meaningfully to systematically develop relevant programs.”


In the present day, Farooq applauds the path-breaking work of Indian economist (and Nobel laureate) Amartya Sen on issues of poverty, but laments the fact that no such work has been attempted by Muslim economists, or even put into practice by various Muslim states. In his own country of Bangladesh a pioneering study was conducted by two American anthropologists in a “remote rural area of Bangladesh in the 1970s.” He explains,


“As part of the research they studied the problem of food shortage as insiders - living in the community the way the community did. Their sociological study based on field experience is a remarkable narrative with a deep human sensitivity. Their work, published as a brief paperback Needless Hunger drives the point home that there is not a problem of food shortage in terms of production, but there is a serious and fundamental problem of distribution. They also found that the foreign aid pouring into the country had a detrimental effect as it actually consolidates the very elite who keep the majority, the poor, powerless and hungry.”


All this to say that without painstaking effort to collect the relevant data using the tools of several academic disciplines, Muslim scholars should put aside the old mantra that zakat and charity will automatically wipe out poverty. Without that research no progress will be made – a sobering point, considering that the majority of the world’s poorest are Muslim.

There is hope, nonetheless, writes Farook. A recent book began to raise these issues in an interdisciplinary way, Poverty and Charity in Middle Eastern Contexts, edited by M. Bonner, M. Ener, and A. Singer in 2003. He singles out two chapters in particular. The first is by a rising star in this field, Duke scholar Timur Kuran (read about the think tank he founded, AALIMS http://aalims.org/), and it’s entitled, “Islamic Redistribution through Zakat: Historical Record and Modern Realities.” A paragraph Farooq cites is worth repeating here, as it nicely sums up a central thesis of his chapter:


“There has never existed a single source that offers an authoritative account of how zakat should be paid or disbursed. Accordingly, the system has never been applied consistently over either time or space. A source of immense controversy from the start, the application of zakat underwent transformations even during the Prophet Muhammad’s own lifetime. Also, during Islam’s first few centuries the application was never uniform. In view of this historical record, the current diversity in implementation is hardly surprising. Nor is it puzzling that the contemporary literature on zakat is riddled with inconsistencies and ambiguities.”


Since, therefore, the historical sources on how zakat was organized in the past are mostly lacking (including in the Qur’an and Sunna), it would be foolhardy to pontificate on how it should be carried out today. What is more, zakat was never meant to “alleviate poverty,” in the modern sense. As I said above, it was primarily meant to “purify” the donors and draw them nearer to God. The primary focus was never to lift the needy out of poverty. And then, of the eight possible recipients of zakat listed in the sacred texts, only three fit the category of the poor. The others might or might not be poor: the collectors of zakat themselves, those who needed to be converted to Islam, the travelers, those fighting in the way of God (a recognized jihad) and those in debt.

Another problem is that there was no agreement among jurists as to the exact criteria for designating someone as a recipient of zakat. In a study Timur Kuran conducted in Malaysia, disbursement of zakat monies to the poor ranged somewhere between ten and fifteen percent. The lion’s share went to religious education, with just a small amount given for the hajj and even less for new converts.

The second chapter Farooq highlights is by Ingrid Mattson, “Status-Based Definitions of Need in Early Islamic Zakat and Maintenance Laws,” where she argues that historically there was no common definition of who is a “poor” or “needy” person, a faqir or a maskin. Mattson, an anglo-American convert to Islam, is an Islamics scholar at the Hartford Seminary and served as the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

On a theme closely related to my last blog on poverty in the US, Mattson distinguishes between those born into poverty (the structurally poor) and those brought low through various circumstances (the incidental poor). Though I have no space to delve into the details, suffice it to say that traditional zakat distribution practices favored only the incidentally poor. If anything, such a strategy of redistribution tended to reinforce the status quo – that is, keeping a permanent lid on the lower classes.

Just to give you an idea of the complexity we face today in defining poverty, let alone in trying to reverse it, here is Kuran on today’s vastly different economic and social landscape, and why this calls for a radical rethinking of zakat. In this passage he has just pointed out that the traditional base of zakat was calculated on the basis of a person’s assets. But today that could potentially leave out a large segment of the population that is otherwise well off:


“Although none says that contemporary forms of wealth are exempt, one is hard-pressed to find details concerning stocks, bonds, vacation homes, collectibles, retirement accounts, or savings for a child’s education, to mention just a few of those that now carry major significance. Likewise, for all the specifics they provide on agricultural income, they avoid commentary on income derived from the industrial and service sectors—neither of which is negligible in any contemporary economy.”


I’ll wrap up the discussion here. I’ve provided resources for the reader who wants to pursue the subject further. In the meantime, I hope to have made it clear that Muslims, like Christians and people of other faith traditions, have a lot of homework ahead of them if they are serious about reducing the stark, shocking and ominous inequalities between the haves and the have-nots of this planet. As trustees of God’s good creation, we have no choice but to get to work on this. At the same time, if we join hands we will achieve better results. No doubt too, in so doing we will please our Creator whose love and compassion for all people – and especially the poor and marginalized – is boundless.

[This is the second blog in a Lenten series on poverty]

In the first installment on poverty I argued that from a Muslim and Christian perspective the scandalous economic inequalities we now witness in our world can only be tackled with a holistic approach: short term relief for victims of hunger and natural disasters and long term pressure on the powers-that-be, locally and internationally, to redress structural injustices. Here I use the USA as a case study, and more specifically a recent debate in the media and among top policy analysts.

One of the fallouts of the “Great Recession” is a national shouting match over rising inequality, never more eloquently portrayed than by the Occupy movement’s slogan, “we are the 99%.” But lost in the shuffle is the changing nature of poverty in America. It’s getting worse and the old clichés about poverty and race are now questioned. In fact, according to New York Times columnist and respected writer/activist on behalf of the world’s poorest, Nicholas Kristof, the white working class now risks being “locked in an underclass."

Kristof was writing about the release of Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray is a scholar for the staunchly conservative American Enterprise Institute and, unsurprisingly, his book was cheered on the right and booed on the left. Yet it did spark a needed debate about a sobering phenomenon.

Shockingly, I ask myself, did it take the realization that a number of whites were joining the throngs of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans already overrepresented among the fifteen percent under the poverty line to start a national conversation about poverty? Meanwhile, racist structures continue to make it more likely for people of color to be poor. How else can you explain that 70% of the US prison population is non-white? But that’s another topic.

Nevertheless, the stormy debate generated by Murray’s book highlights important issues about poverty in the US. Among the "Five Myths about White People." Murray offers in a Washington Post article published just before his book’s release, I choose to discuss three:


1. Working class whites are more religious than upper-class whites – wrong, he says, for “nearly 32 percent of upper-middle-class whites ages 30 to 49 attended church regularly, compared with 17 percent of the white working class in the same age group.”

2. White working-class men have a strong work ethic – wrong again: numbers have been growing fast for working-class men giving up on full-time work or any work at all.

3. Marriage is breaking down throughout white America. Overall, this is true, but among whites, “there is a sharp class divide on marriage.” A high school education turns out to be the watershed – he defines “working class” as those with a GED or less. He explains:

"The share of upper-middle-class whites ages 30 to 49 who are married has been steady since 1984, hovering around 84 percent. During that same period, marriage for working-class whites in the same age group has fallen from 70 percent to 48 percent . . . Marriage now constitutes a cultural fault line dividing the socioeconomic classes among white Americans."


For Murray all three are the result of liberal social welfare policies and declining moral/religious values. Admittedly, these are complex issues; yet I make two points with confidence in this blog. First, Murray’s analysis is flawed because incomplete; and second, applying Christian values (which are overwhelmingly shared by Muslims and Jews) could help bring lasting solutions to poverty in America.


Poverty – with or without “values”

I will start with Murray’s commentary on the second myth – that white men with at most a high school education have lost their strong work ethic. His figures are striking:


“In 1968, 97 percent of white males ages 30 to 49 who had at most a high school diploma were in the labor force — meaning they either had a job or were actively seeking work. By March 2008 (before the Great Recession), that number had dropped to 88 percent. That means almost one out of eight white working-class men in the prime of life is not even looking for a job.”


Murray naturally excludes post-2008 figures, because his argument is that this is a systemic problem – I will argue that too, but from a different viewpoint. For him it’s caused, on the one hand, by too many government handouts; and on the other, by declining family values. Fewer and fewer men stay married and those who are seem to care less about providing financially for their families. Solid marriages are indeed a poverty buster. I’m less impressed with the failure of government programs.

But is this an issue of values? More plausibly, loss of family values could be the result, rather than the cause, of vanishing economic opportunities, especially in view of the fact that middle and upper middle-class white males seem just as religious (and married) as before. Indeed, there is more to the picture than Murray admits. Here are some figures Princeton economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman offers, as he argues that most of this white underclass phenomenon can be attributed to “a drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men”:


“Adjusted for inflation, entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23 percent since 1973. Meanwhile, employment benefits have collapsed. In 1980, 65 percent of recent high-school graduates working in the private sector had health benefits, but, by 2009, that was down to 29 percent.”


Back to Kristof, who has no trouble identifying with this problem on a personal level:


“My touchstone is my beloved hometown of Yamhill, Ore., population about 925 on a good day. We Americans think of our rural American heartland as a lovely pastoral backdrop, but these days some marginally employed white families in places like Yamhill seem to be replicating the pathologies that have devastated many African-American families over the last generation or two.

One scourge has been drug abuse. In rural America, it’s not heroin but methamphetamine; it has shattered lives in Yamhill and left many with criminal records that make it harder to find good jobs. With parents in jail, kids are raised on the fly.”


As you would imagine, this pattern wreaks havoc with families:


“Then there’s the eclipse of traditional family patterns. Among white American women with only a high school education, 44 percent of births are out of wedlock, up from 6 percent in 1970, according to Murray.”


Kristof agrees with Murray that “solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong).” In fact, research has shown a correlation between healthy marriages and a decrease in substance abuse and crime:


“One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”


Having conceded this, however, he rejoins Krugman in saying that employment is crucial in the overall mix:


“Jobs are also critical as a pathway out of poverty, and Murray is correct in noting that it is troubling that growing numbers of working-class men drop out of the labor force. The proportion of men of prime working age with only a high school education who say they are ‘out of the labor force’ has quadrupled since 1968, to 12 percent.”


So we’re piecing together the strands of a more comprehensive explanation for soaring poverty rates: family values do matter – and as a person of faith I’ll add “spiritual and moral values” – but there are systemic injustices on the macro level that are forcing more and more people under the poverty line and keeping them there. This is above all a moral issue. It’s about the shameful fact that in the richest and most powerful country of the world poverty has steadily worsened over the last few decades (for a more in-depth rebuttal of Murray’s position see Jared Bernstein’s “Charles Murray’s Coming Apart”).


Old prophets and new ones

The Old Testament prophets blasted out God’s judgment on his wayward people. The eighth-century BC prophet Amos sent from Judah to the northern Kingdom of Israel based in Samaria is one among many others calling the Israelites to repentance. With great courage he intones,


“Come back to the LORD and live! Otherwise, he will roar through Israel[a] like a fire, devouring you completely …

You twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed.

You treat the righteous like dirt …

You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent …

For I know the vast number of your sins and the depth of your rebellions.

You oppress good people by taking bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts” (Amos 5:6, 7, 11, 12).


God singles out the elites, who misuse their power to trample the poor and enrich themselves at their expense, and he calls them to account.

I have long been a fan of the Rev. Jim Wallis, a contemporary prophetic voice who founded Sojourners about forty years ago – both a journal and a Washington, DC-based Christian community. His 2005 book (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It) has a chapter that speaks to the issue of poverty in America. At one point he writes,


“The truth is that hungry people are going without food stamps, poor children are going without health care, the elderly are going without medicine, and schoolchildren are going without textbooks because of war, tax cuts, and a lack of both attention and compassion from our political leaders. The deepening injustice of America’s domestic policies is increasingly impossible to justify. It’s becoming a religious issue” (p. 222).


Wallis argues for a multi-pronged attack on poverty drawing on “the insights and energies of both conservatives and liberals” (p. 226). We shouldn’t just look to government, or the market, or churches and charities; we should especially focus on learning new ideas from grassroots projects that are actually working across the country. Indeed, we have to be committed to those conservative values of personal and moral responsibility, as well as family values. But we also can’t forget those hard-working poor that simply could never pull their families out of poverty considering their meager salaries and lack of benefits. And there’s more:


“Overcoming poverty … entails better corporate and banking policies and effective government action where the market has failed to address fundamental issues of fairness and justice” (p. 228).


During the 2004 election year at Pentecost Wallis gathered Christian leaders in Washington, “evangelical and mainline, Catholic and Protestant, black, Hispanic, Asian, and white, making a common declaration across the theological and political spectrum of the church’s life.” The outcome was a “Unity Statement on Overcoming Poverty,” which in its last paragraph reads,


“We therefore covenant with each other that in this election year, we will pray together and work together for policies that can achieve these goals. We will ensure that overcoming poverty becomes a bipartisan commitment and non-partisan cause, one that links religious values with economic justice, moral behavior with political commitment. We will raise this conviction in the public dialogue, and we will seek to hold all our political leaders accountable to its achievement” (p. 240).


Another evangelical prophetic voice is that of Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, and author of the 1977 classic book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. He has just penned a new book examining the federal deficit in parallel with the fact of growing poverty. It is aptly titled, Fixing the Moral Deficit. I have no space here to comment on it here, but I can offer a good review of the book in Sojourners.

The last contemporary “prophet” I want to highlight, is David Beckmann, a Lutheran pastor who worked for fifteen years with the World Bank, overseeing large-scale development projects, while constantly applying innovative means to reduce poverty. Then in 1991, he became president of Bread for the World, a Christian, bipartisan organization aiming to eradicate hunger in the US and around the world, including its research arm, Bread for the World Institute. “Bread” mobilizes people in the church and organizes campaigns that bring hunger and poverty to the attention of policy makers in Washington and abroad.

Laureate of the World Food Prize in 2010, Beckmann has been asked to testify in Congress eighteen times so far. Among Bread’s achievements in the last decade:


“Due in part to the persistent, bipartisan advocacy of Bread members, the U.S. government has tripled funding for effective programs to help developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Bread has also helped double funding for U.S. nutrition programs, assisting millions of families in the United States who struggle to feed their children. Recently, Bread for the World initiated a campaign to press Congress to reform U.S. foreign aid to make it more effective in reducing hunger and poverty, and another to protect and strengthen tax credits for low-income working families.”


According to their website, "14.5 percent of households struggle to put food on the table. More than one in four children is at risk of hunger." What is more, 15.1 percent of the American population lives in poverty. Bread for the World strongly believes that hunger is the only direct cause of poverty and therefore sees three main solutions for US hunger eradication:


1. Child nutritional programs: “Child nutrition programs—school lunches and breakfasts, summer feeding programs, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program—are critical to ending childhood hunger. When children receive the nutrition they need, they are more likely to move out of poverty as adults.”

2. Good jobs: along with benefits that will help hard-working people to climb out of poverty.

3. Work support programs: this includes the Earned Income Tax Credit (tax breaks for the poor) and the child nutritional programs.


Poverty leads to hunger. When childcare, rent, transportation and utilities are paid, low-income families cut corners on food. Somehow a tax system that reduces the burden of the less fortunate, federal and state funded poverty alleviation programs, laws that help in various ways to ensure a living wage, and laws that facilitate entrepreneurship as well as the growth of US manufacturing – all of this and more is necessary to help America eradicate poverty and hunger. Soup kitchens, food coops, and the host of existing nongovernmental (secular or faith-based) charities are needed but can never even come close to solving a national problem that is fundamentally about structural injustice and oppression.


Values and poverty eradication

Is poverty increasing because values are eroding, as Murray claims? Yes, but those whose moral values are eroding include all of us – the poor, and to a larger extent, the other citizens who are complicit in a system that beats down the poor. Then too, the values that count when it comes to overcoming poverty are primarily compassion and love for one’s neighbor in need, and passion for justice and righteous living. And yes, strong, caring families remain the foundation of a healthy society.

Interestingly, David Beckmann also founded the Alliance to End Hunger, which includes 75 members, “corporations, non-profit groups, universities, individuals, and Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious bodies.” Indeed, these are values that all people of faith can build on together. No doubt it will take the concerted will and persistent efforts of all people of faith (and non faith) to overcome extreme poverty – starting in America.


 The Hebrew Bible – or the Christian Old Testament – begins with God creating the world in six days. On the sixth, after bringing forth all the animals, God created human beings in his image, both male and female. Then in verse 28 of Genesis 1 we read:


“Then God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.’”


In this creation story God imparts to humanity the mission to “rule” over the earth and its creatures. The common word used by Christians for this is “stewardship,” meaning Adam and Eve and their descendants remain accountable to God for the way in which they manage the affairs of the earth.

In a similar way, the Qur’an teaches that Adam was placed on earth as God’s “caliph” – a word also used for the political successors of Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia. But the word connotes authority as well, as the caliphs were empowered to rule in the Prophet’s stead. But more importantly, in the context of this verse in Q. 2:30, Adam is called to be God’s steward and trustee, ruling with wisdom over the creatures under him. For only he and his kind are given “the names of all things,” an expression that commentators have tied to humankind’s ability of reason and moral discernment.

I recently wrote about the environmental dimensions of humanity’s trusteeship on earth. Here I begin a series on faith and poverty, spurred on by a Lenten program at my church focused on the poor. In a blog about Fair Trade, I explored some of the complexities of the notion of poverty, emphasizing in particular the unjust structures of global trade that hinder the economic development of the poorest countries. I’ll come back to the idea of structural injustice in another blog, but from a different angle.


A broad approach to eradicating poverty

Poverty is no mere academic discussion. It is achingly real, and what the World Bank calls “extreme poverty” (living below $1.25 a day) affects 1.29 billion people worldwide, which represents 22 percent of the developing world. According to the UN’s World Food Programme, hunger is the world’s top health risk and one in seven people go to bed hungry every day. If, as God made clear to Cain, we are “our brother’s keeper,” this should alarm us. After all, stewardship of creation includes caring for our fellow humans too.

My main point in this blog will be to stress that as people of faith, both Christians and Muslims, God calls us to face this issue head on from both the macro level (thinking about the poorest of the poor worldwide) and the micro level (what we can do locally). God also expects us to work simultaneously on long term solutions, tackling systemic injustices globally, nationally and even locally; and on short term poverty alleviation, that is, assisting victims of floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Large relief and development organizations seek to work at both ends of this spectrum: providing urgent care for refugees, for example, but also finding ways to provide education for the children, coaching for the mothers, professional training for women and men – and all this while seeking to facilitate their transfer to a more stable and long term setting.

Though Muslims and Christians work with similar texts on the issue of creation, their traditions highlight different aspects of the “righteous society.” Still, both faiths historically have impelled their adherents to care for the poor in a holistic fashion.


An Islamic approach to poverty reduction

Just as there is no “Islamic” way to organize government (in spite of what many islamists might think), there is no one “Islamic” approach to tackle hunger in a twenty-first century nation-state. During the Cold War years, many Muslim scholars were prescribing some form of socialism. At the same time, oil-rich Gulf countries were eager to work with western nations, and apart from some of the strictures of “Islamic banking” (finding ways around the charging of interest), they developed economies that function seamlessly within the mechanics of global capitalism.

Still, giving to the poor is the heart of Islam. Muhammad was an orphan raised by his uncle and the Qur’an and hadith are full of exhortations to be kind to the widow, the orphan, the traveler in need, and the poor and oppressed in general. In addition, one out of Islam’s five pillars is zakat, the command to spend 2.5% of one’s net worth annually to help the indigent. It plays out in a variety of ways in Muslim societies and is not always applied literally, to be sure; yet there’s no denying this theme of compassion permeates Islamic spirituality and practice.

Ever since the Prophet ruled in Medina (622-632) as prophet and statesman, Muslims have believed that somehow piety had both a personal and communal – even political – dimension. So giving handouts to the poor was not sufficient. A just ruler had to make sure that the laws were fair and did not penalize the poor in any way. Likewise, the court system had to rule out injustice and corruption, so that both poor and rich could find justice.

Zakat has given rise to a multitude of private charities throughout the Muslim world, while at the same time Muslims expect a “godly” government to root out injustice and level the playing field in order for people of all social classes to earn a living with dignity. Social justice and compassion for the poor are key values in Islam – a fact that explains why many Muslims find the extreme economic inequalities within and between Muslim countries absolutely appalling.

Yet charity doesn’t stop with zakat for Muslims. The Qur’an enjoins them to give freewill offerings as well, or sadaqa – a word any student of Hebrew would recognize. In the second sura we read a thought similar to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you make public your free gifts, it is well. But if you conceal them and deliver them to the poor, that would be best for you, and will atone for some of your ill deeds. And God is well acquainted with all you do” (v. 271). In Jesus’ words, “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mat. 6:3).

 Finally, the ban on usury in the Qur’an, parallel to the one in the Law of Moses, is a structural mechanism designed to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor. Trade is an economic setup wherein investor and borrower share the risks of the venture. If the commercial deal succeeds, then both make a profit. If it fails, both share in the loss. By contrast, when a bank lends money to an entrepreneur with interest, any loss incurred will be borne solely by the borrower. As the Qur’an states,


“Those who gorge themselves on usury behave as one whom Satan has confounded with his touch. They say: ‘Buying and selling is but a kind of usury.’ But God has permitted trade and forbidden usury … God has blighted usury and blessed free giving with manifold increase. God loves not the impious lawbreaker” (Q. 2:275-276).


Ziauddin Sardar, whose book on the Qur’an I have examined in a blog recently (“God Consciousness and a Better World”), sees the recent economic meltdown in that light:


“We live in a time beset by the consequences of economic disasters. As we contemplate the results of subprime mortgages; the escalation in house prices which keeps increasing numbers of even moderately affluent people off the housing ladder; our economy fueled by an increasing debt burden on everyone; derivative trading that seeks to make money out of mis-selling to the poorest; increasing disparities between the pay of private employers and even the top management of public bodies as against the rest of the workforce; the billions paid in bonuses to those who manipulate the stock market to make money from money; there is pertinent cause for thought in this passage. Untrammeled consumerism has brought us a world of stark contrasts as well as an increasing gap between rich and poor. I see this passage as speaking directly to contemporary concerns” (Reading the Qur’an, p. 196).


A Judeo-Christian approach to poverty reduction

Many scholars believe that when Jesus at the outset of his ministry and in his hometown synagogue read from the Isaiah scroll, he was referring to the Year of Jubilee. Here’s the text from Luke 4:19-20:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,

that the blind will see,

that the oppressed will be set free,

and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

Besides the obvious reference to the poor as the main recipients of his ministry, as exemplified in his works of healing and exorcism, there is a wider context that only comes into focus with the last phrase, “the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” That’s the “Year of Jubilee” language.

The Jubilee came every fifty years, but it was part of a rhythm of work and rest – observing the seventh day as the Sabbath. Then, every seventh year (“Sabbath year”) all agricultural lands were to be left fallow and debts forgiven. Finally, after seven cycles of seven Sabbath years came the Year of Jubilee, during which not only were people to let the land rest; they were to forgive all debts once again and this time each property reverted to its original owner. Capital could not accumulate, nor could any kind of monopoly develop.

Leviticus 25, the major passage explaining the Jubilee, speaks of political and economic structural safeguards put into place so that wealth is fairly distributed among the people of Israel. Though it was rarely followed to the letter, this ideal of a righteous society tied to the redemption of the severely indebted and to the flourishing of the “least of these” (Mat. 25:40, 45) left its mark on both Jewish and Christian spirituality over the centuries. In fact, it was at the heart of American independence (Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, “Let Freedom Ring!”), the Civil Rights Movement, and the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, initiated in the UK, that successfully put pressure on the World Bank and IMF to cancel the debts of the world’s poorest countries.

From the core of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, alleviating poverty is a holistic enterprise. Beyond the commands to give generously to the poor we find clear indications how we humans, as God’s trustees on earth, are called to organize our respective societies so that all members can flourish according to their own gifts and abilities. Some will naturally be richer than others; at the same time, the rich will be kept from beating down those weaker than themselves.

Examples of courageous faith-based initiatives to free people of various bonds and impediments continue to inspire, like the committed Christians who helped abolish slavery in nineteenth-century England. Today a plethora of Muslim and Christian relief and development agencies dot the globe delivering aid with compassion. What is more, people of faith are joining other more secular elements of civil society in many contexts to lobby for more justice for the poor and oppressed. That story in more detail is still to follow.


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