Lecture 22: Cultural Issues
Course: Introduction to Islam
Lecture: Cultural Issues
Islam has clear teachings in cultural areas such as the significance of beards, acceptable types of clothing, behavior and acceptable clothing for females, and food and dietary restrictions.
This is actually part 3 of our apologetic response lectures. We will actually go through this very quickly and move on to the more significant lecture, which is
actually part 4. But I think it is important to lay this out so you can have all of this together.
This is a graphic that I think helps set the context for this particular lecture because it visually shows you. This will apply to everything we discussed in today’s particular class in both part 3 and part 4. Even though this deals with some of the outward cultural issues, we will see that plays into the case study we will look at.
In this case, you have a Muslim inquirer who is thinking about the Christian Gospel, in some way has heard about the Christian Gospel, encounters the
Christian message in some way. It could be through a convert, which would be ideal, from Islamic background. It could be a missionary from the West. It could be radio. It could be a Bible. It could be a tract. All kinds of things.
As this graphic shows, the problem with the Muslim inquirer comes close to the church. The things that we spend a lot of time discussing in this class are mainly theological issues, regarding the Trinity. This last lecture we had a host of issues that we talked about in terms of, What do you say about the reliability of scripture? What do you say about the Gospel of Barnabas? What do you say about their views of a modalistic Trinity or even worse, the tri-deism and all of this confusion of the Trinity.
II. Cultural Barriers
A. Clothing and Beards
B. Female Dress and Propriety
C. Food and Dietary Restrictions
In fact, most Muslims never even get to that point. That is the biggest problem. I have had so many Muslims who have said to me that the reason they have rejected the Gospel has nothing to do with the theological barriers, but actually it is the cultural barriers. A lot of this is perceived, a lot of this is a reality regarding the people and the groups in the world who call themselves “Christians” and the kinds of issues that are there. What this graphic does is show you that there are various external barriers which keep people from even getting very far along in the inquiry process. That is what we want to make sure that we have properly addressed in this study.
On the handout, I have highlighted issues like clothing and beards, basic cultural barriers. Clothing and beards, female dress propriety, food and dietary restrictions, alcohol. Those are some big ones that are often identified.
Take the issue of dress, female dress. What is considered to be very normal attire in the West for women, even discreetly dressed women, can be interpreted very offensively in the Muslim world. Again, pointing to issues where you have to address the fact of what is your heart perhaps vs the appearance. It is very, very difficult. We had this problem all through the years on teams to the Muslim world. What I have said to the team, to the ladies on the team, “You need to meet together, talk to your team leader and come to some decision regarding things like head covering or propriety of dress. Those on Kara team, you know recently from the team leader who has asked the ladies to please wear dresses that are full length dresses. Don’t come with short dresses or sleeveless shirts.
It raises the question about the freedom issue. Are you free to wear a sleeveless dress, a sleeveless shirt? Are you free to wear a dress that only goes down to your knees? Is that a problem? Are you free to wear shorts, blue jeans? These types of issues. Of course, in Christ you are free. The issue is, what are you willing to give up for the sake of the Gospel? I think this is the balance we have to deal with in this issue. Of course, there is no reason why Christians, if you are working with a Hindu, that Christians can’t eat meat. The problem is, Hindus will not come to Christ so effectively with people who eat meat because to them it is a huge cultural barrier.
I had a man who said to me that he was convinced that the number one reason why Hindus rejected Christ was because the Bible tells us that Jesus was a meat eater and this is considered incompatible with a holy man.
Issues of alcohol and dietary restrictions. These are issues that have to be addressed in dealing with Muslims. There are all kinds of issues: Pork eating, wine drinking, freedom of women, dress, language, prayer form and fasting, music. All of these have become very, very important issues in terms of Muslims’ observations of the Christian community. Many Muslims have the perception that women in the Western world, Christian women, are sexually loose. That is the only way I know how to say it. That is a perception. Therefore, it reinforces the idea that Christianity is not holy. It is of course not the point we want to establish at all.
III. Social and Propriety Issues
A. Reverence for the Bible – Use of Stands
There are other social propriety issues which many, many people have noticed. Reverence for the Bible. We don’t really have room to demonstrate this quite as well; but usually when this class is being offered in a regular classroom where you have big, flat floors, almost every time that we come to this point in the lecture, we will find peoples’ Qur’ans on the floor, or their Bible is on the floor. If you look in your classrooms around Gordon-Conwell, you will see students in exegesis classes with their Bibles on the floor. It is not considered to be a particularly offensive matter in the West; though I grew up in a conservative Southern climate where I can remember as a little boy one day, going to school or to some meeting and I had my Bible underneath a couple of other books. My mother scolded me and said, “The Bible must only be carried on top of books.” It was not on the floor, this was how you carry it. That is something that I think is long gone today. I distinctly remember that as a child.
Muslims have a little shelf above their doors. When a Muslim comes into their home, they put their Qur’an on the shelf above. The highest point in the house in the Muslim home is the Qur’an. You will notice in the Muslim marketplace you can buy these fancy stands, they are quite beautiful. I don’t have one anymore. I had several of these and I keep giving them away, I am going to get more of them. They are stands they use to properly display the Qur’an in the home. In your case, you can use it for the Bible.
So they come into a Christian home and they see Bibles lying around on the coffee table next to the magazines. They see somebody who is eating popcorn with their feet on the Bible. Really, they see this and they can’t believe it. They say, “Christians believe their Bible is holy?” It is incredulous to them. We are not sensitized to these issues. My Bible literally stays next to the sofa where I have my quiet time. I have another Bible in this little area where I have a quiet time. I have all kinds of stuff by it, other little books and magazines, I have potato chips, all right there together. But if a Muslim is in my home, I would not do that. I would make sure I put it up. These issues are very, very important.
B. Contact with Members of the Opposite Sex/Fraternal Embrace
How members of the opposite sex relate to each other. In Muslim society, generally men will walk together side by side. Men will embrace each other. Men will kiss each other on the cheeks. Men will hold hands in a culturally appropriate way, it is very normal. It is very, very unusual to see male and female interactions. So in a team context or if you are working in a missionary community environment, you would be very, very strict about public ways that members of the opposite sex will interact with each other.
C. Arab Greeting Customs
Arab greeting customs, how Arabs greet one another, is all filled with a lot of ceremony, a lot of ways that you show propriety.
D. Pictorial Art
They believe that any kind of artwork is a violation of the second commandment. That is why Muslims are so famous for all of their calligraphy, etc. because they do not believe in pictorial art. Even something from our point of view, perhaps as devotionally inspiring as a picture of Jesus on the wall, can actually be an offensive thing to a Muslim.
Again, like all of these issues, you say, “We’re free to put a picture of Jesus on the wall. That is in no way a violation of Christian theology from our point of view as Evangelicals.” As Paul says, it is not a question of freedom. It is a question of, what are you willing to give up for the sake of the Gospel? Paul says, “I won’t even eat meat if necessary, to see someone come to Christ. I will give up whatever for the sake of the Gospel.” This is a very different issue than what we talk about, what do we do with Muslims converts and all of that, down the road, that is another issue.
E. Ablution Facilities
These are things that immediately will influence Muslims. Particularly, how Christians go into their churches is a matter of great interest to Muslims. Muslims have a lot of ritual about going into mosques.
Every mosque, as you know, has an ablution facility outside where you go through the proper ritual cleansing. The Hadith has various ways this is done in terms of how you wash your hands and feet, etc., but it is all done. Depending on the tradition and the school of law, everybody has some ablutionary practice.
Christians don’t seem to do that. They walk right in. This is also, by the way, a problem for Jews. I grew up in a Jewish community and we were actually literally the only Gentile home within miles of where I grew up. Right across the street was a huge Orthodox Synagogue where I grew up. Everyone bought houses all around there because they have to walk, they can’t drive their cars on the Sabbath. Because of that, I went to Jewish schools and everything.
The thing that really amazed me as a child was that right next to the synagogue was a huge bathhouse. The women would always go there first. They would go through this elaborate cleansing, washing, so forth before they would go into the synagogue. It was very, very important to go through cleansing before you go into the presence of God. We all took showers on Sunday morning, but it was not what you would call an ablutionary effect. It was done begrudgingly.
F. Removal of Shoes before God
Certainly, if you actually accessed the steps of our church and walked in, they are amazed that Christians walk into the church with their shoes on because this is considered to be a matter of impropriety. Again, in India it is similar, not so much in the north but in the southern parts of India. A man does not preach from the pulpit unless you are without shoes on. They take this from the Old Testament, you are on holy ground where Moses was commanded to remove his shoes.
I will never forget my embarrassment years ago now when I was first in India and I was preaching in the pulpit. I kept noticing people were looking at my feet. I realized everybody on the platform was in sock feet but me. I quickly removed my shoes as I was preaching and the receptivity level really rose.
These are all outward issues in many ways. We could look at all of these and say that these are not matters of theological importance in terms of our faith. Yet, they become very important issues. Again, we are not going into a lot of detail, although I think it is good to at least be aware of the fact that many of these external form issues are in fact incredibly important to Muslims. Therefore, they are not able to actually inquire on the content of the Gospel. Fred Plasto, a good friend of mine who spent 30 years working with Muslims, spoke to me not too long ago about his experience in 30 years in the heart of the Muslim world. I said, “What was your biggest challenge? Was it the doctrine of the Trinity? Was it this, was it that?” He said, “All of those things are true. The biggest problem I had was getting Muslims to actually hear the Gospel, to just listen to the Gospel. Once they actually got beyond all of this external stuff and were really wanting to listen to it, they were always amazed by the Gospel. It was so different from what they thought it was.”
What I would argue is that the Christian Gospel is actually – and I think this is even true for Hindus – incredibly compelling. It really is good news, even for the Muslims, even for the Hindus. The problem is, there is so much bad news in these outward things, they can’t ever hear the good news. It seems like cultural bad news to them. If you do this, the women will be loose. You will be drinking alcohol, wearing pants. All of these things kind of come in the way; and the result is what appears to be from the outward, blasphemous, and prohibits them from actually experiencing the Gospel.
Always be prepared to remove these external barriers. I only highlight this because in lecture 16, which we now go to, you will find that this case study of this very radical Muslim convert, he deals with these issues right up front and this will help explain why he does that.