One face of Islam

Sidon, Lebanon

Is it possible that a chance encounter with one person can fundamentally shift your impression of an entire group of people? Is it a good thing to have your thinking turned upside down by the words and behavior of a single person? Or is it immature? Naive?

It’s complicated, my friend answered. I get that. But whew, I’m having a head and heart transformation.  For the next couple of posts I thought it would be helpful to just describe a few people I’ve met throughout the past few weeks. All of them Muslim. All of them pretty amazing.

Sheik Mohammad Abu Zaid is a busy man. As the leading Sunni cleric and religious leader in the city of Sidon, Lebanon, the sheik rules on legal matters relating to family law and civil disputes. Last week a group of us quietly filed into the back of his judicial chambers on a busy workday morning to find a buzz of activity. Law clerks impatiently waved papers, an aged phone rang persistently, and a near-constant stream of people in and out threatened to distract us from the main story of the moment: a sad family drama of two sons demanding money from their aged widowed mother.

The Sheik gravely asked a few questions and smilingly waved away some animated protests before he turned and offered his commentary to us in English. “This is a shameful thing for sons to disrespect their mother in this way. But if it is true that the sons are in great need while their mother is in great wealth, then…” shrugging his shoulders, “that is not right either.” 

Addressing the attorneys again, he asked them to return in the upcoming weeks with financial records supporting their allegations. As the women filed out (Lebanese female lawyers!) the Sheik abruptly stood up and announced “Let’s go!” We gathered our things to head to lunch. But first, we walked through the crowded streets to see how some of the Syrian refugees are faring in an urban context.  While our team from World Vision had traveled to settlements along Lebanon’s eastern border, but of course some of the displaced have pushed deeper into the country in order to pick up work as (illegal) day laborers or get closer to the coast where they may have a chance to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

After a 20 minute walk we arrive at a vacant office building that’s been converted to a SRO for hundreds of displaced people. The familiar M & W restrooms are the communal toilets; other washrooms have become makeshift showers. We visit a family of 8 living in an area roughly 10×20 feet. In a “Ruth and Naomi” like arrangement a old widow lives with two daughters-in-law, her three grandchildren children and two young boys – orphans –  she had taken with her after their parents were killed in Syria.  The woman’s husband had died a few months earlier, one of her sons is missing in Syria, the other son was killed in front of her twelve-year-old grandson. Watch a little bit of the visit here:

As Sheik Mohammad hears the story he tries to entice the young boy to his side, but the boy barely moves from the arms of this woman who is now his only family. Through tears we are told that since watching his father die, the boy rarely speaks and has begun wetting the bed. The local school has said he cannot return until things clear up for him emotionally. It’s unfathomable to me how in these circumstances the boy is going to “clear up.”

Throughout the encounter the Sheik displays the same kind of attention and compassion as he did with the bickering attorneys.  Though the world of legal systems and court proceedings seems far away from these hallways reeking of body fluids and filled with desperation. He listens respectfully, asking careful questions to learn whether and how he might intervene on this family’s behalf. In his role as translator, he filters our questions rephrasing them to avoid embarrassment to the family, protecting their dignity when our probing crosses the line of appropriateness.

After about 30 minutes of visiting, we stand up to depart. Since I’m scribbling the last comments I’m one of the last to leave. I look up to find the sheik had quietly returned to the unit asking to see the inside of her small dorm-size refrigerator.  I glance to see there is nothing more than a 1/2 empty bottle of juice and some bread. He says a few quiet words (which have the tone of a blessing) and we head on our way.

One more stop before lunch is the ancient church of St. Peter and Paul. The sheik gets us in the back door of the 8th century structure (“I have contacts!” he says). With an almost boyish glee he grills us on the story from Acts on the Jerusalem Council and the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles before we head upstairs to the sanctuary. There, surrounded by a cloud of icon witnesses, we evangelicals stand silent while (again!), while our Muslim host explains to us the moving stories of Christian faith displayed above our heads.

What does it mean when a Muslim cleric knows and appreciates our stories better than we do?” someone murmured. 

Lunch was a lovely spread alongside the Mediterranean Sea. Dish upon dish was brought to us as the famed Middle Eastern hospitality was on full display. We had a far-ranging talk from the rise of fundamentalism and religious violence to how he had met his wife Saad (born in Shatila, a Palestinian camp) a decade and a half earlier.

Here’s the thing: On the bus ride back to the hotel I found myself thinking about how Sheik Mohammad was a better follower of Christ than many of us who claim his name. The sheikh had taken the gospel into his heart and had manifested it in his life. He was wise. And good. And humble. He “knew” our faith not as an intellectual but as a practitioner. A Muslim through and through, had pointed me to Jesus.

Matthew records Jesus being blown away by the faith of a Roman guard (“amazed” is the word Matthew uses in chapter 8). Jesus is surprised to find healing faith in a person (and perhaps a place too) where he hadn’t expected it. (Truly I tell you I haven’t found anyone in Israel with this great faith!) I’ve always loved that story. While it’s not clear in the text, I’ve always liked to think Jesus was simply delighted to find this faith filled Roman.

Walking with the sheik I felt something similar. I was just really glad this good, holy  man was in the world at the same time I’m here too. And I hungered for more of Jesus to mark my words, my thoughts and my actions.

When we left the lunch that day there had been a flurry of Arabic between the sheik and the waiters. Several days later I learned the sheikh was arranging for the piles of extra food to be packaged and brought to the widow and her family.

Of course, I thought, It sounds just like what Jesus would have done. 

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