Lecture By Mark Siljander
Presented to,Bridges Conference,
Khartoum, Sudan on 26th Oct 09
A Salaam alechum. In the name of God who is compassionate and merciful, I want to thank the Ministry of Guidance and Bridges International for their courage in sponsoring this event, particularly in light of the momentous events surrounding this occasion. The Obama Administration has announced a new direction in dealing with Sudan, Darfurian rebels are seriously considering a willingness to engage in meaningful negotiations in Doha and critical aspects of the CPA are poised to be implemented. While this event was not planned around these historic events it is amazingly fortuitous; Alhumdoliallah!
Serving in politics at three levels (local, state, and federal) and as a diplomat at the United Nations, my new paradigm led to an approach which begins with building a spiritual camaraderie, which can lead to practical resolution of conflict and political challenges. It is called the “Fifth Track of Engagement”.
The “Fifth Track” approach works through facilitating the sharing of a multicultural spiritual paradigm powerful enough to foster trust, and empower influential leaders to replace radicalism with reconciliation and peace.
Fifth Track works to bridge cultures by following a successful and proven peacemaking model based on the teachings of the Holy Books, drawing on the thoughts of Jesus of Nazareth. Why? His teachings regarding reconciliation of offended parties are some of the most powerful in human history.
The term “fifth track” offers an additional spiritual/relational path to the four traditional paths of engagement: 1. diplomatic, 2. political, 3. economic, and 4. military. Similar to Obama’s new policy, it urges engagement of leaders in conflict who would likely be ignored in the course of standard government policy. This approach also initiates the process on a spiritual rather than simply religious level. Building trust and friendship between leaders without the burden of agendas, whether political or religious, is the foundation of this approach.
Why is there a need for this approach? Resolving challenges such as the North-South divide and CPA implementation is next to impossible if the posture of the participants is one of mistrust. The Holy Books all tell us that our hearts are diseased, hardened and “Tainted with sin” (Sura 2:283). The Quran further speaks of the “disease of the heart” in Sura 2:10 and of the hardening of the human heart nearly a dozen times.
Then, it gives humans, who are divided, hope for brotherhood. Sura 3:103 urges us “not to be divided as we were once enemies, and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His grace you became brothers…” This comes by “establishing (seeking) the truth and proving falsehood false”, Sura 8:8.
Dr. Abdel Azim Elsiddig, a Sudanese Sheikh from Sudan, has helped me learn how to incorporate this in my own life. Not too many years ago, neither he nor I would even walk across the street to spit on each other. Now he has for many years been my Sheikh. He has helped teach me the Qur’an and Arabic language and we are truly brothers, working together for peace, praying for each other and our families.
This personal reality was reflected at a national level, in a prolonged conflict that cost 2.5 million lives in the DRC. Ending such hatred and mistrust would require a miracle. The miracle was realized when the president of DRC, Kabela and the President of Rwanda, Kagame, met in Washington with an agreement to break bread and pray. This seemed foolish to the U.S. Department of State, who refused to cooperate. However, after much arm twisting they issued the visas for the two presidents and within two weeks of praying together, a cease fire was called and the ensuing era of peace began.
So how does this fifth track work in practical terms?
First, we need to identify a few on each side of a conflict who possess an open mind to consider a fresh approach. They must also have the courage of a Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King.
Second they agree to put aside all political agendas and sit down to break bread, get to know each other on a personal basis, then study the teachings of reconciliation and finally pray together.
Is there hope to bring Muslims and Christians together in a way that can fulfill the CPA and the aspirations of the Sudanese people? Indeed! Inshallah! Part of this process includes understanding that the very foundation of the two faiths is nearly identical.
The Religion of Islam
I had the privilege to sit with Sheikh Prof. Abdel Rahim Ali Ibrahim and discuss how the word Islam in the Qur’an means surrender or submission to God. He was fascinated that Jesus had first used the concept when referring to “converts” in the Aramaic word shalem. It has the same Semitic root as Muslim or Islam.
I then asked him what the Arabic for “religion” was in the Qur’an. The Sheikh replied that it was “deen.” Then, for me, the Sheikh made a most memorable and earth shaking comment. Please listen carefully to his answer. The Sheikh’s answer is one of the basic pillars of the new bridges to the common ground between Muslims and the West.
In referring to religion (deen) in general and to Islam in particular he said:
“Deen is not membership in a club, but a state of one’s personal being, submitted or surrendered to God.”
I was startled … having argued that the Movement of Jesus of Nazareth during the first three centuries was NOT about membership in a club (institutional religion) but rather a state of being in terms of one’s own personal relationship to God.
Following up, I inquired whether certain verses in the Qur’an (such as Sura 3:19, which says: “The true religion with Allah is Islam”) is consistent with this notion. He responded with a resounding “yes”!
Such verses are also used by radicals to support their claim that everyone other than followers of the religion of Islam are infidels. This is a critical issue indeed!
To understand the vast implications of this, one has to know what makes one a Muslim.
Traditionally, it is reciting what the Muslims call the Shahadah (meaning to proclaim or witness): “There is no God but God” along with the second part, “Muhammad is a messenger of God.” I asked the Sheikh, “What if both the Torah and the Gospel proclaimed that the greatest commandment is essentially the first part of the Shahadah?”
The Sheikh exclaimed, “It would change everything—but that is not possible!” I said, “Not only is it possible, it is clearly stated as such in both Holy Books.” I carefully and respectfully explained that the Gospel record in Mark 12:29 states: “And Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is, “Hear (shema), O Israel: the Lord (YHWH) our Alaha the Lord (YHWH) is one.”  The Hebrew word Shema means “to hear or witness,” just as the Arabic word Shahada means “to proclaim or witness.”
Interestingly the linguistic root of the Hebrew and Arabic words for God is the same in both the Qur’an and Gospel. So, the Shahadah, and Shema are “witnessing” to the same confession of faith to the identical “one God”.
The next verse in the gospel of Mark confirms the Sheikh’s definition of the “religion of Islam”. (Remember, he defined it as “one’s state of being” totally submitted to the one God.) What could be more reflective of this than what Jesus says after the Shema:
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your strength (and love your neighbor as yourself).”
The Sheik was excited to know that the statement of faith that makes one a Muslim is both in the Torah and Gospel, and that it also contains a perfect definition of the ‘Religion of Islam’. However, even after this exhilarating discovery that we share a common “religious” (state of faith) foundation of belief, most Muslims and Christians ultimately say, “but how do we deal with the Christian Jesus?”
What they mean by this is that Muslims are adamant that Allah has not taken a wife, nor begotten a son who is divine and part of a Trinity. At the end of the day, each views the other as a kafer of infidel primarily based on these issues. What if we could bridge this divide? One prominent Muslim leader in Saudi Arabia told me just three weeks ago, “if these things are true, it could change the world.”
Let’s briefly explore this provocative and challenging territory.
Aly Gawhary expresses this dilemma in his Book Christ in Islam stating; “The Muslim takes exception to the word ‘begotten,’ because begetting is an animal act, belonging to the lower animal functions of sex. How can we attribute such a lowly capacity to God?”
This is understandably blasphemous in Islam, but it is also a blasphemy within orthodox Christianity. This confusing term is one reason some Muslims discredit the Greek translation of the Injil as “distorted” and “corrupted”.
The exception to this universal male form of “begotten” is in the Aramaic version of the Bible. The Gospel establishes the genealogy of Jesus by an extensive listing of who was begotten by whom, from Abraham all the way to Joseph, the husband of Mary (see Matthew 1:1-16). However, please pay special attention to the Aramaic word used in Matthew 1:
yalad, or awled is a word nearly identical to the Qur’anic word used in the cited verses and is a male stem meaning “from him”. This suggests birth sexually through a male and is used when describing every birth in the whole chronology of Matthew EXCEPT for Jesus the Messiah!
Interestingly, in Matthew 1:16, after the repeated use of yalad from verses 1-16, the Aramaic word changes, significantly, to ettled which is a female stem meaning “from her” implying the birth of Jesus was supernatural, through only a female. This form of “begotten” may suggest there was no male or sexual intercourse in the birthing process. This is totally consistent with the Qur’anic representation of the conception and birth of Jesus Christ.
The Qur’an ascribes as many as 99 different names to Allah in order to describe the vast/limitless attributes of His nature. While these are considered sifat (Arabic for divine attributes) they dogmatically hold to monotheism. Ancient Eastern Christians also believed in one God with many attributes, instead of the concept of “persons”.
“Person” does not appear in the Aramaic Bible in the context of God, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus. Likewise the term “trinity” is never mentioned in the Bible. It was adopted in the Fourth Century, just after the Council of Nicaea, which the Roman Emperor Constantine assembled in A.D. 325
It is interesting to note that the Bible has 46 attributes and 24 names of God, such as love, just, wise omnipresent, all of which are essentially similar attributes of Allah in the Qur’an.
However, the three primary terms central to this discussion are God/Holy Spirit and Jesus the Messiah. These are all frequently used and are identical in the Arabic of the Qur’an, the Aramaic of the New Testament and the Hebrew of the Torah. These Holy Books routinely refer to:
English Arabic Aramaic Hebrew
God Allah Alaha), Elohem
Holy Spirit Rouh al-Qudus Rohka d’qudsha Rouah ha Kadoish
[(or Spirit of God) Rouh Allah Rohka Alaha Rouah ha Elohem]
Jesus Christ Isa Mesiah Eshoo Meshikha Messiah
St. Ephrem wrote in the fourth century: “Dogmatic “definitions” can be actually blasphemous when these definitions touch upon some aspect of God’s Being; for, by trying to ‘define’ God, one is in effect attempting to contain the Uncontainable, to limit the Limitless.”
After countless discussions with learned Christians asking questions from every angle, at the end of the day, they lament that our ability to grasp the actual interaction among the three is really “a mystery”. Perhaps Ephrem was right, however these three are in all the Semitic Holy Books and can be considered at least divine attributes…any deeper understanding must be left to the few lucky ones who can comprehend the infinite.
The Deity of Isa
Since the Qur’an points out that the Allah’s Spirit (Arabic: Rouh Allah) supernaturally conceived Jesus through a virgin and the same Spirit resides within him, can one reasonably conclude that the Spirit of Jesus holds some aspect of deification? Perhaps at least as a starting point, one of the eternal attributes of Allah?