Arabs, the imam tells me, would have it a whole lot harder if it weren’t for black Muslims paving the way.
‘I’ve made great friends for this religion,’ he says. ‘African-Americans have done that.’
Muhammed Idris is sitting at a corner table at Wali’s Fish Supreme, a Spring Street diner that prepares food
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halal. Soul music is playing on the radio, seafood sizzles behind the counter and Idris is preaching Jesus.
‘We see Jesus as pointing to the Prophet Muhammad,’ he says, and then paraphrases John 14:16: ‘When the comforter comes, he’ll stay with you.’
‘We believe the comforter is Muhammad.’
As wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue and as protests over cartoons lend credence to the now stylish clash-of-civilizations thesis, most Westerners still know very little about Jesus’ role in Islam. Many don’t even realize he’s a positive figure in the faith.
Ignorance begs the question: Can Jesus help bridge the gap between Muslims and Christians?
Idris thinks so. He believes current animosity could have been avoided if Christians and Muslims were more educated about each other.
Part of the blame, he says, lies with the American education system.
Others fault the news media.
Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, a professor of comparative religion at Temple University, isn’t sure education or the media have much bearing on the wars now being fought. Similarities between Islam and Christianity have existed for centuries, yet the two have remained in almost perpetual conflict.
‘There is plenty of dialogue,’ he says. ‘The problem comes when all of this is translated to human relations. Christians and Muslims do not kill each other over Jesus, but over power and who wants to dominate.’
True, Islam accepts the virgin birth of Jesus, one of Islam’s prophets. True, too, Jesus’ teaching is considered the word of God. For Ayoub, discussing these similarities won’t solve everything.
But it might help.
Better schooling – longer, less biased and more involved – could go a long way.
‘I don’t think you can make anything mandatory,’ he says. ‘Many private high schools do have comparative religion courses. The good public schools have them, too. It helps us accept and tolerate each other.’
For many in both faiths, acceptance and tolerance can extend only so far. Christianity and Islam are the No. 1 and No. 2 ranking world religions when it comes to numbers. Both faiths command followers to gain converts, and both boast unbending fundamentalists among their ranks.
The idea that they could ever be completely at peace is a noble one, but unrealistic, according to many experts.
Dr. Donald Martin, the chair of Charleston Southern University’s religion department, illustrates why.
He’s well-versed in the similarities and differences between the Jesus of Christianity and the Jesus of Islam. He understands that Jesus is afforded great respect among Muslims. But the differences outweigh the similarities.
‘He’s not considered to be the son of God,’ Martin says. ‘They do not believe that Jesus atoned for the sins of man.’
To Martin, those differences speak to the Christian commandment to share the Gospel and convert Muslims.
‘There is no compromise between the two,’ he says.
Idris doesn’t buy it.
His grandmother grew up in the AME Church and raised Idris as a Jehovah’s Witness. So while he may have converted to Islam back in the 1960s, Christianity is still very much a part of him.
‘I don’t have a problem with Christians,’ he says. ‘I’ll go to a church right now and listen to somebody preach.’