“Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”
When I was only a searching, somewhat agnostic teenager with a Muslim background, a prominent Evangelical preacher asked me this question with his hand extended. My answer was that I accept Jesus (peace be upon him) as a great Messenger, as the Messiah, and as a pious Prophet. His annoyed response was that I would burn in hell for all of eternity.
Thankfully, he wasn’t the only pastor I had ever met. I had a unique upbringing that allowed me sustained exposure to various expressions and creeds of Christianity. I was born and raised in New Orleans (and Baton Rouge), which is a very Catholic city. But in its Catholicism, it also embraces an image of Jesus that is uncommon to many in America and around the world. A Black Jesus was the norm in many churches around me as a child, then also at Xavier University, which I attended for some time as an adult. Ku Klux Klan rallies and cross burnings were also not too far away at any point.
I’m also the child of two very proud Palestinian Americans. My mother grew up in Bethlehem going to Schmidt’s Girls’ School in Jerusalem, which was run by the Catholic Church. We had family from her side who were Christian and Muslim, and like many Palestinians, we had no issues with one another.
Growing up in New Orleans as a Muslim, I typically never had another Muslim in my class or even in my school. With that being said, prior to 9/11, my religion usually evoked curiosity from peers, but not suspicion or fear. Being Muslim meant sharing a religion with prominent NBA stars like Hakeem Olajuwon or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and multiple famous rappers. Also, being a nineties kid, the Spike Lee movie on Malcolm X played by Denzel Washington came out and made being Muslim a cool thing, at least amongst African Americans.
The theology part was still a problem for many. When I was in high school, I wrote an essay titled “Jesus (pbuh) in Christianity and Islam.” Upset, my teacher stormed to my desk when I turned it in saying, “You can’t write that title!” When I asked why, she said, “You can’t say Jesus ‘(pbuh)’,” thinking that the “(pbuh)” meant I was making a spitting sound to desecrate his name. Instead, as I explained to her, “(pbuh)” of course means “peace be upon him,” which is commonly said after the name of a prophet in Islam. That experience taught me not to take for granted that people of other faiths, especially Christians, know what lofty position Jesus (pbuh) occupies in Islam.
Getting to Know Christians through Service
Today, I divide my career working with Christians into service and conversation. Many of the richest conversations I’ve been able to have with my Christian counterparts have come out of relationships through the service component. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, faith groups had to come together to survive. And not only did we rebuild our city to the best of our ability given the government’s breakdown, but we built new relationships that hadn’t existed prior. Many of those relationships still exist today.
A few years after Hurricane Katrina, a group of Klan members burned crosses on the lawns of Black families in predominantly White neighborhoods. Our New Orleans faith community responded by restoring the lawns of those families and forming the East Jefferson Interfaith Clergy Association. This was the first time I had been involved with a group of clergy across the board who were united against hate and were actually diverse in all ways. Most interfaith groups are decidedly progressive. This one was unique in that it didn’t require that members maintain progressive ideals even in any implicit way, which could have partly been due to the country being less polarized at the time along partisan lines.
When I moved to Dallas in 2011, I wondered if such a friendship and multi-faith cooperation would ever be possible in my own lifetime again. Unfortunately, the country became far more divided and Islamophobic, leading to more incidents of hate all around. Fortunately, that led to the formation of Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square, a multi-faith coalition for peace and justice.
Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square is a diverse coalition of Dallas’ faith leaders, dedicated to service, hope, and a shared vision of peace and justice for our north Texas community. Our mission is to be a moral compass for the community, to foster and sustain the multi-faith fabric of our community by celebrating diversity and building strong relationships. Beyond that, when our community needs us the most, we provide crisis management to maintain structured communication and assist in the grieving and healing process. We’re also looked at as the moral compass of the community when tragedy strikes.
The group came together in the wake of rampant Islamophobia in a place that regularly sees armed White supremacists rally in front of mosques. But what we learned is that we would be needed even when tragedy didn’t invoke or involve faith. With the rise of anger over police shootings of unarmed Black men in Dallas and the shooting of five police officers after a protest in 2016, we were called upon to offer calm and clarity in a way others could not. Our presence was welcomed, and our relationships grew.
“MOST INTERFAITH GROUPS ARE DECIDEDLY PROGRESSIVE. THIS ONE WAS UNIQUE IN THAT IT DIDN'T REQUIRE THAT MEMBERS MAINTAIN PROGRESSIVE IDEALS EVEN IN ANY IMPLICIT WAY, WHICH COULD HAVE PARTLY BEEN DUE TO THE COUNTRY BEING LESS POLARIZED AT THE TIME ALONG PARTISAN LINES.”
New Relationships with Christians in Dallas
One notable relationship I formed was with Reverend Andy Stoker, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Dallas. As our friendship flourished, Andy took it upon himself to be of comfort to my community during some difficult seasons. He was particularly reassuring when Donald Trump was elected president, knowing that the Muslim community had elevated anxiety because of that. We decided to make a video called An Imam, a Pastor, and a Dream about that relationship. It immediately went viral and was translated into several languages.
At the time, there had been a popular Amazon commercial in which an elderly imam and a priest united around buying knee pads for each other in a fictional skit. What people loved about our video was that it was about an authentic relationship that already existed in a community, not a staged one for a commercial. That spring, we decided to bring our communities into this relationship more intentionally by talking about Jesus together. For four consecutive weeks, we gathered our two communities to discuss how each of our faiths viewed Jesus. We divided the curriculum into four segments: birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection.
Over the first two weeks, we discovered many commonalities. These points of connection allowed us to brace ourselves and proceed with mutual love and respect when we got to the many differences regarding our conceptions of crucifixion and resurrection. But it was a profound and enriching experience that even the skeptics on both sides couldn’t but help appreciate by the time we made it to the end.
Sadly, our joy was somewhat dampened when ISIS put out a video calling for my assassination. They accused me of being an “apostate” because of my relationship with Christians, with specific reference to the video I did with Andy. Having received death threats in the past, this one didn’t uniquely faze me, but I did feel like I had brought Andy into a compromising situation, and I felt extreme guilt for that. To his credit, he continued to move forward alongside me and challenge his community to deepen their knowledge and experience with Muslims.
Another relationship that came out of Faith Forward Dallas was with the Rev. Dr. Michael Waters. But with him, it was after the Charleston AME shooting that our bond solidified. Michael is an AME pastor, award-winning author, civil rights leader, and powerful voice for social change. He and I became the “twins” who were sought at every protest. Behind the scenes, we were building something incredible. Michael and I have similar backgrounds and personalities, and our families also have grown close. We were actually together on the day of the police shooting on July 7, 2016, and sought refuge from the bullets in his church. It was that night fleeing death together that we became close. We were also blessed to do a civil rights pilgrimage together with our families, which formed the basis of his award-winning book, Liberty’s Civil Rights Road Trip. Being an AME pastor who has challenged America so frequently, especially on race relations and injustice, has allowed us to find a common voice. In line with the doctrine of his denomination, he’s also socially conservative on many of the same issues that an imam would be conservative on.
I could speak of many other noteworthy relationships with Baptist ministers, Mormon elders, and Jewish rabbis, leading to efforts like Faith Commons with Rabbi Nancy Kasten and Rev. George Mason, or conversations with Rev. Chris Girata and Rabbi David Stern here in Dallas, a video that has over eleven million views and counting on YouTube. The funny thing about that conversation is how ordinary and routine it actually was for us in Dallas; yet as God would have it, it went viral in ways we had never imagined. The underlying theme that I’ve seen in all these connections is the craving for authentic relationship. People enjoy seeing and working with faith leaders who have learned to navigate their deepest differences. It allows many to put their guard down with their own apprehensions about how their creedal beliefs, political positions, and so on are not going to be diluted by engaging with others who feel just as strongly about their beliefs and positions as they do.
Engagement Isn’t Just for Progressives
The reality, however, is that most of those who have been willing to engage in such work have been of a progressive persuasion that is naturally accommodating of certain theological adjustments that orthodox or traditionalist followers of faiths may be uncomfortable with. In that vein, I am a traditional Sunni Muslim. I adhere to an orthodox approach to my faith that doesn’t allow me to pray in another tradition or adopt certain positions that most of my interfaith partners would. I want to extend that same courtesy to others and show that both conversation and collaboration are still possible with stricter theological adherence.
One of the most fruitful dialogues I’ve had in years came in March of 2020 at North Carolina State University with Rev. J. D. Greear, who at the time served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. At an event convened by Neighborly Faith, Rev. Greear and I founded a friendship on our ability to speak faithfully and honestly about our differences, even with a crowd of more than one thousand looking on.
Five years earlier, three young Muslims had been murdered in nearby Chapel Hill. Some of the family members of those victims were present. Our topic was hope and uncertainty, and we expressed hope that we could work together against hatred and polarization. As a start, Pastor Greear, one of the most prominent Evangelicals in America, openly condemned anti-Muslim bigotry.
Pastor Greear and I also spoke about religious freedom not being restricted to one religious group, without either of our concepts of salvation being compromised or made ambiguous. I was and am fine with his vision of heaven not having space for me, so long as it doesn’t become an obstacle to me having space in the here and now. And since then, we’ve remained friends. Every time he comes to Dallas, we meet up over a meal and discuss in deeper ways how to navigate our disagreements.
As I think back to the lead-up of that event, none of my fears about the event materialized in any way that would make me wish I hadn’t done it. As soon as the event was announced, I was warned by a few Muslims to be cautious, but ironically more so by some progressive Christian friends who were suspicious of Pastor Greear’s intentions. This would be one of those instances in which intra-faith tensions can be more severe than, and even interfere with, interfaith work. If many progressive Christians are the most likely to stand with Muslims against Islamophobia, what then does it do to our friendship when we talk to the few conservative Christians who are willing to engage us as well? How do we steer clear of the internal disagreements amongst other faith communities?
It’s important for other communities to give us space to engage and form coalitions based on our own discretions. Who we choose to engage isn’t always going to be welcomed by those who see themselves as allies to us. Honest engagement all around means engaging representatives of communities fairly and proportionately to their standing amongst their own.
Mainstream Muslims cringe when certain progressive Muslims who have no standing in the community and who are practically unknown to us are propped up as our leaders in political spaces where a Muslim face is needed. It comes off as insincere and disingenuous engagement only extended for the sake of advancing an agenda that isn’t actually inclusive at all. Being tokenized isn’t what we seek. We want to be in conversation.
Lastly, the backdoor conversations need to be open public conversations. Over the years, several Evangelical leaders have expressed a willingness to only sit with me in private to avoid any backlash from their congregations or conservative media. Pastor Greear was bold in being willing to engage in public dialogue with me and not care about the consequences after. To build meaningful relationship requires relinquishing the fear of those who profit off our division.
“OUR JOY WAS SOMEWHAT DAMPENED WHEN ISIS PUT OUT A VIDEO CALLING FOR MY ASSASSINATION. THEY ACCUSED ME OF BEING AN ‘APOSTATE’ BECAUSE OF MY RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRISTIANS, WITH SPECIFIC REFERENCE TO THE VIDEO I DID WITH ANDY.”
Benefits to Evangelical-Muslim Collaboration
Should we get past these hurdles, I do believe there are five unique benefits to Evangelical-Muslim collaboration.
First, we can teach Americans how to talk to each other again. We cannot become as divisive as politicians merely charging partisan politics with misappropriated dogma. Our call has to be unity through reasonable debate and unambiguous condemnation of blatant injustice.
Secondly, if the two largest faith groups in the world demonstrate a model of working together that actually benefits society at large and increases social cohesion, it would be far easier to incorporate other faith groups into that model and foster such cooperation all over the world.
Thirdly, religion is often looked at as cruel, callous, and unnecessary, with secular worldviews on the rise. If passionate Muslims and Christians can lead the way in increasing social welfare and being consistent with the preservation of life and liberty, that would bode better for the survival of our faith communities in successive generations.
Fourthly, the ability of religious institutions to operate without government interference is an issue of concern for us all. Defending those rights to religious freedom cannot exclude the Muslim community any longer. When Evangelicals refer to Islam as a cult or an inherently political ideology that shouldn’t be treated like a religion, they remove the ability for concerned believers of all faiths and backgrounds to work together to ensure that religious organizations have protections from the overreach of the state in a way intended by the founders. We need to be able to convene gatherings of academics, lawyers, religious leaders, nonprofit organizational heads, and so on who demonstrate how those protections can be afforded to all and not in a way that tears up our country further.
Lastly, we have so much in common at the theological level that is untapped potential for rich dialogue. We also see much of the same in our scriptures about the sanctity of the human being created by God and the importance of being upstanding neighbors and contributors to society. To lean on those texts doesn’t mean the abandonment of creedal differences; it means we choose to manifest the character of the prophets we so dearly hold in our hearts as examples of righteousness.
As I reflect back on that negative conversation that led me as a sincere, young seeker of faith to be condemned to hell by a fairly notable senior pastor, I also reflect on the many rich conversations I’ve since had with my Christian interlocutors that deeply explore the faiths so precious to us. Once the mistrust is gone and the coffee shop conversations become more regular, we actually learn more about each other as people of faith. I have been able to appreciate more about the lives of prophets in Islam by listening to Jews and Christians share reflections on them from their perspective. Wise sayings of benefit from the literature of the “People of the Book,” the gracious term used to describe Jews and Christians in Islam, are enriching to me as a Muslim.
I’ve also found much admiration from Christians about the beautiful rendition of the story of Mary (peace be upon her) in the Quran. Of rich, untapped potential for great conversation are the narrated words of wisdom from Jesus (peace be upon him) that appear in the works of hadith literature and Islamic sages and scholars like Imam Malik and Imam Al Ghazali. We need to explore the shared ethics of reciprocity in our faith and how deeply enriching and embellishing they can be to what exists in our shared heritage.
I can say that my relationship with sincere Christians has in many ways made me a better Muslim. I admire the commitment of a sincere worshipper even if that person generates that commitment from another place. It is refreshing to find people who refuse to allow political currents to conveniently adjust their professed faiths and who find in their faith the necessity to treat all people with decency and dignity. And I have heard many words of admiration and affirmation from Christians who admire the commitment of Muslims in this country despite intense bigotry and pressure—the courage of young Muslim women to continue to wear the hijab in public places, the dedication of Muslims of all backgrounds to fulfill their daily prayers on time in the workplace or elsewhere, and the rising attendance of congregants in mosques around the country that continue to be constructed and expanded to accommodate our growing community.
“WHO WE CHOOSE TO ENGAGE ISN'T ALWAYS GOING TO BE WELCOMED BY THOSE WHO SEE THEMSELVES AS ALLIES TO US."
In conclusion, I lean on a beautiful saying of Jesus (pbuh) in the most authoritative hadith collection in Islam compiled by the Persian imam and scholar Muhammad ibn Ismail Al-Bukhari. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said that Prophet Jesus (pbuh) once saw a man stealing and asked him, “Did you steal? He said, ‘No, by God, other than Whom no one has the right to be worshipped.’ Jesus (pbuh) responded and said, ‘I believe in God and suspect my eyes.’”
While the tradition speaks to assuming the best of others and not being suspicious of folks who seem to be guilty of blameworthy sins, it also teaches us to suspect our eyes and trust our hearts a lot more. Our eyes have been exposed to fabrications and fears that do not allow us the enriching experience of getting to know one another. We often allow those who put their skewed readings and reporting of what is happening in the world today to stop us from seeing the world for ourselves and what blessings those who have been distanced from us actually have to offer us in our lives.
We need to suspect our eyes a bit more and suspect one another a lot less. We need to teach people to be secure enough in their faith and worldview to see and engage their brothers and sisters in humanity without feeling like they will lose themselves in the process. We need to be willing to complicate our simplistic worldviews a bit more with the intention of making the world a better place for us all. And we need to be willing to have some of the difficult conversations necessary to foster the very meaningful friendships so many of us have been missing out on.
Omar Suleiman is a prominent American Muslim leader, scholar, and imam. He is the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and serves as an adjunct professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Methodist University. Suleiman has gained widespread recognition for his work in promoting Islamic education and research, and he has offered spiritual support and guidance to Muslim communities in various contexts, including in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.