MEETING IN FAITH, HOPE AND LOVE
The critical challenge of Islam in Nigeria today is something we are all aware of. It is progressively entrenching itself in social and political structures, restricting the liberty of Muslim as well as Christian citizens, and trying to insulate itself ever more securely against Christian evangelization or even indirect influence.
While some Christians are actively resisting this trend, others are wringing their hands, and others are simply going about their other business ignoring the situation. No one seems to have the solution. Yet we must attempt to see what we, each in our own way and together, can do.
Three areas demand our attention on both the Muslim and the Christian side of religious interaction in Nigeria. These are: 1) the manner one professes or bears witness to one's faith, 2) the hope that one can realistically engender to face the problems of our society, and 3) the extent of one's love to care about other's needs. Let us begin from the Muslim perspective.
A Muslim's faith
The striking factor about a Muslim's faith is the immense assurance it gives him, an unquestioning satisfaction that he is on the right path, and that the rituals he performs are the divinely ordained means of gaining a sure reward in the next life.
The deeper an Islamic mentality prevails, the more totalitarian it is in looking for an Islamic way of dealing with everything that comes up in life. African tradition and culture and Western or any non-Islamic ways of thought are discounted a priori as invalid affronts to the total sovereignty of God and his will manifested in the Qur'ân and the Hadîth - which make up Sharî`a.
This process perhaps feeds on an African traditional tendency to rely on the power of magical rites. Just as some Nigerian Catholics can be more Roman than Rome, so Nigerian Muslims can sometimes be more attached to Arab and Islamic ways than the Arabs, since these are looked upon as automatic formulas for success in this life and the next.
The result of this attitude is a strong sense of superiority both for the Islamic religion and for Muslims themselves, and an impermeability to suggestions that there may be truth elsewhere that they do not have.
There is, however, with a Qur'ânic basis, a recognition of some limited validity in Christianity. Some aspects of Christianity and Judaism were incorporated into Islam to give it legitimacy, by way of spiritual ancestry, and at the same time immunity, after the manner of an inoculation, to Christian appeal. These aims have been served, but they leave a crack in the door for Christian witness. It depends on how we utilize our own resources.
Another aspect of Muslim faith is the fact of belonging to "the best community ever raised up on earth" (Q 3:110). To be a member of this community is what Islamic faith means. Joining does not necessarily imply conversion, and belonging does not necessarily imply personal conviction. But to be a part of it is a matter of life or death. This community witnesses to the unity of God and the prophethood of Muhammad, accepting the Qur'ân and the Hadîth as revelations that came through him.
Yet even here there is a weakness. The Qur'ân and the Hadîth are documents of the past and have no living authority to interpret them authentically. In theory there is human consensus, but in practice majority opinion is the nearest thing to orthodoxy. There is no Holy Spirit in Islam. Our own witness is quite different.
A Muslim's hope
Apart from hope in the next life, if there is any "realized eschatology" in Islam it is the hope for the extension of the rule of god, in Islamic form, over the whole earth. This is something even the Qur'ân recognizes cannot be brought about by mere human means (5:48), but it is a Muslim's hope that the golden age of Islamic expansion and prosperity may reappear and he may play some role in its realization. Traditions about a reformer to appear at the beginning of each Islamic century, and the Mahdî towards the end of time reinforce Muslim expectations.
On the other hand, there is the tradition that the best of ages was the time of the Prophet, then that of his Companions, and that the state of Islam has continued to deteriorate and will do so until the coming of the Mahdî and of Jesus and Muhammad at the end of time. This pessimism is reinforced by the actual situation of much of the Muslim world, where backwardness is endemic.
Muslims successively blamed this situation on colonialism, their own lack of adaptation to the West, and most recently to lack of fidelity to Islamic ideals. The current slogan of fundamental Islam is to go back to the sources. Actually to do so will produce a reaction, we may well predict, as the futility of this course becomes clear. but in Nigeria to let this tendency take its course would create incalculable chaos and social disruption, apart from further destroying traditional sources of renewal and sanity in the process of "social revolution".
In spite of the claim that Sharî`a has an answer for every problem, Muslim societies are quite devoid of practical political, social or economic programmes. The sense that all is not well normally should foster a desire for a system that will work, one that will assure justice and equatability as well as technical ability and resources. This can be translated into a desire and need for Christians who can provide this. Muslims may like to use Christians on their own terms, but these terms should be negotiated. The desire of Muslims for a better life is something we need to discover, assess and examine in the light of our own vocations.
A Muslim's love
We will never find a community on earth that is perfect or free from internal problems. Islam does not demand heroic love of neighbour as does Christianity; so we might expect to find self-centred love: husbands to whom their wives are possessions, alhajis who just want to make money by any means, arrogant people who treat as dirt those who do not belong to their community etc. This we often meet. Yet at times our concrete experience also brings us into contact with nothing less than values preached in the Sermon on the Mount. The Spirit of God breaths where he wills.
Muslims likewise notice in Christians the practice of virtue as well as cheating, ambition, clannishness and disdain for others. Our love for Muslims is the most obvious area of contact, which needs little research but only practice.
The only difficult area is how to combine love with resistance to Muslim encroachment, how to be as simple as doves and wise as serpents. This is a balancing act we cannot avoid, and for which we need both to pray for guidance and to search for practical solutions in our discussions.
A Christian's faith
"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, the word of life.. is what we testify to" (1 Jn 1:1-2).
These words are from the first letter of John. If, as some scholars think, it was written by a disciple of John, it even more forcefully makes the point that our witness is fundamentally based on a real faith experience and not on the mere testimony of a book, even the Bible. Our experience of Jesus is in and through the Church, by hearing those who were sent to the whole world to preach, and by experiencing his love from those who are joined to him.
Certainly there are Christians for whom this experience is minimal. We are called always to deepen this experience. We belong to the living tradition of the Church, says the Vatican II Dei Verbum (n. 8), by pondering these things in our hearts and inwardly realizing the spiritual realities we experience. From this tradition, guided by the teaching office of the Church, we also recognize and rightly understand the word of God in Scripture.
Our witness, then is to the risen Jesus living in us individually and as a Church. We are not primarily a "people of the Book", as the Qur'ân refers to Christians and Jews. We share in the priesthood and prophetic mission of Christ, as Lumen Gentium explains.
Our lives, therefore, should reflect a sense of mission and destiny, and faith in the living presence of Jesus who accompanies us. Faith in God's providence and protection should also be a normal thing for us, with a willingness to take some necessary or called-for risks, knowing that God will see us through. Occasionally we will have opportunity to exercise some charismatic gifts, for example in praying for the sick; we should do so with the confidence that our prayers will be answered.
Our witness includes our faith in the Church. Muslims amy not know much about our sacraments, but our acknowledgement of the guidance of the Spirit in Church teaching authority can easily be understood by Muslims and make them wonder.
A Christian's hope
Christians, of course, hope for the vision of God in the next life, but our hope also extends to the realization of the kingdom of God on the way. This is not restricted to spiritual development in the narrow sense, but includes justice, peace and development in all of society, as explained in the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes. On our part this demands action, as said by the Synod of bishops on 30 November 1971:
Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel or, in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.
A strong point of the Church is that its people are in the forefront of development in every sphere. Christianity and progress are synonyms to many Nigerians. We know how this has prompted jealousy, government take-overs and restrictions. But our reputation for competency should not be allowed to wane. We may not be able to affect Nigerian education on a mass scale, but if we can instil a spirit of excellence in the few people we train or deal with it will go far for Nigeria and for the Church.
A Christian's love
Nigeria is not backward from want of resources or even of ability, but primarily because of lack of motivation. When a person is working for his private interest he makes the most of what he has and usually does well. Government enterprises, on the other hand, are usually in shambles, because people just do not care.
The Qur'ân (57:27) says, "We placed in the hearts of those who follow Jesus kindness and mercy." The greatest impact the Church is having among Muslims today comes from the fact that Muslims see some Christians, particularly women religious, as people who care.
Muslims may perceive our superior know-how as threatening, but our loving concern can balance that.
Care, of course, presupposes a love that is within us and within our communities. We cannot escape human diversity and personality mismatching, but a love that overrides this is imperative if we are to have any effect outside.
Love impels us to forgive, to accept, to listen and to challenge. All this means dialogue. As the Vatican Secretariat's 1984 guidelines say, dialogue "implies concern, respect and hospitality towards the other. it leaves room for the other person's identity, his modes of expression and his values" (n. 29).
Women of faith, how do your respect the faith of Muslims? How do you challenge its insufficiency? Women of hope, how do you affirm and encourage the aspirations of Muslims? How do you challenge their unrealistic and parasitic ambitions? Women of love, how do you show Muslims the intensity of God's love? How do you at the same time stimulate a response that matches even in a small way God's own love?