By Laurena Zondo
Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid, President of the Sunni Religious Court in Saida (city in South Lebanon) and leader of a local mosque, and Martin Accad, Director of the Institute of Middle East Studies of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in Beirut are building bridges of friendship and understanding among Christians and Muslims.
Q: You’ve known each other for many years now. Through your interaction and friendship what new perspectives have you gained?
MARTIN: When you’re interacting all the time with your own community, you’re hearing the same thing, growing up with the same ideas, but when you start developing friendships with members of other communities, other religious communities, it gives you a new perspective, not just on them, but also on yourself. I can honestly say that my friendships with Muslims, and significantly my friendship with Sheikh Muhammad, forced me to think in new ways about my own faith, about my understanding of God… and I feel better for it. I feel that I’ve grown spiritually, personally and relationally as a result of this friendship.
SHEIKH MUHAMMAD: I can say the same things. Being Muslim, living in a Muslim community my entire life, and meeting my own people who belong to same religious community, will make your horizon very limited. But in knowing Martin, and through him knowing his students and the school where he teaches, and through conferences and other activities together, this made my horizon wider… I was able to meet new people, and hear and speak with people from different perspectives, different religious backgrounds, and it helped a lot, to express myself in a different way or rethink my ideas.
It’s very easy to stereotype others when we are speaking to our own community…
MARTIN: We are living in a time of conflict and I cannot anymore say something about Islam without imagining what would Sheikh Muhammad’s reaction be? Am I saying it in a way that is fair, that is balanced? Am I stereotyping? It’s very easy to stereotype others when we are speaking to our own community.
…understanding that my Muslim neighbour cares primarily about raising their children, putting them through school, making sure that they have food on the table, these daily little concerns of humanity are probably the most common ground between Christians and Muslims…
Q: So what is the common ground between the two faiths?
SHEIKH MUHAMMAD: The general human perspective, as two human beings. Besides, we have a lot of common things between Islam and Christianity concerning ethics and morals. I believe this is the best and most solid common ground we have together because we know that even Muslims among themselves do not agree over everything, and the same thing on the Christian side, but at least we have our human background and our ethical and moral background. It helps a lot in accepting each other, and in dealing with the things we don’t agree on in a positive way.
MARTIN: Definitely our humanity and our common human concerns …understanding that my Muslim neighbour cares primarily about raising their children, putting them through school, making sure that they have food on the table, these daily little concerns of humanity are probably the most common ground between Christians and Muslims… on a theological level… I think today I feel less and less attached to religion… it’s more about the relational aspect of the message of Jesus rather than what religious group I belong to. I feel that’s allowed me to be much freer in my relationship with Sheikh Muhammad, and with other Muslims. I think Jesus is a very strong common ground… the Qur’an speaks extensively about Jesus, always very positively… nothing at all negative, nothing disrespectful ever about Jesus. On the contrary, he‘s a very highly respected figure, and so for me, Jesus is quite a strong common ground as well in relationships with Muslims.
SHEIKH MUHAMMAD: The first lecture I gave to ABTS students was about how Muslims believe in Christ, as a well-respected religious figure, as a messenger from God… how we respect him. It can be a common thing that can help both of us to get rid of these stereotypes about each other.
I really think that a lot of our conflicts today globally have to do with our lack of understanding and knowledge of the other, our lack of meeting at the level of our basic humanity.
I really think that a lot of our
conflicts today globally have to do with our lack of understanding and knowledge of the other, our lack of meeting at the level of our basic humanity.
Q: In 2014 you went to the U.S. for the National Prayer Breakfast, both you and Martin went together. Can you share a little of your experience of this first visit?
SHEIKH MUHAMMAD: Yes, through Martin, I was able to receive an invitation… the breakfast itself was a huge thing to be part of, but also being in the same plane, sitting beside Martin for hours and hours and hours, gave us the opportunity to talk more. It gave me an opportunity to know Martin even better… and feeling that we are both like ambassadors of the Lebanese community, the Christian guy and the Muslim guy, together in the same trip, going there for the same aim, meeting people and talking in the same way, in the same tongue, even though we have different religious backgrounds. Yes, it was a very nice experience and I was honored to be with Martin. I wanted to document it and that’s why I published my book, The America I’ve Seen.
MARTIN: The book that he wrote has an impact on the Muslim community here, seeing America through his eyes. I really think that a lot of our conflicts today globally have to do with our lack of understanding and knowledge of the other, our lack of meeting at the level of our basic humanity. I really think there is a lot of value in facilitating meetings, and in fact, currently we are talking about other projects where we would get Christians and Muslims to meet more together, to bring down the walls of fear and lack of understanding.
Q: Given all that you’ve experienced, and what you see today, where do you find the greatest hope?
SHEIKH MUHAMMAD: In all cases, we should always have hope. We are believers, we trust in God, and if we do trust God, then we should always keep our hope that the coming days will be better… People need to live together, and have to live together, and some open minds and some wise people will help. I hope that through my relation with Martin I play this role among my community, and among other communities.
MARTIN: Hope is in friendships, in relationships… that God can create in a way that is perhaps above natural human boundaries.
For more on the thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East visit www.imeslebanon.wordpress.com