Distance is shrinking between Baptist and Muslim leaders in America — faster than rank-and-file members realize.
On a recent Saturday morning in California, a Muslim leader spoke at the biennial gathering of the American Baptist Churches-USA. One week later in Washington, D.C., on the Fourth of July, a Baptist pastor spoke at the national meeting of the Islamic Society of North America.
Neither event appeared coordinated with the other, nor did they promote the other. Both reflected the changing boundaries between two members of the Abrahamic faith tradition.
Speaking on a panel in Pasadena was Sayyid Syeed, national director for the office of interfaith and community alliances for the Islamic Society of North America. He addressed a room full of American Baptists in Pasadena about the Bible and the Quran: “You are people of the book. We are people of the book.”
Baptists and Muslims should build on that commonality and the seriousness with which they practice their faith in daily lives, said Syeed, who acknowledged that the passionate nature of each tradition caused both to raise boundaries that provided clear identity.
Nevertheless, boundaries “should not stop us from recognizing the other who looks like us, with whom we can cooperate, with whom we can collaborate,” said Syeed.
The next Saturday, Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, Calif., a Southern Baptist Convention congregation, was politely welcomed at the ISNA convention.
While Warren identified himself several times as an evangelical pastor, he only referenced his Baptist heritage once. However, ISNA president Ingrid Mattson introduced him as having two degrees from Baptist schools. Other ISNA leaders readily referred to Warren as a Baptist.
Aside from using the word “Muslim,” Warren’s 25-minute talk was a generic one about respect, civility, peace work and faith-based initiatives, a talk he could have delivered to any evangelical audience.
“My deepest faith is in Jesus Christ. But you also need to know that I am committed not just to what I call the good news, but I am committed to the common good,” said Warren.
He added, “I am not interested in interfaith dialogue. I am interested in interfaith projects. There is a big difference. Talk is very cheap…Love is something you do…Love is a verb.”
More important than the content of Warren’s talk was his simple presence at the meeting. By being on the platform, he showed respect for Muslims and validated ISNA, helping to mainstream American Islam and to reintroduce conservative evangelicals to Muslims.
In an interview the following day for a forthcoming documentary on Baptists and Muslims, Mohamed Magid, imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, told an ancient story about a desert traveler in trouble. On the horizon, he saw a creature and entertained negative thoughts about a beast that would kill him. As the creature drew nearer, he realized it was a man. He again entertained negative thoughts about the approaching man being an enemy. When the man finally became recognizable, the traveler realized it was his friend.
The moral of the story is that “the more we come closer, to sit across the table to talk, the more that we shatter all the stereotyping,” said Magid. “Distance can make a lot of assumptions.”
Some Baptist and Muslim leaders in America are challenging long-held assumptions and rethinking stereotypes. That doesn’t mean either group is compromising core theological boundaries. It does mean they are prioritizing the common word from their sacred texts about love for neighbor.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.