Rev. Dr. Johnson A Mbillah holds a Ph.D. in Islamic theology. He is the General Adviser of the Programme for Christian Moslem Relations in Africa. (PROCMURA) In this interview with Gbenga Osinaike, he shares his experience and explains some of the hard nuts in the Islamic faith
What is the Programme for Christian Moslem Relations in Africa all about?
Our main preoccupation in PROCMURA is to reach out to the Muslims and to see how Christians can relate with them without compromising their faith. With my experience with interfaith issues across the world I have found out that interfaith issue is not something Christians have to choose to do; it is what they have to do.
Why is the group focused only on Moslems?
In Africa the major religions are Christianity, Islam and traditional religion. But Christianity and Islam are best and worst of friends. Both are missionary religions seeking the African minds. There is negative competition between Islam and Christianity. In Procmura we say if we have to avoid conflicts we have to find a way of spreading our faith without insulting others. We have to be encouraged to emphasise how good our faith is and not how bad the other faith is.
But do you see interfaith as necessary in the first place. Are you not going to run into a hitch in trying to secure the attention and cooperation of the other faith?
Whether we like it or not the Moslems and the Christians will always interact and will always be together. If we do not work towards building good relationship we will always find ourselves in conflict. Religion is meant to transform lives and not to cause trouble.
But how do you go about doing the interfaith work without affecting your faith?
There are interfaith groups that will tell you not to preach your faith and would say just accommodate the other religion. But for us in Procmura we believe that the Christian and the Moslem should be free to preach their faith. There are a number of things that we have to appreciate. Jesus says you’re witnesses-that is the Christian mandate. We have a mandate to preach the good news but we must respect the spirit of good neighbourliness. The Islamic religion and the Christian faith are not the same. The Moslem talks about Dawa the Christian talks about evangelism. They are rival religions
Is the whole thing about dialogue between the Christian and the Moslem?
We don’t talk about dialogue. We talk about relationship. It is when there is a conflict that we talk about dialogue. But in relationship we talk about being good brothers. We don’t have to wait until the situation degenerates to a level where we have to call for dialogue. We believe that the Christian should never compromise his faith lest there will be nothing to relate on. It all boils down on what you say when you preach.
Can you let us into the background of the group; how did the idea of Procmura come to play in the first place?
I think the whole thing about Promura goes back to 1959 when there was a meeting in Ghana on how to relate with Moslems. It was organised by the Christian Missionary Society. There were several Anglican Bishops in that meeting which held in Ghana . That was the first time many African Christians realized that there were people who belonged to the same denominations in other countries. It was at that forum that the issues of relating with Moslems were discussed and Procmura came into being. We work in about 20 countries in Africa all those who work with us have Ph.D. in Islam. But we are all Christians. Our goal is to advise Churches on how to relate with Moslems.
But do you go about proselyting?
The word proselyte is wrong and negative because it means using any means and every means to get the other person to belong to your faith. That is why we believe that there is no reason why we must use baits to get people to become Christians. It is wrong.
But the missionary brought education to us to win us and thereby made us accept Christianity?
That is not true. It is true they brought education and by extension civilization but it is not true they used it as bait because people were not coerced to become Christians. The essential issue is what is your purpose when you give out relief. The relief should not be given out on condition that the people benefiting from it should become Christians. But that does not mean that the Christian cannot hint the message in the course of carrying out humanitarian acts. But it violates human dignity to give food to people who have nothing to eat and then say they must be Christians.
In Procmura we also tell Christians not to condemn other religions as a way of recommending our own. The gospel in essence is good news. You don’t have to make bad news of it. If you start insulting the other faiths while preaching then you are making a bad news of the gospel. What we are saying is that the love aspect is the solution not the hatred.
But how then do you operate and not step on the toes of adherents to other faith?
We work with Christians by holding workshop and enlightening them on how to relate with people of other faiths especially Muslims. We have a long list of acts of witnessing which we teach. We only advise Christian bodies but the responsibility of preaching rests on them. We also do quite a lot in reaching out to the Muslims.
What has been the experience; don’t Muslims suspect your moves?
You are 100 percent right. So far with our 50 years of work among Muslims we have not come across situations where Muslims refuse to come for our meetings because of the genuineness of our mission. We have no problem with the Muslims we just believe there is need to have positive tolerance. On the part of the Christians we have the problem of understanding. But the question is; is that Jesus’ example? Jesus spent time with Samaritan woman. He spent time with the tax collector and sinners. The idea is that when we say we don’t want to relate with the Muslims or other faiths for that matter we are excluding them from the kingdom by labeling them and saying, leave them alone.
But what is it about Islam that Christians don’t appreciate?
There are stereotype of so many things. If you have to study Islam and do it in such a dispassionate way then you have to be well-grounded in the Christian faith. For us in Procmura we study Islam in the heart of Islam itself. We do our studies in Saudi Arabia and core Islamic nations. My classmates when I was in school were Saudi’s and Pakistans . People think Islam is elementary and conclude that they know nothing. But it can be sophisticated. If you study Islamic theology it can be complicated but not all Moslems know that.
Some people have linked some scientific discoveries to Islam?
It is not right to say Islam brought certain scientific discoveries. I hear that a lot and I marvel. It is a fact that some scientific discoveries could be traced to some Moslems but certainly not Islam. There are individuals who excelled in the sciences and who are Moslems. Iranians and Persians are people in such category. There are so many Christians who have also made startling scientific discoveries but we cannot link it to Christianity as it were.
You have a PhD in Islam and you are a Christian. What has this done to your Christian faith?
With all humility it made me more complicated in the sense that the things people take on the surface I see them more than that. For example some Muslims say they have problem with Trinity but they cannot tell those of us in Procmura that they have such problem. A lot of Christians get a bit frightened and say they cannot explain trinity to the Moslems. What I say is that if it is an average Moslem that you are explaining this to there is no need to waste time with such Muslim because he may not really understand. But if the Moslem is a learned one, I mean a scholar then you can face him or her. When you talk about trinity, Islam has a bigger problem. In our meetings with top Muslims when this issue crops us and we ask them questions they immediately stop the discussion.
So why is it more complex in Islam than Christianity?
In Islam there is the note that the Koran is the word of God verbatim…
But some say the Koran dropped from heaven?
It didn’t drop from heaven but it is regarded as the word of God verbatim. The Koran for the Muslim is like when we say the word became flesh. In the case of Islam the word of God became book. Technically speaking you don’t compare the Koran with the Bible. In the case of Christianity the word of God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Mu’tazila theologians in Islam say-“We say the Koran is the word of God verbatim. If the word of God is non-other than God and the word of God is God and God is eternal it means that the word of God is eternal and His word is eternal and the Koran is eternal.
If the Koran is the word of God and the word of God is non-other than God and God is eternal therefore His word is eternal. It means the Koran is eternal and the unforgivable sin is called Sheik and it means anything that is associated with God to be equal with God you have committed the unpardonable sin which cannot be forgiven. They say if that is the case then we have dualism-two eternities which is God and the Koran and that means that they are not any different from the Christians who believe in trinity.
But Ash’ariyyas say The Koran is the word of God. The word of God is non-other than God. God is eternal and the word of God which is the Koran is non-other than God and God himself is eternal nobody should query and they declared the Mutalizila as heretic. They insist that no Moslem should open and discuss the issue.
The fact is that they don’t allow this kind of discussion. In Christianity we regard the trinity as one of the mysteries of God. I believe that once we are able to explain the trinity then God will not be God again. The difference is that we talk about the trinity but they don’t.
But what do you think about the trinity?
What I have found out is that many Christians talk about is threetism and not trinity. God is one. It is the same God who is the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But many of us make a mockery of the Christian faith by saying God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. There is a difference. By saying God the Father God the Son and God the Holy Spirit we are saying God is three. But the Bible never says such. Jesus says, in Mathew that Baptizing them in the name of the Father of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.