There is no doubt that interfaith dialogue, whereby the people of different religions get to know each other more through open and frank discussion, as well as friendly interchange, is one of the most pressing needs in the world today.
In a world that is becoming increasingly more secular, it is important that people of faith should talk to one another and uphold common values in a world that often has no place for God. Having two religions at the same time, though, seems to be stretching interfaith dialogue a bit too far.
And yet, that is what one lady in the United States claims to possess: two religions. Reverend Ann Holmes Redding, a minister of the Episcopal Church, claims to have declared Shahadah and become Muslim, while at the same time remaining Christian and fulfilling all of her duties as a minister.
When I first heard the story, my immediate action was to go and look through some of my own papers. She is said to put on a veil, face the direction of Makkah, and pray five times a day. Yet for the rest of the day, she performs the function of a minister of the Episcopal Church, which might any day include baptisms, weddings, and funerals. On a Sunday, she leads the congregation in its religious service and preaches from the pulpit.
Hearsay is very dangerous, so I must state right from the start that I am going only on reports (well-sourced reports) about the matter. The purpose here is not really to address one particular person’s journey of faith, but to see what this story has to teach us. If these few words can be of any help or interest to Reverend Redding, that is an added bonus.
The question is, “Can you be Christian and Muslim at the same time?” I believe the answer to be a very resounding “No,” but it needs a bit of unpacking so we can understand exactly what is going on.
Some of you may know that I declared Shahadah and embraced Islam nearly seven years ago in Regent’s Park Mosque in London. Before being Muslim, I was a Roman Catholic priest. Not too long after embracing Islam, I came to live in Egypt.
If I had stayed in London, the authorities at London Central Mosque (Regent’s Park) would have eventually issued me with a certificate of embracing the Islamic Faith, once they had seen that my decision to become Muslim was a lasting one. Such a certificate is an important proof, for example, if you intend to visit Saudi Arabia and perform Hajj or `Umrah.
Since I lived in Egypt at the time, I obtained the certificate from Al-Azhar, the most famous seat of Islamic scholarship and the oldest university in the world.
So I went straight back to the certificate. I remember very clearly the words I had declared at Al-Azhar. The certificate, signed by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar himself, contained the words I had uttered.
It says quite clearly that I reiterated [my] acknowledgement of the Islamic Faith, saying [first in Arabic and then in English]: I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and Messenger.
The next paragraph is most interesting, because it contains the other words that I said: I also acknowledge that Moses, Jesus and all other Prophets are servants and Messengers of Allah. I renounce all religions other than Islam. Furthermore, I hereby and henceforth adhere to Islam as my Faith and Shari`ah.
So there we have it, quite clearly. I remembered saying the words, and I know that the words make sense. In becoming Muslim, we renounce all other religions.
The problem doesn’t lie in Islam accepting what had gone before. Because Muslims accept all former Prophets, as Prophets of Islam, they could not call themselves Christian or Jewish, but they would have no problem in saying that they are followers of Jesus or followers of Moses, since both of these men were Prophets of Islam.
Muslims believe that Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the final Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets. The problem, in this situation, lies in what Christianity teaches. Christians believe that the final revelation of Almighty to God to humankind is in the person of Jesus Christ.
According to this belief, there are no more prophets after Jesus. A Christian would be unable to accept Muhammad as a prophet of God, because his Message denies some of what Christians have come to believe.
Anyone who claims to be Christian, then, can’t believe in Muhammad as a prophet. One of the central tenets of Christianity, regardless of the belief in Jesus as divine, is that Jesus died on the cross. The Message revealed to Muhammad in the Qur’an is quite clear: Jesus did not die on the Cross (An-Nisaa’ 4:157). So, anyone who claims to be Christian cannot be Muslim. And as we have said, anyone who claims to be Muslim cannot be the follower of another religion.
The situation of Reverend Redding is only fully known to Allah alone, who knows our intentions and the secrets of our hearts, but as the facts appear, she is neither Christian nor Muslim. Anyone in such a dilemma, having been a Christian minister and wanting to embrace Islam, has a very difficult choice to make.
As Muslims, we should never underestimate what it takes to renounce one’s former religion and embrace Islam. Just as we spend a great deal of time and money on calling others to Islam, we need also to spend similar, if not more, on helping those who have embraced Islam to grow in their new faith.
As an outsider to this particular case, it seems to me that her dilemma much reflects the doctrinal dilemmas being experienced by the Episcopal Church in the US, as much as her personal conversion story. It may be possible in her church to have a variety of beliefs, catering for a wide range of different points of view.
In Islam, we simply submit to the will of Almighty Allah and follow the example of His Prophet — Muhammad. The opinion of this one or that one is not important when compared to the facts revealed to humankind in the Qur’an. As Muslims, we believe that the Qur’an is the revealed word of Allah. It is the exact word of Allah and has not been altered in any way.
This episode can help us all to present Islam in a very clear way to those who would embrace it. As brothers and sisters to one another, we cannot let down new Muslims by not presenting everything about Islam to them in a simple way. Our prayers are with all of those who have made great sacrifices to submit their will and their heart to Allah. There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger.
By Idris Tawfiq*