The overwealming majority answered that it was the Christian affirmation of the divinity of Jesus that they found most difficult, with many expressing their objections to trinitarian and incarnational understandings of God.
Some comments suggested elements of misunderstanding, even bewilderment, especially when it came to the crucifixion and what God was supposed to have achieved through it. But even where that was the case I doubt better understanding would have bridged the fundamental gap. It was clear that the gospel itself, the good news of God among us, was the issue. Our primary teaching is the primary offense.
Even so, the responses were respectful and a number expressed appreciation for the question, one even suggesting a reciprocation in kind. Most surprising to me, many expressed positive experiences with Christians, as Muslims, again making it clear to me that it was the good news of God among us which was the most significant stumbling block.
How do we overcome this core difficultly that Muslims have with Christianity? Clearly not by education alone, for the primary problem is not ignorance. Clearly not by hospitality alone, for the primary problem is not hostility either. Clearly something more is required. Personally I suspect nothing less than a new experience of God, a sign that surprises.
This is a question I like to ask of Muslims, "What is your favourite story about Mohammed?" It is true, isn't it, that most stories we Christians hear about Mohammed are negative. This is understandable. Negative stories help us Christians feel comfortable with our rejection of Islam as a way of life. But if we hope to understand Islam, if we hope to understand our Muslim neighbours, it is important to listen to their heart stories. The stories that draw Muslims towards Mohammed and the way of Islam. Here is one story a Muslim told me:
A long time ago, there lived an old woman who was carrying a heavy load along the road in the desert. It was a bit difficult for her, but she was managing as best as she could. A young man asked if he could help her with her load, and she readily obliged. Here is the conversation that transpired:
“It would be such a pleasure to have you come alone with me. I accept your gracious offer of kindness and company,” she said. She was a very talkative woman, and the young man did not want to interrupt her. So, he let her speak the entire time they were together without interruption
“But as we walk along young man and as you help me with my load, I have only one request as we travel down this road: Don’t talk to me about Muhammad! Because of him there is no peace and I have trouble in my mind. So, don’t talk to me about Muhammad! And as we walk along together, we will get along just fine.”
“That man upsets me so, so much more than you could know! I hear of his name and reputation every where I go. Though his family and his clan once knew him as an honest man, he’s dividing everyone with his claim that God is one!”
“He’s misled all the weak, the poor, and the slaves. They think they’ve all found wealth and freedom by following his way!” she sarcastically snorted.
“He’s corrupted all of our youth with his twisted brand of truth. He’s convinced them that they all are strong and gave them somewhere to belong. So, don’t you dare talk to me about Muhammad!”
They reached their destination, and the man helped the woman put away her belongings. The old woman, with a wide smile of gratitude at this stranger’s kindness, turned to him and said,
“Thank you now, young man. You’ve really been so kind. That generosity and smile is very rare to find now a days. Let me give you some advice, since you’ve been so very nice to me. Stay away from Muhammad. Don’t heed his word or emulate his way. If you do, you will never have true peace, and all you will find is trouble.”
As the young man turned to walk away, she stopped him: “Now before we part and go, if it’s alright just the same, may I ask my dear young man, who are you? What’s your name?”
He told her, and she stopped dead in her tracks.
“Forgive me, but what was that? Your words weren’t very clear. My ears are getting old, and sometimes I have a hard time hearing. You know, it’s truly rather funny, but I’m sure I must be wrong. Yet, I thought I heard you said that your name is Muhammad.”
“I am Muhammad,” the Prophet (peace be upon him) told the old woman.
From what I have read and seen I am under the understanding that Islamic art forbids lifelike portraits. So I asked some Muslims, how does that square with apparent Islamic acceptance photography, including Facebook selfies?
One said, "It forbids anything that could be used as an idol, a prohibition against polytheism. Photographs and such that are not worshipped are fine. Of course, the legalities are nuanced and there is a range of opinions amongst the scholars on the matter." Another said, "The prohibition is against recreating creation - my words. So Islamic paintings, strictly speaking will not be of people or animals. This is why florals and geometric design feature so heavily. Of course, you can find a number if exceptions if you're looking for them. I have never heard a prohibition on three dimensional objects though, just anything with a soul."
I must say, I still find myself none the wiser.