When my wife and I arrived in Kuwait a few years ago, we thought we’d brought with us an informed perspective on the Middle East.
But when we faced Kuwaiti heat for the first time, we realized there might be a gap between our academic preparations and the actual life we were undertaking. At 10 p.m. the temperature was more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (42 C). It felt like we were standing behind the exhaust pipe of an idling car. The next day brought a temperature of 122 degrees (50 C), and we again had to adjust our definition of the word hot.
The [language of God and devotion to Islam] are as pervasive as the heat that dictates life in Arabia.
Similarly, we realized quickly our lack of appropriate language in the West to describe the influence of Islam on Middle Eastern life. In parallel with our culture, Reformed Christians have adopted the language of separation between everyday life and religion. In the Arab world, however, life and religion remain so infused that many Muslims do not even have words to describe a separation between them.
In classical Arabic—the language of the Qur’an—there is little capacity for the future conditional tense. You do not hear, even translated to English, “That might happen tomorrow” or “Maybe I’ll come by next week.” Rather, you get used to hearing, “It will happen tomorrow, Insha’Allah” or “I will come next week, Insha’Allah.”
Insha’Allah, “by the will of God,” is one of the few Arabic religious phrases that have crossed into Western awareness— often as a source of frustration for Western businesspeople who think it means they cannot secure a firm commitment from their Arab counterparts.
But when Muslims speak that way they are not being evasive. Nor would it be accurate to describe Insha’Allah as merely an expression. Rather, it is a seamless integration of faith and language that we cannot fully appreciate until we see how everything in Arab life—from business transactions to driving to parenting—happens, literally, according to the will of God.
Thus the language of God and devotion to Islam are as pervasive as the heat that dictates life in the Arab world, the birthplace of Islam.
The Middle East’s deserts contain some of the most unforgiving terrain on Earth, and those who dwell here must live according to strict practices in order to survive.
Mohammed, Islam’s most venerated prophet, was first a shepherd. He was intimately familiar with the hardships of desert life and, as a result, Islam’s basic tenets reflect an unbending adherence to ritual and tradition. Centuries later, Muslims still unquestioningly adhere to those tenets because Allah, through his desert-wise prophet, left little room for questions.
When Christians in the West try to decipher the Muslim mindset, we do so at great disadvantage: we simply have little conception of the strength of a message born in such an unforgiving environment. We often label Muslim devotion as extremist, linking the terrible things we see on the news and the extreme language we hear with the average Muslim.
The simple reality of millions of Muslims faithfully and peacefully observing the rituals of their faith should give us something to ponder. I cannot claim to live a seamlessly Reformed Christian life; when I say “God willing,” it is often as an add-on—one with more doubt than certainty. And I do not know many Christians—even among our pastors and leaders—who get down on their knees to pray, much less five times a day.
After four years living in the Middle East, we still agree that the call to prayer, the adhan, is perhaps the most potent reminder of life in our adopted home. Five times a day, from before sunrise to after sunset, the hauntingly beautiful voices of the muezzins blanket Kuwait, calling the faithful to prayer with Allahu Akbar, “God is great.” With mosques on almost every block, the reminder to prostrate oneself before the Creator finds its way into every corner and crevice, just as the desert dust sifts into our clothing.
We do our own faith irreparable harm when we dismiss such devotion as superstition or fanaticism. Rather, we have much to learn from Islam, a faith that demands so much of its believers.
- Give examples of how, in the West, even "Reformed Christians have adopted the language of separation between everyday life and religion." Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
- Read James 4:13-15. Do you think that parallels what Muslims believe when they say Insha'Allah ("if God wills”)?
- How can we live a more seamless Christian life within the (largely) secular culture in which we live? Are Muslims good role models for us? Do you agree with Van Staalduinen that we have much to learn from Muslims on this score?
- Would a stricter observance of spiritual disciplines (prayer, Bible reading, giving to the poor, etc.) make us better Christians? What would be the gains? What might be the dangers?
- So is everything that happens God's will? Even the terrible tragedies? Even the troubles we inflict on others or on ourselves?