What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught Us About Christianity

Today’s post is co-authored by Robynn Bliss and Marilyn Gardner. Fast friends despite age differences (Marilyn is older!) they share many commonalities that include growing up in the Muslim world. Our hope, and indeed prayer, is that this post will build bridges and get people thinking. Thanks for reading!

Today begins the Holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. It will go for 30 days ending on Saturday, August 18 with celebration and a feast. Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, is marked by fasting daily from sun up to sun down. As Christians raised in Pakistan our memories of Ramadan days are as strong as our memories of the Call to Prayer waking us at dawn.

As we think about Ramadan our minds and hearts remember what we have learned about our own faith from our Muslim friends.

1. At an early age we learned that God is not North American. He spans nation and ocean, culture and ethnicity. To bind him to one nation is idolatry. To attach Him to one country elevates our own perceptions of that country. Secretly believing that God is North American justifies our private beliefs that we are superior. It’s not true.

2. We learned that Christians are not the only ones with deep faith. Indeed the Muslims that we were surrounded by were zealous of keeping to the tenants of their faith. They were sincere. They were devoted.

3.We learned that worship has little to do with pews or worship bands; versions of scripture or language. Worship has everything to do with the heart.

4. We learned that as women with white skin we had arrogant tendencies, as though we had  birthrights. When our behavior reflected that it was ugly.

5. We learned that caring for women and children, the poor and the broken was never to be separated from the love of God and his call to holiness. We learned that the invitation of the Father that extends to the those in the “highways and byways” included the beggar woman, the street children, the dismembered, the leper.

6. We learned that the mud huts and dusty streets of Pakistan were far closer to the streets walked by Jesus than the clean suburbs and white steeples that we encountered every four years in the United States. Our Jesus was brown and slightly sweaty with dusty calloused feet; he wasn’t pink and pressed and clean. Blue eyes he did not have.

7. We learned that Christian community comes in all denominations and many interpretations, that sprinkling and dunking could be argued with equal passion but would ultimately not change our need for a Saviour. We learned that the strong cultural value of individualism in the west could make it harder to selflessly love. When Jesus reiterated that the greatest commandment was loving God and the second greatest was loving each other he meant it. Love is the language of the community. Any other dialect is suspect.

8. We learned that the word “Allah” is the Arabic word for God and, while one can argue character qualities of God, to be afraid of that word was not wise. Fear rarely motivates faith and holy conversation.

9. We learned that people are not the enemy. And costumes, like book covers, are not to be judged.

10. We learned that bridge-building often means drinking 25 cups of tea and serving 100. Hospitality fleshes out acceptance and leads to friendship and deep loyalty. Those are strong bridges built of steel and concrete.

11. We learned that Muslims make the best of friends; that to share our hearts with them grew our understanding and faith. We were shown kindness, generosity and acceptance. We grew to understand their love for a good joke;their loyalty, their devotion.  We learned that once you have a Muslim friend, you always have a friend.  They will grieve your losses as if they were their own. They will enter your celebrations with abandon!

12.  We learned that being invited to break the fast was a gift, not something to refuse because of difference in belief, but something to enter with joy and prayer – prayer for our friends and prayer for their land. A land we called home.

And as we close this post we offer you a taste of breaking the fast. It is going from the simplicity of daily life and the discipline of fasting to the joyous contrast of colour, noise and taste of celebrations! It is deep-fried sweet sticky gulab jamin. It is colour infused sweet rice with chunks of fresh coconut and plump raisins; plain rice suddenly dressed up with fatty morsels of meat and sticks of cinnamon. Bread normally made on a flat dry pan-fried in oil and served with sweet oily cream of wheat cereal. Muslims knew how to celebrate. Christians in Pakistan learned that from their neighbors.

And we learned as well through the richness of our lives and watching life unfold at weddings, at Eid celebrations, and at the breaking of the fast. 

Posted by

Third Culture Kid - Grew up in Pakistan, lived and worked in Pakistan and Egypt as an adult. Moved to the United States and learning to live away from curry, Urdu, Arabic and the Pyramids.

44 thoughts on “What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught Us About Christianity

    1. Hello Hyacinth – thanks so much for stopping by Communicating Across Boundaries. I think many Christians do work to connect and love those from other backgrounds. Certainly growing up in Pakistan the best hospital in our area was a women and children’s hospital run by Christian missionaries — it still exists. But I think there are times when we need to be challenged to not demonize others and there have been several times since moving back to the United States where I have felt that Christians are unreasonably biased against Muslims rather than seeking to understand. I’m grateful you commented!

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  1. thank you Marilyn i love you post Christians are our brothers but because of some bad extremist peoples we have lots of trouble here for our Christians brothers. as a Muslim i wish i can give my life to make brotherhood between us i really appreciate your post & even my family loves it a lot Ramadan Kareem Mubaruk … God Bless you & give you whatever you want.
    Ameen

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  2. Marilyn I loved this! Thank you so much for leaving the link on my post over at BlogHer. I’m going to share it with the members of the Islamic Society of Joplin as I think they will enjoy it, as well. Thanks so much for joining the conversation. :-)

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      1. Just wanted to let you know they loved it and shared with members of their community as well. It’s so thought-provoking and informative!

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      2. Dawn – thanks so much for taking the time to come back and let me know their thoughts. This was huge to me. This was one of those comments and interactions where I felt again the value of this blogging world!

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  3. This is a very good post. Thanks to both of you for the thought that went into it. By the number of responses I see your comments resonated with many readers.

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    1. Thanks Jason – this is a high compliment. Missing you here at the reunion! We are setting the dates for the next one early so as to get more of us here!

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  4. Thank you Robynn and Marilyn.
    I enjoyed your article about growing up in Muslim Pakistan and found some commonality. My experiences in the Muslim world began in my mid-20’s and continued ever afterward, both around the Muslim Middle East, in Africa, and in the U.S. Although we now live in the U.S., we still have many friends who are Muslim both here and abroad. Also this last Feb. after a five and half year relationship, our daughter married a Palestinian-American from a Muslim family, and moved from the U.S. to Lebanon. She is a devout Christian as are we, her parents. Often we have had religious discussions with our Muslim friends. Once in Cairo, I was introduced to a room full of Muslim ladies, and the hostess added, “She is not an American….She believes in God!” I was astonished, saddened, and embarrassed. Their idea of America was what they saw in the “Dallas” and other American serials shown on television or in American movies….where God is seldom, if ever, mentioned. However, another very devout Muslim friend, a former professor and high ranking business person, once said to me, “You Christians do what we Muslims only talk about!” Once again, a very surprising statement. Obviously, he had been watching surrounding behaviors closely. In fact, I have heard other Muslims comment on the kindness they have witnessed among their Christian neighbors as opposed to the behaviors and attitudes in the their own Muslim circles. And yet, I have one dear Muslim woman friend who is more Christian in her behaviors and attitudes than most Christians I know! It has been my experience, that the people in the Muslim world are not very different from us in that some of them are sincere and deeply committed to their faith, and some are just social Muslims, going through the expected motions, but not really knowing much about their faith or caring. Then there are some who are fanatical, following some very misguided, destructive, and ill-founded ideas about their faith. Because Islam is intertwined with the social fabric and government of Muslim countries in a way that Christianity once was but no longer is in the West, we sometimes see them as more devout. But, in fact, I think not. It is more appearance than substance. This does not mean that there are not profound differences in the values of Christian communities and Muslim communities because there obviously are. We are just all human and subject to common failings or tendencies.
    Your idea about God being North American was a foreign idea to me, but it obviously struck a cord with many others. I also never felt superior because I was white, but I always felt I had basic value as a human being equal to that of any man. Perhaps that helped me in some way because I did not have difficulty managing my affairs,etc. even when often left on my own for extended periods. I can remember times of being the only female on the main street as far as one could see! But I digress…
    Regarding Jesus, his looks, and ethnicity….In discussing this point with an African-American friend, I once used an illustration from the Church of the Annuciation in Nazareth where there is a courtyard with walls decorated with sculpted images that have been sent from all over the world. There are black, brown, yellow, red, white, etc. madonnas and infants from everywhere, the Orient, India, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Polynesia, South America, etc. I explained to my friend that all peoples think of Jesus as looking like themselves! If one is European or North American, He is white, with light hair and eyes. If you are from Africa, He is black, with black hair and eyes. And if you are from China, He has yellow skin and his eyes are not round. Although on earth Jesus was semitic and undoubtedly had swarthy skin with dark hair and eyes, He lives today as a bright, shinning being…the Light of the World for all of us. God loves ALL people and wants each one to know Christ.

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    1. This comment- what a great addition to the conversation! Relating your experiences from your younger years to your daughters recent experience is so good for me to hear. But I especially love your insight on Jesus physical appearance. In so many ways it is so great that we all think he looks a little bit like us! Where we run into error is when we assume he looks ONLY like us – thank you for this!

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      1. It’s funny to think about Jesus looking like us…. I know one thing for sure… I surely want to look like Him!

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  5. Thank you Marilyn and Robynn! I am so grateful for my Muslim friends of Northwest China and Kazakhstan whom I have learned so much from. Now that I live mostly in America I am having the privilege of making more Muslim friends. Following our Lord’s command to love our neighbors, be they Samaritans or Muslims, right here, right now is an exciting, worthwhile adventure.

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    1. Crossing cultures makes friendships more poignant I think. I loved how you said it, “an exciting, worthwhile adventure!”

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  6. In Pakistan we watched with our neighbors for the new moon to appear at the beginning of Ramadan. And we watched for it to mark the end! Being Christians in an Islamic country opened many opportunities of dialogue with our neighbors. We learned from them, and they from us. The fervor with which they practiced their faith was noteworthy. The call to prayer 5 times a day often reminded me to pray! Their friendliness and hospitality towards us gave us acceptance into their community. This week we received an invitation from a Muslim friend to attend an Iftar. They meet regularly in The Islamic Center, located in the neighborhood of the church we attend. In fact the Muslims bought the building. Interestingly, the building was the original church building of our church, a place of worship. After locating down the street in larger facilities, it was sold and at various times in its history was a place of worship for other groups. It is a beautiful old edifice. Once in a while Hu attends the Friday prayers and sits on one of the few old pews left. It’s a place for him to meet and talk with Muslims from countries all over the world. They welcome him. It is an honor to be invited to their Iftar. However different in theology, faith, and practice is Islam and Christianity, genuine friendship is possible. The Christian principle “love thy neighbor as thyself” is one I have to takeseriously if I want to be a follower of Christ in truth and practice. We treasure the very warm relationships we have had and continue to have with our Muslim friends.

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    1. What a beautiful testament- an essay in itself. The picture of Hu going to attend Friday prayers brought tears to my eyes. Your book is also full of interactions and stories like this one. Keep on telling them.

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  7. Marilyn – you have enlightened me. My brother emailed me last night to tell me today was the beginning of Ramadan. He is stationed at Camp Leatherneck located in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. He is a civil engineer working on contract with a private company. I don’t understand but he loves it and tells me he is doing God’s work helping the locals rebuild and recover from the war. He is the most giving and loving man I know. sniff. [miss him dearly]
    I can only imagine what it might be like over there and have gone out to the desolate desert of Nevada to get a better sense. I am not close to God as my brother truly is but he has faith I will find mine.
    You have helped too in many ways with your writing.
    Your # 11 prompted me to write because my brother not only informed me of the beginning of Ramadan but sent me a photo of his new friend Sami. It comforts me to know my brother can make a friend wherever he goes and somehow will return safely home because of it. Thank you for the educated post, we all could use a fast and give thanks for all the things this free country of ours provides.

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    1. I love this comment. Thank you for sharing about your brother. And your obvious care for him. Is this his first Ramadan? He will have amazing stories of his own on breaking the fast with Afghan friends. Your words “we could all use a fast” really hit home for me. Thanks for the reminder. Have a great weekend Sue Ann!

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      1. Not Brians first Ramadan. He was in Afghanistan 2 years ago for his first but Brian is a true christian in the Presbyterian and Catholic faith and has observed lend and fasting for a long time. I believe these fasts are all in the same vein. Please forgive me if I am not saying all this correctly.
        Hope your weekend is relaxing and fun.
        Headed to the Lake here soon for some RnR
        cheers M!
        Sue Ann

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  8. I think we are privileged to have Muslims as friends — then and now. I wish I could think the Muslims in our midst learned Good from us also, but I am not so confident. I think perhaps some of your “learned” (past tense) as though they were all learned quickly and lived out in daily life are overstatements. At least I know I did not learn and live these realities early. For #2, my Dad said he would often tell Muslims: “You are much more religious than me… [and convey that he could not compete as being more “religious” but that he also hoped for them a relationship with the living God.]

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    1. This is a good call Susan – You’re right, it was/is and ongoing process so to change to learning or learn is perhaps the wiser choice. That being said, it has been as an adult that I realize all I did learn, and was exposed to. So I need to think about that one. What are your thoughts Robynn? I do love your dads response…and that you remember it. How wise. I remember many of my parents responses when asked about prayer and faith. It’s a privilege to have this background.

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    1. Thank you Ariana for your comments. Like you, I wish there was more love and prayer and less fear and condemnation. The fear that certain strains of the media use to further divide makes me grieve!

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  9. Deep inside they consider us we the Christian Infidels .I lived in the Arab world and l know how hateful they are.They pray five times a day and they course the infidel five times .Best regards JMS

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    1. I’m glad you read and commented. I know that there were times when I saw some hatred of Muslim for Christian and other times when I saw the reverse.
      But I can’t put out of my head our call by God to be Bridge builders and to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us. I so appreciate your perspective as being a minority and I believe it must have been so so difficult at times. Thanks again for reading and being willing to comment.

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  10. Marilyn and Robynn, I love this – it brings back so many memories, and makes me just a little bit homesick for those “good old days.” Also so thankful that you both have such positive memories of your growing up, although I know it wasn’t all so g reat all the time!

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    1. Mom- thank you. There is no doubt that there were really hard things and lessons through out but I am so incredibly grateful for my background particularly as I look at the polarization of east and west. So thank you!

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      1. Hi Alex – Actually all Muslim people are not related to terrorists, just as all Americans are not related to Whitey Bulger or Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City bombing.

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