About – Reading the Bible in Muslim Contexts

A woman in her early thirties is sweeping up outside her small clothes shop. She sweeps the dust off into the street beside the shop, hoping that by getting rid of it, she will bring in more customers to her now tired business. She manages the shop and its customers (who always want to take clothes on loan but who often forget to eventually pay up), on her own since her husband divorced her for a younger woman. He said he hoped his new wife would provide him with the son she could not. She lifts up the matt outside her door and gives it one last hard shake into the street, sweeps under it and goes inside the door. A couple of shops down, two men in their fifties are standing on the pavement outside a small mini market talking. Their feet haven’t moved for ten minutes, but their hands haven’t stopped moving all that time.  They are waving in the air, touching each other’s shoulders and pointing one finger up at the sky to point at God to highlight they are making important points. They are wearing business trousers and pristine white shirts. Up above them, a young man is asleep on a mattress under the air conditioning in his living room. A middle aged and tired looking woman hobbles down the street carrying three heavy bags of groceries home. On the balcony in the apartment beside the young mans, which is still covered with bullet holes from the 15 year civil war, which ended 30 years ago, an elderly lady who has Alzheimer’s sits in her bedclothes at a small plastic table. She is staring backwards into her apartment. A little water truck screeches to a stop outside their building and three Syrian men jump out and sling heavy water bottles on their shoulders. They carry them up into the building’s dark concrete stairwell. beneath a rusting metal sign with “in the name of God” written on it by hand in large white Arabic calligraphic letters.

Above them all, up on the roof of the next large apartment building to the right, a Sudanese ‘househelper’, who has lived in her madam’s apartment for one year and who sleeps in the kitchen at night on an unfolding camping bed, is hanging out her ‘madam’s washing on a line. Her work is in stark contrast to the large family living in the top floor apartment, directly beneath her feet. Their curtains have remained closed all morning. Presumably, they are all recovering from the engagement party they had in their home last night. A sheikh came from the local mosque, read some verses from the Qur’an and guided the beaming man and woman to sign in a book. Then a huge party started.

I have some questions as I watch the street. What thoughts fill the shopkeeper’s mind as she stands in her empty shop waiting for customers? Does she worry about how she will live if they don’t come? Does she imagine what her two daughters are doing right then in her exhusband’s new home? What does the young man imagine about his future as he lays on his mattress in the living room at night? What do the three Syrian men believe God’s role has been in their transformation from civil administrators in Syria to water deliverymen in Beirut? What do the two businessmen think about the future of their families and businesses with the sharply raising unemployment in the middle-East? Do they really trust God will provide, as they have been saying forcefully to one another. Or are they both trying to persuade each other that it is true?  Have the people got so used to wars and killing that they no longer acknowledge the presence of the three Syrian refugees, just as they have grown used to the many bullet holes from their own civil war dotting the many balconies above them? What does the woman with Alzheimer’s feel? How are her family caring for her in her home, which is surely a great financial, emotional and time burden upon them? Perhaps it is one they are glad to bear? Why did someone hang a handwritten sign with the words “In the Name of God” at the stairwell of their building? How did the Sudanese woman end up deciding to live in the kitchen of a woman in a foreign Arab country. Was it her choice? Did she come to try to leave something from her past behind? Or is she thinking about the future and trying to make and save money for something? Surely she gets lonely, being locked up in the home all day and every day? What did the sheikh read from the Qur’an? Why did the two young people sign a book and why did the family choose to have the sheikh come to their apartment?

What do these people think about God and the world? Their worldviews are surely shaped by Islamic doctrines, the books of the mosque, and the words of the sheikh. But they are surely also shaped by the concerns of their daily lives, their experiences in life, and the words of their family members and friends. This mixture of Classical religious teaching and real life lessons, concerns and thoughts is what I will call ‘Street Islam’. The beliefs of people we find in the street, not only the doctrines we find written in religious books.

How do these Muslim’s contexts and background shape the way they read the Bible and what they see in its pages?

This project seeks to explore these question in one small part. We hope to form a sort of commentary on the Bible which takes into account the context of Arab Muslims – their lives, their concerns, their beliefs and their questions about God, as well as the more formal Islamic doctrines they and other Muslims assent to which also shape their lives and how they read the Bible.

We hope these ideas will help you to consider how Muslims in your life might read the Bible too.

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