Lausanne Global Analysis: The Refugee and the Body of Christ


By Arthur Brown

The purpose of IMES’ annual Middle East Consultation (MEC) is to equip participants to respond in prophetic and Christ-like ways to the many challenges facing Christians and Muslims in and beyond the Middle East. Each year during the third week of June IMES hosts a dynamic gathering of people from across the globe who are interested in how the church may respond to the critical issues of the day within both Middle Eastern and global contexts.

The consultation includes creative presentations from diverse perspectives, practitioner interviews, roundtable discussions, workshops, interfaith encounters with leading Muslims leaders, Biblical reflections, prayer and worship, and an opportunity to visit a local community to see firsthand some of the challenges faced by certain communities in the region.

MEC 2016 – The Refugee and the Body of Christ: Exploring the Impact of the Present Crisis on Our Understanding of Church was no exception; in fact, the feedback we have received has been extremely positive. What follows is an abridged version of a report on MEC 2016 recently published by the Lausanne Movement, as part of their Lausanne Global Analysis. Continue reading

The Refugee and the Body of Christ

by Arthur Brown

This year’s Middle East Consultation, The Refugee and the Body of Christ: Exploring the Impact of the Present Crisis on our Understanding of Church, is now less than six weeks away. Plans are coming together well, and consultation registrations are at an all-time high. As consultation coordinator, I thought it would be helpful this week to highlight some of what will be happening during the week of June 20-24, here at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. If, after reading this, you know that you want to join us for MEC, it is not too late, but we encourage you to apply as soon as possible.

With regard to format, we are trying something new this year. Continue reading

Why Do We Believe As We Do?

by Arthur Brown

What do you believe?

And, how do you decide what you believe?

Do you believe what you believe because you read it somewhere, because someone you know and trust told it to you, or because you witnessed or experienced something that led you to draw a particular conclusion? Is it as a result of your tradition that you believe certain things? Is it out of some kind of loyalty to a particular view?

And, how do you determine the ‘sources of authority’ from which you are more or less likely to draw your view[s]? From a particular media source? In which case, which one? From material you have read – which material?

From people you know? What led them to draw their conclusions that they have passed on to you? What have they read or been taught? To whom are they loyal, and why? Might it be that they have had a negative experience at the hands of someone or a particular group, and as a result are more likely to hold a negative view of a particular political or religious community?

Okay, so you have a view on something, someone…. or some group? How, then, might your view be changed? What would need to happen for you to change your opinion?

I apologise for asking all these questions, but I guess I want to stress the idea that asking the right question[s] is often significantly more important than obtaining ‘the right’ answer. Continue reading

The Middle East Will Never Be the Same Again: The Rise of the Millennial

by Arthur Brown

My society is full of contradictions: a society that dissolves the identity of the individual into the identity of the group, a society that is afraid of change, a society that praises freedom of expression but ultimately suppresses it. One learns to remain silent, to become a coward, to accept reality regardless of the discrepancies. One is taught that things in Lebanon will remain the way they are no matter how hard one tries to bring about change. There is no logic in our society. We must live up to the expectations of the family, the community, our religious sect, and political party – but I have no intention of doing so.[1]

With these words, Lebanese student “Yasmine” encapsulates all the salient energy and potential of the millennial generation. As Khalaf and Khalaf go on to suggest, ‘…youth can be subservient agents to repressive state authority or serve as radical agents in bringing about transformative change’.[2] Continue reading

Responding to Franklin and the Politics of Fear

By Arthur Brown

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. [1 John. 4:16 & 18].

There is no shortage of fear in this world, and of course no shortage of things to be fearful of. Given recent comments by a well known Evangelical Christian leader in the US concerning his views on Islam and Muslims – and how he feels his country should respond to it/them – it seems there is the need to address some basic gospel principles [yet again] in relation to the responsibility followers of Christ have towards their Muslim neighbors.

Islamaphobia has been defined as: Continue reading

Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa

By Arthur Brown

Last week [15-19 June], IMES hosted its second consultation on the theme of discipleship in the MENA region. This year’s consultation, Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa, attracted representatives from 28 countries, including: Algeria, Tanzania, Iraq, Bangladesh, Singapore, the Netherlands, Syria, The U.S., Romania, Lebanon, Columbia, The U.K., The Philippines, Egypt and many more. It was an amazing opportunity to hear what God has been doing across the MENA region, and beyond, in the lives of individuals and communities.

The purpose of the Middle East Consultation [MEC] is to equip participants to respond in prophetic and Christ-like ways to the many challenges facing Christians and Muslims in and beyond the Middle East.

Continue reading

Why Do Young People Join ISIS?

By Arthur Brown

Much of my career has involved working with young people participating in ‘risky behaviour’. This included drug use, gang membership, reckless riding of stolen motorbikes, etc. As a youth worker my role was to understand what motivated them and hopefully seek ways of reducing the risk of serious harm.

Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy continues to confound the majority of humanity – even those who claim to follow Jesus. Throughout history, societies and nations generally depersonalise the enemy, categorizing them as ‘other’, whereby ‘other’ represents all things evil and in opposition to their own values and identities. It is easy to do this with ISIS, given their barbaric activities.

However, what happens when we realise that the enemy is increasingly coming from within? When the enemy is made up of individuals with names, with families, with tragic histories and experiences that some of us might actually share. Experiences which lead them – perhaps with some degree of rationality – to join organisations such as ISIS?

Young people are joining ISIS in ever increasing numbers. On Tuesday, the BBC reported that ‘More than 25,000 foreign fighters have travelled to join militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), according to a UN report.’ As a result, countries around the world are being confronted by the reality that their young people are willing to travel to Syria and Iraq to ‘play their part’ in the establishment of the so called caliphate ISIS is seeking to establish.

But what is ‘their part’? One of the compelling features of ISIS is that, like any other state, they need all sorts of people to fulfill all sorts of roles. Whilst fighters and executioners receive the majority of attention, ISIS is a growing institution with a widening recruitment strategy and appeal. The evidence indicates that though conditions of poverty and educational deficit are strong factors in motivating young people to join ISIS, the truth is there are also highly educated young people from around the world who are keen to join. The three 15 & 16 year old girls from my area of East London [all A grade students in school] who recently traveled to Syria to become ‘ISIS brides’ are a case in point.

It is easy to label would-be recruits to ISIS as naive and misguided, and this may be true. However the ever increasing number and diversity of youth willing to join must cause us to ask deeper, more uncomfortable questions.

There are two main categories of motivation when thinking about risk taking behaviour. Abundance motivation drives individuals to seek  ‘peak’ experiences, a buzz or thrill. Young people often crave excitement, a sense of living life to the max! Deficiency motivation, on the other hand, seeks to make up for something that is lacking in an individual – in some way to suppress pain. What tends to motivate someone to take cocaine for example is different to what tends to motivate someone to take heroine. The former is a stimulant, the latter a pain-killer. Ultimately, young people take risks expecting some benefit or pay-off.

Other reasons why young people take risks include:

  • Symbolic identity: Developing a personal identity, which is recognised and validated in some way by others, is important for young people.
  • The need to belong: This is the motivation behind much, if not most, human behaviour. This is perhaps critical when considering what might motivate a young person to join ISIS.
  • To release anger: For some, violence is a powerful means of release. This is particularly so when the target of violence is the authority or value system that has lead to the development of such anger in the first place.
  • To escape or ‘numb’ the pain: Feelings of hopelessness and pain are also strong motivators; however, in these cases risk taking behavior is more likely a motivation to seek escape or ‘salvation’ in some form.

So, what might motivate a young person to join ISIS?

Motivation is multi-facetted and each potential ISIS recruit will probably have a complex mix of abundance and deficiency motivation that might attract them towards ISIS membership.

Bab el Tabaneh in the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli is an area that has seen ongoing tension and violence between neighboring communities for decades. It is now one of the recruitment hubs for various extremist groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front.

According to scholar Mohammad Abi Samra,

The population lives well below the poverty line. Illiteracy and unemployment rates are high and broken families are common, as is early marriage and random divorce and pregnancy. This poor neighborhood has become an environment of instability, violence, and broken homes, a breeding ground for street gangs of unemployed and drug-addicted youth who get into pointless bloody fights on a daily basis.[1]

We can all probably think of places not too far from where we live that sound similar. I used to live in a community in London that was often described in such terms!

It is within this context that boys and young men experience a life of pain, emptiness, hopelessness, violence, addiction, and self-harm. Bab el Tabaneh and similar communities have cultures of poverty and desperation with a sense of rage simmering beneath the fragile daily grind – waiting to erupt at any opportunity. Recent events, including suicide bombings and the killing of well-known leader Badr Eid, have only heightened tensions. It is within this context that ISIS and others are so prevalent in their recruitment drive.

What have these young people got to loose? The answer – not much! Their desire for ‘salvation’ – the need to escape – becomes a fixation, one that ISIS and others are able to exploit.

Many of the young people from the region who are joining these groups, and who come from such impoverished and desperate circumstances, are uneducated and have suffered under local and regional security apparatuses, especially those of the Syrian regime during its occupation of Lebanon. Anger and resentment towards both the Lebanese and Syrian authorities runs deep and hostilities regularly flare up.

What does ISIS offer these young people?

Perhaps the main thing that ISIS can offer is a means of escape. Local mosques and prayer halls influenced by the Islamist ideas of ISIS are places where young people from similar backgrounds have found ‘salvation’ within a certain interpretation of Islam. This Islam has offered an escape from isolation and self-destruction into a community that offers discipline, respectability and dignity. Former gang members have become community leaders and role-models to the ‘wretched’ youth of impoverished communities. However, the young people who are ‘being saved’ lack much formal education and the ability to think critically and engage in a wider social discourse. They are easily led, and often lack even a basic understanding of Islam – other than what is being fed to them by some extremists in their communities. In fact, many of these young people are not attracted to Islam per se, but rather have a desire to escape (Abi Samra 230-234). The other significant thing ISIS can offer is a sense of belonging to something bigger and more significant than these young people may have ever been able to imagine. This is a trend that is growing by the day, as the vision of ISIS and what it offers becomes more significant.

So, what is the role of the faith communities – and the church?

Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemy, as well as their neighbour. The reality is that our neighbors – young people from our communities – are becoming ‘the enemy’. So how can we even begin to think about loving them, when loving them involves taking loving actions towards them?

In the first instance I think we need to recognise that each of these young people has a name and a history that has led them to take such a radical decision. They too are created in the image of God, however disturbing this may be to us. Rather than writing them off as ‘crazy’, ‘sick’ or ‘evil’, maybe we should try to understand the conditions that led them to be willing to join such organisations. In no way am I seeking to justify their actions, just to understand them.

It would be easy for the church to stay out of it. How might the church have a role in being a peace-maker between different Muslim communities? Poverty does not make distinctions between religious communities. Recently, at least two Lebanese Christians from Tripoli have joined extremist terrorist groups, further highlighting that maybe it is not Islam per se that drives people towards groups like ISIS. One is believed to have joined ISIS, while another was arrested in connection with suicide attacks in a neighbouring community. In such contexts maybe peace-loving churches need to build friendships with peace-loving mosques, to seek ways not only to reject violence, but to address the conditions that lead to such fertile recruitment grounds. Maybe the role of the global church is to take an interest in the local contexts from where ISIS members originate and seek to support initiatives that counter hatred and discrimination, asking prophetic questions about how nations could and should respond in such challenging circumstances. In the mean time, why not pray for these young men and women and for their families… as well as for the families who have lost loved ones as a consequence of the devastating realities on the ground in the region.


[1] Mohammad Abi Samra, ‘Revenge of the Wretched: Islam and Violence in the Bab al Tabaneh Neighborhood of Tripoli’ in Arab Youth: Social Mobilisation in Times of Risk, ed. Samir Khalaf and Roseanne Saad Khalaf (London: SAQI Books, 2011), p.222.

Let’s Eat Together!

By Arthur Brown

Food and youth work have always gone hand in hand. While it is true that ‘pizza night’ generally attracts more young people than a discussion on the doctrine of the trinity, good youth workers recognise the significance of young [and old] persons eating together. I was recently reminded of an initiative working in communities that had experienced inter-religious conflict and violence. One of the projects involved a group of women from different religious communities meeting together in order to bake bread. Such a ‘simple,’ and yet profound, activity sought to help reduce community tensions and create friendships.

There is a traditional Arabic phrase, ‘baynatna khubz wa milah,‘ which translates ‘there is bread and salt between us.’ In Egyptian Arabic, the word used for bread [instead of the more typical khubz] is ‘aish,’ which is also the Arabic word meaning ‘life.’ This goes to show the significance in which bread is held in the Arab world.

Before I get myself into trouble for massacring the Arabic language, let me explain. The idea behind this phrase refers to the nature of relationship between two parties. As a Moroccan twist on this proverb makes clear, those who share bread and salt [or eat together] become close:

By bread and salt we are united.Moroccan proverb

There is a sense of bonding between those who have shared this meal together. In many Eastern European countries, the same idea refers to a ceremony of greeting.

Okay, so this isn’t a food blog. So why such a focus on food?

Feast_BW_with_tagIn the coming weeks IMES, in partnership with World Vision Lebanon and Youth for Christ Lebanon, will be launching The Feast. The Feast is an initiative based in the UK that seeks to develop community cohesion between Christian and Muslim young people. In such a context as Lebanon, this strikes me as a significant need.

What is The Feast?

Essentially, The Feast in Lebanon is about great quality youth work with religiously diverse young people who are committed to their faith. We will be creating a new youth group in Lebanon comprised of Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Maronite Christian, and Evangelical Christian young people aged 15-19. Over time, and as the young people get to know each other better, we hope that not only they but their families and communities will be impacted for the better.

As in The Feast UK, there will be three main elements guiding everything we do.

  • Exploring faith: young people are encouraged and equipped to discuss their faith in ways which draw out both the similarities and differences between them.
  • Creating friendships: by bringing together young people in a positive and fun environment, The Feast provides the opportunities for them to get to know one another, work on projects together and build ongoing friendships built on trust and respect.
  • Changing lives: having been to events run by The Feast the young people are challenged and enabled to live out the lessons they have learnt in their everyday lives amongst their friends, family and the wider community.

Spearheading Social Change

While it is a good end in and of itself for individual young people’s relationships to be developed with those from different faith communities, maybe, just maybe, The Feast in Lebanon, by virtue of these relationships, will also have wider peace-building implications. As a youth worker, I have always believed in the potential for young people to make a difference in society. And, it seems evident from recent events in the MENA region that the youthful voice [with the help of social media] is becoming a force to be reckoned with.

As well as building peace, there are many social issues that need addressing in Lebanon: the treatment of migrant domestic workers, the environment, domestic violence, and the list could go on. Often it is ‘non-religious’ NGO’s who spearhead campaigns to bring about change and social justice. However, often these same NGO’s are somewhat removed from the powerful [and political] religious institutions. Imagine if young people, inspired by their Muslim and Christian faith, became advocates not only for the building of peaceful inter-sectarian relationships, but for social change…based on their faith commitments! Imagine if groups of young people are inspired to go to their religious leaders and ask them what their faith tradition teaches on any number of issues or concerns.

What We Will Do

The Feast Lebanon youth group will meet every two weeks for a diverse menu of activities. It is anticipated that these will include:

  • Talking about what is good about being a Christian or a Muslim
  • Fun and games during creative youth meetings
  • Arts and crafts
  • Trips to each other’s religious sites and communities
  • Celebrating special religious events [Feasts!]
  • Discussions on a wide range of issues and themes
  • Sharing food!
  • Scriptural reasoning [exploring the Bible and the Quran as they relate to particular themes]
  • Drama & role-play
  • Campaigning / advocating [from a faith base] for positive social change
  • Life skills and peace-building training

And the list could go on.

However, each activity will be inspired by faith. The Feast is about religion [and religious faith] having a positive impact, rather than what is often considered negative. Yet, as an intentionally youth-led initiative, we will encourage young people to decide on the specific activities they themselves see as important [and fun]. One trip already in the works is igloo building in the snowy wintery Lebanese mountains! [Honestly, there is a company that does this!]

Dialogue Values

The Feast has a number of what it calls ‘guidelines for dialogue’ to help young people explore faith in healthy and appropriate ways. In Lebanon, this is imperative as we ensure all our young participants [and their faith leaders] feel safe and secure. Given some of the recent events around the world involving so called ‘religiously inspired violence’ the following three guidelines seem particularly pertinent:

  • [We will] not judge people here by what some people of their faith do.
  • [We will] not treat people as a spokesperson for their faith. [We come as individual young people, and not representatives of our religion].
  • [I will] speak positively about my own faith, rather than negatively about other people’s. [And, in the Lebanese context we will encourage the same at it relates to political belief].

Working in Partnership

This is a significant step for IMES. It is the first time we will be working directly with young people [aged 15-19]. In the future, we hope to be able to put on ‘Feast events’ in different parts of Lebanon, thus creating a movement of young people who will break down the barriers of ignorance and mistrust. In addition, we hope to start an informal network of youth leaders who are committed to intentional interfaith youth work in Lebanon.

Returning to The Taste of Salt

Mark 9:50 says,

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” [NIV]

As salt flavours all it touches, it is my prayer that The Feast [and more importantly the young people who participate in it] will help flavor their own communities and spheres of influence. Maybe it is Lebanon’s young people who will flavor the relationships between different religious and sectarian groups in Lebanon towards a future where we can see glimpses of hope amongst signs of hatred and conflict.

When It Gets Personal

By Arthur Brown

Like many concerned with the news in and around Lebanon I receive regular updates from The Daily Star, one of the English language news providers in Lebanon. Almost daily, I receive via my phone a brief news feed with updates on the latest road side blast, suicide bomber or government attack, along with the fatality and casualty statistics:

Mortar shells hit Northern city of Idlib, killing 14…4,500 Syrians flee to Turkey in three days…20 surrendered fighters killed in Homs…7,500 confirmed cases of women being raped during the Syria’s 3-year-old conflict…At least 50,000 Syrian children in Lebanon are working, often for 12 hours a day…Strong blast in Syrian town near Iraq kills 8…ISIS militants accused of killing 15 Syrian Kurds, nearly half of them children…12 year old Syrian boy killed and three others wounded as Syrian warplanes carry out attacks on the outskirts of Arsal in East Lebanon…[1]

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates the death toll between 15 March 2011 – 17 May 2014 to be 162,402! According to the Washington Post:

  • Every minute: Three Syrians become refugees.
  • Every two minutes: Eight children inside Syria are forced to flee their homes.
  • Every 10 minutes: One person dies.

The lists could go on…and on….and on. And, the numbers only increase. It seems as if each time my smart phone bleeps, it is as likely to be news of more fatalities as it is my wife asking me to pick up some groceries on the way home.

I was sitting in church last Sunday trying to worship when my phone [which was fortunately on silent] vibrated. I know I should have ignored it, but like many others, I failed to subdue the temptation to look. As I subtly looked down to my screen, I read about the latest loss of lives as a result of the latest attack. I don’t remember where this particular tragedy took place. I don’t even remember how many people died. However, what I do remember is how I felt as I looked up from my screen and saw the people around me.

At that moment, I was literally surrounded by Syrian and Kurdish brothers and sisters who have not only sought refuge in Lebanon, but have found a place in my church. These people, some of whom I know personally, some of whom I have taught in our teen Sunday School classes, were my brothers and sisters.  They are also the brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, neighbors and colleagues of the people who were not able to escape and who have paid with their lives. They have names. They have stories, stories often shared with me. They have hopes and dreams. And, they have nightmares and despair.

On that Sunday morning it was personal. On that Sunday morning it hurt more than it normally does.

Don’t get me wrong, there will be [and have been] countless other news feeds that do not provoke such a reaction in me. However, that Sunday I found it hard to sing. I found it hard to hold back tears of sadness, of anger, and of despair. I found it hard to listen to the sermon. To be honest, I didn’t really know how to respond.  All I knew was that it hurt.

And maybe that was not such a bad thing.  In fact, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I know that this is what I was meant to feel. To feel the pain of those around me. If I had not felt such pain that morning, my ‘worship’ would have been mere parody.

I’m no fan of ‘Christian platitudes,’ found so often on T-shirts, bumper stickers, church signs, and the like. However, I once read the following words, words that have continuously stuck with me.

Jesus came to comfort the disturbed…

And to disturb the comfortable.

There is no doubt that on that Sunday morning, and many others like it, Jesus was comforting those Syrian and Kurdish refugees who had found a place of welcome and love among their Lebanese Christian brothers and sisters. It is also true that many Lebanese Christians have been disturbed by what God is doing in their midst – bringing ‘the enemy’ into their homes, breaking down long held enmity, fear and hatred. I too have been disturbed, and I am thankful that I have – though it can hurt. When we choose not to let ourselves be disturbed by events around us we lose something of our common humanity.

For those of us fortunate to be living in Lebanon in these days [and I do not say that ironically], we cannot avoid the tragedy of the Syrian conflict. It is in our face every day, as the ever increasing number of refugees continue to flood into our already ‘stretched-to-breaking point’ country. We see young children daily begging in the streets and women selling sex for $5 just to survive and feed their families. Nevertheless, it is still possible to ignore an individual’s personal suffering. It is easy not to know the names and stories of such persons, because, let’s be honest, the situation is “just too big.”

How much harder must it be for those living overseas and far away to grasp the personal anguish these individuals, created in God’s image like me and you, are experiencing? How much harder must it be to know their names and their stories?

Many of us do not want to personalize this conflict, because it hurts when things get personal. It is much easier to protect ourselves from suffering by not engaging in it. Yes, there is so much suffering going on in the world that we personally cannot engage all of it and I admit that I don’t have many answers. But perhaps we, the global church, must try and make at least some of it personal. Perhaps we must personalize this conflict in the same way that God decided to make things personal, by experiencing the suffering and death of His son, “The Word who became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” [John 1:14, The Message].

For the first time since World War II, the number of global refugees this year exceeded 50 million. This is a truly horrific and unimaginable number. So, perhaps your task today is to get to know the names and stories of at least one family who help make up this number.

I remember being deeply moved when I first read Rachel Held Evans’ reflection on Syria, “When It’s Too Big.”  It continues to resonate with me. So with many thanks to Rachel, I offer in conclusion:

When It’s Too Big (A Reflection on Syria)by Rachel Held Evans

When you’ve tried your best to educate yourself, When the more you learn the less clear it all becomes, When images of disfigured children creep into your dreams,

When you watch as things get politicized and theologized and shoved into 140 characters, When you want to love your enemies but don’t know how, When you’ve sent money for the refugees but feel foolish for the smallness of your efforts,

When you’d like to think you would open your doors to them, but aren’t really sure you would, When you catch yourself worrying about what to wear, what movie to see, When you doubt yourself, doubt your government, doubt your pastor, doubt God,

When you hate how the news has made graphics and theme music, When you realize that your opinion will do nothing to change the matter, When your utter helplessness follows you around like a dark presence and laughs at all the empty things you say,

When it’s just too big….

All that’s left is prayer and fasting. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

All that’s left are tears and ash. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

 All that’s left is to acknowledge your smallness. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

All that’s left is to sit in quiet with the world and beg for peace and wisdom and clear paths. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s enough because it’s all that’s left to do. So be faithful, and do it.  Be helpless for a while. Be at God’s mercy and pray.


[1] Examples shown are for illustrative purposes, but are reports from The Daily Star.

Speaking Out: Muslim Leaders Respond to the Kidnapping of Nigerian Girls

By Arthur Brown

The kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls from their school by the Islamist Group Boko Haram has shocked the world. #Bringbackourgirls has become a Twitter phenomenon, with over 3.3 million tweets from across the planet. Celebrities have come out in support of the campaign, along with global leaders and their spouses. However, rather than reflect upon the manifest evils of such an action as a Christian, I have asked three Muslim religious leaders and experts in Islamic jurisprudence from Lebanon to share their reactions.

The group responsible for the kidnappings, officially Jamā’at ahl as-sunnah li-d-da’wa wa-l-jihād (“The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad”), is known commonly as Boko Haram. Although the etymology is disputed, the meaning of Boko Haram is typically understood to suggest that Western education is sinful – hence the attacks on schools in Nigeria. Boko Haram, as do certain other Islamist groups, claim that their actions are Islamic, inspired by a particular interpretation of the Qur’an. I am not qualified to comment on the degree to which their assertions are held within the Islamic world; however, what is clear to me is that there is a voice all too commonly ignored which totally rejects the basis upon which groups like Boko Haram operate.


Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid, a self-described salafi, is the Chairman of the Sunni court of Saida [Sidon] in Lebanon. He is an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, as well as a leader of a local mosque.

A common rejoinder in the West is that Muslims never speak out against the actions of their more violent co-religionists, (though Muslims often level the same accusation against Christians as well). Living in Lebanon, however, I know first-hand that such voices exist and are in-fact common. Given the sheer amount of misinformation, I feel it is therefore my Christian duty to provide a platform for such voices to be heard, allowing Muslims to speak for themselves and in their own words.

I am grateful to Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid, Sheikh Muhammad Nokkari and Sheik Fouad Khreis for taking the time to answer some of my questions concerning Boko Haram and their beliefs and practices. These men are each religiously devout Muslim leaders from Lebanon, well versed in Islamic law and tradition. They provide an authoritative perspective from within specific mainstream Islamic communities (both Sunni and Shi‘a) – a perspective that is all too often not given the attention it deserves.

On Boko Haram

Sheikh Fouad Kreiss

Sheikh Fouad Khreis is the Religious Pastorship Manager for the Mabarrat Association, a Shi‘a social enterprise managing hostels and restaurants whose profits go to schools and orphanages.

I began by asking the sheikhs for their initial reactions to the recent kidnappings in Nigeria by the Islamist group Boko Haram. In response, each cleric sought to confront the beliefs and practices of Boko Haram with Quranic and Islamic sources.

Sheikh Fouad Khreis expressed his pain that Boko Haram could even call themselves Muslims, a view expressed by all three sheikhs in fact, stating that their actions go against the Qur’an and the teachings of Islam. On this, Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid replied:

As a judge I need to be sure of the facts. Once the circumstances surrounding the situation have been confirmed [i.e. not simply based on uncorroborated media reporting], I affirm that as Muslim leaders and as the Muslim community we are completely and wholeheartedly against this action.  An authentic Islam, based on a true reading of the Qur’an, inspires us. We oppose what the group Boko Haram has done in the name of Islam.

Sheikh Mohamed Nokkari is Director of the Islamic-Christian Forum for Businessmen in Lebanon, head of the Sunni Court in Chtaura, former General Director of Dar-al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s top Sunni religious authority, and professor at St. Joseph University, Lebanon.

Sheikh Muhammad Nokkari is Director of the Islamic-Christian Forum for Businessmen in Lebanon, head of the Sunni Court in Chtaura, former General Director of Dar-al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s top Sunni religious authority, and professor at St. Joseph University, Lebanon.

Furthermore, Sheikh Muhammad Nokkari challenged the notion that kidnapping was in any way Islamic, stating that:

There is no excuse for kidnapping in Islam. The Quran teaches against kidnapping innocent people. The operation itself is refused. You will find no Islamic reference or teaching in Islam that supports this. I am not surprised, though, because this is not the first time this group has done such a horrific action. They are against all the teachings of Islam. We can only confront them with discernment and fight against them, especially since they are acting in the name of Islam, because the truth is that they are working against Islam, ruining its reputation.

On Slavery

It is believed that Boko Haram may intend to sell these girls into slavery and forced marriage. Again, all three sheikhs spoke out clearly and in one voice against slavery, stating that Islam has worked towards ending slavery.

Of this, Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid highlights the following:

In pre-Islamic Arabian history we heard about slaves being kept. However Muslims are commanded to set slaves free. How can they then enslave young girls in the name of Islam? Again, we totally reject their actions as anti-Islamic!

Quoting a hadith from Imam Ali, Sheikh Fouad Khreis insisted that Islam worked on demolishing slavery:

“Do not enslave when God has made them free.”

Furthermore, Zakāt [one of the five pillars of Islam] encourages Muslims to donate money in order that slaves [or bonded laborers] might be freed, thus seeking the abolition of slavery where it exists.

To Sheikh Khreis it seems clear that the actions of Boko Haram oppose rather than support significant elements of the Islamic tradition.

Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid further comments on the issue of forced marriage:

And if they plan to sell these girls into marriage, again they go against our beliefs as Muslims. Marriage is a matter of personal choice. In some societies the father of a daughter can interfere and give guidance. But nowhere do we read or accept that a stranger can take a girl and force her to be married to someone. These people are claiming a right they do not have, and may even go as far as using this ‘right’ that is not theirs. When they do this in the name of Islam they hurt our Muslim community and go against our authentic religion.

On education

Regarding education, the message was once again very clear. According to those I asked, education is an obligation within Islam, for both boys and girls.

Sheikh Nokkari asserted:

I say education for girls and boys is very essential and there is no religious or non-religious excuse to stop girls from learning or to tell a girl that she should only stay at home. I also saw that they veiled all the girls in the video. Many of these girls are Christians who [may have] converted to Islam. It is important to remember that in Islam we cannot force anyone to become Muslim, and since they are under age we cannot say they made this decision on their own. The Qur’an clearly states that “There is no compulsion in religion” [Al-Baqra, 256].

Challenging Boko Haram’s views on education, Sheikh Fouad Khreis quoted the Prophet Muhammad as saying,

“Seeking education is an obligation for each Muslim man and woman.”

Pragmatically, Sheikh Khreis went on to say that the community would loose half of its power and influence if women were not educated.

Muhammad Abu Zaid highlighted the first verse of the Holy Qur’an where Muslims are told to read and to learn.

“Read. Read in the name of thy Lord who created; [He] created the human being from a blood clot. Read in the name of thy Lord who taught by the pen: [He] taught the human being what he did not know.” (96: 1-5).

“Are those who have knowledge equal to those who do not have knowledge?!”(39:9).

He went on to ask why then should anyone who claims to be Muslim seek to prevent our children from learning?

If you are against the teachings of a particular school, fine! But open another school and teach what you want to teach there. But don’t stop children from learning! Seeking knowledge is a duty of every Muslim.

Furthermore, Sheikh Khreis made it clear that from his perspective Islam gives to women a role of leadership and education. He further accuses Boko Haram of trying to bring us back to the dark ages, giving Islam a bad reputation around the world. He encourages us to get to know Islam from its sources and not through such movements and extremist groups in Syria, Iraq or Nigeria, groups which are fighting and killing one another! He suggests it might be helpful to look to modern moderate sources, such as the teachings of Mohammad Hussein Fadlullah!

In conclusion, Sheikh Muhammad Nokkari stresses the following:

I believe these movements [such as Boko Haram and Al Qaida] are from outside Islam and did not emerge from our Islamic traditions, cultures and communities. These are groups that want to occupy the Arab world.  This has become more prevalent ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. Islam has become the new enemy to many in the West. However this is not justified. I want to tell the West, Islam is innocent from such claims, and I hope there would be a Christian-Muslim initiative to fight against such movements.

To Conclude

It is true that these three voices may not reflect the totality of Islamic belief and practice. It is also true that there are Muslims who would use the Quran to justify actions that are violent and destructive towards those both within and beyond the Muslim community, as Christians have often done as well. To say something is or is not Islamic is not as easy as some would make it out to be – for in reality such decisions are often the result of a particular hermeneutical approach. In the same way that it may be easy to say that Islam is a violent and oppressive religion – and justify this position with proof-texts from the Quran, it is as easy to suggest that Islam as a whole is peace-loving and against such violent acts as have been carried out by extremist groups around the world.

That said, the people who have shared their views within this post are well versed in the Islamic tradition and learning, and they each occupy very influential roles within the Lebanese Muslim community, both Sunni and Shi‘a. Whilst not everyone may agree with everything they have said [and if we are honest with ourselves, each of us seeks to paint the most positive picture of our own religious tradition when communicating to others], what they have said must not be ignored.

Miroslav Volf says:

Practices disclose the God (or the gods!) individual Christians or Muslims actually worship better than anything they or their holy book says about God’s character or God’s commands. [1]

If this is true, the Muslims I know personally, my friends and colleagues, do not appear to be worshiping the same god as the one ‘worshiped’ by Boko Haram.


[1] Miroslav Volf Allah: A Christian Response (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), p.115