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ARTICLES > SPIRITUALISM / RELIGION > Mazhar Mallouhi : Gandhi's Living Christian Legacy in the Muslim Worls
Mazhar Mallouhi: Gandhi’s Living Christian Legacy In The Muslim World
Paul-Gordon Chandler, President and CEO of Partners International, grew up in the Muslim country of Senegal, West Africa. An Anglican minister, he served as the rector of St. George’s Anglican Church in Tunisia, North Africa. He is the author of God’s Global Mosaic (InterVarsity, 2000) and is currently writing a book on Mazhar Mallouhi’s life and thought.
Recently, on an unbearably hot July afternoon in Delhi, I found myself standing barefoot in pilgrim reverence at the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948). This self-proclaimed Hindu has been called one of the most Christlike men in history. When India, a Hindu-majority nation with a large Muslim population, wanted to pay its highest compliment to its most famous native son, it chose to describe him as a Christlike man.1 Missionaries in India were greatly influenced by his example of Christlike living. They would sit at his feet, seeking to learn what it meant to live like Christ within the Indian context in order to communicate him more effectively to a Hindu and Muslim populace.2
Gandhi was captivated by the person and message of Christ. He spoke of the Sermon on the Mount as going “straight to my heart.”3 While Gandhi remained fundamentally a Hindu in outward things, he was more Christlike than most Christians, with his inner life more and more transformed toward Christ. In many ways Gandhi, a non-Christian, helped to Christianize unchristian Christianity, yet his influence for Christ on Hindus and Muslims was even greater. His life, outlook, and methods provoked great interest—indeed fascination—with Christ.4
A Peaceable and Sacrificial Approach
Gandhi challenged Christians to make love their “working force,” adopting it as a total way of life, “for love is the center and soul of Christianity.”5 This advice fits with an early picture we have of Gandhi, as reported by C. F. Andrews. Andrews, a respected Scottish Anglican missionary to India, once visited Gandhi at the Phoenix Ashram in South Africa, where he found Gandhi surrounded by children, whom he loved. A baby girl belonging to a family that in India was considered untouchable was in his arms, along with a little Muslim boy who was an invalid. Gandhi’s tenderness toward the smallest thing that suffered pain was part of his devout search for truth, or God.6
Gandhi would constantly say to Christians and missionaries, “Don’t talk about it. The rose doesn’t have to propagate its perfume. It just gives it forth, and people are drawn to it. Live it and people will come to see the source of your power.”7 Because of Gandhi, a non-organized “Christ following” arose in India, apart from the church. The leading ideas of this movement were love, service, and self-sacrifice, which created an atmosphere for understanding the Gospel.
Gandhi called his type of power “soul force” or “the power of suffering”: taking suffering on oneself but never causing suffering. Normally, the Hindu doctrine of karma has little or no room for the cross. But with Gandhi’s teaching that Hindus could joyously take on suffering for the sake of achieving righteous purposes, there came a new sensitivity to the cross.8 In light of this shift, a Hindu intellectual once said, “What the missionaries have not been able to do in fifty years, Gandhi by his life, trial and incarceration has done, namely, he has turned the eyes of India toward the cross.”9
Gandhi’s humility and sacrificial nature were particularly evident in his relationships with Muslims. At the age of seventy eight, during the riots in Calcutta between Muslims and Hindus, he chose to stay in a Muslim home in the very center of the riot district. There he welcomed the Muslim former premier, called “The Butcher” by Hindus because they believed he had incited the riots, who stayed with him. In order to stop the brutalities, Gandhi went on a fast until death. As a result, after seventy-two hours both sides came to him to guarantee the lives of the opposite community with their own lives, laying all their weapons at his feet. Later at the even greater Hindu-Muslim riots in Delhi in early 1948, he drew up eight points on which all must agree, or he would fast until death. All eight points shamelessly favored the Muslims, including returning 117 mosques that had been converted into Hindu temples or residences. On the sixth day of the fast, the parties signed the “Pact of Peace.”
Gandhi’s last pilgrimage was to Mehrauli, a Muslim shrine seven miles south of New Delhi. Muslim women who had been fasting with Gandhi had complained to him that Hindu violence had kept them from going alone to Mehrauli. Gandhi therefore chose to accompany them. Once at the Muslim shrine, which had been vandalized by Hindus, Gandhi promised that it would be repaired. Three days later he was murdered by a Hindu fundamentalist who was incensed at his kindness to Muslims.10
The example of Gandhi’s sacrificial approach made it easier for Indians to move from the thought that if one man could take suffering on himself in order to bring peace and reconciliation between two religious communities, then if there was one divine and holy enough, this one might take on himself the sin of the whole human race in order to bring peace and reconciliation between us and God.11 When Gandhi died for the nation of India, his death pointed to the cross, supplying on a national scale an illustration of what we see in Christ on the cross. In the Muslim city of Hyderabad Gandhi’s death was commemorated by a procession carrying his garlanded picture with a cross above it. They saw the connection.
Though Gandhi’s life shed much light on the cross, there is much more in the cross than his own experience illustrated. Furthermore, the final goal is not just interest in Christ but faith in Christ. Gandhi’s life, however, raises the question of what the effect in the Middle East might be if those who bear Christ’s name were really more like Christ, catching and demonstrating his spirit and outlook.
Perhaps unknown to himself, Gandhi presented an Eastern face of Christ to India. By his life, Gandhi helped Indians to visualize Christ walking down Eastern roads, dwelling among Eastern villagers in lowly poverty, simplicity, and love. Many Hindus believed Gandhi was the Eastern incarnation of Christ, and others began to see the meaning of the cross because they had seen it in one of their sons.12 Gandhi reflected the Easternness of Christ, and this Easternness had profound implications in the Indian context. One Christmas day Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel-Prize-winning Bengali poet and friend of Gandhi, wrote this amazing prayer: “Great-souled Christ, on this blessed day of your birth, we who are not Christians bow before you. We love you and worship you, we non-Christians, for with Asia you are bound with the ties of blood.”13
A Muslim Disciple
Gandhi’s unintentional witness of Christ to Hindus and Muslims stretched over time to 1959 and geographically west from India to the Middle East, touching Mazhar Mallouhi, the celebrated Arab novelist and publisher, as a young man posted on the Golan Heights as a soldier in the Syrian army who was looking for spiritual life. The story of how Mallouhi met Christ through Gandhi is yet another example of God’s using unexpected and irregular channels to accomplish his purposes. Born into a large Muslim family in Syria that has produced a number of well-known writers, including one uncle who translated all of Chairman Mao’s works into Arabic, Mallouhi cares deeply for his country and is proud of its heritage. His family is also very proud of their religious heritage. A family tree in a gold frame showing the Mallouhis’ descent from the Prophet Mohammed hangs on their wall. To date the family has produced Muslim clerics, Communist political activists—and one disciple of Christ.
An avid reader from his childhood, Mallouhi spent much time alone with books. At an early age he began to have religious questions but was strongly discouraged from asking them, for according to Islam it is blasphemous to question God. “When I read the Qur’an, I pictured God up in the sky smoking his water pipe. He had given me his book but had no involvement in my daily life or in the suffering of humanity below.”14 Spiritual restlessness led Mallouhi to study many Eastern religions, as well as ancient Greek and Roman religious beliefs. His search led him to conclude that because humans had created a hell on earth, they had created “God” as an escape so as to obtain peace of mind. Furthermore, he observed that the leaders of all the religions preached something they themselves could not live; all were striving for something they never actually experienced or realized. This conclusion led him to reject his family’s plan that he pursue a religious vocation as a cleric.
Though Muslims respect Christ highly, Mallouhi refused to study the Christian faith. He saw Christianity as a tool of oppressive colonialists, a Western religion that was continuing its medieval Crusades against the Arab people. Western “Christian” nations gave blind support to the injustices of the State of Israel against the Palestinian people. He observed Christians calling Christ the Prince of Peace but then supporting and waging war. “The most beautiful part of the Gospel, the cross, became a weapon used against us in Crusaders’ hands. The cross, where God had embraced humanity, had become a sword,” he says. (The Arabic word for Crusader means “cross-bearer.”)
During the 1950s Mallouhi, like many moderate Syrian intellectuals, joined a popular secular political party. He also began to write for newspapers and publish some of his poetry. During this period he started reading Gandhi’s works and learning about Gandhi’s nonviolent movement, and soon he discovered Gandhi’s great respect for Christ. Mallouhi began to see a different Christ through Gandhi’s eyes than he had heard about previously. He was fascinated, he says, to see how “Gandhi took Christian principles without Christ against a Christian nation [England] without Christian principles and won the battle.”
“Gandhi stands out to me as the one person who most dramatically demonstrated Christ’s teaching.” In this way Gandhi opened Mallouhi’s heart to consider Christ.
Influenced by Gandhi, Mallouhi decided to study the Bible while stationed as a soldier on the disputed Golan Heights. After spending one year reading the Scriptures, he concluded that Christ was unlike the other religious leaders he had studied; like Gandhi, Christ matched his teaching with his life. Mallouhi was drawn by the words of Christ, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Finally, at the age of twenty-four, his heart responded, crying out, “This Christ is my Lord! Give me this new life you promise!” Not only was Mallouhi given new life, but the whole world came to life for him. Now instead of hating people, he wanted nothing more than to be with them.
Mallouhi immediately experienced rejection from his family. Not long afterward, as a result of his being an active member of a certain political party, a warrant was issued for his arrest, which led to his exile from Syria.
Mallouhi persevered in his new faith and began writing Arabic novels with a spiritual theme in the mode of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. His supreme desire became to share the treasure of Christ with others. The most natural way for him, and one of the most effective methods in the Arab world, is through literature, for stories are especially powerful in the Eastern tradition.
This transformation occurred because of one humble Indian, Mahatma Gandhi, who did his best to live his life in the shadow of Christ as taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Being introduced to life with Christ through Gandhi has greatly influenced Mazhar Mallouhi’s approach to living and sharing his faith with fellow Muslims.
Waging Peace on Muslims
The best way to describe Mallouhi’s approach is to speak of his “waging peace on Muslims.”15 With this perspective, he has been a powerful force for peace and healing between Muslims and Christians. In Mallouhi’s understanding, the critical element, if Muslims are to be able to see Christ’s true nature, is that they first see the likeness of Christ in his followers. For Mallouhi, who describes himself as “a Muslim who follows Jesus,” following Christ in the spirit of Gandhi means taking the path of love, peace, sacrifice, and self-denial on a daily basis. Gentleness, kindness, open-heartedness, and joyfulness exude from him, and people are drawn to him like a magnet. It is fascinating to watch him sharing about the sweetness of Christ to those gathered around him in Arab cafes. He is known through North Africa and the Middle East as a big-hearted man.
The Mallouhis’ lives are always open. The result is a continual flow of people through their home. Everyone comes, from Muslim fundamentalist sheikhs, Catholic priests and nuns, Baptist pastors, Coptic Orthodox, Communists, Jewish rabbis, and Baha’is, to all kinds of Western expatriates. Mallouhi has hundreds of friends around the world. Everywhere he lives, he forms a weekly meeting of men, drawn largely from the intellectual and artistic communities.
When he was in jail once in Egypt, fellow prisoners who were fundamentalist Muslims asked him why he was there. After telling them it was because he was sharing his faith in Christ with other Muslims, a fundamentalist sheikh shared his blanket with him, and another shared his food. Muslims often say to him, “I can’t figure you out. Why are you going to so much trouble to help us? What is your hidden agenda?” Mallouhi’s reply is simply, “If I see a chance to do good and don’t help, it is a sin. The opposite of love is indifference.”
A prison experience in Syria had a profound effect on his understanding of Christ’s sacrificial suffering. After twenty-five years of exile, he returned to his homeland. Upon his arrival he surrendered to the authorities, requesting that his case be investigated and that he be given a chance to prove his innocence. For eighteen days he was kept in solitary confinement in an underground cell, sharing it only with rats. For the cold concrete floor he had only a thin blanket. God used this prison experience to teach him anew to “embrace the bitter until its piercing brought drops of sweetness.” Mallouhi testified, “I felt as if I was released from my dismal surrounding and from my personal internal prison. I drank deeply of the Father’s love and suffering for us in Christ on the cross.”
Some Western Christians have sought to demonize Islam, portraying it as the last great enemy to be conquered. Rather than create further alienation between Muslims and Christians, Mallouhi advocates a non-confrontational approach to Muslims and demonstrates the importance of building on commonalities between Islam and Christianity.
By offering respect and reciprocity, Mallouhi has found an amazing openness among Muslims toward his faith in Christ. For example, Muslim students, studying in the prestigious Islamic intellectual and missionary center of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, have sat around him in the courtyard of the mosque as he taught them of Christ, opening the Scriptures to them.
Presenting Christ as a Middle Easterner
Perhaps Mallouhi’s most significant spiritual contribution is that of stripping Christ of his Western trappings and introducing him to Muslims as one who was born, lived, and died in the Middle East. This Christ, one that Muslims can understand, is the Christ that Mallouhi met, which explains why he calls himself simply a Syrian Arab follower of Christ, avoiding the label “Christian.”
Muslims generally perceive Christianity as part of a Western political agenda and see Christ as a Westerner with no relationship to Eastern culture. Christianity, however, is Middle Eastern in origin, not a Western faith. Christ, a Middle Easterner, was culturally more like today’s Arab than a Western Christian.
Mallouhi effectively bridges this gap because of his own personal experience. When he became a follower of Christ, he was told by Christians that he needed to leave his cultural past behind. However, Mallouhi realized that following Christ does not mean denying his loyalty to Middle Eastern culture and becoming part of an alien “Christian” culture. Although he worships Christ, he continues to embrace his Middle Eastern roots, the very roots of the one he serves. He came to understand that his family’s rejection of him was not because he was following Christ but rather because they saw him as rebelling against all the best values they had taught him; any decent family would have been similarly and rightly concerned.
Today, Mallouhi enjoys praying and meditating in the quiet, reverent atmosphere of a mosque, where he sits on the carpeted floor and reads his Bible. While there, he often visits the sheikhs and imams, who are his friends. Mallouhi says, “Islam is my heritage and Christ is my inheritance,” and as a result he has kept his Islamic and Arab culture while being a follower of Christ for four decades. He emphasizes that following Christ does not require taking a Christian name, wearing a different type of clothing or using the symbol of the cross. He works to help them become disciples of Christ without having to join the “Christian” West.
Presenting Scripture to Muslims
Mallouhi now spends most of his time and energy working to present the Christian Holy Scriptures in ways that Muslims can respect. To assist in carrying out this mission, he founded Al Kalima (“the Word” in Arabic), which publishes spiritual books through one of the largest secular Arab publishing houses. Al Kalima’s most important projects focus on re-presenting the Christian Scriptures as the ancient Middle Eastern writings that they are, returning them to their authentic cultural origin. The Bible is not a Western book, being actually rooted in Middle Eastern cultures more ancient than that underlying the Qur’an.
Mallouhi asks Muslims to contribute articles and introductions for these publications. Fadhel Jamali, the late prime minister of Iraq, wrote the introduction for the Oriental Reading of the Gospel of Luke, saying, “We Muslims know less about the Christian faith than Christians know about Islam. Therefore, I encourage you as a Muslim to read this book to understand what they truly believe.”
By presenting the Scriptures as culturally Middle Eastern, Mallouhi has gained unprecedented access and acceptance for God’s Word. At a recent Arab book fair in a North African country with very few local Christians, An Oriental Reading of the Gospel of Luke was the best-seller. After reading it, a Muslim professor commented, “This is the first time we’ve seen that Christ has Middle Eastern roots, related to our own culture! Historically, we’ve only received Christianity through the imposed view of Western colonialists. But we want everyone and every student in our Department of Islamic Studies to read this.” It has since become a required textbook in his university.
Coupled with Middle Eastern presentation and packaging of the Scriptures is Mallouhi’s strong belief that their distribution should be exclusively through legal sales channels, as opposed to smuggling or mass free distribution of any sort. Al Kalima’s publications are sold legally and openly through normal outlets from supermarket bookstands to book fairs to Arabic Muslim bookstores. They all have been approved by government censors for sale in the mainstream market and therefore do not bear the stigma of smuggled contraband that much Western-produced Christian literature does. At the same time, the greatest financial support for these publications comes from Muslim readers themselves, as the proceeds from the sales are reinvested to underwrite re-printings and further publications.
As Mahatma Gandhi enabled Indians to visualize Christ walking down their Indian roads, so Mazhar Mallouhi is serving to return Christ to his cultural origins, walking naturally down the roads of the Middle East. His vision to win a home for God’s Word in the heart of the Muslim world is helping thousands of Muslims to understand the Gospel and enabling many to find true and lasting reconciliation in the Middle Eastern Prince of Peace.
International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 27, No. 2