to "Occasional Pieces"
"Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate" — Yes, but how do we know?

Our small Muslim-Christian inter-faith friendship group which visited Lahore shortly before Easter always intended that the visit should include an element of pilgrimage.

Now, it’s not necessary to travel to Pakistan (or anywhere else) in order to develop spiritually: at home, any good conversation or book will provide food for the spirit. But still, there’s no question that travel is a major stimulus, forcing us out of comfortable routines. And the biggest jolt to faith-routines during our visit to Lahore was an invitation to lay on a Christian service of penitence on behalf of the soul of our host’s former husband.

In accordance with Muslim practice, the Imam from the local mosque would be bringing around a group of students to recite the whole Qur’an on the anniversary of his murder. Could we four Christians possibly do something similar in respect to the years he had lived in Scotland? — to atone for whatever sins he might have committed there, for whatever hurt he may have caused the Christians with whom he did business?

Taking a deep breath (do Muslims believe in purgatory? how many Christians believe in purgatory?), we sought inspiration from the Penitential Service in the (Irish) Book of Common Prayer. It did provide a framework of suitable opening and closing prayers (but nothing from its introductory section which is simply too strong meat). To this we added a penitential psalm (139) and a psalm of thanksgiving and praise (148), but the heart of our service was chapter 18 from St Matthew’s gospel with its wonderful parables and teaching about forgiveness.

Plainly, anxiety about the consequences of sin can trouble a conscientious Muslim’s mind as much as any conscientious Christian’s (Muslims definitely believe in the rewards of Heaven and the punishments of Hell). And there is certainly one central tenet of Islam which provides reassurance, i.e. the most precious of God’s Names, invoked at the start of all but one of the Qur’an’s 114 chapters: “In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” — God does indeed look with compassion on all who are penitent.

The spiritual growing-point from this particular experience for me, however, was the realisation that Islam offers nothing comparable to the Christian theology of Salvation from Sin. — God be praised for the life of Jesus Christ!

August 2005