By Samyr El-Refaie and Andrew Wood
A middle-aged man in jeans and a travel-worn jacket worked his way down the aisle of the plane, checking his ticket for his seat number. As he wrestled his carry-on into an overhead compartment, a young bearded man wearing a brimless white cap looked up from the book he was reading and asked, “Am I in your seat?”
“Yeah, but I don’t care whether I have aisle or window—you pick. My name’s Andrew.”
“I’m Samyr.” Gathering his things, Samyr moved over to the window seat, closing his book and holding it reverently in his hands on his lap. On the ornate cover, the title was engraved in gold in flowing Arabic script.
“Either the seats are getting smaller or I’m getting bigger!” Andrew joked as he got settled. “You are the first Samyr I’ve met. Did I pronounce it right?”
“Yeah, pretty good. It’s Arabic. My father is from Egypt.”
“I’ve have always wanted to go to Egypt. Do you have a lot of family there?”
Samyr said with a smile, “Most of us are in the States now, but we still have some cousins there. I have a picture on my phone if you want to see it. This was our last trip to Cairo . . .”
Andrew leaned over to see the photo. “Awesome! Good-looking family. Do you guys keep your Egyptian traditions strong in the States?”
“Yes, our family’s quite close and we are part of a devout Muslim community. Do you know very much about Islam? There are a lot of misconceptions about it,” Samyr said earnestly.
“I’m a follower of Jesus but always interested in learning about other religions. What do you wish more people knew about Islam?”
Listening and Sharing
Samyr began eagerly, “A lot of people don’t realize that Muslims are followers of Jesus as well as Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and all the prophets of God, including Muhammad. Jesus holds a very important role in Islam; in fact, he is the Messiah, or Christ, who was born of a virgin named Mary. We believe he performed miracles by the will of God, that he was taken up to God alive, and that he will return in a second coming. But unlike Christians, we believe he was saved from the horrible act of crucifixion, and we believe he was simply a man, not God.”
“So Muslims worship Muhammad then instead of Jesus?” Andrew asked.
“No, God forbid! We believe Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them both, were simply human beings who were chosen by God as his greatest prophets.”
“Hmm. I see,” Andrew looked thoughtful. “For us, it’s really not possible to be a Christian without believing that Jesus is both human and divine, that he took our sins upon himself, died, and rose again. It’s what we call the gospel—the good news that we don’t have to pay for our sins ourselves because God paid for them himself.”
Tackling Hard Questions
Furrowing his brow, Samyr replied, “Let me ask you a question then. Can you explain to me your view of the Trinity? That word is not even in the Bible is it?”
Andrew smiled slightly, “I’ve actually studied this because it confused me when I first became a Christian. I’m glad to share with you . . . but listen, I don’t want to get into an argument.”
“No, of course not! It’s just a lively discussion, no worries,” said Samyr.
“OK. I’ve just found that when people argue, usually they aren’t really listening to each other. . . . So to answer your question, you’re right, the word Trinity is not in the Bible, but the idea is. The Bible teaches that there is only one God, but also that Jesus is the eternal Word of God, that he has divine power over nature and the ability to forgive sins, and that he accepts worship from his followers. Before he rose into Heaven, he instructed his disciples to baptize people into the one name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).”
Samyr thought for a moment and replied, “But in the Bible, didn’t Jesus say, ‘By myself I can do nothing’ (John 5:30)? And Acts 2:22 says he was a man accredited by God, who did miracles through him. These statements help the Muslim know that Jesus was a very special person as well as a prophet of God, but not God.”
Andrew replied, “You know your Bible pretty well. Have you read a lot of it?”
“Yes I’ve actually read it several times. I’m a bit of a student of religion.”
“Cool. Well, we would read those verses in light of other Scriptures such as Philippians 2:5-11, which says that Jesus had the nature of God but did not use this to his advantage. During his time on earth he emptied himself of his divine power and became a man in an act of humility and self-sacrifice.”
“I see.” Samyr replied. “You also obviously know the Bible and I don’t want to offend you, but this is clearly an example of one of the areas where the Bible has become corrupted by the followers of Jesus.”
“So, Samyr, how do you decide which parts of the Bible are authentic and which parts are corrupted?”
“We decide based on the Qur’an, God’s final revelation given through Muhammad, peace be upon him. Did you know his coming was predicted in both your Old and New Testaments? Deuteronomy 18:18 called for a person to come after Moses who would be a prophet like him. Then in John 16:12-14 Jesus said the ‘comforter’ would come after him and testify about him. Both of these verses speak of the coming of our prophet.”
“Interesting, I never heard that interpretation before. Christians look at those verses very differently. We believe the first verse is referring to Jesus, and the second one is referring to the Holy Spirit. Both of them, along with the Father, are divine persons of the one God.”
Opening a Door to Friendship
“I suppose we are not going to reach agreement in just one conversation,” Samyr remarked wryly.
“Yeah, this is a debate that has been going on for, like, 1,500 years.”
Both men sat in silence for a moment.
“Andrew, even if you don’t agree with me on these questions, at least I hope you will not believe that Muslims are terrorists. The Qur’an chapter 5:32 states ‘whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption in the land—it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one life—it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.’”
“It must be frustrating, then, for you to see people killing in the name of your religion. I get that. I feel that way when people stereotype Christians because of wrong things people have done in the name of Christ.”
“Hmm. Yes. Andrew, it’s really too bad this flight is so short. I would really like to continue this conversation with you. If you’re interested, I could even give you a tour of the Islamic Center. Could we exchange contact information?”
“Sure, absolutely, I’d like that! Maybe you would like to come to my house for dinner. Every Saturday we have a group of friends over for a meal and to encourage one another in our walk with Jesus. You’d be really welcome to join us.”
With an exchange of cards and a handshake, the conversation ended, and a friendship began . . .
The above is a fictionalized account based on a real-life encounter. The real Samyr and Andrew have maintained a friendship for more than two years. Andrew is currently studying Arabic to help open more doors for these types of relationships.
• How did the men in this story show mutual respect and find common ground?
• Were both men able to express their core beliefs without compromise?
• What do you think the next steps should be in their friendship?
• How could you meet a Muslim and start a conversation about faith?
Samyr El-Refaie is a student of Islam and Comparative Religion who has dedicated his life to spreading the message of Islam to all those who are open to learning.
Andrew Wood is a former missionary and an associate professor of intercultural ministry at Nebraska Christian College.