Unexpected answers, unexpected company

Allah is like a shepherd looking for stray sheep. Even though they may not be from His sheepfold, He still delights to make them His own. Out of the darkest corners of the earth, they hear His call. Initially, they are motivated by the prospect of finding a home. Once they arrive at their destination, they are comforted by His love. As gentle as a dove, He tenderly embraces them and carefully heals their wounds. Indeed, those who run to Him will never be put to shame. They will rejoice forever, knowing that although they were once far away, Allah has now brought them near. They are truly His treasured possession.

Haroun – We're here.

Moe – Here?

Haroun – Yes. That's the place where the congregation usually meets.

Moe – But, it looks like someone's home…

Haroun – It is… Pastor Tallat actually lives here. I know that it doesn't look like much, but don't let the appearances fool you. Allah often visits His people in lowly places.

Moe – Oh… don't you have Church buildings or something?

Haroun – Sometimes… but, that's not what really matters. Allah cares more about the way that we approach Him, rather than the place where we approach Him. It really doesn't matter where we are! Since Allah is not confined to a building, we cannot put our confidence in these things. Instead, we must make sure that we worship Him in Spirit and in truth. In other words, we must approach Him through faith in Jesus, the Messiah, since He is the way to Allah. You see, the truth concerning the way of salvation has been unveiled, revealing that the path into His divine presence has been opened to those who are united to His Son, Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. I'm talking about a spiritual union, through faith. This union is vital to enter into His presence and attain eternal life. That is the "place" where Allah invites His people to gather. He calls us to gather together in the name of Jesus, because of what He has done for us. And whenever we respond to His call, His presence is among us, changing us from one degree of glory to another, as He instructs us from His Word.

Moe – So, this spiritual union is more important than the physical location. It's like a spiritual door that leads us into Allah's presence…

Haroun – Exactly!

Moe – That's an interesting concept… I'm curious to see what it looks like inside. Should we wait for others before we go in?

Haroun – No. We're actually late. Let's go in.

Moe – Oh… okay.

As we walked through the doorway, I was immediately struck by the simplicity of the foyer. The room was somewhat plain; and yet, at the same time, it was conspicuously elegant. The white walls finely drew out the glamour of the scarlet table cloth, and the two wooden chairs were perfectly positioned to welcome the weary traveler. Turning my head to the left, I saw that the curtains helped to soften the sunlight. Several pairs of shoes and sandals were lined up along the wall, some for children, and some for adults. Then, I noticed a painting on my right, in the adjacent hallway. It seemed a bit odd. It clearly depicted stormy seas, but I couldn't tell what kind of objects were floating in the water. As I approached the painting, my heart was suddenly wrenched. The sea was covered with human bodies… some of which were obviously lifeless. But, others were alive, though terrified at the prospect of drowning. It seemed so sinister! However, I noticed two things that calmed my fears: There was a rescue boat fishing for men, and there was a small island in the middle of the sea, with a rock that sheltered those seeking refuge from the raging storm. Finally, I noticed an inscription at the bottom of the painting: "Bringing Lost Souls to the Rock of Refuge." For a while, I just stood there, meditating on the meaning of this picture… until someone approached me in the hallway.

Mariam – Welcome to the shelter. How did you hear about us?

Moe – Hi…

Haroun – He's with me!

Moe – Yes, I'm with Haroun…

Mariam – Oh! Good morning, Haroun! I'm sorry… I didn't know that you were here. It's nice to have you join us again.

Haroun – The pleasure is mine.

Moe – It's beautiful in here.

Mariam – Thank you. Do you have a name?

Moe – Yes… my name is Moe… my name is Mohammed.

Mariam – I'm pleased to meet you, Mohammed. My name is Mariam.

Haroun – He's a seeker, but the truth is already starting to bear fruit in him.

Mariam – I'm glad to hear that. You know, I was once called by that name, too. But, now, I prefer to think of myself as one who beholds, rather than one who seeks.

Moe – What do you mean?

Mariam – I have found the Lover of my soul. So, I just need to sit by His feet and behold His glory. I don't need to seek Him anymore.

Moe – Could you explain a little bit more? When did that happen?

Mariam – Shall we continue our discussion in the living room?

Moe – Yes. That sounds good.

Mariam – Come this way…

Moe – Thanks… So, when did that happen?

Mariam – About four years ago. The Lord came to me in a dream. When I asked Him who He was, He replied, "I am Jesus of Nazareth. Follow Me." That's when He showed me how much He loved me. He said that He knew me from before the foundation of the world and that He had great plans for me. But, I first needed to learn how to walk in His steps, and I needed to grow in my reliance upon Him. Before leaving, He touched my spirit and filled my heart with His love. It felt so good… it felt so right… His embrace, His presence, His comfort! There is nothing like it in the whole world!

Moe – How do you know that this wasn't just a dream that you imagined? How do you know that this was really from the Lord?

Mariam – There was no doubt in my spirit that this was true. My conscience confirmed it in my heart. He revealed Himself so clearly that I could never doubt what had happened. And now, His Spirit bears witness that I am His child. The more I pursue the truth, the greater my conviction becomes.

Moe – I see what you mean, but…

Mariam – Why don't you ask the Lord to reveal Himself to you? Maybe He will confirm it the same way that He did for me…

Moe – Maybe…

When we entered the living room, I tried not to draw attention to myself. Thankfully, our presence didn't seem to bother the small group of people sitting on the carpet. They were enamored by the conversation, although there were a few people standing beside the tables that were lined up alongside the wall. There were all kinds of snacks on the tables, including fruits, vegetables, cheese, bread, and pastries. I took a step forward to grab a plate, but Mariam motioned for me to sit down on the carpet. As I slipped into the group, I tried to hide the fact that my body was stiff from the journey that I had just undertaken. As I slowly bent over, sat down, and crossed my legs, I had to bite my lip to refrain from groaning. But, the man who was leading the conversation may have noticed something. As soon as I sat down, he winked at me with his left eye. He seemed to be telling me that my secret would be safe with him. I quickly realized that this was Pastor Tallat. He was leading an open forum, answering the questions that the people were bringing up. The discussion was pretty intense…

Carmen – Where in the Bible does it say that the Arabs can have the same hope?

Tallat – Let me read a passage that describes the hope that is given to all the nations, namely, those who were outside the first covenant that Allah made with the people of Israel: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are Allah's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." (1 Peter 2:9-10) So, you see how the Lord takes those who did not belong to Him and makes them His own people! That should amaze each one of you! How can Allah do that? How can He take those who are unclean and make them His own? Nations who were full of idolatry… nations that followed pagan deities… nations that didn't belong in any kingdom! By His mercy, He calls out to all the nations of the earth and invites them to become a holy nation, sanctified unto His service. It's a shame that Christians weren't reaching out to Arabs when Muhammad was born in the sixth century. It's a shame that by the turn of the seventh century, Muhammad had never heard of the hope given to Arabs, that they might belong to the people of Allah. On the contrary, the Arabs received the cold shoulder. They were kept in darkness and idolatry. They were left without a sense of identity or anything that could unite them. If only they had heard Allah's invitation, they would never have had to invent their own religion… they would never have had to fill this vacuum, to find a sense of belonging and purpose.

Carmen – So, why didn't the Christians bring this message to the Arabs?

Tallat – Sadly, from one generation to another, the focus of the Church can become misdirected. The first generation may be passionate about the Gospel; then, the second generation takes it for granted; by the time the third generation comes, the message is muddied; finally, the fourth generation loses all direction. That's why it's so important to go back to the message as it was first revealed by the Lord Jesus Himself, and by His disciples. We must always go back to the source! And, if we find out that we have lost our passion and lost sight of our purpose in life, let us plead with Allah to revive our hearts and revive our Church!

Zaid – But, isn't that what Muhammad was trying to do? Wasn't he trying to restore the true worship of Allah?

Tallat – Well, Muhammad was trying to restore what he thought was the true worship of Allah. But, he didn't know what the message of Christianity truly was. He didn't know the hope that Allah had laid out throughout the centuries and fulfilled through the Messiah. So, he tried to pull together the truth from what he knew, based on a secondhand knowledge of Judaism and Christianity. But, he was lacking some fundamental pieces of the puzzle! That's a good lesson for us. Instead of making up our own concept of religion, we must trace the history of Allah's revelation to human beings and make conclusions based on what He has already revealed, rather than just rejecting the previous Scriptures and inventing our own!

Salma – But, how do we know that what is written in the Bible was truly given to us by Allah? How do we know that Christianity, as it was first revealed, is the true way to worship Allah? Couldn't someone accuse you of doing the same when you reject the Qur'an, claiming that you are inventing your own religion?

Tallat – That's a great question. Listen carefully, because this may confuse you if you don't follow my argument. Whenever you study the claims of any religion, you must evaluate their legitimacy on the basis of three elements: First, the claims of that religion must be grounded in history, both in terms of the ordinary events recorded therein and in terms of the divine intrusion into history as recorded by eyewitnesses. Secondly, the system as a whole must be logically consistent and able, at least in theory, to accomplish that which it has set out to do – in this case, being able to fully resolve the problem of sin, evil, and death, so as to bring us back into Allah's presence and grant us eternal life. Thirdly, that religion must display the experiential power that it claims to have in the lives of those who entrust themselves to it. Any religion that fails at any of these elements is not worthy to be trusted. Are you following me?

Salma – Huh… yes…

Tallat – Now, I do believe that Christianity is the only religion that passes the test. Everything that is recorded in the Scriptures has been attested by eyewitnesses and corroborated by external evidence. The more digging that we do, the more doubts are put to rest. Miracles were done in public so as to authenticate the message that came from above. And, the most amazing miracle of all was that of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. He was crucified in public by the most qualified executioners. Those who knew Him most intimately were at the foot of the cross (such as His own mother and the apostle John), so that they might confirm that Jesus really died for the sins of the world. To make sure that He was dead, the soldiers even threw a spear in His side, piercing all the way to the pericardial sack, out of which flowed water and blood. And when Jesus was raised from the dead, He appeared publically to those who knew Him, putting their doubts to rest, and convincing them that He had really conquered death and sin and hell! That's why they were willing to die for the message. There's no other logical explanation. They didn't have anything to gain from it. Why would they die for a worthless lie? Why would they die for a myth that they had fabricated? The logical explanation is that these events really happened, and they really were eyewitnesses of these things! In fact, that message was imbedded into traditions and creeds that developed in the first decades of the disciples' ministry, and can be traced back through the centuries from student to teacher, all the way through people like Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch, who were students of the apostle John. The way of salvation through the atoning sacrifice of Allah's incarnate Son is both historically verifiable and sufficient to accomplish that which it has set out to do. No other sacrifice could fully pay the debt of our sins towards the Holy One. No other person could act as our substitute, to give His life for ours. No one else could purchase us out of spiritual slavery and give us an eternal inheritance! And those who put their trust in Jesus find that the Spirit of Allah meets them in the most intimate ways: empowering them, changing them from within, comforting them, interceding for them, leading them, strengthening them, and convincing them of Allah's love.

Salma – Okay…

Tallat – That could never be matched by any other religion, including Islam. Muhammad did not demonstrate the power of Allah to authenticate his message; much less could he repudiate the divine attestation to the message that had already been recorded by Jesus's apostles. He could only deny it through historical revisionism, for which he had no evidence. But, the fact is that Allah never gave His seal of approval on Muhammad's message like He had given it to Jesus and His disciples. Also, the system of Islam could never fully deal with the problem of sin, since it fails to provide the righteousness required to stand faultless before the Holy One. It is impossible to become righteous by the works of the law, due to the reality of our sinfulness and our failure to uphold Allah's standards. At best, the law gives us a false sense of fleshly comfort, when we focus only on what we do right and ignore the countless ways in which we fall short. But, that is dishonest. When Muslims are honest with themselves, they recognize that they could never have the assurance of Allah's favor upon their lives, because they are still in their sins. They can only wish that Allah will show them mercy on the Last Day, but never knowing for sure what their fate will be. Do you not see that Christianity passes the test, but Islam fails it?

Salma – Wait… if we can't become truly righteous by following rules – by following Allah's commandments – how do we attain this righteousness?

Tallat – You have to receive it as a gift. You see, since Allah knew that you couldn't work for it, He did it for you, in His Son. The Bible says that Jesus is the end of the law for righteousness to those who believe. (Romans 10:4) He perfectly fulfilled the requirements of the law. He earned Allah's approval. And, He freely gives the rewards that He earned to those who ask Him. Those who trust in Him are adopted into His family and become heirs of the promises. They benefit from the blessings that Jesus earned by His sinless life and perfect obedience. They receive the righteousness required by Allah through faith in the Messiah.

Salma – That's powerful…

Tallat – It's the truth, and the truth is powerful. It has the power to set you free. Jesus wasn't just a good teacher or a prophet. He was Allah's divine Son, and He came into our world to bridge the gap that separated us from Him because of our moral corruption. It's important to realize that. Anything less than a Messiah who is both divine and human falls short of accomplishing our salvation. Since we cannot ascend above to grasp the infinite and lay hold of the Holy One, Allah had to send His Son from above and enter our finiteness. I want you to listen carefully to Jesus's conversation with the Jews, recorded by the apostle John: "They said to Him therefore, 'Where is your Father?' Jesus answered, 'You know neither Me nor My Father. If you knew Me, you would know My Father also.' So He said to them again, 'I am going away, and you will seek Me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.' So the Jews said, 'Will He kill Himself, since He says, 'Where I am going, you cannot come?'' He said to them, 'You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.' So they said to Him, 'Who are you?' Jesus said to them, 'Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. I have much to say about you and much to judge, but He who sent Me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from Him.' They did not understand that He had been speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said to them, 'When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing on My own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And He who sent Me is with Me. He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.' As He was saying these things, many believed in Him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, 'If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'" (John 8:19, 21-32)

Salma – Wow…

Mariam – Those words are crystal clear.

Tallat – That's right. Did everyone get this? If you do not confess the truth that Jesus came from above, you will die in your sins. The Son of Allah, bearing the fullness of deity, came to dwell in a human body… and unless you believe this, you will die in your sins. That's because who Jesus is determines what He has accomplished at the cross, and who you believe Jesus to be determines what you receive from Him.

The conversation continued for some time with the same intensity. One person after another would ask questions, and Pastor Tallat would give the best answers that he could. Most of the people seemed satisfied with his answers. A few individuals tried to refute him, but he seemed well prepared to engage their arguments. I wondered how long this could last, and how a man could endure such a rigorous interrogation. To be honest, I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. I would either crumble under the pressure or lose my temper. As a matter of fact, I had to take a mental break, even though I was only a bystander. So, I decided to stand up and get some of the snacks from the table. I stood up – putting my weight on tender legs – and stepped towards the table. The mere sight of such delicacies quickly wet my appetite. The choices were exquisite! Pecan bread, cranberry cheese, dates! I didn't know where to begin. So, I tried one of the cheese cubes, not knowing what flavor I would get. To my surprise, it was sweet, as though it had been mixed with caramelized onions! It melted in my mouth, exciting my taste buds. I thought that I should get some more…

But, just then, a man approached the table, forcing me to postpone my plan. He blocked my path to the cheese platter, looking at the options in front of him. I thought that I should give him some room so that he could fill his plate, but each time I tried to move, he stepped closer to me. In fact, the more I tried to give him space, the closer he got. He seemed attracted to me like a magnet! So, I decided to walk behind him and go to the other end of the table… but, lo and behold, he followed me! And, although he kept looking intently at the appetizers, his plate was still empty! I became increasingly annoyed, wondering who this man was, and why he seemed to deliberately impose his presence upon me. He didn't look Syrian. He was tall and skinny, had red hair, a narrow nose, and his skin was as white as snow. Maybe he was European… but, what was he doing in Al-Hasakah? I didn't really feel like asking him any questions, except to ask him if he could respect my personal space. Then, he whispered something… but, I couldn't understand what he was trying to say.

Moe – Pardon me. Were you talking to me?

Richard – I said, I heard you talking to Mariam in the hallway… you introduced yourself as "Mohammed"…

Moe – That's correct.

Richard – What are you doing?

Moe – Well, Haroun invited me to come here…

Richard – That's not what I mean. Come out to the foyer with me…

Moe – Why? What did I do?

Richard – Keep your voice down. We can't talk here. Let's go to the foyer.

Moe – What do you want to talk about?

Richard – Personal matters.

Moe – I don't want to cause any trouble…

Richard – Stop arguing… What's gotten into you?

I felt very uneasy about this, but I decided that it was better to adhere to his demands instead of causing a scene in Pastor Tallat's living room. Some people were already glancing in our direction, noticing that something wasn't quite right. I quickly grabbed a few grapes and took my plate with me. The man's plate was still empty… He was on a mission, and I was getting nervous about what was going to happen. Did he know me? Was he one of Abdul's friends? But, that seemed implausible, considering the circumstances… Should I just take my shoes and run out? I was so confused…

Richard – Okay, could you explain to me why you are pretending that your name is Mohammed?

Moe – Huh… why do you say that?

Richard – Why do I say that? I've never heard you use that name before.

Moe – I don't understand.

Richard – Was there something wrong with your old name? Did you get in trouble or something?

Moe – Well, it's a long story. I said some things that I shouldn't have said… and I had to leave my village… so, I'm laying low for a while.

Richard – Laying low? Is someone trying to hurt you?

Moe – Maybe… I don't know… I hope not. But, I can't take any risk.

Richard – Where are you staying?

Moe – With Haroun…

Richard – Why are you staying with Haroun?

Moe – I didn't know anyone else…

Richard – What are you talking about? You know plenty of people in Al-Hasakah.

Moe – I mean, I don't know anyone who could give me a place to stay.

Richard – That's nonsense! I could easily make a few phone calls right now, tell them that Wasef needs a place to stay, and you would certainly have your own bed by tonight.

Moe – What? Wasef?

Richard – What?

Moe – I'm sorry… but, I think that there's been a misunderstanding. Who do you think that I am? Where do I know you from?

Richard – What's the matter with you?

Moe – Please just answer my questions.

Richard – Is this a game? Let me just lay down my cards on the table: I don't like games. Stop fooling around.

Moe – I'm not fooling around. This isn't a joke. Please, listen to me…

Richard – Don't make things more complicated than they already are.

Moe – Please, just listen for a minute! I don't know who you are… I lost my memory last year. I was in an accident and my head got injured, and now I don't have any recollection of who you are… I don't even know who I am anymore!

Richard – Shhh… not so loud. Adam, what happened to you?

Moe – Adam! But, you just called me Wasef, a minute ago!

Haroun – Mohammed, is everything okay?

Mariam – What's happening? This isn't the time or the place to cause trouble, you know… We have some visitors from the Islamic State in the living room!

I was starting to hyperventilate. I had difficulty controlling my jaw and my eyes were bouncing from one person to another. I couldn't think anymore. My mind was clouded with anxiety and my instincts were telling me that I had to run away. Other people were coming into the foyer, wondering what the tumult was all about. One of them – a man with a thick beard – gave me a frightening look. It was time to leave. So, I dropped my plate on the scarlet table cloth, grabbed my shoes, and bolted out the door. I didn't even take time to put my shoes on. However, I underestimated the length of the stairs and skipped a few of them on my way down the porch. And, since my legs were still sore, I fell down and scraped my knees on the ground. What an embarrassment! I didn't even want to look back… Like a madman, I quickly looked for my dusty shoes and ran down the first alley that I could see. I turned one corner after another, trying to lose anyone who might be following me. I could almost picture a crowd forming behind me, following my every move, trying to ambush me. So, I just kept running… and running… and running… beyond the capacity of my lungs.

After a while, the adrenaline started to wear off. When I could no longer endure the pain caused by the pebbles under the soles of my feet, I decided to sit down and put my shoes on. But, I was trembling uncontrollably and could barely use my hands. My ankles were hurting, my socks were ripped, and my knees were scraped. I placed my hands on my head and started to cry… alone in the alley, with no one to comfort me. However, my cry apparently attracted someone's attention. As soon as I heard a whisper nearby, I restrained my emotions and decided that it would be best to walk nonchalantly towards the market. A storm was raging within me. Confusion gave way to anger, and anxiety played off countless fears. There were too many unknowns. There were too many risks. I didn't know who to trust. I didn't even know who to fear. Where should I go now? Should I walk to another city? But, what if someone else recognized me? Should I not try to find answers from those who seemed to know me? How many names did I have? Were any of those names even genuine? Definitely not Mohammed… Apparently not Mojza… Probably not Wasef… Maybe Adam…

Moe – Allah, please have mercy on me! Help me, because I am so lost! Trouble is following me. Darkness is pursuing me. I'm scared. I don't know who I am… I don't know where to go… I don't have anyone, except You. Please don't let me down. Provide some direction; give me guidance. Comfort me with Your presence. I know that Your love is greater than my misery, so I look to You. I thank You for the hope that You have laid out for me…

At that very moment, something unusual happened… Soothing words came to my mind. I wasn't sure where they were from. Maybe I had read them in a poem… Maybe Allah was whispering to my heart… Maybe I had memorized them before the accident in Kobani… Regardless, those words ministered to my soul. They were exactly what I needed to put my mind at ease, to give peace to my heart:

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.

He guides me in paths of righteousness for His Name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil, for You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

And so, as quickly as my fears had risen, darkness gave way to light. It was as though thick clouds had suddenly been rolled away. Anxiety was forced out of my heart by a peace that surpasses all understanding. It was as though the Lord had laid a warm blanket over my shoulders. I could feel His tender embrace, as a parent might comfort a troubled child. Somehow, Allah met me in my darkest hour, though I could not see Him with the physical eye. But, I clearly discerned Him, in my spirit. It was as though He was whispering soft words to my heart. He comforted me and reassured me of His love. He confirmed that there had been no accidents along the way, and that He knew exactly where He was leading me. Even though I felt like a lost sheep, I could hear the voice of the shepherd, calling me. He was coming for me, to bring me into His sheepfold. There, I would find green pastures. I suddenly had confidence that He would guide me and preserve my life, for His Name's sake. The circumstances were far from perfect, but it didn't matter, because Allah was with me. The storm was raging around me, but I found myself in the cleft of the rock. Though I could not see what lies before me, I could trust that my Lord would take care of me.