Mission Friendship Christian-Muslim Dialogue in Oman

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					                                                                                                                     spring/summer 2008




Mission: Friendship
Christian-Muslim Dialogue in Oman
 by Deanna Ferree Womack

     After two weeks of Arab hospitality, introductions into Islamic
culture, and warm receptions at Muslim, Christian, and Hindu             The author in Oman

places of worship, our group was forced out of Oman on June 6,         of men and women who wear traditional Omani attire and from
2007, a day early, as tropical storm Gonu hit the Arabian              the calls to prayer that echo across Omani cities five times daily.
Peninsula. This was an appropriate ending to a trip that taught             The Omanis we met were welcoming, and interested in our
us to expect the unexpected.                                           lives as Americans, and they made a point to condemn terrorism.
     For me, the journey began at the end of the spring semester       They also expressed concern that the Western world has misunder-
of my senior year when I learned of a newly organized PTS              stood the character of Islam. Visiting a country of such openness
seminar on Christian-Muslim relations in the Sultanate of Oman.        and moderation reminded me of the need to listen more closely
Only two days after graduating from Princeton Seminary, I set          to Muslims around the world whose sincere faith leads them to
off for the capital city of Muscat along with five other PTS           denounce religious extremism.
students: Sarah Johnson, Marcus Branch, LeTicia Williams-                   Oman’s openness to the outside world emerged, in large part,
Preacely, Adam Hearlson, and Lydia Casey. We were met there            from its centuries of engagement in overseas trade with neighbors
by the Reverend Michael Bos, director of the Reformed Church           to the east. Indian Muslims, Christians, and Hindus have all made
of America’s Al-Amana Center (www.alamanacentre.org), and              Oman their home, and after living there for generations, many
PTS professor Richard Young joined us a few days later.                have become Omani citizens. Oman’s continuing contact with
     Oman is a country of three million people and is relatively       India and its trade relationship with countries throughout Asia and
wealthy because of its oil resources. It is ruled by Sultan Qaboos     Africa have made it accepting of religious diversity and increasingly
bin Said, who came to power in 1970 and is well loved by Omanis        open to Muslim-Christian dialogue.
because of his efforts to modernize the country. The majority of            This openness is one reason why the Al-Amana Center for
Omanis practice Ibadi Islam, a sect that is distinct from both the     interfaith dialogue has been able to thrive in Muscat. It also makes
Sunni and the Shia traditions.                                         Oman an ideal place for Americans to learn more about Islam,
     The religion and culture that we encountered in Oman has          and this is why Princeton Seminary developed a seminar in Oman
been shaped by the country’s geographical position on the eastern      on Muslim-Christian relations. A family foundation in New Jersey
coast of the Arabian Peninsula. With the Sunni stronghold of           gave the funds to subsidize the Oman seminar. My classmates and
Saudi Arabia to its west and Shia Iran just across the gulf to its     I focused on three major areas of study: Islam, the history of
north, Oman serves as both a geographical and theological bridge       Muslim-Christian relations, and theology of religions. All are areas
between these two Muslim sects. In fact, although the majority         that one must consider when engaging in Muslim-Christian
of Muslims in Oman are Ibadi, none of the Omanis we met made
a firm distinction between Ibadis, Sunnis, and Shias. We learned
that it is common for Ibadis and Sunnis to pray together in the
same mosques.
     During the trip, I also began to see Oman as a potential bridge
between the Islamic world and the West because it raises a voice
of moderation against Islamic extremism. When I refer to Oman
as an environment of “moderate” Islam, I do not mean it is a
                                                                                                                                               Photo: Deanna Ferree Womack




Muslim country that has become westernized. Although Oman
has achieved much technological and economic development and
has embraced aspects of Western culture—including Starbucks
and McDonald’s—it remains a highly religious country. The vast
majority of its citizens are Muslim, with Christians and Hindus
among the immigrant and guest-worker populations. Oman has
allowed Islamic faith and culture to influence life in both the
private and public spheres. This is apparent from the number             The Grand Mosque in Muscat, built by the Sultan
spring/summer 2008




                                                                   “
dialogue, and this became apparent in our class sessions with                                                                ations. It included an open-air
Michael Bos and in lectures given by Muslims and Christians
                                                                          we were caught                                     courtyard in the center where
living around Muscat. We learned to recognize the diversity               off guard                                          the wife served us coffee and
within the Muslim community and to examine the relationship                                                                  dates. We had eaten in another
between the religion of Islam and Islamic culture. We also found
                                                                          as our hosts                                       room of the house, where the
that there is a limit to the knowledge one can acquire from               ushered us                                         husband sat down to eat with
books or holy texts. A deeper understanding of Islam comes                                                                   us and the wife served the food
through personal interaction with Muslims.                                into an                                            but did not stay. This seems
     One memorable experience demonstrated the value of such              auditorium                                         to be a generational difference
interaction. I had the opportunity, along with three other                                                                   that is changing in Oman; we
PTS women, to visit with female students at the Institute for             of two hundred                                     also visited the home of this
Sharia Science, a government-sponsored theological institution.
Graduates from the institute—the male graduates, at least—
would take positions as imams in mosques or jurists in the
                                                                          women.               ”                             couple’s daughter and her hus-
                                                                                                                             band, and the daughter stayed
                                                                                                                             with us the entire time and
Omani court system. We were surprised to learn that more than                          participated fully in the conversation, wearing a colorful hijab and
half of the student population was female.                                             clothing, as opposed to the traditional black dress.
     The women in our group arrived at the institute expecting                             Christian-Muslim dialogue involves give-and-take from both
to meet with a few of these students, but we were caught off                           sides. It requires both parties’ genuine interest in learning from the
guard as our hosts ushered us into an auditorium of two hundred                        other and openness to new experiences. While our visit with the
women. We were directed to sit on a stage behind a table with                          women at the institute was uncomfortable at first, I appreciated
a microphone, as if we were participants in a panel discussion.                        that the students wanted to hear about our lives and beliefs directly
We had not anticipated being the center of attention and were                          from us rather than assuming that they already knew about
nearly lost for words as our translator directed us to pose questions                  American society or Christianity. Our engagement with these
to the “audience.” As we overcame our shock, however, we realized                      women and with others in Oman was just the beginning of what
that dialogue is about the willingness to step out of our comfort                      should prove to be an ongoing, rewarding relationship between
zones to connect with people of other faiths.                                          PTS students and Omani Muslims. As for us, we will be able to
     We began asking questions about their lives as women and                          share our experiences in Oman with our own congregations and
students in Oman: What were their goals after graduation? Would                        to emphasize the importance of engaging with Muslims in our
any of them lead prayer services for women? What sort of chal-                         own communities in the United States. T
lenges do they face in Omani society? What were their impressions
of women in America? As the women took turns answering, they                               Deanna Ferree Womack (M.Div., 2007; Th.M., 2008) is in
asked us similar questions. We learned that it was not forbidden                       Zahle, Lebanon, teaching religious education classes and serving as a
by Islamic law for women to lead other females in prayer. We also                      chaplain with the Secondary Evangelical School administered by the
took note of the murmur that went through the crowd as one                             National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Synod of Lebanon and Syria.
member of the PTS group said that she
planned to be a pastor and to lead congrega-
tions in worship. The women seemed
impressed that we were dressed modestly
compared to the Western women they saw
on television. For many of them, we may have
been the first American women they had
met. When the session was over, the students
swarmed the stage, shaking our hands, giving
                                                      Dining in the home of a
us email addresses, and inviting us to visit          translator for the royal court
their homes. Unfortunately, our schedule did
                                                                                                                                                                 Photos: Deanna Ferree Womack




not permit us to take them up on their offers of hospitality.
     We did visit a few other homes, in a mixed-gender setting.
Everywhere we went we were served Arabic coffee and dates.
One meal included chicken and the largest pot of rice I’ve ever
seen (the women have to be prepared to cook for very large family
gatherings). Oman is actually a rice culture, as opposed to Arab
countries outside the Gulf region where pita bread is more typical.
                                                                                        Professor Richard Young (far left) with PTS students at the Nizwa Fort
The house was a beautiful modern stone house built on to the
original mud brick structure that had been in the family for gener-