Muslim countries. The Undeveloped World. Kind of go together don’t they? Except for oil-rich places like Dubai, this is a typical impression held by Christians in the West. But what if you were from a Muslim country? Would that impression make you feel very good? Probably not. You might feel a little like a ZERO.
In the wake of current tensions in Egypt, Syria, and Iran, Carl Medearis has been getting me to rethink some things here on Veracity. If you know of anyone who has done missionary work among Muslims, you will learn from them that there is a long history of mistrust between Christians and Muslims that you simply have to work through if you hope to make any progress in sharing your faith. A huge part of that story is how the tables have been flipped over the centuries with respect to cultural influence.
Many Westerners today look upon the Islamic world today generally as being culturally backwards. After all, many of us tell ourselves, the traditionally Christian world has been uplifted by amazing technological advances and healthy capitalist economies. In the Islamic world in contrast, many parts are marked by extreme poverty, a lack of education, and a propensity of some to embrace terrorism. A lot of that Western perception has been changing in view of the cultural awakenings of the “Arab Spring” back in early 2011, which admittedly, was empowered by new methods of communication from the West like FaceBook and YouTube. Still, there is an overwhelming attitude that the Islamic world has just been living in the “Dark Ages” and needs to get with the program.
Historically, however, this has not always been the case. Around a thousand years ago, the story was completely reversed. Western Europe, the home of Western Christianity during the medieval period, had suffered under centuries of cultural decline. Wave after wave of barbaric invasions had devastated the cultural landscape and institutions of Europe. Poverty was rampant. Education was almost non-existent. If it was not for the Christian church, Europe probably would have completely wasted away.
Then, along came the Arab Muslims. True, many were terribly aggressive and conquered through war, and we should not minimize that at all. But they were also the standard bearers of cultured society. The Muslims had preserved the great libraries of Alexandria and Baghdad. Much of the great literature of ancient Greece that eventually sparked the Renaissance in Europe had been first preserved and distributed by the Muslims. The greatest Muslim thinkers of the day, including Avicenna and Averroes, made significant contributions to philosophy, medicine and mathematics. The Arab Muslims introduced the mathematical concept of “Zero” from India, and taught the Christian West all about it, along with the rest of the Arabic numeral system. That’s right: away with “I, II, III, IV, V….” and in with “1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ….”
OK. So I was a mathematics major in college. As a computer guy, I do 1’s and 0’s everyday. Numbers are pretty important to me. But if it was not for the number ZERO, I probably would not be able to balance my checkbook…..and neither would you.
So as we in the so-called “Christian West” gladly text away on our iPhones and use computers to read blog posts such as this, we have much to be grateful for because of those early Arab Muslims. It also helps to understand the perplexing anxiety felt by Muslim cultural leaders today who look at how the glories of medieval Islam have been eclipsed and surpassed by the traditional “Christian” world.
Perhaps the next time you talk to someone from a Muslim background, go ahead and thank them for the number ZERO — even if math was not your best subject. How would your Muslim neighbor respond if you said, “You know, I am a follower of Jesus. And Jesus wants me to be thankful. I want to thank you for the number ZERO“….mmmm…. As Carl Medearis might say, your Muslim neighbor might want to move from being in the “crowd” to becoming “curious” about what it means to follow Jesus.
Carl Medearis, author of several books including Tea with Hezbollah: Sitting at the Enemies Table Our Journey Through the Middle East, has spent years trying to help Christians and Muslims understand one another better. Carl most importantly wants his Muslim friends to meet Jesus. But Carl has some pretty challenging things to say about how the evangelical church has misunderstood Muslims as people. Some say Carl is controversial. Here is a video clip that shares some of his thoughts. Do you agree with Carl?
I must add a caveat here regarding my argument. While it is true that things were rather bleak culturally for Western Europe by the time of the Islamic invasions into the Christian West, it would be a terrible overstatement to write off the entire sweep of the Middle Ages altogether as the “Dark Ages”. But more on that common misperception in a later post.