Saint Paul a Muslim?

by Paul L. Heck (April 2, 2015)

I wonder if this story is worth telling.

In my graduate seminar yesterday at Mohammad V University in Rabat, I mentioned to my students that I’d be happy to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. I a Christian on pilgrimage to Mecca! They were surprised. But I saw a new awareness in their eyes: Maybe we’re partners on the path to God – not opponents.

Some of you might find the story entertaining at best. I think it’s vital to global peace.

The seminar is about Abraham. Remember him? He walked in the way of the Lord. He spent his life grappling with his destiny, always looking to the horizon. He wasn’t tied down by traditions. He was a stranger amidst the nations and yet generously welcomed strangers in his midst. He never hid his convictions. He faced tyranny and resisted without violence. He’s a model for all who seek meaning.

That’s the gist of it. The details stretch over millennia and will make your head spin.

So, of course, we had to discuss the poetry of ‘Adi Ibn Zayd al-‘Ibadi.


He lived in the sixth century. A poet and a confidante of kings. He introduced Arabic into the court of the Sasanian rulers in Persia. He was from a powerful tribe, the Tamim. He was a Christian.

To my students’ surprise, I referred to him as one of my predecessors. He an Arab of the sixth century, I an American of the twenty-first. We are sharers in the same religion.

What is this religion?

First, a word about my students: They are mostly Moroccans. Some are from Yemen, others from Qatar, and still others from Mauritania. They learn from me, and I learn from them. They give me hope, but it’s a hope that comes with some effort. As there’s a lot of Christian ignorance about Islam, so there’s a lot of Muslim ignorance about Christianity. As many in this region, my students have had no contact with non-Muslims before meeting me. They’ve been raised with wariness if not hostility towards Christianity. One could blame it on past empires, a history of Christian empires and Muslim empires.

Aren’t we supposed to clash?

There’s no political gain to be had from faith-based clash. Or are we hostages of history?

Exposure to other religions is a new thing for many. It takes time to understand what it means. And I’m talking about specialists in the study of religions. We read books about other religions. We think we know what they are, but we don’t. We apply our standards. They lose. We win. Atheists do this no less than theists. What do we discover when we enter into the world of the other? Are we ready to take the risk?

So back to ‘Adi Ibn Zayd. He composed a poetical rendition of the Book of Genesis, twenty lines of verse. The creator put everything in order. Remember this blessing. It’s all free. Even the stars. And then there’s Adam and Eve. God shaped them in the best possible form. What does this mean? Of all creatures, the human responds to God’s call. But along came the wily serpent, the father of lies. Alas, they fell, and along with them the whole human affair went bad. And so we die. But there’s a finale to the story. The Gospel. Is it a book to be read? A message of wisdom? Or healing power for our weary souls? God doesn’t need to do this. But he does. He shares his life with us. We’re with God. It’s a taste of things to come.

Here’s the kicker. I asked my students to evaluate the religion of this tribal poet. Does it have any worth? It’s a religion that is not theirs and yet it has a familiar ring to it. I wish I recorded the conversation for posterity. There were mixed feelings, but also new insights.

Now for some theological background: In Islam, Abraham is the leader of all prophets. If you go on pilgrimage to Mecca, you can feel the legacy of Abraham. Muhammad is there too, of course, but the presence of Abraham is more palpable, so I’m told.

In Islam, Abraham is known as haneef. It’s a tough word to translate. It means monotheism. It means sincere devotion. It means not being tied down by traditions if it keeps you from engaging others. It means reverence for the Ka’ba in Mecca. Even before the rise of Islam in the seventh century, there were haneefs in the Arabian Peninsula. They belonged to the religion of Abraham. They went on pilgrimage to Mecca to visit the Ka’ba, the House of God which Abraham and Ishmael built. They weren’t Jews or Christians, but they were monotheists: haneefs. The legacy of Abraham survived in Arabia through his other son, Ishmael, as it did through Isaac in Judaism and Christianity.

It’s not all the same. Abraham’s story has different twists and turns to it.

And yet it’s important to think, especially about those things it’s important to think about.

So let’s think about Paul and Islam. What? Many Muslims don’t think highly of him. He’s the reason they have problems with Christianity. He made things up, twisted meanings, turned the monotheism of Christianity into paganism and polytheism. Destroyed it from within, crafty man that he was.

Funny thing: It was his goal to get people to be like Abraham. Was Paul a haneef?

Paul saw the cross as the power that restored people to their Abrahamic state.

What does this mean?

For Paul, there was something pristine about human nature. Even Gentiles know God. (“What’s a Gentile?” I hear my Georgetown undergrads asking.) But Adam fell. Things went bad. But then there was Abraham. He walked with his Lord. So, we have his memory to fall back on when things take a turn for the worse. But we need a little help. It’s one thing to remember Abraham. It’s another thing to live with God as he did. We need a little help to get there. The push comes from the Holy Spirit. In Islam, the Holy Spirit is the Angel Gabriel. In Christianity, it’s a grace, a gift from God that ushers us into life with God.

So, to be like Abraham, we live with the Lord. (“Who is the Lord?” I hear my nephews and nieces asking.) It ain’t easy to do this all the time. According to Paul, there are lots of obstacles. He referred to them as worldly powers. He sometimes called them whims. The Qur’an does too. (Do we live according to our financial whims?) He meant all those things that enslave us, causing us to lose the freshness and innocence of the Abrahamic way of life. The idea took hold. Christians spoke of themselves as living in the bosom of Abraham. Haneefs.

Lots of other details, but that’s it in a nutshell. For Paul, a certain satanic misery held sway over our condition. How to get over this and get back to living like Abraham of old lived?

That’s that.

Now for a hadith. What’s a hadith? (GU students, nephews and nieces, all together.)

So, there’s this prophetic saying. (We’re talking about Muhammad.) It speaks of God creating all humans as haneefs. That’s our original condition. But then, alas, along come a bunch of demons to ruin it all. Whims: a threat to haneefs. We’re no longer like Abraham. Jaded. Obsessed with self. But the hadith continues. A remnant of us somehow survives the wreckage to carry on and live as Abraham lived. Joy in life. With and for others.

It sounds rather like Paul if you ask me. (And who am I? Ask my GU students and nephews & nieces.) And in Islam, too, you need a push to be able to live like Abraham. Mecca’s a good place to start. The Ka’ba’s there. That’s a likely place to encounter God and get that push.

So, that’s that. Now back to ‘Adi Ibn Zayd. Remember him, that tribal poet of yesteryear.

Interestingly, in one of his verses (which is not in his poetic rendition of the Book of Genesis), he spoke of “the Lord of Mecca and the Cross.” What am I to make of this statement by one of my predecessors in the faith? He was a Christian, that’s clear, and a pretty educated guy. He also recognized Mecca as a place where God’s lordship is at work. Somehow, in some fashion, to some degree, what he knew in the cross as God’s lordship he was also able to recognize in Mecca.

What’s God’s lordship?

It’s what get us to live with the freshness and innocence of Abraham.

It’s that push. If you find yourself struggling with your destiny and yet looking to the horizons, if you find yourself living out your convictions, welcoming strangers, if you find yourself facing tyranny without fear and without violence, God’s lordship is at work.

Now what I’m saying about Abraham also applies to Hagar. But that’s for another time.

There’s how it all started. The story. So where’s it going to end?

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