He is one of my favourite people in the world, and I pray for him every day – Dr Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria.

I don’t know any other religious leader in the world whose first words to me when he sees me are “I love you!” Even I don’t greet people that way! I suppose I’m too self-conscious, or perhaps I just don’t have that much love in my heart?

When I told Dr Hassoun that I was working on a book entitled “Christians  and Muslims can be friends” he was very happy to be involved, which was just as well, as no publication on love between Christians and Muslims would be complete without Syria’s Grand Mufti.

Dr Hassoun is a very loving man, and an embodiment of the hope we have for a new Syria emerging on the other side of this conflict. Will you join me in praying for him?

Father Dave


It was my privilege to be asked to pay tribute to the noble Sheikh Nimr at the Islamic Centre in Banksia (Sydney) on January 9th, 2016, following his brutal (and largely unanticipated) beheading by the Saudis. I was then asked to repeat my speech at a rally in Martin Place (in the centre of Sydney) the following day. The full transcript of my original speech is pasted below the video excerpt.

Father Dave

A Tribute to Sheikh Nimr Baquir al-Nimr
January 9th, Banksia Islamic Centre

We gather to mourn the martyrdom of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr (peace be upon him) – a man of principle, a man of courage, a man of God!

Perhaps the violent martyrdom of this man should not surprise us. Perhaps no act of violence from the house of Saud should surprise us – a regime already drenched in the blood of the people of Yemen, of Bahrain, of Syria and Iraq (through its proxy armies), and of the blood of so many of the Shia community within its own borders.

Even so, it is hard to know exactly why the Sauds chose this moment to murder this good man. Was it simply an attempt to stir up more trouble for Iran, are they hoping to profit by exploiting sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia across the Muslim world, or were they simply satisfying their own blood lust?

We cannot know exactly what motivated the Saudi rulers on this occasion, but what we do know is that the savagery of these people always stood in stark contrast to the pacifism of the humble Sheikh! Here was a man who believed that the language of truth was more powerful than any number of bullets, and who encouraged his followers to confront violence with the “roar of the word”!

Like his spiritual predecessor, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., he fought back against injustice and oppression using only the weapons of non-violence. “Not by violence, but by our determination, by our belief, and by our steadfastness shall your power be defeated”, he said. No wonder they hated him!

In truth, I can understand why the government of Saudi Arabia hated this man so much. It was fundamentally, I think, because he refused to give them his true allegiance.

“We submit to the authority of God, His Messenger, and his family, and that’s it. We do not submit to the authority of a ruler. Never. No ruler, whoever he may be, has authority over us. Power does not grant a ruler legitimate authority.

Such words are poison to all who try to exercise unlimited authority over their subjects, but Sheikh Nimr when further:

“We are not loyal to other countries or authorities, nor are we loyal to this country… What does a country mean? The regime? The ruling clan? The soil? I don’t know what a country means. Loyalty is only to God! We have declared, and we reiterate, that our loyalty is to God, not to the Saud clan.”

Sheikh Nimr raises questions here that we all need to consider carefully. What does it mean to owe allegiance to a state or to any particular political system? Why should we love those who are born on the other side of our national borders less than those that are born on our side? At what point does patriotism become idolatry?
Interestingly, the early Christians faced exactly this same problem. When the early Christians declared that ‘Jesus is Lord’ they used the word ‘kurios’ (Greek for ‘lord’) that was a title that Caesar wanted to restrict to himself. By declaring that Jesus was Lord they were saying that Caesar was not Lord! Like Sheikh Nimr, they refused to give their ultimate allegiance to the state, and like Sheikh Nimr, many of them were hunted down, abused, tortured and killed!

To my understanding, this stand is the natural outcome of our monotheism. If we believe that there is only one God, then there can only be one ultimate authority. Genuine monotheism will thus always relativise the authority of any political leader, and so genuine monotheists will always be thorns in the side to political tyrants.

This, I believe, is what Sheikh Nimir leaves to us – a belief in only one God who alone lays claim to our obedience and through whom we are ultimately all sisters and brothers. For just as true monotheism relativises the authority of political leaders, so it reminds us that all sects and divisions between us are only temporary, for we are all the children of the same God. From the one God we have come and to the same God we will return, and so, in the meantime, we are all equally deserving of respect.

Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr – a man of insight and compassion, and a man who was ready to die for his beliefs.

The most you can do is kill us”, he said, and we welcome martyrdom for the sake of God. Life does not end when a man dies. Real life begins when he dies. Either we live on this land as free men or die and be buried in it as pious men. We have no other choice.”

And so we who follow the one true God likewise have no other choice. We pray that we might be spared the violence that was visited upon our noble brother, and yet we too are ready to pay whatever price it is that God asks of us to uphold justice, to pursue the way of peace, and to remain faithful to our beliefs unto death.

Salawat Ala Muhammad, wa’ aali Muhammad

Grieving the death of Sheikh Nimr - Martin Place, January 10th, 2016

Martin Place, January 10th, 2016

Father Dave with Feruzan Behbahany

Father Dave with Feruzan Behbahany as she accepts an ‘Appreciation Award’ from Holy Trinity Church on behalf of the Imam Husain Islamic Centre (6/12/2015)

I hear this question asked a lot – not only by Christians but by Muslim friends as well: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”

The question made headlines late in 2015 when Wheaton College in Chicago suspended a professor of political science for publicly answering the question in the affirmative! The academic was apparently quoting Pope Francis who, the professor believed, also answers the question in the affirmative.

Evidently the board of Wheaton College disagree, and numerous Evangelical Protestant colleagues have rallied behind them in support, including Albert Mohler, president of a Southern Baptist seminary, who went one step further, stating that not only do Christians and Muslims worship different gods, but Jews as well! “Can anyone truly worship the Father while rejecting the Son?”[1], he asked.

My answer to the ‘do we worship the same God?’ question is always the same – namely, ‘the last time I checked there was only one!’

It actually astonishes me that anyone from a religion that upholds monotheism can ask this question, particularly when those who ask it are normally very careful about the words they use. Yet I’ve heard educated theologians and even Archbishops use exactly this language! “We worship different Gods”, they say, as if they believed in a great pantheon of gods, each attending to the needs of their respective flocks.

I, for one, do not believe in multiple gods and I don’t think most of the people who ask this question do either, so perhaps we should begin by reframing the question in a way that is theologically coherent.

The question that I think people are asking is ‘is someone really worshipping God if they have the wrong conception of God?’ (or something like that).

I think that’s the question, and it’s a good question, as we mustn’t blindly accept the religious integrity of everyone who claims to act in the name of God.

I think of the misguided souls who fight for DAESH in Syria and Iraq and behead innocent civilians in the name of God. Are they really worshipping God? Their behaviour suggests that they are worshipping the devil! If these people do believe they are worshipping God then they must have a very different concept of God to the one I have, and I would say it is a defective concept.

So … can we say then that those who have mistaken ideas about God are not worshipping God?  A minimal amount of reflection shows that this would be a stupid thing to say, for who amongst us would claim to have a truly unblemished conception of God?

Presumably I believe very different things about God than does my counterpart fighting for DAESH. Having said that, my conception of God differs radically from that of any number of my fellow Christians too! Moreover, my personal understanding of God has evolved drastically since I first came to faith 30-something years ago. Indeed, my conception of God has evolved enormously even from when I first became a priest!

And so we are pushed down the path, so familiar to theologians, where we have to try to work out how much conceptual disagreement there can be within the bounds of genuine worship. What things do we need to believe about God in order to know that we are truly worshipping God, and where do we draw the line such that beliefs that cross that line indicate a departure from true worship?

This is, I presume, the heart of the issue for the board of Wheaton College and all who stand with them. Mr Mohler suggests that the process of discrimination is very simple – “Can anyone truly worship the Father while rejecting the Son” – and yet the Christian Scriptures themselves will tell us that there are plenty of ways to reject the Son that don’t require a departure from orthodox dogma and that, conversely, faulty theology does not necessarily mean a rejection of Jesus!

Two passages from the New Testament immediately come to mind when I think about this issue. The first is the account of Jesus’ dialogue with the woman at the well, found in the Gospel According to Saint John, chapter four.

Here Jesus dialogues with an ostensibly uneducated woman from a religious tradition that would have been considered heretical by Jesus’ peers. The woman’s theology is indeed a bit of a dog’s breakfast. She speaks of holy mountains and of a teacher-messiah who will ‘explain all things’ (John 4:25). Jesus says to her “you worship what you do not know” (John 4:22).

Without wanting to squeeze this statement from Jesus too strongly, these words suggest that, from His point of view, the woman is indeed worshipping God even if she doesn’t really know what she is doing.  Reinforcing this is the very fact that Jesus engages with the woman so deliberately, suggesting that He sees her as a genuine person of faith with whom he can enter into meaningful theological discussion.

Jesus goes on to say to woman that “true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth”, thus urging her to grow spiritually. Even so, at no point is Jesus dismissive of the woman’s basic spiritual integrity!

As I say, I don’t mean to squeeze these words in John chapter four to say more than they were intended to say, and yet it seems to be quite possible, according to this account, to worship what you do not know, and so to have a seriously deficient concept of God while still engaging in genuine worship of this God at some level!

How should Biblical Christians apply this to the question under discussion? Should we say that, from a New Testament perspective, all Muslims stand in the same position as did this woman – worshipping what they do not know (or at least ‘worshipping what they do not know as well as we Christians think we know’)?

I’m not ready to draw any sweeping conclusions as to ‘what the Bible says’ based on this one passage but I will say that this incident is a solid Biblical reminder of the fact that theological orthodoxy and spiritual integrity are not the same thing!

The other passage that comes to mind when I think about this subject is Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector as recorded in the Gospel According to Saint Luke, chapter eighteen. This passage would indeed seem to be acutely relevant to the question of whether false concepts of God are a barrier to true worship as the story ends with one of the two characters having had their prayers heard by God and the other one not!

When we read the story of the two men we see that they pray in very different ways and quite possibly they have very different conceptions of God. Interestingly though, this is not stated explicitly by Jesus. What is stated explicitly by Jesus is the radically different conceptions they have of themselves!

The Pharisee prays “I thank thee God that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11) and clearly he thinks a lot of himself. The tax-collector, on the other hand, has a very low opinion of himself, saying only “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).

Given that this is all Jesus tells us about the two men, we are forced to conclude that it is the self-conception of the two protagonists that determines the integrity of their worship in this case, rather than the orthodox nature of their theology as such!

This story strikes a familiar chord in the Christian Scriptures, where integrity of worship is generally related more to the attitude and behaviour of the worshipper rather than to their theological orthodoxy. The two may be related of course, but as in all of life so also in the Scriptures – actions tend to speak louder than words!

While reading about the Wheaton College incident today I also read of a group of Muslim women in Nigeria who put their bodies on the line to protect their Christian neighbours from a group of Jihadists[2]. Apparently when the militants boarded the bus to drag out the Christians and murder them, a group of Muslim women stood between the Christians and their assailants, saying to the jihadists that they would have to “kill us together or leave them alone”. Apparently the gunmen got confused and left (thanks be to God)!

Were these Muslim women worshipping the same God as the Christians they protected? ‘Absolutely’, I would say. Indeed, I would go further and say, in the words of Jesus Himself, that ‘what they did for the least of His brethren, they did for Him’ (Matthew 25:40). An act of self-sacrifice like that is indeed an act of worship, and one that exhibits both spirit and truth!

Father Dave Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, activist, father of four.

[1]             https://baptistnews.com/faith/theology/item/30771-christians-and-muslims-don-t-worship-same-god-sbc-leader-says#sthash.r6W0gYX2.dpuf

[2]             http://dailycaller.com/2015/12/22/muslims-save-christians-from-islamic-extremists-in-shining-moment-of-defiance/

Christians and Muslims

Christianity and Islam are not at war
by Father Dave

Christianity and Islam are not at war – they never have been and they never will be!

I don’t mean anything particularly profound by this. I merely mean to state the obvious.  Christianity and Islam are not at war and cannot go to war with each other because they are systems of belief, and systems of belief can’t wage war any more than they can wrestle or play cards!

Christian and Muslim people go to war, and may go to war with each other, just as they may do any number of more creative things together, such as share meals or play cards, but the bodies of doctrine to which these people subscribe don’t do anything apart from sit still and look authoritative!

There is, as I say, nothing profound about this observation and yet I believe it is the vital starting point in untangling religious conflicts. Our religions are not at war with each other, and neither is there any battle taking place between our gods such that we need to rush to the field in support, lest our god be somehow crushed by the opposition! That type of scenario might have made sense in the theology of the Vikings but it has no place in the 21st century, especially amongst monotheists!

This is my first point – that religions do not go to war. My second point is equally simple – that the Bible and the Qur’an are not at war with each other.

By this I mean to again state the obvious – that books do not fight with each other – but I also want to say more than this. I want to also say that it’s never ‘what the Bible says’ or ‘what the Qur’an says’ that is the problem. It’s what believers think their Scriptures say that is the issue. Nobody ever went to war simply on the basis of what their Scripture said. It’s always a matter of interpretation. It’s what you think your Scripture says that is important.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that there is no connection between what is written in the Scripture and how it is interpreted. I’m not even suggesting that the Qur’an isn’t a more fertile source of martial inspiration than the New Testament. Even so, the variety of denominations and sects within both Christianity and Islam are testimony to the fact that both the Bible and the Qur’an can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and indeed, there are preachers of violence and non-violence within both religions!

Unfortunately I have heard numerous Christian apologists citing inflammatory passages from the Qur’an with complete disregard for how the passages are interpreted by those who treat them as Scripture, and of course they do so as if there were no inflammatory passages within their own Scriptures! The truth is that both the Qur’an and the Christian Bible contain significant amounts of potentially inflammatory material, but it all depends upon how it is interpreted.

“Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” says the Psalmist (Psalm 137) in one of any number of Old Testament verses that could be used to incite a holy war! And those who think that such jihadist catch-cries are limited to the Jewish Bible forget how the words of Christ used in the parable of the great feast“force them to come in” (Luke 14:23) – were used by the Crusaders to justify forcing Christian conversion on Muslim peoples they conquered.

Of course I don’t believe that the words of Christ in the parable were meant to encourage forced conversion any more than I believe Psalm 137 justifies violence against children. If you want to know how I and the vast majority of Christians interpret these passages you only need to ask us. Likewise though, if we want to know how Muslims deal with passages in the Qur’an that sound inflammatory to us then we need to ask them how they interpret these passages, and surely we should ask them before jumping to conclusions.

This seems obvious to me, which is why I find it hard to understand why so many Christian people who in every other respect seem to be quite sensible people continue to quote isolated verses from the Qur’an to warn us as to ‘what Muslims really believe’ without ever consulting a Muslim in the process!

Why would anyone do this? It only makes sense if there’s an initial assumption that the Muslim community is quietly plotting against everyone else on the religious spectrum while deliberately concealing their intentions. Many people do actually believe this. Their phobia started with the 9/11 attacks in New York and it has been consistently drip-fed ever since by a media narrative that interprets every act of violence perpetrated by a Muslim as an insane act, inspired by their hateful religion!

Of course the circle of ignorance and fear is a self-affirming, self-perpetuating circle. When we are ignorant of what a group believes we become suspicious and fearful as to what they are up to. Because we are fearful we isolate ourselves from the group and listen to rumours which justify the isolation and increase the ignorance and fear, and so the cycle of isolation, suspicion, ignorance and fear deepens and perpetuates itself. There is, of course, a very straightforward path out of this circle. We sit down and talk with each other, and preferably over a nice meal.

Let me share my testimony with you:

When the September 2001 event occurred I knew zero Muslim people and knew almost nothing about Islam. Along with a vast number of Australians, the twin towers attack left me deeply suspicious of both the religion and its adherents. No doubt I should have tried to dig a little deeper into the matter before allowing my prejudices to settle. Even so, I had a full plate and other priorities. Then, six months later, a local Islamic centre made a large group booking at the bush retreat that I manage. They were organising an Islamic youth camp on my property! I was deeply concerned!

What were these Muslims going to get up to in the bush? Would they be learning to make bombs? I decided that if this camp were to go ahead I needed to be there in person and keep a close eye on exactly what was happening.

Of course the Islamic youth group turned out to be the most respectful group we’ve ever had at our bush camp and their teacher, Sheikh Mansour Leghaei, went on to become my dearest friend. That weekend was the beginning of a whole new learning curve for me that has led me on great adventures around the world and introduced me to so many wonderful people! In the process, of course, I left behind any suspicion and fear I had towards my Islamic sisters and brothers. On the contrary, I found in the Muslim community people who model for me what a Christian life should look like better than any Christians I know!

None of this is to deny, of course, the major tensions and conflicts that exist between Christian and Muslim communities around the world. This is a serious issue. Indeed, I believe it is the most serious issue of our generation. Even so, we cannot properly address these conflicts until we understand the underlying issues, and we cannot understand these tensions and difficulties until there is open and honest dialogue.

Let me conclude by returning to my two points – that our religions are not at war and that our holy books are not at war. These two points are, of course, really the same point. The point is that what we have today in the burgeoning worldwide conflict between Christians and Muslims is a people problem. It’s not a religion problem and it’s not a Scripture problem. It’s a people problem, and at the heart of this people problem is people who aren’t talking to each other!

If Christians and Muslims were talking to one another then no one would be making money in the Christian community by writing inflammatory books like ‘An Idiots Guide to the Koran’ – aimed at warning Christians about what Muslims really believe – because Christians would already know what Muslims believe because their Muslim friends would have told them!

If Christians and Muslims were talking to one another then Christians would quickly realise that there is as much variation in belief within Islam as there is within the church, and that the crazy Islamic lunatic fringe is as much feared and despised by most Muslims as the Christian lunatic fringe is by the church!

If Christians and Muslims were talking we would not be fighting, and the truth is that the war-mongers can only keep us fighting by stopping us from talking!

I appreciate that the worldwide tensions between the monotheistic religious communities are complex and will not be solved overnight. Even so, the first steps towards the solution are simple and straightforward and within easy reach of us all!

So I appeal to you, my Christian sisters and brothers, to do something revolutionary – talk to your Muslim neighbour! Better still, invite your Muslim neighbour over for a meal! Better still, since your Muslim neighbour only eats halal food they will probably suggest you go to their place, in which case you’ll get a free feed on top of all the other benefits that will flow from the breaking down of prejudice, ignorance and fear!

There is a saying in Arabic that translates roughly as “how can you be my enemy if we have broken bread together?”  So start the revolution today! Break bread with your Muslim neighbour! Begin to build a better world and enjoy some nice halal food while you’re at it!

Father Dave Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

The article reprinted in part below is one that should be read by every Christian who believes in evangelizing the Muslim world.  Evangelical church-leader and scholar, Nabeeh Abbassi, is evidently a great believer in evangelism. Even so, he does not believe that this is a matter of turning Muslims into Christians.

Abbassi makes a distinction between religious affiliation and spiritual transformation. The former is simply a classification of tribal identity. The latter is the work of God! The two are very distinct! Unfortunately though these two are always being confused, which is why religious faith so readily degenerates into tribalism. Tribalism leads to arrogance, imperialism, discrimination and violence, whereas the Spirit of God takes us in the opposite direction!

Father Dave

Christians and Muslims in fellowship at the Arrahman Mosque in Kingsgrove (Sydney)

Christians and Muslims in fellowship at the Arrahman Mosque in Kingsgrove (Sydney)

from: The Christian Examiner

Evangelical scholar says no need for Muslims to become ‘Christians’

by Joni B. Hannigan 14 May, 2015

In a place where Christians and Muslims increasingly have faced hardships due to radical Islamists who are bent on the eradication of Christians [ie. Jordan], Abbassi said it is especially important to remember the way families are identified – and the culture – when reaching out with the Gospel message.

“I don’t think we are commanded to change people to become Christians,” Abbassi explained. “I think we are commanded to reconcile people to God through Jesus Christ — and that happens in their heart — this is the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Abbassi, who is also founder of Arab Center for Training and Consulting Services (ACCTS), an official NGO serving refugees in the Middle East, said a careful presentation is important for Easterners who are a “tribal and social” people, lest problems lead to violence.

“We don’t want to bring calamity and war. We want people to reconcile to God without rioting,” Abbassi said. “We know this is not easy and there is a price for people following Him.

“What I am trying to say is that we are not to encourage people to become ‘Christians,'” Abbassi said, with the understanding that “as Arabs, this means you were born in a Christian home and part of that family or that clan.”

People “don’t have to call themselves Christians” to change the culture, Abbassi said. “They need to have hope, joy and peace with God through Jesus Christ to be able to impact their society.”

It’s a spiritual work, not an “identity change on paper,” he said. “We want to see people improve their love with God through Jesus Christ and that’s the Good News.”

Read the full article here: http://www.christianexaminer.com/article/evangelical.scholar.says.no.need.for.muslims.to.become.christians/48941.htm

Father Dave & Mufti Hassoun

April 2015 – Father Dave with Grand Mufti Hassoun and friends

Why I love the Grand Mufti of Syria
by Father Dave

There are only two people who have ever brought me to tears the first time I’ve met them.

The first was Dom Helder Camara, the late great Archbishop of Recife in Brazil – the man who said “when I give food to the poor they call me a saint but when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist!”. Dom Helder spoke once at the Sydney Opera House while I was still in my teens, and my tears started welling up as he started to speak. The only other man who has had this effect on me was Dr Ahmad Badreddin Al-din Hassoun – the Grand Mufti of Syria.

I met Dr Hassoun for the first time a little over two years ago. We were in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus at the end of a week-long pilgrimage though the devastation and suffering of war-torn Syria. The beauty of the singing and the wondrous architecture no doubt had an effect on me, but it was when the Mufti began to speak that I felt a tingle run down my spine!

Even though he was speaking in language I didn’t understand (except via our translator) I sensed an extraordinary presence about the man. His words carried deep emotion and sincerity. I was reminded of what they said of Jesus – that He spoke ‘as one who had authority’ (Matthew 7:29) and not like their regular preachers.

It was the content of Dr address though that brought me to tears – when he told us about how the rebels had murdered his son. Saria was a gentle boy, he told us. He was never interested in politics. They sought him out and killed him nonetheless. And yet, the Mufti said, he desired only to forgive those who had killed his son and see his country reconciled!

Apparently Dr Hassoun had first made this offer of forgiveness during the eulogy at his son’s funeral, and when, a year later, the authorities caught two of the four men responsible for the boy’s death, he went to the court and personally offered forgiveness to the men, and asked the judge to forgive them too. The judge told him though that it was not his call as these men had killed many others apart from his son!

That was my first meeting with Dr Hassoun, back in 2013, and after his speech he presented me with a lovely plaque of the Umayyad Mosque. I still have no idea why I was privileged with that gift. I think he was trying to explain when he gave it to me but I couldn’t understand a word of Arabic then and wouldn’t have heard him beyond the tears anyway.

I’ve met Dr Hassoun twice since – in 2014 and now in 2015 – and my respect for the man only grows with each meeting. It was such a great privilege for me that he agreed to this private interview!

Please understand me – I’m not saying that I see eye-to-eye  with Dr Hassoun on theological issues, nor am I saying that I necessarily share all his political convictions (which we didn’t discuss anyway). What I am saying is that I know a good man when I meet one, and Dr Hassoun is a good and deeply spiritual man, and an example to me as a Christian.

When Jesus tried to teach his disciples how a good Jew should live he told them a story (Luke 10). The surprise in the story was that the key character wasn’t a good Jew at all. It was a good Samaritan – a person no self-respecting Jew would think he had anything to learn from! Similarly, I think it’s time for us self-respecting Christians to discover what God has to teach us through this man – the good Mufti.

Father Dave Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

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