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Chris Meehan
Barrie Evans, in bright shirt, talks to group about Islam.
Photo by Chris Meehan

Muslim scholars with whom he works believe that the Islamic State terrorist group, or ISIS, practices a form of Islam that is misguided and has violent roots going back centuries, said Barrie Evans, a former Christian Reformed World Missions missionary who has worked for many years as a Bible translator in the Muslim world and elsewhere.

These scholars say the Islamic State, which is now under siege by United-States-backed forces in Mosul, Iraq, is taking what fits for them in their interpretation of Islam and ignoring the rest, said Evans in a recent presentation at the Grand Rapids, Mich., office of the CRC.

Although there are passages in the Muslim holy book, the Quran, that do seem to promote violence, and they must be addressed, there is a deeper, more hopeful aspect that Muslim and Christian scholars are starting to discuss.

“The scholars believe ISIS is being very selective in its scholarship,” said Evans.

“They argue that ISIS doesn’t have a broad faith or a balanced political faith. ISIS, they say, is going back to medieval times and picking and choosing what they see as the more violent parts of the faith to justify their behavior.”

Unfortunately, there are many people today in countries around the world who equate the beliefs of ISIS as representing the faith of all Muslims, said Evans.

In presentations he has recently given to CRC congregations and at the denominational office, Evans has offered a fuller view of a faith that, in certain circles, is currently looking at and reevaluating itself.

“Islam is in crisis, but attempts to reform it are nonetheless taking place,” said Evans, who serves as chair of Al Kalima, which oversees fundraising for a translation project that seeks to bring better understanding between Christians and Muslims, especially with regard to how Christ can bring faith communities together.

Some Muslim scholars, said Evans, are seeking to renew their faith by going back to the time of the prophet Muhammad, when the religion emerged with a more peaceful view of the world.

In returning to the early days of the faith, said Evans, there has been increasing interest in examining and discussing what are called “The Most Beautiful Names of Allah,” most of which are listed in the Quran.

Describing the natures and qualities of Allah, some of the names include “The All-Merciful,” “The Source of Peace,” “The Forgiving,” and the “Restorer.”

In a PowerPoint presentation that Evans has shown to churches, he quotes Farhana  Mayer, a Muslim theologian, who argues that the names of Allah — rather than passages promoting violence — are at the heart of Islam. Since 2015, Evans and Mayer have been meeting to discuss the two faiths.

Mayer suggests,  “I put forward the case that the divine natures as enunciated in the cardinal Islamic divine names, are ... the governing verses of the Quran, and all other verses and interpretations are to be governed by the objective values of the core divine qualities.”

Clearly, ISIS and other terrorist groups does not look at their religion this way, as a religion whose God is all-merciful, as it continues to wage war, oppressing and killing women, other Muslims and people from different religions, said Evans.

But viewed from the perspective of the beautiful names, there is solid ground on which Christians and Muslims can set aside the terrorist ideology of violence and hatred and start talking through the issues that divide them, said Evans.

“Already I see practical dialogues taking place,” said Evans.“But dialogue has to take place on the ground level between Christians and Muslims, between mosques and churches, committed to working together for a long time.”

Evans served as a CRWM missionary from 1985 to 2000, working in Guinea in West Africa with CRWM church planters and supervising Bible translation for the Fulani people.

From 2000-2015, he worked in different capacities translating the Bible for people living in an area stretching from Morocco to Siberia, taking in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

In his Grand Rapids presentation, Evans summarized briefly the history of Islam, chronicling its early days and then how it became a vast empire, conquering the Roman and Persian empires within a few years after the death of Muhammad in 632.

“After that, they developed a theology of dominance, of manifest destiny,” said Evans. “They thought that if God has given us all of these things, then he must like us.”

Out of this theology of dominance emerged strains that groups such as ISIS have picked up on — and in the process have turned their backs on the beautiful names for Allah.

Evans explains the rise of ISIS and groups like it as a reaction to dominance by the West. Faced by the influence of Western ideas and values, they started promoting and unleashing a religion defined by its violence.

“But if you take the time to peel back the layers, you are able to see the Islam which is peaceable and expresses a coexistence with other religions.”