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Discovering Muslims in the Far East

Discovering Muslims in the Far East

Among the seeming chaos of wobbly tables covered with cheap thin plastic and tins filled with chopsticks, the boyish figure popped out. His gray eyes flashed as he greeted us and then enthusiastically led us to some empty seats in front of his father’s humble restaurant. Similar eateries lined both sides of the street, with invisible lines dividing the sections of tables. It was my first time to eat there—and my first time in a Muslim community.

However, I wasn’t in the Middle East. I was living in the Far East and discovering that there were (and still are) millions of Muslims of numerous ethnic groups that call this area home.

Balancing on my stool, I listened politely as someone explained the menu—though I was more interested in the world around me. The young boy taking our order was actually a young man. His light-colored eyes, dark hair, olive skin and high nose weren’t like those of the majority people of this region. The melodious guttural sounds of his mother tongue used with his kin hinted of Central Asian origins and colored the way he spoke the official language.

The lively interactions among the restaurant workers and patrons created a festive atmosphere, as tantalizing aromas of mutton coated with cumin and other spices permeated the whole street. Men outside cooked fragrant tomato-based sauces and various pasta in huge woks and kettles. They created forms of pasta I’d never seen before, stretching dough to make long noodles, or pinching or carving it off in pieces. Rounded ovens baked the flatbread eaten by Muslims around the world—the perfect supplement to the spicy dishes.

I didn’t know much about Muslims then, but I learned from friends who did. We rode our bikes to a centuries-old mosque still being used in another part of the city. The architecture reflected the fascinating blend of the Middle East and the Far East: The structure of the roofs and buildings were similar to those of the cities’ other ancient buildings yet I could see Arabic script and the minaret.

I also didn’t know that God would lead me to spend more time with Muslims in another part of the same country some 20 years later. And a few became very special friends. One taught me a great deal about her life and beliefs, and even invited me to her country home a few hours away during a winter break from her post-graduate studies.

We traveled to her village home in the countryside via a slow train and then a crowded bus. When we arrived, her parents, aged yet strong, were already walking slowly down the dusty road to her sister’s house, giving us the homestead to ourselves.

Lying on the hard bed that night, I drifted in and out of sleep. Suddenly, in the pitch black morning, a loud melodious chant calling the faithful to prayer pierced the air and invited my imagination into a Muslim world that I scarcely knew. As my friend slept on, I pictured her father already at the nearby mosque praying with other men of the village. Her mother most likely prayed at home, head covered and facing west. My friend never woke up for the call to prayer, and I realized I’d never seen her pray.

As I spent time with my friend’s vast extended family the next day, I saw that adherence to Muslim practices varied quite a bit throughout the village. Most seemed to ignore the calls to prayer during the day and didn’t refer to Allah in daily affairs. Yet, married women dressed modestly and covered most of their hair with hats or scarves. Older men and the more pious young men wore prayer caps. In this tight community, no Muslim ate pork and everyone followed a vast list of rituals and traditions for festivals and ceremonies led by their religious leaders. I found out that even in that relatively small area, several types of Muslim groups existed, each following slightly different beliefs and customs. In fact, moments after I was awakened by the morning call to prayer, a slightly different call followed from a nearby mosque!

My first encounter with Muslims in an Islamic community was decades ago and I’ve learned a great deal since then. I’ve realized that this religion is quite complex and that its followers are located everywhere in the world.

Though I’m no longer serving among Muslims in the Far East, there are an increasing number of Muslim immigrants in my own community in the U.S. I pray that my heart will be continually sensitive to and burdened for these people. And I look for occasions to show love, friendship and understanding to Muslim friends and acquaintances wherever I am.

Participate by Praying:

  • Lift up workers serving among Muslims in the Far East. Ask God to give them wisdom as they seek to present the gospel in culturally relevant ways.
  • Ask God to open the hearts of Muslims as they hear the good news.
  • Ask God to call more believers to plant churches in Islamic communities in the Far East.

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