EDITORS’ NOTE: During the 2003 International Missions Emphasis, Nov. 30-Dec. 7, Southern Baptists will focus on the theme, “That All Peoples May Know Him: Follow God’s Purpose.” The national goal for this year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is $133 million, with a challenge goal of $150 million — every penny of which will go to send missionaries and support their ministries in such regions as India’s Assam province, the setting for the following story. The International Mission Board relies on the Lottie Moon offering for 50 percent of its annual income.
GUWAHATI, India (BP)–It’s 4:30 a.m. — night still lingers in Guwahati, capital of India’s northeastern Assam province. A sleepy cow stands at the Fancy Bazaar intersection.
A loudspeaker at the nearby mosque breaks the drowsy silence, calling Muslims to the day’s first prayer.
The sleepy cadence stops. Another loudspeaker crackles nearby. This time it’s the Sikh temple with its own melodic chant, accompanied by a single drum.
The cow remains in the Fancy Bazaar intersection, nonplussed by the various invocations.
A few hours later, Tashin and her mother, Iraki, take local tea and cakes baked for Bihu, the Assamese (ah-suh-MEEZ) New Year celebration.
The women live in a Muslim neighborhood behind a white mosque. The area looks like any other in Guwahati except that topis — Muslim prayer hats — crown elderly men, and pedestrians lack Hindu forehead markings.
“This may be a Hindu holy festival, but we celebrate anyway,” Tashin says of Bihu. “We [Muslims and Hindus] live together well. You could say there is no difference; you could say we are all the same here.”
Tashin and her family also celebrate Christmas — calling it “Big Day” — as well as Muslim holidays like Ramadan.
Multiple faiths, languages and ethnicities color India’s Assam region — Islam is just one of the hues.
Six men pray the afternoon “namaz” at the well-kept Burha mosque in dusty Jalah village. Facing Mecca, they kneel and fulfill their five-times-daily duty.
Outside the mosque, however, many more Muslim men disregard the prayer. Teenage boys wrestle. A man slices a mango. A group of men chat with foreign visitors.
“We don’t go to namaz because we are either lazy or unwilling. Besides, life is good right now,” one truant explains.
Some urban Muslims and clerics study their faith and hold a tight theological line. Rank-and-file Muslims, however, are Muslim in name only.
“I haven’t spoken to a single Muslim in 10 villages who has ever read the Koran in their own language,” says a Baptist worker in the region.
The worker tells of visiting a village and telling the stories of creation and the fall — both of which are in the Koran.
“After the story, the eldest son of the village leader said, ‘Thank you for coming so many miles to bring us this story we have never heard. We should know these stories but our imam has never taught us.'”
Sociologists call the phenomenon “high identity” — identifying culturally with a belief but not knowing well its theology or practicing faithfully its disciplines.
Islam first visited Assam with Mogul invaders in the 13th century and lingered after the army’s defeat. Islamic practice revitalized under visionary reformers in the 1600s then leveled until the 20th century when waves of Muslim immigrants from neighboring territories swelled the ranks.
This immigration, coupled with high birth rates, has steadily expanded Islam in Assam. Today, Assam contains India’s second-densest Muslim population. Islam entered Assam, however, as an outsider faith and seemingly remembers its symbiotic role in India’s layered social order.
“In Assam, most Muslim villages are surrounded by Hindus,” explains Elam, an Assamese Christian evangelist from a Muslim background. “We can say that Assamese Muslim culture is ‘Hinduized.’ Therefore, Assamese Muslims are not that strict in observing religion.”
SOFT BUT UNSERIOUS
Among Assamese Muslims, lukewarm religion breeds a benign receptivity. The few Christians engaging Muslims find they readily listen to the Gospel but hesitate to wrestle with its meaning.
“The Assamese are a soft people. Hinduism here is not hardline Hindu. And the Muslims here are adaptable, open to making new friendships, listening to new ideas,” says an Assamese Christian leader.
“They’re almost Hindu, with a very universalistic mindset — you have your way and we have ours,” explains a Baptist worker. “It creates no desire to know the truth. If all you need to do is be a good man, then what’s the point?”
Ironically, some evangelists think Islamic revival could trigger Christian growth.
“The Koran says that a good Muslim should know the Pentateuch and the Gospels,” explains the Baptist worker. “Teach them what their own book says — because they don’t know — then transition. Use their book as a bridge.”
“I believe that if the Muslims knew more about Islam, more would come to Christ because Christ is right there in their scriptures,” explains Elam.
Faint signs of Islamic revival appear in Assam. Some Muslim villages are building madrasas — schools for teaching Arabic and the Koran. Immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh often import more fundamental strains of Islam. And some local Christians claim that Islamic countries have started sponsoring schools, students and teachers.
Yet the Assamese church does not respond.
“Christian churches have celebrated more than 100 years here, yet I don’t see one single church involved directly with Muslims,” observes an Assamese Christian leader. “This office now supports four evangelists [among Muslims] — this is remarkable! My predecessors would have said, ‘Why bother?'”
Only a handful of Assamese and foreign Christians have started works among Muslims — and only in the past few years.
“The Christian message is here but there’s no one to take it [to the Muslims],” observes an international Christian worker. “There are thousands of Muslim villages in Assam that have never been presented with the truth.”
Assam, a state of 26 million people, holds only a few dozen known Christians from Muslim backgrounds.
If the Assamese church decides to engage its Muslim neighbors, it will find an unreached people ready for dialogue.
“Milk is better than water; diamond is better than rock. If you see the one of high quality, you will choose it, will you not?” asks Annul Hoque, a Muslim lawyer in Guwahati. “Not all religion is true or real. We should discuss to understand.
“We should investigate to see which is real and then follow it.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PRAYING AS COMMANDED, LIVELY EXCHANGE, A PLACE OF CALM, A TENTATIVE GRASP and WEDDING CUSTOMS.