Teatime in Mogadishu: My Journey as a Peace Ambassador in the World of Islam

“Don’t forget that when I met Jesus, I knew I had come home. So whether I live or die doesn’t really matter, for my calling now and in eternity is to glorify Jesus Christ. This is what my memoir is all about.”[1]

The author’s early life in Somalia. Ahmed’s father served the Italians in the army corps of engineers. He married in 1936. He then worked as a prison warden for the British. “These jobs introduced my father to a world beyond the horizons of Somali ethnocentrism.” “My father paid no attention to clan, treating everyone with equality (that is one reason I will never mention my clan in this memoir).”

All Somalis were Muslims. Ahmed, the author of this memoir, was born in 1953. He writes:

“Except for several obvious foreigners, all the inhabitants of Bulo Burte, in Somalia, were Muslims. In fact, with rare exceptions, all Somalis were Muslims—including my parents. Most Somalis traced their genealogy back to their prophet Muhammad. They believed that the blood of Muhammad flowed in their veins. This meant that to be a Somali was to be a Muslim. So my identity was not only Somali but Muslim.”

The Qur’an makes references to Bible characters such as Adam, Noah, David, and John the Baptist. Ahmed writes,

“Some years later I was astonished to discover that the Bible more fully describes many of these sketchy allusions than does the Qur’an. That discovery was significant in my teenage years when I began to develop an interest in biblical narratives. The seed of that interest was sown in my soul in those evening storytelling circles with the imam.”

“Although I was secure within the house of Islam, my study of the Qur’an did not answer several perplexing questions within my young mind. However, I never felt free to ask any of the imams these questions. Most perplexing to me was the insistence that Muslims must believe all the books of God. The Qur’an specifically mentions the Scrolls of Abraham, the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah, and, of course, the Qur’an. We Muslims had the Qur’an, but I often wondered where these other books could be found. I wanted to read what I had to believe in. There was no answer to that quest in any of the instructions I got in the mosque. However, surprisingly for me, that question was answered several years later when a Christian gave me a Bible.”

 “A thousand years ago, before Islam was accepted in Somalia, all Somalis believed in one God, the Creator, whom they referred to as Waaq. All blessings came from Waaq! The source of peace was also Waaq. As the indigenous residents of Bulo Burte embraced Islam, therefore, their context included pre-Islamic yearnings for peacemaking rooted in God and understood as a gift from God.”

Pre-Islamic Christian and Jewish influences. In Somalia there are indications of pre-Islamic Christian or Jewish influences. Whenever my father slew an animal, he would make the sign of the cross on the lintel of the door into our home. Furthermore, the burial site for my clan is marked with gravestones in the shape of the cross. Especially remarkable to me was my mother’s frequent expression in prayer, ‘Waaq iyo Ina Madi’ (In the name of God and his only Son).

 In my home Father would select a newborn male and female lamb a year before the Eid al-Adha. These needed to be spotless and healthy. Then at the Eid he would slay these two lambs and dab the blood on the lintel and posts of the door into our home. This is most certainly a flashback to the Jewish Passover described in Exodus. And when a person becomes ill, the religious leaders often kill a lamb and bathe the ill person in its blood. They believe that blood heals! Imagine my astonishment to discover as a teenager that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7)! My father’s sacrifice of lambs before my conversion nevertheless helped prepare me to believe in Jesus as the Lamb of God. In seminary I learned about redemptive analogies or paradigms. These are signs of the gospel within my culture.

There was a foreign teacher, a Mennonite missionary named Marc. One day in Marc’s home we prayed for the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus Christ to me. That has been the most important day of my life. Although I did not fully understand what it meant to believe in and follow Jesus, I knew that I had begun a journey of incredible challenge and purpose. That is the day I truly came home!

That true home is the church. It is like a nomadic hut. The hut has ribbing and a center pole. The center pole is the udub. The matting of the roof is woven reeds. It is the tol (weave). The udub is Christ crucified and risen. He is the center and the whole house is supported by him. The pole is analogous to the cross where Jesus gave his life as our living sacrifice on the cross. We who believe are the ribbing. All the ribbing comes together at the apex of the udub. All the ribs are held together, anchored and supported by meeting each other at the top. Any ribbing that is not anchored to the center pole is useless. That day when I believed in and committed my life to Jesus Christ, I became a rib in the house of God, the church. That is my home, now and eternally. I have never walked with Jesus alone. That would be like a rib attempting to stand upward alone or providing solitary support for the woven mat covering; that is impossible. We must always live within the fellowship of the church.

I recognize that some of my friends continue in both worlds after believing in Christ. They try to keep a foot in both communities, the mosque and the church. I do not condemn them. Some tell me that when they participate in both, doors open for them to share the gospel. But I speak of my convictions about this, I think that these believers struggle with a confusing identity, both personally as well as in their relationship with the Muslim community. To attempt to live within both the mosque and the church creates a homeless mind. I believe it is important to be clear about our true home and identity. For this reason, from the day Jesus met me, my home has been the church, and Jesus alone is my udub.

God Calls Me to be an Ambassador of Peace in the Muslim World. The principles of Philippians 2:3-11 were radically different from everything that had characterized my Muslim value and belief system:

The seed of my peacemaking ministry of later years was planted in my soul during those Bible studies. At the time Somalia was slowly sinking into the abyss of inter-class conflict. What would happen if clans honored rival clans more than they honored themselves? What if people were ready to die for their enemy rather than seek to dominate their enemy?

The Philippians Bible study clarified for me that there is a fundamental divide between Islam and the gospel, and the cross is at the center of it. In Islam God never suffers for us. Muslims believe Jesus is the miracle-working messiah; he is not a Messiah who comes as a suffering servant described in Philippians. That is why Muslims believe that the crucifixion of Jesus is impossible—certainly not the power of God for all who believe, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1:18-25).

Islam objects to the cross because God is sovereign and never affected by our sin. So the cross is considered impossible. Muslims believe that the crucifixion of Jesus as described in the New Testament is an illusion; God rescued Jesus from the cross. Therefore, Islam misses the reconciliation offered in the cross. Islam misses the redemption and assurance of forgiveness of sins. Islam misses the triumph of Christ crucified and risen over all the powers. Islam has not comprehended that God so loves us that he enters our sinful world as the Suffering Servant, as the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep and who lays down his life for the sheep.

Even though there are many hints within Islam that did help me to consider the gospel, the Muslim faith turns away from the cross. A Lebanese Muslim theologian, Tarif Khalidi, comments that although Muslims love Jesus, the Jesus of Islamic devotion leans away from the cross; whereas the Jesus of the gospels leans forward to the cross; in the gospel his life and mission are centered on the cross and resurrection.

I discovered the drama of redemption beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden and ending with consummation at the end of time, in the heavenly city that God is building (Revelation 21-22). The Qur’an, by contrast, is not a history; it is instruction on what people should believe and do. There are some intriguing allusions to history in the Qur’an, but it does not have the unifying thread of salvation history that the Bible does. Understanding this was a transformation for me, and greatly deepened my appreciation for the relevance of the Bible to the real life challenges of modern society.

College Years in America. The highlight of my Goshen College years was involvement in Assembly Mennonite Church. This church was mostly a student movement that had begun only the year before I arrived. This was a fellowship where no questions were off limits. What a dramatic contrast that was to the mosque in Bulo Burte!

Returning to Somalia. As far as I know none of my Somali friends have returned to live in Somalia after moving abroad to complete their education. Some have returned for prolonged visits, but not to live there. However, it was clear to me that God was calling me to invest my life in serving my people. I did not know what lay ahead. I just knew that God was calling me to return. So in 1982 I boarded that plane to fly home in obedience.

The death of culture happens when the society insists that it is the best culture; that is the disease which is afflicting the Somali culture today. The radical al-Shabab movement is seeking to impose a rigid Islam on Somalia; they believe that all alternatives must be destroyed.

Similarly, Nigerian culture was in stress when Chinua Achebe wrote his novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958. The stressors that he discerned between modernizing forces and traditionalist values are also relevant to the Somali experience.

The first Friday that I was back in Mogadishu, I worshipped with the Somali Believers Fellowship—or, as the wider society referred to it, the People of the Messiah. The believers avoided the term Christian because in the Somali context it included connotations of alcohol abuse and loose living. Christian was considered a synonym to Western, which did not enjoy good press among Muslim Somalis.

We functioned with utmost integrity; we never gave a bribe. If an officer demanded money, we would say, “Let’s go to the police station and report to them what you are demanding.”

There are many ideologies and theologies of peacemaking. Even Marxism proclaims an ideology of peacemaking. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are committed to Christ-centered peacemaking. The peace of Christ is different than the peace of Islam or the traditional Somali Nabad. In fact, the peace of Christ is not the same as any of the alternative varieties of peace throughout the world.

Moving to Nairobi, Kenya. Blincoe: Somali Muslims attacked Ahmed Ali Haile and left him bleeding. He lost his sight in one eye. Somalia was descending into chaos. He moved to Nairobi, Kenya. He writes:

Sometime after the conflict a Swiss brother and I began to meet for prayer every Wednesday morning at 6:00 a.m. In time others joined us. Week by week we prayed for the Somali church. Within a year believers began to gather again [in Nairobi]. Some who had scattered when the church was closed never came back, but others did return, and some new believers with them.

References Cited

Haile, Ahmed Ali, and David W. Shenk. Teatime in Mogadishu: My Journey as a Peace Ambassador in the World of Islam. Harrisonburg, Va.: Herald Press, 2011.

[1] Ahmed Ali Haile and David W. Shenk, Teatime in Mogadishu: My Journey as a Peace Ambassador in the World of Islam (Harrisonburg, Va.: Herald Press, 2011). 13