I was still struggling to grasp my surroundings as we slipped off our shoes and walked into the expansive, open-air, marbled courtyard. There were dozens of students pacing the floors, kneeling in prayer, and sitting in study groups amongst the roman pillars “harvested” from the once-plentiful churches of this ancient city.
The oldest university in the world (969AD).
The Harvard of Islam.
After stops in the UAE and Qatar, this (extremely) white, Midwestern christian boy somehow found himself standing in the intellectual center of the Sunni Islamic faith. Just another day at the office.
Our missionary host led us through the university’s square to an old, wooden door at the base of one of the mosque’s minarets. He had a friend employed by the school that was planning to give us the grand tour. But first, he had something special he wanted us to see.
The antiquated door swung closed behind us as we stepped into the base of an ancient spiral staircase.
It was pitch black.
As I instinctively reached for my iPhone flashlight, my new friend stopped me. “Leave it off for a minute. Trust me.”
So I took a deep breath and began to climb.
The steps were rough and uneven, worn down by hundreds of years of pious footprints. I braced my hands against the sides of the chamber, trying to keep from stumbling as each tread varied greatly in both width and height. I could hear the voices of my climbing partners ahead of me, but I had no idea as to how far I’d fallen behind. My pulse was pounding. My thighs began to burn with lactic acid. I struggled to catch my breath.
Still no light. Still no rest. Just more and more steps. And more and more darkness.
That’s when he hit me with the point of this whole exercise. From the blackness above I heard this story:
“One of my muslim friends who came to trust in Jesus told me this stairwell is the perfect analogy for Islam. Always climbing, climbing, climbing. Completely in the dark. Exhausted. Worn out. With no light, and no end in sight.”
The metaphor resonated. They have their law, but there is no Gospel. They have heavy demands, but no grace.
And strangely enough, that’s not all that unlike the way many of us embrace Christianity: an endless ascent up a pious staircase in a fruitless effort to reach up to God by our own efforts.
But God doesn’t ask us to climb to The Light. The Light came down to us.
“The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
–John 1:4-5 NLT
My one-day journey into the heart of this muslim city didn’t leave me angry or afraid, it left me sober. Burdened for a people who must quietly long to escape the pressing weight of their religious bondage, to exhale under the freedom of God’s gift of grace.
And that reminder is just as pertinent for you and me today, too.
God isn’t found at the top of an exhausting climb up a dark stairwell. Jesus came for us. I don’t care what religious system you may associate yourself with today, that’s the Good News for us all.