The hand crafted silver jewellery was attractive, they caught my eye. I would like a pair of silver earrings to remind me of my time in Egypt. Which pair should I buy? I was at our Church’s Christmas bazaar soaking up the sights, sounds and smells. My eyes noticed the pair of earrings with اللة (Allah, God, in Arabic) on them and suddenly the decision about which earrings to buy took on a deeper meaning. I thought to myself, it is clearly Islamic art, but, they are being sold in our Church Christmas Bazaar. For me the earrings reminded me of اللة God, I, like my Arab sisters worship Allah, the name for God in Arabic, when worshipping in Arabic. When I wear these earrings now they remind me of the God of the Bible and my faith in him. But it is not enough to just consider the meaning these earrings have for me, what about the meaning they might have for others who see me wearing them.
For those who don’t recognise اللة they are seen as nice artistic pieces, but all my Muslim friends would recognise اللة. I felt pretty sure my Arab Christian friends would think I was supporting Islam in some way by wearing them, because the art form of the ear rings is associated with Islam. But what about my Muslim friends or even my Muslim friends who now follow Jesus or my Muslim friends who may in the future choose to follow Jesus. What would it mean for them? Would wearing clearly Islamic earrings create barriers or bridges to sharing the truth about Jesus and his followers?
Having raised my children in the Middle East I have had several opportunities to show my faith in Jesus by not using jewellery with اللة on them to protect myself and my children from evil spirits and harm. When my neighbour wanted to pin اللة and محمد on my newborn son I had the opportunity to share the story of Jesus casting out demons from Mary Magdalen and to show my trust in Jesus for my new born babies protection and to pray for her and my new born babies in Jesus name. She then saw how we were protected in Jesus and safe without using the amulets.
So Islamic art and jewellery has meaning, should we use them or not?
In Chapter 6 of Evelyn and Richard Hibbert’s Book, “Walking Together on the Jesus Road: Discipling in Intercultural Contexts…” they recommend not wearing or displaying the blue eye because it will communicate to local people trust in its power to ward off harm, and by not using amulets disciples have the opportunity to explain to neighbours and friends that they trust in Jesus for protection.
So putting all I have learnt from my When Women Speak training I decided to ask my friends. The friends I saw that week were all unmarried university students from a range of backgrounds, some speaking Arabic and others not, some growing up in the west, others overseas students in the west, one of them is a follower of Jesus.
All of these women said that they personally did not believe that blue beads or jewellery with اللة had any power and they did not believe in the use of these things for protection or to ward off evil. They all admitted that some Muslims, even in their family, do believe in Folk Islamic practices. From my experience women who have children and / or are less educated use these objects for protection. One friend said her father (who had a shop where he sold Islamic art) does not believe in superstitions while her mother does, using Islamic art to protect her family from harm and evil influences.
Some of the woman said that any art with Allah should not be used at all, others said that Islamic jewellery and art can be used for decoration, while others said that Islamic art can be a helpful reminder of one’s faith encouraging them to engage in their religious practices. It was interesting to note that of concern to some women was that jewellery with اللة was not worn in the bathroom or left on the floor and that they did not want to judge people who thought differently to them. Those that thought it was ok to use the jewellery thought it is was ok for a non-Muslim to wear it as appreciation of the art.
So my earrings with اللة written on them will have different meanings for different people. For some people might think I am wearing it because I trust in them for protection, for others they are a reminder of اللة and Islam, for others it is beautiful art, for others it may be a mix of some or all of these aspects to varying degrees. This discussion reminded me of Christians who wear the cross in jewellery for all sorts of different reasons.
So, if something has different meanings for different people how do we work out whether something is helpful to wear or not? We need to consider what meaning it has for us and what are our motives? Does it cause me to think about God more? Does it cause me to think about trying to control evil with the use of an object rather than on Jesus? Does it promote my biblical faith or does it distract from it? Secondly, we need to consider what meaning it might have for the people who I will meet when I am wearing it. Will it promote bridges for discussion and give me opportunity to share what I believe and to show people I meet that Christians love and respect God?? Will it promote biblical faith in Jesus? Over the last 5 years I would have to say that when I wear them they create a smile. Initially most woman have wondered whether I was a Muslim because I was wearing them. But they were not sure because I am not wearing a scarf and so they asked me directly, giving me an opportunity to talk about my faith as a Christian. I have then been able to share with both individuals and groups of veiled women that I believe in God, respect him and want to talk about him. Is having the opportunity to be able to respond and share my faith worth potentially miss representing myself? Is it worth introducing a bit of confusion in order to bring more clarity to Christ?
In the Old Testament Israel is urged to be separate from the nations and to maintain her distinctiveness as the people of God and this affected all areas of life including dress, food and house decorations. But then, Jesus said that it is what comes out of one’s mouth that makes them unclean not from what or how they eat (Matthew 15:1-20) and the letter from the Council in Jerusalem to the Gentile Believers in Acts 15:28-29 resulted in most of the Jewish laws not being necessary, and so being separate from the nations in the New Testament is about not committing idolatry and not sinning rather than what one wears or eats (except for blood). However, in Acts 16:3 Paul circumcises a grown man Timothy in order to conform to the traditions of the Jews and in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 Paul says 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. … I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. And Romans 13 is helpfully summarised as saying 13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. … 16 Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, … 19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. So when a believer is working out what they should do with their freedom they are to not seek their own good, but the good of others and not cause someone to stumble and to try and please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (v 25-33)
A discussion on this topic with my BMB friend led us to discuss how we would decide if we were to eat pork, show our family how we pray, have a glass of alcohol, choose what to wear, place a friendly bet, buy a ticket at the school fete etc. We decided that when deciding how to live in certain situations we need to consider i) what the Bible says on the topic; ii) what Christians through history and today say; iii) what does the action mean for me (the Holy Spirit at work in my life) and iv) what it means for those around me. It may mean being flexible and being willing to adapt my behaviour to suit different people (with some people having a glass of wine might mean building trust for others it wouldn’t). It may mean not adjusting my behaviour because my conscience tells me not to do it. It may mean I change my opinion on a behaviour as my experience and knowledge adjusts and this certainly means that I love and accept other brothers and sisters who express their faith differently to me in these areas.
© When Women Speak … September 2019
By an Australian who grew up living overseas and has lived the last 13 years in the Middle East with her family. She now lives in multicultural Australia working with Culture Connect, Interserve providing training in Cross Cultural communication and understanding.