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As Islam around the globe marks the month-long fast of Ramadan in this strange time of pandemic – no gathering for prayers in the mosque, no one but family around the table for the iftar meal — my thoughts go back to some of the remarkable Muslim leaders and activists that my wife and I met in a three-country journey early in 2020.

One of those, whose brief conversation with a delegation from the Christian Reformed Church in North America was shoehorned into a very busy day, was Sabah Mohamed al Bahlani in Muscat, Oman. Muslim by birth and by present practice, like nearly all Omanis, Sabah told us of her happy childhood as a pupil at Al Amana School, a Christian school that served children of all faiths.

“I remember that we had many debates about Christianity and Islam,” she said. “But as Muslim children we always felt that we belonged there too, and no one tried to convert us.”

The school was founded in 1931 by missionaries from the Reformed Church in America, carrying on a Christian presence that began in the 1890s with the founding of a hospital. The Omani government took responsibility for the hospital in the 1970s, and the school closed in the 1980s.

The work of the churches continues at Al Amana Centre, dedicated to promoting interfaith dialogue. Visiting groups come from North America and Europe to learn more about Islam, and the Centre also hosts Muslim and Christian leaders from regions of Africa and the Middle East who cannot talk to each other safely at home.

Sabah welcomed us to the offices and classrooms of an organization she founded, the Association of Early Intervention for Children with Disabilities. The walls of its rooms and hallways are brightened by paintings made for, or made by, the 130 children who attend classes. Therapists and teachers offer testing and home visits for many more who cannot come to the school.

The government of Oman is a hereditary sultanate, ruled by members of the al Said family since the 18th century, that stands out in the Persian Gulf region for its commitment to religious toleration and openness. The Education Ministry was slow to recognize the need for services to the disabled, Sabah told us, and until recently most special needs children in Oman were hidden away and isolated by their families. Today, however, the need for education suited to their needs is widely recognized, and there are teachers and trained staff serving the deaf and the cognitively disabled in dedicated classrooms in every region. Although she did not claim credit, it became clear that no one has done more to achieve this result than Sabah.

Sabah studied health education in the United States, where she was able to observe public health and special education programs. Returning home after completing her doctorate, she served for 27 years in the Ministry of Health, traveling to villages to assess and improve health opportunities for women, always looking for opportunities to share what she had learned with educators in rural Oman. A few years ago she retired from government service to engage in full-time advocacy, teacher training, and administrative work for the disabled.

“Our program is the program that I observed in Portage, Wisconsin,” Sabah told us, and it offers classroom instruction for those able to take part and regular home visits for others. “We have 45 employees, 10 of them having specialized training in teaching children with disabilities. We serve all children, regardless of religion or national origin – so long as they can understand Arabic.”

Sabah al Bahlani with Justin Myers, Associate Director of Al Amana Centre, and Rosie Wurtz, a member of the visiting delegation from the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

Oman is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, but its economic success rests heavily on the shoulders of guest workers, mostly from Bangladesh and other regions of South Asia. Teaching children of guest workers and children of ethnic Omanis together in one classroom is a bold and progressive policy.

“Some of the problems I saw with the disabled in America do not occur here,” she said. “Parents often see a child with special needs as a gift from God, to test their faithfulness. There is shame, but there is very seldom any sign of abuse.” At one time the mufti of Oman, the highest authority for Ibadi Muslims, said that zakat, the alms that every Muslim who is able must give each year to the less fortunate, is intended for the poor, not for the disabled. “Fortunately he has changed his mind,” said Sabah.

The welfare of children and of women is closely intertwined, said Sabah, and conditions have improved dramatically for both in recent decades. “Sultan Qaboos insisted that women be given equal consideration for university study, and they now make up 60% of the student body. Our medical schools have had to set a quota to be sure that we are training enough men!”

At the beginning of the Sultan’s reign in 1970 only 10% of births occurred in hospitals; today that figure is 96%. “The government sends helicopters to remote villages to carry women to hospitals for delivery. The helicopters also deliver vaccines.” In 1970 there were only three schools in all of Oman, all reserved for boys. Today there are government schools in every village, and Omanis enjoy free education from age 6 through university.

The Sultan had passed away just a week earlier after a long illness, and the country was still observing a period of mourning. In fifty years as the nation’s absolute monarch, he had brought Oman out of poverty and feudalism and created a thriving modern state – a path made possible by newly discovered oil deposits. Muslims of all traditions are expected to worship together. Christians are provided land to build their churches and granted broad freedom so long as they do not seek to proselytize others. It is a dramatically different society from most of its neighboring Muslim oil states.

Sabah is a member of the State Council, a body appointed to assess proposed laws and policies. But only the Sultan can enact laws, and only the royal family can select a successor. Within a few days of Sultan Qaboos’s death, his cousin Haitham had been selected and installed in office. He is expected to follow in his predecessor’s path of economic and religious openness and generous support for education and health care.

So much that we saw here has a paradoxical ring in Western ears: a Muslim autocracy that upholds religious freedom; a nation that has progressed from just three primary schools for boys half a century ago to free higher education for all; a longtime government official in a Middle Eastern oil state who is a tireless advocate for women, children and the disabled – and who speaks of how much she gained from attending a Christian school. Such paradoxes are food for thought, for Christians and others, in the month of Ramadan.

David Hoekema

David Hoekema is professor of philosophy emeritus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

8 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    A sign and a wonder.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Thank you David for this update on Al Amana and its offshoots.
    Al Amana has long been a shining star in the RCA cosmos.
    Very glad for Sabah and her work with children who are disabled.
    How much better to work together as Muslims and followers of our Lord, than buy into the Christian Zionist fiction of a “Final Battle” where the wicked enemies of God are (literally) slaughtered so Christ can reign supreme.

    • RLG says:

      John, you suggest, it is better for Muslims and followers of our Lord (true Christians) to work together than to buy into the Christian Zionist fiction of a final religious battle. Whether you buy into the “dispensational premillennial” fantasy or the “amillenial” fantasy of Jesus’ present millennial reign, they are both fictional pretenses based on differing interpretations of the Bible. Such fantasies are not helpful in solving the world’s problems.

      Thank you, David, for an enlightening article that shows how people of differing religions can work together toward common humanitarian goals, without switching religions.

  • Thanks, David, for a very informative piece about a very special Muslim country which is friendly to all faiths while affirming its own Muslim tradition. And thank you to the Reformed Church in American and the Al Amana Center for its witness to the Christian faith that respects all persons, who are created in God’s image and live as children of God.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    RLG: I want to respond to your comment. The “amillenial” viewpoint and the “dispensational” viewpoints are not fantasies. And they are not equivalences. They are sincere efforts to understand the “End Times”. And one is far more harmful than the other.
    The “premillennialism” view sees a final carnage (lots of literal, violent bloodshed) where the enemies of God are wiped out and Jesus will reign for a literal 1000 years in the “restored” Jewish State. This view is not helpful to our Palestinian brothers and sisters who get numbered with the Arab hordes who oppose the Israeli State, and are thus marginalized (and even demonized).
    Read what they say in the “Kairos Palestine Document” @ , especially sections 2.3 – 2.5
    To believe that Jesus is even now, exercising the behaviors of the inaugurated Kingdom in all nations through his followers, is far more helpful, IMO.
    BTW, why not step out from behind your initials? I like to know who I’m dialoguing with. Cordially, John

    • RLG says:

      Thanks, John, for your take on end times. There are four basic fantasy scenarios that have come from differing interpretations of mostly apocalyptic Bible literature: amillennial, postmillennial, historic premillennial, and dispensational premillennial. They all feature a millennial reign of King Jesus and fit the genre of a Marvel comic story such as the “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Every major religion has their own eschatology scenarios based on their so called divinely inspired Scriptures, which can be added to the list of Christian scenarios. They all make as much sense as the others. The amillennial scheme (typical Reformed view) pictures Christ presently on his throne, ruling the world and church during his present figurative thousand year reign. But there is no objective evidence of such a reign. Just look at the world scene today. As to the violent bloodshed of the premil view that you describle, the amil view (which I assume is your view) ends with those not paying homage to Jesus being cast into the lake of fire with Satan for eternity. So much better than the premil fantasy. Thanks, John, for your take on end times. Maybe the panmil view is closer to the truth. “It’ll all pan out in the end.”

  • David Hoekema says:

    I didn’t realize I was venturing into the realm of eschatology! But it’s true that how one deals with those who follow other paths searching for God today and how one anticipates the end times are intertwined. I had some fascinating discussions of these matters with Christian and Muslim conversation partners in Egypt (later in the same trip). For a judicious and fair-minded explanation of alternatives (pre-mil, post–mil, amil) I venture to recommend an outstanding work by a Reformed theologian who crossed over the Jordan way back in 1988 (but whose books in systematic theology still sell far more copies each year than his son’s in political philosophy and peacemaking): Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and The Future.

    • RLG says:

      Thanks, David, for the reminder. I took the course from him, using The Bible and the Future as his primary text book. He was one of my favorite profs.

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