As director of Oakwood University’s new Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations, specifically, he is charged with helping Seventh-day Adventists understand and respect Muslims. He hopes also, when he can, to help Muslims understand and respect Adventists and Christians.
“We’re just trying to diminish some of the negative thoughts and myths about Islam – and Christianity,” Burton said. “There are myths on both sides that need to be dispelled.”
To that end, the center has developed an online certification program for pastors and church leaders that will begin the end of February. The instructors will include Adventist leaders and professors from Oakwood, the church’s world headquarters near Washington, D.C., and from other Adventists universities around the world.
Professors could include scholars, such as Dr. Tarsee Li, professor of ancient Middle East languages at Oakwood University, who keeps his Arabic sharp by reading the Quran daily. Teachers for the course will also include pastors and missionaries who have built relationships with Muslim leaders in countries where Muslims are in the majority.
The course is designed to help ministers develop joint community programs with Muslims and build relationships.
Burton hopes that Oakwood’s center will also become a meeting place for the Adventist church between Christians and American Muslims, many of whom are African-American. Oakwood is a historically Black institution.
“There are things ministers can do that help break down walls,” Burton said. “For instance, in many places in the Muslim world, the term ‘Christian’ conjures the memories of the Crusades. Just calling yourself a ‘follower of Christ’ can keep doors from being closed.”
One of the aspects of the faiths he hopes to educate people about are the beliefs and history they both have in common. The Quran mentions the Bible and people who are also in the Bible in hundreds of places. And Jesus himself, next to Muhammad, is regarded as a prophet to be revered.
A documentary the center will sponsor, to be directed by Dave Person, host of WEUP Talk and a former editorial writer for The Huntsville Times and USA Today, will be putting together some of those commonalities.
In addition to the sacred histories, Adventists and Muslims, even more than most Christians, have many social aspects in common because of Adventist dietary restrictions and modesty guidelines.
The center will never dismiss the foundational differences, Burton said. While he considers Muhammad to have written prophetic things, he himself would not class Muhammad as a prophet. And while the Quran mentions Jesus, Burton understands that Muslims could not agree with the Christian view that Jesus is one with God.
But the theological specifics, Burton said, shouldn’t get in the way of celebrating ways that members of both faiths can build stronger communities and a more peaceful world.
“It’s our hope that those who are members of the Abrahamic faiths will come to see that they have more in common than things that separate us,” Burton said.