Although Christians may rightly be indicted for all manner of violent crimes, at least they are enjoined to non-retaliation in theory. But Muslims, in this view, do not even have a non-violent ideal from which to fall short in the first place.
Nor are they well equipped to cope with failure, still less to see apparent weakness as a potential source of strength. The point was once made pithily by Rowan Williams in his pre-Canterbury days, when he was freer to speak his mind on the subject.
“Islam has a wonderful vision of divine majesty, generosity and glory, and its demand for unreserved loving obedience has great nobility,” he wrote in a Monmouth diocesan newsletter in the 1990s. “But it is a faith that cannot find room either for the idea that God longs to share his very life, or for the vision of a God who can only win through defeat. It is not intrinsically a violent faith, but it is one that sets high store by victory.”
How much does this picture match the reality, and how much does it owe to stereotype? A more positive estimate of Islam comes from Dr Kenneth Cragg, an Anglican bishop with a solid claim to know more about the subject than any non-Muslim alive today. Now 95, he has studied and written on Islam for more than 70 years, and has been a frequent visitor to the Middle East since the 1930s.
HIS THIRST to encourage dialogue between Muslims, Christians, and Jews has not blinded him to the troubling scale of Islamic violence. “There is certainly a problem,” he grants. But his proposed solution rests solidly on Qur’anic foundations, not on imported notions liable to fall on deaf ears in Muslim societies.
Arguing that “we need coexistence for Islamic reasons, not just secular Western reasons,” he draws inspiration in his latest book (The Iron in the Soul: Joseph and the undoing of violence, Melisende) from the biblical story of Joseph. This is unusual in also appearing in the Qur’an, and thus forming part of the heritage of all three monotheistic faiths.
Jews have long hailed Joseph — known to Muslims as Yusuf — as a model of endurance and self-giving love. Though betrayed by his brothers, he shuns any urge for vengeance, and forgives them when they later throw themselves on his mercy.
Here, then, is a Christlike figure, potentially able to unite adherents of different faiths in the cause of non-retaliation and witness to a God acknowledged in all three traditions as a persuader, not a coercer.
SOME will consider this interpretation wishful, or at least less relevant to Muslims than to Jews or Christians. It is a matter of record that Islam was spread by the sword across North Africa and beyond after the Prophet Muhammad’s death.
Moreover, while Jesus eschewed violence to the end of his life, Muhammad’s ministry was marked by a watershed known as the Hijrah or “emigration to power” in 622, when he claimed divine authorisation to overcome by force the entrenched paganism of his contemporaries.
Dr Cragg’s point, though, is that the early phase of Muhammad’s teaching life, centred on Mecca, was marked by an explicit rejection of violence or retaliation, comparable to Jesus’s stance in the Sermon on the Mount. From this part of Muhammad’s life came the early suras of the Qur’an.
Though it was superseded by the later and violent period of Muhammad’s career, when he was based in Medina, it is fair to consider the Meccan phase as being more important spiritually, since the Qur’an represents Allah as a non-coercive Creator who shouldered a burden by creating the world and giving humanity the status of a viceroy, with freedom either to accept or reject the divine call.
Dr Cragg accepts that many Muslims may feel uneasy about granting priority to the Meccan part of Muhammad’s life over the Medinan. But the Meccan phase could be given more weight, just as the Hebrew prophetic tradition of non-violence serves to qualify the endorsement of tit-for-tat retaliation (“an eye for an eye”) given elsewhere in the Old Testament.
Also, as the biblical scholar Anthony Harvey has argued in a commendation of Dr Cragg’s book, if Jesus’s overturning of received ideas about retaliation were promoted more robustly by Christians, “surely this would release a religious pressure, validated by all three faiths, that could be brought to bear on even the most intractable religious conflicts, such as that in the Middle East today.”
Dr Cragg is not a voice in the wilderness. A number of distinguished Muslim scholars have a similar message. They echo ideas expressed by Habib Bourguiba (1903-2000), formerly President of Tunisia. But the Bishop’s ideas deserve to reach a larger audience. Much good could follow if this were to happen.
Rupert Shortt is the religion editor of The Times Literary Supplement and the author of Rowan’s Rule: The biography of the Archbishop (Hodder, 2008) and God’s Advocates: Christian thinkers in conversation (DLT, 2005).