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Talking about differences and becoming friends

by
10 August 2012

This will help parishes engage in dialogue with local Muslims, says Isabella Image

The Sinai bird: Islam is famous for zoomorphic vessels such as this aquamanile, dating from the early ninth century. The inscription begins with the Muslim invocation to God, the bismillah. It was a donation to the Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, and could have been the gift of either a Christian or a Muslim, since the shrine was not only a Christian but also a Muslim holy site. From Byzantium and Islam: Age of transition, edited by Helen C. Evans with Brandie Ratliff (Yale, £45 (£40.50); 978-0-300-17950-7), a sumptuous book that considers the upheavals in the Byzantine empire caused by the emerging Islamic world

The Sinai bird: Islam is famous for zoomorphic vessels such as this aquamanile, dating from the early ninth century. The inscription begins with the...

Fear & Friendship: Anglicans engaging with Islam
Frances Ward and Sarah Coakley, editors
Continuum, £14.99
(978-1-4411-0149-5)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT374 - free postage on UK online orders during August)

THIS excellent collection of essays was written by Christians and Muslims in a variety of pastoral and parochial interfaith contexts, and provides a good "how-to" guide for clergy and other Christians work-ing in multifaith situations. If you read nothing else, Philip Lewis's highly knowledgeable essay is an indispensable introduction to different aspects of Islam in Great Britain.

One rich strand of this book is suggested ways of engaging with Muslims in an Anglican parish context. On the community level, Edmund Newey and Richard Sudworth discuss a church-based community centre for children and families which employs Muslim staff. Turning to scripture, Catriona Laing describes Scriptural Reasoning, a forum in which participants share ideas from Bible and Qur'an on themes such as "family" or "hospitality".

And where scripture or dogma may cause tension, Frances Ward turns to a performance of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing - among her Muslim friends, the play triggers debates about honour and shame in the context of marriage and family relations.

In all this, a few themes keep emerging. One is the issue of Christian uniqueness: Rowan Williams in the Afterword writes about how the Church can "sustain the claim to universal pertinence in [an interfaith] setting without plun- ging into straightforward competi-tion." 

One solution is Christian hospitality. Ian Wallis uses the paradox of host and guest at the eucharist to suggest that a disused Sheffield church be converted for interfaith prayer. Sister Judith, an enclosed nun, invites Muslim friends to join her in silent prayer, and finds Qur'anic verses to complement her own concept of God.

Another recurring theme is that of offence. Rachel Mann defends the freedom of speech (and art) when confronted with Muslim opposition to nude art in Liverpool. Indeed, contributors repeatedly express awkwardness in discussing certain things with Muslim friends, whether social (treatment of women; political authoritarianism) or religious (biblical hermeneutics). But they are bold enough to work towards true friendships, which include the freedom to disagree. In return, openness is also visible in the two Muslim contributions, in which the problems of Islamophobia and radicalisation are presented with moving anxiety and frustration.

The title is somewhat misleading: if I may make the distinction, the book is essentially about Anglicans engaging with Muslims individually, not with Islam as a religion. It would, therefore, have been good to have other angles on interfaith work; for example, how the church can work with the white underprivileged who see Islam as a political and cultural threat.

Apart from this minor quibble, however, this is a consistently thought-provoking book, and one thoroughly recommended for those working in interfaith parochial contexts.

The Revd Isabella Image is Assistant Curate at All Saints and St Peter, Luton.

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