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Islam interpreted

06 March 2012

Tim Winter considers the sticking-points


Allah: A Christian response
Miroslav Volf

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IN 2007, a choral work celebrating the Qur’anic God had its première at Westminster Cathedral. The composer John Tavener filled the dim Byzantinist interior with Allah’s Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names in what looked to some like purposeful blasphemy. Protesters gathered outside to denounce the intrusion of the God of Muhammad into a Christian sanctuary.

Tavener, however, was unrepent­ant. All 99 Names — the Compas­sion­ate, Almighty, Loving, Just, and the rest — also apply to the God worshipped by Christians. For the composer, the performance was neither a woolly-headed interfaith gesture nor an artistic provocation, but a calm oratorio addressed to the usual Christian God.

Whether Muslims and Christians face the same deity when they pray is an important but difficult question. The Qur’an seems to suggest that they do; but plenty of Christians demur. Volf is here seeking to convert fellow Evangelicals, particularly those who inhabit the conservative Right, who insist, as Karl Barth did, that “the god of Muhammad is an idol.” For them, the true God self-discloses as incarnate in Christ and as triune, while the Muslim God is a human construct.

Volf knows, and is dismayed by, the adoption of such drastic dichoto­mies by Washington think tanks, Bible-believing generals, and, during the Bush years, by many in government. If Muslims and Christians share a God, a significant trigger for conflict will, he tells us, disappear.

Volf, now a senior Yale theo­logian, was brought up in Croatia, where his Pentecostal father taught him to respect a saintly Muslim neighbour. He is both lucid and combative, beginning his book with an insouciant demolition of the Pope’s understanding of Islam, and then tackling what he takes to be the Qur’an’s notion of the Christian God. Disparate Christian voices, including Nicholas of Cusa and Martin Luther, are deftly invoked to show that some Christians have claimed that Muslims worship the same God that they do, even though “they understand God’s character partly differently.”

Volf is alert to the dangers of a pragmatic theology that might relativise truth in the interests of peace and goodwill on earth. Mono­theism cannot forsake its sharp edge (although he does not tell us whether his God of Love will burn Muslims in hell). Overall, this is a graceful and persuasive visit to a longstanding byway of Christian polemic.

In the way of many Evangelicals, Volf sometimes appears essentialis­ing in proposing that his interpreta­tion of “the Bible’s God” (seen as the same entity from Genesis through to Revelation) is normative. Jews have not generally recognised the validity of Christian under­stand­ings of deity; yet Volf is con­tent to appropriate their scriptures as part of a larger generalisation about what Christians must believe, which turns out to be happily com­patible with the imperial Roman creeds.

Strangely, Volf focuses on the Trinity to the virtual exclusion of the incarnation and atonement, which for many Christian critics of Islam comprise the more jarring issues. For Islam and Judaism, the convergence of the finite and the infinite in a single entity is impos­sible, and also alienates us from the entity in question, who becomes a tertium quid whose inner life is radically strange. For Christianity, however, the true God is known definitively in the incarnation, and only inadequately elsewhere.

For those willing to accept Volf’s reading of Bible and Qur’an, and his claim that two theologies can very significantly diverge while propos­ing the same God, this will none the less prove a convincing account. There is a clarity and subtlety here, and a moral urgency that makes Allah an often exhilarating read. Whether it will persuade those who do not share Volf’s reading of scripture, however, is less clear.

Tim Winter, a Muslim, is Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge.

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