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Muslim scholar engages

24 May 2013

Philip Lewis praises an essay in empathy

Old and New Testament mosaics: at San Vitale, Ravenna, begun 532, consecrated 538. From The Glory of Byzantium and Early Christendom(see also pages
31, 32, and 34)

Old and New Testament mosaics: at San Vitale, Ravenna, begun 532, consecrated 538. From The Glory of Byzantium and Early Christendom(see also pages<...

Christians, Muslims and Jesus
Mona Siddiqui
Yale £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT799 )

THIS landmark study of the figure of Christ by a Muslim scholar is both a personal voyage of discovery and a sourcebook. As Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at Edinburgh University, Mona Siddiqui (Back Page Interview, 10 May) regrets the paucity of Muslim thinkers with a theological interest in Christianity. This lacuna she seeks to address in six substantive chapters.

The first - "The End of Prophecy" - makes it clear why both traditions have difficulty in understanding the other within their own religious logic. For Muslims, Jesus is a revered prophet; for Christians, he is the Messiah and Son of God. "If Muhammad is the recipient of divine words, Jesus is the embodiment of the Word. . . It is therefore not surprising that there is a struggle [for Christians] to find an adequate response to Muhammad as the final Prophet when the final Word has already appeared."

Two subsequent chapters provide an accessible historic overview of mutual apologetics and polemics about the figure of Jesus: the first largely focuses on Christians writing within the Muslim world in the eighth and ninth centuries. This means Orthodox (Melkite), Nestorian, and Jacobite Syrian Christians. The second focuses on theologians in the West who were writing between the 12th to the 16th century. They include St Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther.

The early encounter generated a sophisticated if limited engagement with each other's texts. Christians had to address two Islamic convictions: "the impossibility of God having a Son, and the illogicality of the divine changing when it became human in the act of uniting". This period generated Muslim claims that the Gospels had been corrupted, abrogated by Islamic scriptures, and thus superseded - claims that continue to be made to justify non-engagement.

In her "Reflections on Mary", Siddiqui considers that the mother of Jesus will become an opportunity for fruitful interreligious conversation only if Muslims can move beyond debates about "gender, virtue and female piety. This has already happened among some Christian theologians who have wished to promote Mary as an image of liberation of women from poverty and injustice."

The penultimate chapter, "Monotheism and the Dialectics of Law and Love", explores, inter alia, the distinct anthropologies with which Muslim and Christian thinkers operate. For Christians, prophetic example and Qur'anic guidance are not enough to redeem sinful nature. "From the Muslim perspective, guidance and grace work together not to transform our sinful nature but to lead us to God."

The book concludes with some moving "Reflections on the Cross". Professor Siddiqui remarks that, through conversations with Christian colleagues and her reading of Christian theology, "I have learnt in greater depth how to talk of God." At the same time, she acknowledges that "the structural differences between Islam and Christianity through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ are so great that one could be forgiven for wondering what do Islam and Christianity have in common? Even God seems so different."

This splendid work makes clear that mutual understanding requires empathy and courage to move beyond formulaic positions. Any serious theology today has to be interreligious.

Dr Lewis is Inter-Faith Adviser to the Bishop of Bradford, and Hon. Visiting Lecturer in the Peace Studies Department at Bradford University


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