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Belief and custom challenged by change

14 February 2014

Simon Valentine finds value in a Christian-Muslim discussion

Tradition and Modernity: Christian and Muslim perspectives
David Marshall, editor
Georgetown University Press £19.50
Church Times Bookshop £17.55 (Use code CT798 )

IS ISLAM closed to new ideas? Can scripture - the Qur'an as well as the Bible - be open to criticism? To what extent is the Christian and Muslim idea of modernity influenced by the image of a former "golden age" that believers need to restore and emulate? These are just some of the questions raised in this timely and thought-provoking book.

Consisting of a series of essays, originally given as papers at a seminar at Georgetown University in 2010, the book considers tradition and modernity, two ideas that, as Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, informs us, are not to be considered "in all circumstances as natural opposites".

In part one of the book, Vincent Cornell considers "primitivism" (or fundamentalism), and how different forms of "primitivism" underpin the doctrines of "traditionalists", such as Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Ali Shariati, architect of the Iranian theological system. In examining the nature of tradition, or "handing on", as Janet Soskice terms it, she commends theological and ritual flexibility, stating how "to stand in a tradition is not to stand still but to stand in the deep, loamy soil that feeds further growth."

Philip Jenkins discusses the impact of modernity on Christianity, and how religious authority in the West has not been eclipsed, but, rather, we have witnessed "its unmooring from traditional institutions, and its decentralisation and radical democratization". With particular reference to Turkey, Recep

Şentürk follows on from Jenkins by comparing authority in early Muslim societies with that of today. Other contributors share their thoughts on themes such as freedom, slavery, and the emancipation of women in both Islam and Christianity.

Part two of the book consists of "snippets" on "common themes", from the writings of eight different Christian and Muslim thinkers, from John Henry Newman in the 19th century to the contemporary Swiss-Egyptian thinker Tariq Ramadan.

Ramadan, one of the most significant Muslim writers today, suggests that, "although the fundamental principles of Islam and its prohibitions" are clearly stated, Muslims must not ignore "the context of such laws". There is a need, he opines, to distinguish "timeless principles and contingent models"; and to acknowledge that laws are "applicable to one age and society but not necessarily to others".

Concerning problems relating to integration, and whether or not Muslims can live in the West and still be loyal to their faith, Ramadan talks of a "European Islam" in which Muslims take "the positive elements of western culture while remaining faithful to Islam's principles". By doing that, he claims, "they are both fully Muslim as to religion and fully western as to culture."

Although the book is stimulating and undoubtedly relevant, some readers may be disappointed that there is no discussion in it of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, and the struggle that is taking place in that country between tradition, marked by a strict interpretation of Islam, and modernity, much of which is regarded as bidah, harmful innovations.

Despite this omission, this book is indispensable reading for all those with an interest in contemporary Christianity and Islam.

Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a freelance writer and lecturer on Islam and Religious Studies.

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