Tradition and Modernity: Christian and Muslim
David Marshall, editor
Georgetown University Press £19.50
Church Times Bookshop £17.55 (Use code
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
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
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
Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a freelance writer and lecturer
on Islam and Religious Studies.