Saturday, 2 March 2013

Allah, Emeth, and Queen Elizabeth

A Christian’s honest reflection on the nature of God in Christianity and Islam

Currently I'm reading Miroslav Volf’s Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011). Volf raises a question asked by many Christians today—do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Volf unequivocally answers that they do (14), though he admits that he arrives at this answer through “political theology.” In other words, Volf seems to be arguing that Muslims and Christians believe in the same God primarily (though not solely) out of an interest in keeping the peace between Christians and Muslims worldwide. He writes that his book “is a book about God and this world, not a book about God and the world to come; it is primarily about socially relevant knowledge of God, not about saving knowledge of God (13).”

To me, this smacks of a utilitarianism that does not do true justice to the irreconcilable differences one finds between the Bible and the Qur’an. When the Qur’an rejects Jesus as being the Son of God (Miriam 19:35), when it calls Muslims to kill pagans (al-Tawbah 9:5), when it promulgates polygamy, concubinage, and slavery (al-Nisā’ 4:24-5), I cannot as a Christian but conclude that this is no worship of God but a distortion and even rejection of him. Moreover, a focus on “political theology” hardly addresses the key point of difference between Christianity and Islam—God’s solution to the problem of sin as found in the sacrifice of Jesus (Romans 5:12-19) versus depending on the guidance of sharī‘ah for salvation (al-Baqarah 2:38).

Such commands or statements in the Qur’an prevent me from accepting outright Volf’s claim that Muslims and Christians indeed worship the same God. But can I readily accept the claim of those Christians who say simply that Muslims worship a false god? How many of these Christians know that the Qur’an affirms Jesus to be the Word of God (al-Nisā’ 4:171), born of a virgin (Miriam 19:20-21), and one who raised the dead and healed the lepers (al-Mā’idah 5:110)? Do these Christians know that many biblical stories (albeit with differences) appear in the Qur’an, that Muslims believe Adam disobeyed God (al-Baqarah 2:30-39), that Noah built an ark and that God drowned those who did not believe (Nuh 71), that Joseph honored God in his refusal to be seduced by Potiphar’s wife (or as the Qur’an calls her, the wife of the Aziz) (Yusuf 12), or that Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in spite of Pharaoah (al-A‘rāf 100-141)? How is it that a false god could provide so much truth?

In musing on these problems, I was reminded of a passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. In that book, the beloved land of Narnia comes to an end, the old order is obliterated, and Aslan, the Great Lion, remakes Narnia into a new land. As the children who love Aslan enter the land, they find an inhabitant they did not expect—an enemy of Narnia from the land of Calormen who has worshiped the god Tash and hated the name of Aslan all of his life. But this man named Emeth personally encounters the Lion and immediately recognizes him as worthy of worship. And remarkably, Aslan accepts him: “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” When Emeth asks Aslan if Tash and Aslan are one, Aslan rejects this idea as false, but explains that any service Emeth gave that was vile was done to Tash and any that was not vile was done to Aslan. “Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.” (pp 154-5)

Could it be that a proper Christian theology of Islam might follow such a course? That anything in the Qur’an that agrees with the Bible and gives honor to God accounts as proper worship of the true God, but that anything that dishonors the truth as presented in the Bible gives honor only to Satan? In other words, Muslims may be worshiping both God and Satan: they worship the true God, but not rightly, and they worship Satan, without knowing that they do so. I know this is not a position that would earn me many friends; indeed, I do not know if this position is theologically tenable, but as a Christian who earnestly seeks to be both true to the claims of Scripture and fair to what I know of Islam, I essay it anyway.

I return to that question that exercises so many Christians—is the Father of Jesus the same as the Allah of Muslims? Allah is only a name—a name that Arab Christians use for God, but also a name that Muslims use with some assumptions about God that directly contradict those in the Bible. To be sure, a name is important, but it is not the same thing as the person himself, and it does not determine that person’s actions or even his or her character. I may properly refer to Elizabeth, the Queen of England, as “Your Majesty,” but what might she think if I referred to her as the “King of England,” as if I were somehow deluded into thinking that Elizabeth was male? Certainly she would be bemused with my confusion, but would she accept my homage? Might God accept the worship of a Muslim, even if that Muslim wrongly assumes Jesus is only a prophet?

And yet I will not let go of the significance of the Cross. I will not approach this question with an interest only in “political theology,” as Volf does, but also from a soteriological one. It matters that Jesus was God, died, resurrected, and that his blood covers the sin of those who repent and place their faith in him. And it matters that these truths are not proclaimed in the Qur’an. I cannot be a Christian and say that these things do not matter, for to me to simply say that we worship the same God as Muslims, and leave it at that, is to somehow devalue the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

But to take the approach of Lewis is to approach our Muslim friends with Christian charity. It makes it possible to say to them, as I have personally done, that though I believe Christ is the Son of God and that that there is no salvation but through him, I do not stand in judgment over my Muslim friends and that their salvation is known only to God. This is not a logical contradiction, as one Muslim friend once charged, but a paradox in which I hold truths in tension. This is to accept that the Lion might choose to welcome Emeth into his kingdom even after he has entered the land without any intention to worship Aslan, that God might accept the worship given to someone else as worship given to himself. And it is to pray that through the power of personal encounter, God in Jesus might correct the error that clouds the vision of Muslims (and many others) and prevents them from worshiping God rightly. This is to love my neighbor whole-heartedly, by loving God without theological compromise.

Friday, 7 December 2012

What About Muhammad's Wives?

When the Innocence of Muslims sparked protests across the Muslim world last September, I thought I should as a scholar of Islam at least know what the uproar was about. An Internet search turned up about a dozen minutes of the film. Among the various things the film mocked, I was particularly struck by its portrayal of the disorder of Muhammad's household. The filmmaker's attempt to peer inside the walls of his home and depict the jealousy of Muhammad's various wives wanting intimacy with him left an impression of a man both lustful and unable to keep the peace of his household.

Criticizing Muhammad's marital relations is nothing new (although the ease with which this criticism can spread via the Internet has made doing so more explosive). Long before Salman Rushdie mocked Muhammad's marriages in his Satanic Verses (1988), the Christian theologian John of Damascus (d. 749), who wrote in Palestine during the time of the Umayyads, was especially critical of Muhammad's marriages in his Concerning Heresies. He writes as follows:

"There is the book On Woman, in which he [Muhammad] plainly makes legal provision for taking four wives and, if it be possible, a thousand concubines--as many as one can maintain, besides the four wives. He also made it legal to put away whichever wife one might wish, and, should one so wish, to take to oneself another in the same way. Muhammad had a friend named Zayd. This man had a beautiful wife with whom Muhammad fell in love. Once, when they were sitting together, Muhammad said: 'Oh, by the way, God has commanded me to take your wife.' The other answered: 'You are an apostle. Do as God has told you and take my wife.' ... Then, after he had taken her and committed adultery with her, he made this law: 'Let him who will, put away his wife. And if, after having put her away, he should return to her, let another marry her. For it is not lawful to take her unless she has been married by another..."

Given this kind of criticism, it would seem natural for Muslims to want to mute or even deny the existence of any marital disharmony in Muhammad's family. But a look at the Qur'an and Hadith show that this was not the case. I have been reading Barbara Stowasser's Women in the Qur'an (Oxford, 1994), and in it, she writes how medieval Muslim scholars actually played up the jealousy of Muhammad's wives to emphasize the weakness of ordinary women as "embodiments of female emotionalism, irrationality, greed, and rebelliousness." Thus, the jealousies of these women gave jurists a rationale for circumscribing the roles of women, putting them behind the hijab (or veil), and restricting their role outside the home. While tradition also praised these women as the "mothers of the believers," this critical attitude taken within Islamic tradition towards Muhammad's wives demonstrates that not even Muslims believed all was well in Muhammad's household.

This, however, in Islamic tradition does not reflect badly on Muhammad himself. On the contrary, it actually served to fuel admiration among the jurists, for tradition claimed that Muhammad was equitable in his dealings with his wives, visiting each one every day and giving her a fixed period of companionship and sexual contact. The fact that a wife might try to trick Muhammad or detain him from giving his attention to another serves in Islamic tradition to emphasize how remarkable Muhammad was in governing both his household and the new Muslim community he was forging in Medina. One might say, then, that while Christian polemical writers have criticized Muhammad's marriages as a means of attacking the moral probity of Muhammad himself, Islamic tradition has focused on the less-than-stellar example of his wives as a means of praising Muhammad (as well as putting women in their "proper place").

There is really far too much to say on this topic than I can possibly capture in this blog. But what I wish to highlight is that while Muhammad's marriages may act today as a lightning rod drawing criticism from non-Muslims (and thereby encouraging many modern Muslims to try to defend them), the literature itself when one reads it shows that even Muslims acknowledged that Muhammad's marriages were full of intrigue and petty jealousies. One's perspective, though, influences how one judges these marriages. Polygamy may be forbidden in those nations influenced by Christianity, but Islam makes no apology for polygamy. Before one takes to condemning Muhammad for the state of his marriages (as Innocence of Muslims does), one needs to grapple with the morality (or immorality) of polygamy itself. That the Qur'an approves it while the New Testament does not explains, perhaps, the crux of the conflict.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

A Muslim DaVinci Code?

Next year will mark the tenth anniversary of Dan Brown's provocative The DaVinci Code. I'm afraid I'm one of those oddities that never did see the movie and who only read short sections of the novel. But the book did provoke me at least to read about and think more deeply about the ancient church councils, and that of Nicaea in particular, over which the Roman emperor Constantine presided in 325 A.D.

The DaVinci Code, of course, drew both fans and fire for its insinuation that the Council of Nicaea invented the doctrine of Jesus's divinity, and that Constantine destroyed the Gnostic Gospels, which claimed that Jesus was merely a human prophet. But despite all the plethora of articles that multiplied in the wake of the novel and then later the film, a question kept flitting across my mind that never found an answer. Didn't Muslims also believe that Jesus was merely a human prophet? What must Muslim scholars think of this argument popularized by The DaVinci Code but also explored via the Gnostic Gospels by academics like Elaine Pagels?

As I've continued to read through the essays of Sidney Griffith about early Arab Christian responses to Islam, I recently came across an unexpected article on the Council of Nicaea. In his article, "Muslims and Church Councils; the Apology of Theodore Abu Qurrah," Studia Patristica 25 (Louvain, 1993), Griffith writes that the ninth-century Christian theologian Abu Qurrah (d. 825) took it upon himself to defend the authority of the first six ecumenical councils of the Church (of which Nicaea was the first). Since Abu Qurrah was writing in Palestine under the rule of the Muslim 'Abbasid empire, his critics included Muslims as well as Christians of other denominations that did not see eye-to-eye on how Jesus was both human and divine.

That was enough to grab my attention. But then Griffith proceeded to use this essay of Abu Qurrah's to introduce a provocative text, that of a later Mu'tazilite thinker 'Abd al-Jabbar al-Hamdhani (d. 1025). In his Mughni, 'Abd al-Jabbar argued that the church councils were responsible for distorting Jesus’s teachings, that the council of Acts 15 abandoned the sunnah (way) of the Torah, and that the Council of Nicaea was the first council to (erroneously) teach the divinity of Christ.

It's worth quoting Griffith in full as he goes on to juxtapose what Abu Qurrah says about the church councils with the criticisms of  'Abd al-Jabbar:

"Here one obtains a fair statement of the Islamic charge that the church councils were responsible for the distortion of what Jesus preached. One should notice the elements in the account that also appear in Abu Qurrah’s defense of the council as an ecclesiastical institution by which the Holy Spirit speaks to the church. 'Abd al-Jabbar designates the council of the apostles in Jerusalem as a first step in the perversion of Jesus’s religion; Abu Qurrah presents this council as an institution prefigured in the assembly of the elders of Israel (Deut. 1:9-18), and he argues that the council of Jerusalem was in turn the scriptural model for resolving doctrinal difficulties in the post-apostolic church. 'Abd al-Jabbar saw the council of Nicea as a decisive step in the propagation of what he and all Muslims saw as the fundamental Christian error, namely the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus; Abu Qurrah saw this conciliar teaching as the basic statement of the manifest meaning of the Bible’s words about Jesus, that would be vigorously defended in the subsequent councils. 'Abd al-Jabbar scored the role of the Byzantine emperor in church councils; Abu Qurrah was at pains to claim … that the councils were convened at the behest of the bishop of Rome, aided but not controlled by the Christian emperor (283)."

Here one find a concise description of how Muslims have criticized the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ through the Council of Nicaea, as well as the defense that Christians gave. What is particularly notable is that the Council of Jerusalem, being part of Christian Scripture itself, becomes the lighting rod both for Muslim attack and Christian defense. Are councils beginning with the one in Acts 15 occasions for human perversion, or are they the work of the Holy Spirit? How God works through his people collected together is an extremely important phenomenon to understand if we are to rightly perceive his will in any matter.

I have yet to speak with my Muslim friends about the church councils. Would anyone like to join the conversation?

Saturday, 10 March 2012

What Pilgrims Overlook

Many years ago now, I spent six weeks in the Old City of Jerusalem studying at what was then the Institute of Holy Land Studies through my college's biblical studies summer program. We spent hours and hours visiting and meditating at the major holy sites: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa, the Garden Tomb, the (new) Mount Zion (where Jesus was imprisoned by Caiaphas) and, of course, the Wailing Wall, and the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif. We were even allowed into the Dome of the Rock, something non-Muslims are no longer allowed into; when I tried to enter again this past summer, I was turned away.

As significant as all of these places were to me, what I remember most from that trip was the exhortation of my college professor leading the study tour to remember the "living stones" of Israel/Palestine, the Christian believers still living in and worshiping God in that land. Too many American, Canadian, and European Christians spend a lot of money to go see the biblical sites, he said, yet never encounter the church that is still there, after 2,000 years. Don't leave the land without at least visiting one church still functioning there, he appealed to us. (Since then, I've done just that, attending a Palestinian Arab church in Nazareth as well as spending time at a Christian orphanage in Ramallah.)

As I've been reading through Sidney Griffith's works on Arab Christianity in the early Islamic era, I'm discovering that this "pilgrimage problem" isn't new. In fact, European pilgrims to the Holy Land were ignoring their Eastern brothers a millennium before Protestant Christians discovered the pilgrimage for themselves. Theophanes the Confessor (d. c. 818) gives the impression in his Greek account that the monasteries of Mar Saba and Chariton in Palestine were devastated in 812 and 813 by Muslims and never recovered. What actually happened, however, was that Christendom in Constantinople and Rome simply lost contact with the monasteries and their scholarship in Arabic.

Griffith gives several examples of pilgrims like Epiphanius of Constantinople who passed by the Palestinian Christian monasteries of Mar Saba and Mar Chariton but said nothing about their thriving monastic communities. Instead, pilgrims typically referred to Arabs as brigands, kidnappers, and murderers. Even the Crusader Jacques de Vitry, who lived in Acre (near modern-day Haifa), wrote that Christians used Arabic only on the streets; he was completely unaware of the scholarship of the monasteries writing in Arabic at the time.

There are some hopeful signs that this is beginning to change. Bethlehem Bible College (BBC), where I stayed for a couple of nights last June, advertised to its guests trips to Mar Saba, and books like that of William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain (Flamingo, 1997) have helped to share the story of Christians in the Middle East with a wider audience. But even BBC is off the beaten tourist track, now behind the Israeli wall that's within a stone's throw from the college. It takes a very determined tourist/pilgrim indeed to get as far out as Mar Saba. What, I wonder, will it take to convince Western Christians that their eastern brothers and sisters are worth getting to know, especially if they're paying $2,000 or more for the privilege of visiting the Holy Land?

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Are Pictures Worth Fighting Over?

Some years ago, I remember proudly showing a course pack I had put together on the history of Muslim-Christian interaction to a Muslim friend of mine. The booklet displayed on each page pictures I had culled from the Internet, from friends, and from my own collection of photos. Not being especially religious, my friend nevertheless surprised me with his reaction. "You're not seriously thinking about presenting this to any Muslim students, are you?" he asked.

His concern was primarily with the image on the cover, an Islamic depiction of Muhammad on a camel and Jesus on a donkey. I knew, of course, that caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish press had set off a firestorm of protest in 2006, but as this picture did not portray him in an unflattering way, I wasn't particularly concerned. My friend made me wonder if I wasn't being cautious enough.

Currently, I'm reading a collection of essays by Sidney Griffith, a scholar at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., about Christian writings in the early 'Abbasid period (roughly the years 750-900). The essays cover a variety of topics, and a few of them take up the controversy that images have caused in Muslim-Christian relations. Christian Melkite monks (those Christians who subscribed to the Council of Chalcedon in 451) found themselves having to defend their veneration of icons from Muslim claims that they were committing idolatry. Griffith quotes one particularly trenchant criticism from a Muslim writing in the ninth century:

"You extol the cross and the image. You kiss them, and you prostrate yourselves to them, even though they are what people have made with their own hands. They [the icons] neither hear, nor see, nor do harm, nor bring any advantage. The most estimable of them among you are made of gold and silver. Such is what Abraham's people did with their images and idols."

That last sentence refers to passages in the Qur'an (such as 21: 51-73) that tell the story of Abraham rejecting the idolatry of his father and breaking his idols to worship the one God. It's not a story you will find in Genesis, which says little more than that God called Abraham out of his country to go to the land where he would bless Abraham's descendants (12:1-3).

Christians in Muslim lands by and large defended their practice of venerating icons. Veneration, argued the theologian Theodore Abu Qurrah (d. 820), was not idolatry, but adoration of God. Both the Bible and the Qur'an at times referred to God with bodily metaphors, and as images were the illiterate man's words, what was wrong with icons using images of the body to bring praise to God?

Muslims, of course, have not been the only people to criticize icons. The Byzantine empire itself went through a period of 'iconoclasm' when the emperors banned the churches from displaying icons. And in the West, Protestants have demonstrated their own iconoclasm; think, for example, of the Scottish Reformers who stripped the Kirk (church) in Edinburgh of its stained glass windows. Even today, many Presbyterian churches have a spartan look about them. Indeed, I suspect many of us Protestants have a lingering suspicion of images and not much sympathy for the Eastern icon.

Yet I wonder, though, what we lose when we reject the opportunities that come with worshiping through image. Though I want to be sensitive to my Muslim friends, I am not so ready as many Protestants to reject what the icon represents. The Eastern church may have something to teach us yet. And perhaps this is a discussion worth having with our Muslim friends as well.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

A New Project

With this post, I'm initiating a new phase to this blog. I am this month beginning doctoral research through the University of Exeter on the monastery of Mar Saba (located near Bethlehem) and its relationship with its Abbasid and Fatimid overlords from roughly the years 800-1100 CE.

Last June, I traveled to Mar Saba and had the privilege of meeting some of the ancient monastery's monks as well as praying in what is allegedly the cave of the great 8th c. theologian John of Damascus. Mar Saba is one of the most important centers of Christian learning in the Middle East; some scholars think the Bible was first translated into Arabic there. For the next several years, Mar Saba will be the focus of my research, and I am hopeful this blog can act as a forum for exhibiting some of what I am finding.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Taking a 'Break'

As my master's program at Oxford University draws to a close this June, so also is the program intensifying. Oxford University has the rather quaint but very stressful tradition of slotting all of their exams for a student's degree into a two-to-three week time frame. EVERY grade (or mark as the British say) I make and that's reported on my transcript I'll earn during that examination period!

So I have decided to take a rather extended break (i.e. several months) from this blog as I focus on 'revising' (or studying) for my exams, as well as writing my master's thesis. If I feel particularly inspired, I'll post an update. But, first things first.

(Note: April 17, 2011: This has turned into a 'very' long break as language studies in Amman, Jordan, have taken priority. However I intend to revive this blog upon re-entering a graduate program, God willing.)