Reflections on Luther’s Epistle of Straw

ONE MAY wonder why I would choose to write reflections on The Letter from James.1 The answer primarily boils down to a personal reason. From the time I was about fifteen, I slipped almost continually between atheism, agnosticism, deism and doubt. During my second stay on the Isle of Iona2, overwhelmed by emotion and the beauty of the music in the abbey, I rejected God. I pretended to myself that God was not real and, from that point, I began questioning life, our existence, meaning, and myself. I hated attending church after that, for I felt like a hypocrite, uttering words I didn’t believe in and singing hymns I wished to avoid. But in my second year of university, I began to seek answers and I began to make an effort to discover what religious people call the truth. So, impressed by the preaching of John Stott at All Souls in central London, I began attending that church every Sunday just to listen to the sermons. Meanwhile, at the same time, I took to reading the Bible.

Unfortunately, doubters don’t read with an open heart, but critically instead. Were you to open my Revised English Bible, which I had with me at the time, you would find its margins filled with pencil marks and its text highlighted in radiant yellow. But were you to turn to A Letter of James, you would be surprised, for you would find my hostility ebbing away. Indeed, pencilled under the final paragraph, you would find my conclusion; words which I had written in a moment now gone: ‘The Most Beautiful Book in the Bible.’ Those were my thoughts at that time. I found its words speaking to me, as one often finds words do, whether they be song lyrics or classical literature. How could I, in my state of mind, escape words which described the way I was: ‘like a wave of the sea tossed hither and thither by the wind’, believing one day and doubting another?

This letter is one which has had a great impact upon me and one which I have returned to many times. My pencil marks on the page describe it as ‘pure and beautiful teaching’, because that is the feeling it created in me, and still does, when I read it. I try to put words to the feeling, but I find it very difficult. I can describe its opposition; like wading through treacle; but I can’t find the words to describe this. Perhaps almost sterile, like cold water, though none of these really describe it. Perhaps ‘pure and beautiful teaching’ will do, as in the first words that must have come to my mind.

Writing now, I am not an atheist or a doubter, but a Muslim; not a very good Muslim, but a Muslim none the less. In the past I have been criticised for drawing attention to The Letter from James, as a Muslim and I suppose I have some sympathy with those who complain, ‘How can you speak of that, when you reject the rest?’ But, as I have explained here, I can only say that it touched my heart.

It is my hope, therefore, that the reader is not offended when I approach this letter from a Muslim perspective, or rather my perspective as a Muslim. In reality, my reason for writing this commentary does not end with emotions. Rather, over the short time that I have been a Muslim, I believe that I have come to understand and appreciate the epistle better. One may read the letter through and through, but only on hearing those teachings uttered week on week in sermons, and then striving to act upon them, do I feel that the message really comes alive.

It is my intention, therefore, to present this commentary from that perspective. I do not claim to be objective: although I am a very poor example, I am a practising Muslim, and thus I write with this in mind. Nor do I claim to have studied the subject in great depth: these, instead, are my views and this commentary is my own approach. Should the reader wish to approach The Letter from James as a topic of study, I would suggest that he or she took up a scholarly commentary such as that of R. V. G. Tasker.3 However, what I present here is surely an adequate introduction to the shared heritage of Christianity and Islam.

Indeed, I hope within these pages to present a side of Islam which has remained hidden from the average non-Muslim. It will perhaps shed light on the reason for the supposed absence of piety amongst Muslims. Can piety, I may ask for example, be boastful? The lessons of The Letter from James, I believe, are a fine place to start in this connection. Thus, this is the final reason for presenting this commentary.

To end, I should point out that this commentary is written by one who is in constant need for such reminders as those held in the Letter and in this exposition. In writing it down, it is hoped that God, to whom all praise is due, might accept these words and in His mercy benefit the writer and the reader alike, if that is His will.

Notes:

1 The King James Version has been used for copyright reasons only.

2 Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, is often referred to as ‘Holy Isle’. It has become a place of pilgrimage for many western Christians.

3 R. V. G. Tasker (1957) The General Epistle of James: An Introduction and Commentary (London: The Tyndale Press) [see also Schoeps].

Introduction

This is not a commentary in the sense of Biblical exegesis. In fact, it is not really a commentary on the Letter of James itself, but rather one which takes the epistle as a base from which to comment upon a much unknown tradition. It is a work of reflections, with the teachings of Islam reflected in the teachings of the Letter, a base from which I hope the reader will come to understand the former better. In part, I wonder how successfully this aim will be met, for in my own experience the Letter of James is the forgotten, or ignored, epistle of Christianity. I do not think that I have ever heard a reading from it within the walls of a church, or its teachings referred to. That, in my opinion, is a great shame, for it contains so much wisdom. Tasker gives a good historical overview of this subject, noting both its place in various ancient codexes and the opinions of it held by figures such as Luther and Tyndale. For the purpose of this commentary, however, I am optimistic, for I do not believe that my experience can really be a reflection of its place in Christianity. I am almost certain that any reader will appreciate what it says.

Yet, I should point out that it is not a coincidence that I have chosen the Letter of James as this base. While personally I feel an attachment to this letter, there is a more academic reason for its choice. One will consider James’ address to ‘the twelve tribes dispersed throughout the world,’ as an appellation which refers to the Israelites, such that we gain the impression that its origin is in Judaic-Christianity. This, as a connection, is one which will be recognised in scholarly circles, for, as Hans Küng et al point out, ‘the traditional and historical parallels between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam are inescapable.’ In Theology and History of Jewish Christianity, Hans-Joachim Schoeps writes:

‘Though it may not be possible to establish exact proof of the connection, the indirect dependence of Mohammed on sectarian Jewish Christianity is beyond any reasonable doubt. This leaves us with a paradox of truly world-historical dimensions: the fact that while Jewish Christianity in the Church came to grief, it was preserved in Islam and, with regard to some of its driving impulses at least, it has lasted till our own time.’

If we put the teachings of the letter and the teachings of Islam side by side, as I attempt to do so here, I do not think that one can fail to be struck by the similarities. By presenting them in this way, I am hoping to convey something of Islam which many people will be unaware of. Frequently the answer to alien phenomenon is to highlight difference. I believe, however, that it is useful to highlight the common ground. Thus, the reason for this commentary.

As an individual who has benefited from Islam on a personal level, I often think how I am to convey this almost unknown way of life to others. In the past I have often felt it necessary to confront the misunderstandings about and misrepresentations of Islam. Indeed, consideration of the religion is usually reduced to a number of clichés; that Islam oppresses women or that Muslims are violent, amongst others. Recently, however, I began to think differently as a result of being given the responsibility of delivering sermons before the student Muslim community. Unqualified to talk about the big issues which face Muslims, I took to speaking about matters of the heart, which I knew well due to my own failings. In the process of writing such a sermon I came to see what I had gained from Islam and what I had missed out on during my time of aimless wandering. Asking why nobody had told me of the things I know now, I came to realise that there was a hint in there for me. Hence, we arrive at a place where I finally get to a point of offering some of those things.

The sources are three: sermons I have listened to, books I have read and my own experience. There are a couple of books which I would especially like to recommend to anyone who is interested in further contemplation on the ideas in this study. The first is a very beautiful book by a woman named Umm Muhammad, called Realities of Faith. Aimed at believers, in six short chapters it presents studies regarding the heart and soul. These are: the awakening within oneself, taking account of the self, repentance, patience, the feeling of alienation, supplication, and death. Another very useful book is entitled, The Purification of the Soul, and is a compilation from the works of three great Muslim scholars. This book is made up of twenty-one chapters which deal with: sincerity, the nature of intention, the poisons of the heart, the states of the self, gratitude, and repentance, amongst others.

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