In British politics today, there is so much talk of identity, of what it means to belong, of shared values. Sometimes it is assumed that we must all trace our values back to Hellenic roots, as if this were the foundation of civilisation. Yet my heart has always felt comfort in the Semitic pathway. As a child, the Parables spoke to me, but Paul’s Epistles did not. As an agnostic it was the Letter of James. And now: well you know the journey I am walking, the road I am taking.
My burgundy-bound Bible from those days before faith is filled with scribbles in pencil, with scruffy underlining and highlighter ink: the etchings of a searching soul. But one book stands out. On the title page of the Letter of James there is a handwritten note which reads, ‘The most beautiful book in the Bible.’ I was yet to learn of Islam—yet to tread this path—but looking back now it seems clear to me that the author was a Muslim. A Muslim of the era before Muhammad, peace be upon him.
I’m not alone in reaching this conclusion though. James’ address of the twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land nods to the Judaic-Christian world, whose resemblance to another tradition has been widely noted over the years. Hans Küng et al point out in their work on the World Religions, ‘the traditional and historical parallels between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam are inescapable.’ Meanwhile, while I would naturally dispute the case of dependence given my belief in revelation, Hans-Joachim Schoeps writes in Theology and History of Jewish Christianity:
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.’
When I put the teachings of the Letter of James and the teachings of Islam side by side, the similarities are striking. About six years ago I began work on a small text that would do just that, for I felt that the parallel presentation conveyed meanings that have sadly escaped many. Much is made of difference when we encounter the Other, but there is a great deal to be gained from highlighting the common ground.
The reality of the focus on identity, on what it means to belong, on shared values, is that what defines our present is a hugely diverse past. While the phrase ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage’ has emerged over recent years, that old focus on Hellenic and Grecian ancestry remains dominant. I have seen it in the current debates on multi-culturalism. That is wrong: Semitic pathways have had a huge influence on our culture. What is more, where would Britain be had the no one translated those ancient works held up so high?
So talk of identity, of what it means to belong and of shared values, but don’t give me a hard time when I say I am proud of who I am: a devotee to the Semitic way.