Over the years, I have encountered a small number of Muslims who used to be priests, preachers or other members of the church. There was the former Roman Catholic priest who headed off to work in Egypt; the former nun who now dedicates herself to looking after her disabled son; the bishop of the Catholic Apostolic Church; the former Methodist minister who rediscovered Jesus the Son of Man in Islam; and the teacher of religious education who adopted the faith just before he completed his training to be an Anglican priest and without ever meeting a Muslim. On every occasion, I am reminded of what the two traditions hold in common, rather than what separates them.
This recognition emerges as soon as these converts open their mouths to speak. If I close my eyes, I can picture them wearing a clerical collar, not because I know what they used to do, but due to their manner of speech. I popped into a mosque one Saturday afternoon to do my midday prayer after a day out in London and decided to wander downstairs to catch the last half of a talk in the meeting room. As soon as I sat down I was sent back in time and found myself listening to a friendly, charismatic vicar—except that the theology and terminology was Islamic. I realised that the gulf between the two traditions is not as great as we sometimes think it is.
I once knew a fellow who explained that the reason he was not taking his shoes off to pray on the dusty carpet in the basement of his bookshop was that we should differentiate ourselves from the Jews and the Christians. I had heard other justifications for shoes-on-carpet before, but I thought he was confused. I pointed out that, in this country certainly, Christians do not tend to take their shoes off when they go to church; at home too, often they do not remove them at the door. Far from differentiating himself from the Jews and Christians, he was differentiating himself from others quite like him.
Pondering the legacy of my Christian upbringing, those sometimes argumentative discussions seem quite strange now. The initial response of one who adopts a new faith—even the latent Catholic who finds himself a sudden evangelist—is often to reject all that passed before. Yet when I think about the trend of rejection more deeply, it seems obvious that I should question how much of it is just skin deep.
Much of who I am, how I act and what I think are a legacy of my Christian education. This upbringing taught me good manners and modesty, both of which are perfectly admirable Islamic characteristics. Concerns about global justice and social responsibility spring from this root as well. As a Muslim who believes that fairness and social work is part of my religion, I buy Fair-trade products, but I still acknowledge the root of this concern. I buy my meat from a smallholder in Somerset and sometimes my milk direct from the producing farm. All of this is a legacy of my upbringing.
Yet my background has done more than affect how I act: it can be seen in my thinking. As a Christian I was raised on the parables and reported stories of Jesus’ a life in the four gospels. The commentary provided by Paul’s epistles seemed less important in childhood than for the adult faithful. Jesus’ a exhortations to the Pharisees to observe the spirit of the Law is no doubt reflected throughout everything I write. Although Luke tells us of a dream in which all foods were shown to be lawful in his Acts of the Apostles, the gospel accounts appear to call for an appreciation of the purpose of the Law, not its rejection. Unconsciously I see this affecting the way I live, although this is not to deny the impact of other aspects of one’s background on thought and belief. The society in which we are brought up, the education system and the impact of the media all affect our outlook. Some aspects that I am acutely aware of include cynicism, scepticism and suspicion. There is a degree to which these mores can be healthy, but they can also affect one negatively. In my case, I cannot watch recorded debates between Muslims and Christians, for example, because I find myself disputing the claims of both parties.
Our cultural background also affects how we look at the world around us. Societal norms, for example, make us look differently at our environment to how our predecessors did. I am very much aware that the way I think and act is far removed from the ways of those who passed before us. I have been conditioned by my environment to the extent that things once viewed as extremes are now the norm and things once seen as normal are now considered wild aberrations.
The overwhelming feeling, however, is not to consider Islam a negation of my upbringing, but rather a continuation of it. Indeed, retaining that which is good, I often consider it to be a perfection of my culture. There is no doubt that it is useful to acknowledge the legacy of our upbringing and to be truthful about this too, recognising that much in the trend of rejection that we encounter between individuals and nations is often very superficial.
At the heart of our faith, whether we are Christian or Muslim, stands God, the Creator of all things. Unfortunately there exists a tendency in Britain to conflate ethnicity and religious identity, which leads to confusion as to what it is that the followers of Islam worship; some confuse us with Hindus, since the majority of Muslims in this country hail from South Asia. When clarifying what he meant by his use of the term ‘Islams’ one individual found that the description of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh best marked out the group of people he had in mind. When talking about the beliefs of Muslims, it is quite common to hear people refer to Allah U as if He were some handmade deity quite separate from what we conventionally refer to as God. For the Muslim who has in mind the One who created all things, this level of ignorance is quite perturbing. Allah is simply a proper noun in the Arabic language used to describe what English speakers refer to as God:
Allah! There is no god but He—the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of all existence. Neither drowsiness overtakes Him, nor sleep. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is presently before them and what will be after them, and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills. His throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and their preservation tires Him not. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.[footnote]Qur’an 2:255. This verse, known as Ayat al-Kursi, was described by the Prophet Muhammad as the greatest in the Qur’an.[/footnote]
We would not say that because French speakers use the word Dieu, or Spanish speakers Dios, that they worshipped a different god; the same is true of the Hebrew names YHWH and Elohim. The word Allah is used by Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians as well as Muslims and appears in Arabic translations of the Bible. Indeed, a Turkish copy of the gospels on my bookshelf uses the word Allah consistently throughout.
It is not language that separates us, but theology. While we may agree that our Creator is the central object of our devotion and worship, our descriptions of God inevitably lead us to reject the other’s. One cannot believe that God is both a perichoresis of three persons and completely separate from His creation at the same time; the two approaches are incompatible, which naturally leads us to the conclusion that we worship different gods even if we agree that the focus of our devotion is our Creator. Orthodox Christianity and Islam are both defined by their clear and uncompromising descriptions of God, each presenting an obstacle to the other. The Trinity and tawhid appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. If this is a problem, it need not be.The request for understanding is not a demand for the other to believe as we do: merely a simple plea for honesty.
There were more than five years of agnosticism before I reaffirmed my belief in God with the faith of a believer. Looking back it seems ironic that the first thing I did after rejecting belief on my return from Iona was to start pondering what the universe was all about, for today it is its beauty and its expanse through space and time that strengthens my faith in God. A common refrain of the Muslim is Allahu Akbar—God is great—the meaning of which seems to be perfectly clear once we understand what He has done.
According to contemporary scientists, the universe probably came into being around 13.7 billion years ago. High energy physics has been used to describe the evolution of the universe in the period that followed, explaining how the first protons, electrons and neutrons formed. Scientists talk of the formation of the first nuclei, then the formation of atoms and of neutral hydrogen. A third period describes the formation of structure: matter coming together to form stars, quasars, galaxies, galaxy clusters and super clusters.
Some of the most beautiful images that I hold dear are those showing deep space as observed via the Hubble Space Telescope. Those images always warm my soul, reminding me of the grandeur of our Creator, putting everything into perspective. One of the most exciting developments of recent times was the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, which was derived from data accumulated over a few months in 2003 and 2004. Although this has been described as covering a small region of space, it is estimated to contain 10,000 galaxies. As the deepest image of the universe ever taken using the visible spectrum, it takes us back in time more than 13 billion years, showing us how the universe looked in the early Stelliferous age.
While the images of deep space in themselves are always heart-warming, their significance is also profoundly felt when one considers the words of the Qur’an about God’s creation. One verse fails to provide us with a woolly, open description that the post-enlightenment age has taught us to expect from scripture. Far from it: Hubble’s image of the Eagle Nebula M16 could be used to illustrate this verse, which the non-Muslim, Arthur J Arberry, translated as follows in 1964:
Then He lifted Himself to heaven when it was smoke, and said to it and to the earth, ‘Come willingly, or unwillingly!’ They said, ‘We come willingly.’[footnote]AJ Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (Oxford University Press, 1964), p.491, with reference to Qur’an 41:11.[/footnote]
This need not come as a surprise for the Muslim who believes that the Qur’an is the Word of God. Of course the Creator can describe His creation in truthful terms. From His throne, He is witness to all things. For the disbeliever who considers the Qur’an to be the 1,400-year-old work of man, however, it is something to marvel: it would even be so had it originated in 1964, twenty-nine years before Hubble was operational. Surely God is magnificent.
For me, the sight of deep space or simply the stars above me on a dark night is a reminder of what we really mean when we say God is great. Indeed in these days of conflict it is necessary to remind ourselves of these things; if we set our short lives beside the 14 billion years of God’s creation that we are aware of, it helps put everything into perspective, reminding us of our place. It reminds us why we are here and our part in the great scheme of things. That same Arabist translated another verse:
Have not the unbelievers then beheld that the heavens and the earth were a mass all sewn up, then We unstitched them and of water fashioned every living thing? Will they not believe?[footnote]Ibid, p.325, with reference to Qur’an 21:30.[/footnote]
Yes, I believe: God is truly magnificent. In reality, of course, we need not rely on high technology to witness the signs of creation. The signs of God surround us. Whether in the rolling forested hills of Dorking or in the sheets of coal mined from deep underground, His creation is awe-inspiring. The evolutionary process discerned in the creation of a coal field pales into insignificance when we begin to consider our own existence. We have travelled far from the formation of the first amino acids that scientists believe were polymerised billions of years ago to where we are today, with complex systems that provide us with sight, smell, taste and touch.[footnote]Consider the complexity of amino acids alone.[/footnote] ‘Or were they created from nothing,’ asks the Qur’an, ‘Or did they create themselves? Or were they the creators of the heavens and the earth? Nay! They have no certain knowledge.’[footnote]Qur’an 52:35.[/footnote]
The signs are self-evident in our creation, but they also reveal themselves throughout the passage of our lives. Some years back we were told that we could never have children of our own, the news broken by a locum doctor while our GP was on her summer holidays. Dealing with the sudden emotional burden, we cancelled our own travels that August and shed plenty of tears between us. Sometimes we would sit and read scriptures, making the supplications of Zachariah a who cried to his Lord for a child until He answered that prayer. As time went by, however, I began to come to terms with this news and accept it as the absolute truth; while my wife prayed for a child daily, my prayer became occasional, for the doctors had convinced me of its futility despite my knowledge that He who created me only needs to say ‘Be’ for new life to emerge. Every time my old friends from university announced that they were now parents, my mind told me to be happy, but instead I felt sad. With every visit from my niece I had to hold back tears.
It was pain like mourning; like losing someone. It was a loss, but others did not seem to understand, driving life on as normal. It was the pain of knowing that you have reached the end of the line, that you will be an ancestor for no one, that you will never have grandchildren who will ask you about your youth. Even if my family worried that I would raise my children in accordance with my faith, not theirs, it was a dream of mine that they could trace their Muslim ancestry, that the English Muslim would not forever be viewed as the queer aberration that comes and goes with every conversion and death. Instead there was this pain.
Not long before we received this news I had a dream one night which troubled me. My wife often has what I would call spiritual dreams, but mine are mostly nondescript meanderings of the mind. Yet this particular dream stood out and bothered me. A huge flood was overcoming me, its waves menacing and fierce, my resting place submerged. Somehow it prepared me for some devastating news and a difficult test. Without a doubt, those first few years were hard, but I came to terms with it all the same.
From where does one find the strength when he learns that perhaps things are not as clear cut as he was told? In England we were advised that the only way to have our own children was through donor insemination—a course of action we would never take—but in Turkey where that is not practised at all, research has advanced apace to help people in our situation have children of their own. Over there a good number of men with exactly my condition are now fathers, some to twins and triplets. Thus the strain returned as we embarked on a new course of treatment; there was now a possibility that we could have a child, but also the possibility that we would again be disappointed. The treatment running beyond our agreed leave, the strain grew again, the two of us fearing what would happen to our jobs. The financial and emotional burden grew and we wondered from where our strength would come.
There had been so many times that I had read the phrase, ‘There is no strength except with Allah,’ but sometimes we have to put advice into practice before we see the truth of something. To rely solely on your Creator is one of the most beautiful aspects of faith. Sleepless for four nights, wandering silently through the streets of Istanbul, anxious about all of this, I did not know from where I would find my strength. Like so many times before, I lamented that I was not strong enough for this, but instead, finding myself in beautiful mosques, I prayed. Suddenly the situation altered, relief had come. Our employers were sympathetic, our financial situation okay, the high emotions lessened. It was true: there is no strength except with God, the Creator of us all. His signs reveal themselves throughout the passage of our lives, but too often we do not see them.
Everything that we do depends on God. Although the various Christian denominations disagree about the nature of divine decree—and it is largely Roman Catholics who use the phrase, ‘God willing’—all true believers recognise their dependence on the One who created them. The Muslim who litters his spoken plans with the phrase, Insha’Allah—if God wills—is not alone:
Now a word with all who say,‘Today or the next day we will go off to such and such a town and spend a year there trading and making money.’ Yet you have no idea what tomorrow will bring.What is your life after all?You are no more than a mist, seen for a little while and then disappearing.What you ought to say is:‘If it be the Lord’s will, we shall live to do so and so.’[footnote]The Letter of James 4:13-17.[/footnote]
This passage from the Letter of James reminds us that we are not self-sufficient; whether we live or die is purely the will of God. The words ‘God willing’ are not code for a lazy ‘whatever’, but signify our reliance and trust in Him. Whilst some might place their life in God’s care only for a moment when faced with disaster, we recognise that it is infinitely better for us if we ask for His help in all of our affairs. ‘Call upon Me,’ says God, ‘I will answer you.’
Muslim and Christian theology does not always sit side by side so comfortably, however. Christian authors often allege that the Qur’an misunderstands the Trinity: Christians do not worship three gods as Muslims claim, they argue, but one God made up of three co-equal parts. Meanwhile the Muslim counters that this argument is itself based on a misunderstanding of Islam’s teaching on the unity of God. Islam teaches that the only thing that is worthy of worship is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Anything that is worshipped beside God is described as ‘a god’. It does not make any difference whether it is an idol, a tree, a river or a person; if an individual takes it as an object of worship, it is then for that person a god. The Christian retort, of course, is that Jesus is God. They recognise that God is One and that to worship other than God is unacceptable: ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’[footnote]Deuteronomy 5:7.[/footnote] This, the Christian argues, is what the Muslim fails to understand; Jesus is not a separate god, but God Himself.
Yet this remains a misunderstanding of the Islamic perspective. There are three world religions that acknowledge the life of Jesus: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. While Judaism implicitly denies that he was the Messiah, Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a messenger of God, believe in his miracles and consider his mother the best woman of all creation. Islam does emphasise, however, that Jesus was not God, insisting instead that he was a prophet sent to the House of Israel. Thus it does not make any difference if a person brings philosophical arguments to say that he was God; the Qur’an’s position stays the same. In teaching that Jesus is other than God, the fact that Christians worship him means that he is a god worshipped alongside the Creator. Let us suppose that the leader of the opposition, despairing at the party’s election prospects, suddenly started claiming that he is God. Naturally we would all agree that he is not and so, even if he told us that he was one in essence with Him, we still would not accept it. The mere presence of an argument does not prove anything.
Still, theologians will no doubt continue to argue this point for years to come, for in the case of both traditions it is the crux of faith. The belief in the Trinity as expressed in the Nicene Creed was not arrived at overnight, but came about after a great deal of debate and disagreement. Everyone has heard of Arius who believed that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were entirely different, sharing neither nature nor essence, but there were hundreds of others who held different viewpoints. Having gone to such lengths to establish what constitutes orthodoxy in the Christian tradition, a meeting of minds between Christian and Muslim obviously remains unlikely. Even so, both traditions agree that our Lord is forgiving and merciful.
Were we unable to sin, I often wonder, would we appreciate God’s mercy? Of course His mercy surrounds us: our hearts which beat without us giving thought, the rain which falls from the sky giving life to dead earth, the air which expands our breasts. But I wonder: were it not for our ability to sin and err, and return to Him in repentance, would we truly understand the blessings He bestows on us?
Nicky Gumbel—of Alpha Course fame—claimed in his book, Searching Issues, that in Islam sinners will face judgement without forgiveness, but nothing could be further from the truth. Every chapter of the Qur’an but one begins, ‘In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,’ while forgiveness itself is returned to repeatedly throughout its pages. In his chapter entitled What About Other Religions, however, Gumbel wrote:
Secondly, Jesus is unique in his achievement. As Peter asserts, ‘salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men, by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).We all need a saviour because we have all sinned and we cannot save ourselves from the results of sin. None of the other great religions even claims to have a saviour. … Muhammad is regarded as a prophet—not as a saviour. In Islam, sinners will face judgement without forgiveness.
By contrast, Jesus is the one who brings salvation. He saves us from our guilt, he saves us from the addictive power of sin and he saves us from the judgement we all deserve.[footnote]N Gumbel, Searching Issues (Kingsway Publications, 1994), p.30-1.[/footnote]
It is as if the author cannot conceive of stepping beyond the bounds of his own theological framework in considering other faiths. Only in the context of his earlier assertion—that we all need a saviour—is his statement about Islam true, for it is indeed the case that a Muslim believes that no name under heaven has the ability to forgive our sins against God. This does not mean, however, that there can be no forgiveness. What Gumbel’s position suggests is that God alone is unable to accept the repentance of one who turns to Him.
One year I spent Easter weekend staying in a rural rectory in the north of England, my hosts busy with services for the duration of my stay: the station of the cross on Good Friday after the night vigil on Thursday and evening worship on Saturday. At dawn on Sunday my hosts led their congregations in another vigil, following it with the main service later in the morning. It was Easter weekend, marking the key events upon which their entire theology hangs: the crucifixion, the burial and the resurrection.
Christians believe that the crucifixion represents the ultimate example of God’s love, the only means by which we are forgiven for our sins. Thus that weekend was a time of emotion for them, a time for reflection and giving thanks. It was a period of contemplation, and so I found myself reflecting on their theology too. The walls of my hosts’ study were lined with books, mostly on different aspects of Christology. They have pondered their faith deeply for years, and they believe in it with passion, considering it an altogether coherent philosophy. They live and breathe this theology. It is everything to them.
My reflections, however, carried me elsewhere. To my mind, the ultimate example of God’s compassion is not found in a ransom. Instead it is found in that beautiful and humbling moment when we turn to Him alone, regardless of what we have done, repenting sincerely. He does not require a sacrifice or an atoning saviour. He merely asks us to turn to Him in repentance and He will forgive us. As my hosts dwelt on the cross and the empty tomb that weekend, my thoughts were set on the words of the Qur’an, on the supplications we are taught to say when we err and on a famous Hadith Qudsi:
O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.[footnote]Hadith reported in the collections of Tirmidhi and Ahmad.[/footnote]
To me, that indicates an infinitely more generous Lord: my sins could be like mountains, but God promises forgiveness so long as I turn to Him. No cross, no tomb, no crown of thorns: just simple words from a sincere heart.
Contrary to Gumbel’s belief, forgiveness in fact lies at the heart of the Muslim worldview, with frequent references made to repentance throughout the Qur’an, hadith and works of Muslim scholars. His view that ‘sinners will face judgement without forgiveness’ is quite wrong, unless he is speaking of those who do not repent or who reject the message, in which case the position of Christianity is the same. In Islam, the term is ‘turning back’—tawbah—meaning to turn back to God, seeking refuge in His forgiveness, so that He might turn back to the person who has sinned. Indeed, our Prophet taught the following supplication to his followers:
O God, You are my Lord—there is no god but You. You created me, and I am Your servant; and I uphold Your covenant and promise to You as much as I am able. I seek refuge in You from the evil I have done. I acknowledge my sin, so forgive me. Indeed, there is none who can forgive sins except You.
In Islam there is no concept of original sin: although the Qur’an tells the story of Adam and Eve, we read that after Adam a sinned, he returned in repentance and God forgave him: ‘Lo! He is the relenting, the Merciful.’[footnote]Qur’an 7:37. See also 7:20-23.[/footnote] It was not necessary for a redeemer to come to save us from the results of sin thousands of years after the fall of Sumer, for all of us are accountable for only our own deeds and intentions. Islam has a positive view of mankind, recognising that while we have the potential to sink to the depths of depravity, the ability to soar great heights is also within our grasp. The Qur’an states:
Say: Shall I seek another than God for Lord, when He is Lord of all things? Each soul earns only on its own account, nor does any laden bear another’s load. Then unto your Lord is your return and He will tell you that wherein you differed.[footnote]Qur’an 6:164.[/footnote]
It is the Muslim’s belief that we are each personally responsible for the ultimate destination of our soul and that we have the capacity to rise above our basest desires—if we make the effort. It is not for another to save us from guilt or from the addictive power of sin, as the parable of the prodigal son in the Gospel of Luke makes clear. In Islam, reform takes the place of guilt.
During my days without faith, when caught in the grip of sin, I used to say, ‘God curse me, let me burn in hell.’ As an agnostic living in the slipstream of a contemporary reinterpretation of heaven and hell such a remark was so easily said. It was as if to say two things: I cannot help my sinfulness and hell could not be all that bad really. Indeed, many Christians today no longer think of hell in the traditional terms of centuries past. There is ample evidence of this in Christian literature: we find that hell is often described merely as a feeling of alienation from God. As a result, the whole notion of judgement appears somewhat sketchy: ‘I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the Cross,’ said a prominent Anglican evangelist some years back. Only a God who had suffered as mankind suffers, the argument goes, could have any right to judge them.
For Muslims, belief in the Day of Judgement, Paradise and Hell is indisputable. Each of these elements is very real. In the Islamic worldview, the life we are living now is preparation for the great examination of the Day of Judgement. It is only necessary to consider the suffering which many have endured to see that Muslims do not share the unorthodox reservations of some Christians. One of the first individuals to embrace Islam during the lifetime of Muhammad was an Abyssinian slave named Bilal. In order to demonstrate his opposition to
Islam the chief of one of the Meccan clans would take him into the desert each day where he would beat him severely and torture him, repeatedly demanding that he renounce Islam and declare that he believed in the handcrafted idols. Bilal, however, would only repeat that God is One. Later in the early years of Islam, the Meccan tribes placed a boycott on the Muslims, forcing them into starvation. The Muslims, however, continued to affirm that God is One, believing that they would face the Day of Recompense. In fact, Muslims believe that striving through affliction can be a means of expiating sins.
Today I would not dream of uttering those words which once so easily slipped from my tongue. When despairing at my sinful soul, today I can only plead, ‘O my Lord, forgive me, turn me from my sins and save me from the Fire.’ The Day of Judgement is something to truly fear, for every deed we put forth in this life, good or bad, will be recalled.
Protestants—brought up on the apostle Paul’s appeal to Grace and his sustained condemnation of legalism in his letter to the Galatians—are sometimes heard lamenting the Muslim’s insistence on living by the letter of the Law. Grace sets mankind free from all that, they will argue, but surely the state of the world around us bears witness to the fallacy of that view. Some people are indeed blessed with great self-restraint, but some of us might argue that Islam is simply realistic about the strength of individuals and communities.
Yes, some people are just good folk, and yes, some people can become good folk with the promise of reward. But it is true too that some of us must be deterred from deeds which are harmful to us and others. In truth it is few that live by Grace; like donkeys, most of us will only respond to a carrot or a stick, or both depending on our state of mind. I appreciate possessing a faith which is realistic about human nature. I appreciate possessing a faith that does not simply tell me that mankind is born in sin and can do nothing about it except rejoice that a ransom has been paid on my behalf. I appreciate possessing a framework through which I might overcome that which holds me back.
I sometimes feel quite sad that I do not have the pure, beautiful, sound heart of some of my fortunate brothers and sisters in faith. Sometimes we meet people whose whole being exudes kindness. I envy such people a lot, but I also recognise that all is not lost for me. The sunna, the Law, this noble framework for our lives, is a blessing for those of us who need a little more help. In our lives, we sometimes deprive ourselves of certain pleasures, for which we are often derided by those around us, but we do so because we know that, in the long run, it is good for us. At other times, we expend our efforts on tasks which we may find a burden, which we may even dislike, but we persevere nevertheless because we know that it is good for us, our family or our community.
Although Protestants differ on this point, Roman Catholics believe that faith in Jesus must be accompanied by works. Presumably one who believes that faith in Jesus alone leads to salvation does not need to think very much about the Hour.
It is, however, very much in the mind of the practising Muslim. When preparing for a journey we always spend some time thinking about what we should take with us: this is the likeness of the Muslim preparing for the Day of Judgement. He or she is not thinking much about this life, for it is only a temporary realm. ‘Be in this world as a stranger or a traveller,’ the Prophet told one of his companions.[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collection of Bukhari.[/footnote] God granted mankind this life in order that we might prepare for our return to Him.
It was in despair at my propensity to slip that I used to utter some hideous words, but I was not alone. Others philosophise about the hereafter: some demand a suffering judge, some want a hell wherein man experiences only alienation from God. A Christian colleague at work, arguing with a passionate atheist who insisted on deriding the beliefs of religious folk as the legends of peoples past, recently defended her belief in Heaven courageously; but, she said, she was not sure that she believed in Hell. Nowadays, some people afford themselves the luxury of believing whatever they like so long as it is not a ‘salvation issue’. Muslims, however, believe that there is a reality, one which is defined by God. They believe in the Day of Judgement, in Paradise and Hell, and the sincere act with this is mind.
As our lives hurtle along apace, we wonder what will become of us tomorrow and what can be said of our store of good deeds. As Muslims we are taught that when we are gathered back together on that Revered Day we shall protest that we lived our life for but a day. It will be as if time had not dragged on at all. Pondering the swift passage of time, a dear friend proposed that we should understand the saying of our Blessed Prophet that time will decrease as the Hour approaches as meaning that the value of time will decrease. Our days, he noted, have been chopped into the smallest of units and the more an item of value is chopped into smaller articles, its value reduces correspondingly. Thus we are troubled by a minute’s delay, whilst our predecessors were happy to journey for a day, noting that the angels travel down to earth in a day the like of which is 1,000 years. I believe there is truth in his view, but none of it weakens the approach of the Hour. As I look back on the speed with which the past five years have passed me by there is a sense of regret. Time is all we have; as said another friend, time is the most breath-taking of our Lord’s creation. It is both unfathomable and true; He can stop it at will and extend it without limit. Indeed, He promises that our days in this fleeting abode will seem like nought compared to the days of the hereafter.
As another week passes us by it is only natural that we ask what we have done to draw closer to our Lord. Conversely, what has distracted us and led us away? Are we on call to every whim of the breaking news? Are we reactionaries, darting in one direction and then another, led by every plot and plan? Believing that we are doing good, we jeopardise our obligations in our race to respond to every provocation placed before us.
We have no idea what will become of us tomorrow as time hurtles along; taking stock of our store of deeds, we recognise that time is too precious. When we are gathered back together on the Day of Judgement, we will complain that we tarried for just a few hours, but our complaints will have no impact. On that Day, all truth will be known.
Some months ago, a national newspaper carried a story about the tendency that exists amongst the ordinary man to believe in conspiracy theories. From the assassination of political leaders to the premature death of a famous person and from technological achievements to acts of war, the official story always seems to be accompanied by numerous counter explanations. There exists in mankind a yearning for truth and yet we recognise that our appreciation of reality can only ever be partial. When in the afternoon of 11 September, 2001, our production manager at work informed us that somebody had flown a plane into one of the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, my initial foreboding thought was that Muslims were involved. I was not aware of the scale at that stage: in my mind, I had the picture of a single-prop Cessna and the memory of the 1993 plot to explode a bomb underneath the towers. When I returned home that evening and saw the images on the television news, that initial reaction changed. Overtaken by emotion, I was physically sick, the recurring images burning onto my retinas, and I could no longer accept that initial conclusion of mine. This was not the action of a single mad man, incinerating himself as his plane disintegrated as it crashed through the windows; here was a calculated, co-ordinated act of extreme brutality in which two commercial jets had been flown with absolute precision to their destination, massacring a civilian population. As one who had studied the concept of war in Islamic Law, which prohibits any action that would cause harm to non-combatants—even to the extent that Muslim soldiers may not chop the enemy’s fruit trees down—I could not accept that Muslims were responsible.
Thus when an ordinarily sensible friend sent me a link to an article on the internet that disputed the official story, I—like many otherwise intelligent individuals—found myself clinging to alternative theories and the many questions that remained unanswered. It did not help that the media had been reporting dubious tales about the terrorist mastermind’s passport being found in the rubble of the World Trade Centre, not to mention a ‘Smoking Gun’ video that featured a fat Osama Bin Laden— nor that the anthrax spores released over the subsequent days were eventually traced back to government facilities.
For several months I would be found scouring the internet for ‘the truth’, looking for evidence that ‘we’d been set up’. Much of the speculation was clearly detritus originating with right-wing Christians, Millenniumists, Messianists, Supremacists and others united on pro-gun, anti-federal government, anti-UN and anti-Semitic politics, often with strong views about a move towards a one-world-government and a new-world-order: whackos in common parlance. Still, the doubts remained and all of us wanted to prove that Muslims had no part in that horrific act. In time, I came across the declassified document concerning Operation Northwoods which had been published on the National Security Archive’s website in 1998. This 1962 proposal presented various outline plans of action that could be used to garner public and international support for US military intervention in Cuba. The suggestions included staging sabotages and sinking an American ship at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay and blaming it on Cuban forces, hijacking civilian planes, sinking boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba and setting up terrorist attacks in Washington and Miami, and blaming them on the Communists.
Unlike the wild speculation of the internet’s gathering of eccentrics, most of whom had their own quite unpleasant agendas, here was a genuine declassified document which could be viewed independently of the united anti-something extremists. However unlikely it was that the actions of 2001 were part of some grand conspiracy on the part of employees of the state, this document was evidence that a precedent of past intent existed. Somewhat naively, I wrote to Jon Snow at Channel 4 News, pointing him towards the National Security Archive located at The George Washington University. He wrote back to tell me that he would look into it. A week later he went off to New York to see the devastating carnage firsthand where he would have concluded—as I did later—that Northwoods was just a long-forgotten historical document. Soon afterwards Channel 4 broadcast a documentary debunking some of the conspiracy theories associated with that fateful day. Over the years since then I have received my fair share of emails exploring one alleged conspiracy or other. Obsessed with isnad, however, I am the kind of person who feels compelled to trace emails back to their source—claims about computer viruses that not even the best brains of Symantec, Norton and Microsoft put together can fix have taken their toll on me—and so most of my friends have learnt to leave this cynical character off their mailing lists. Occasionally I revert to thinking that things may not be as they seem, but I am generally no longer interested for we believe in the Day of Judgement when all truth will be told.
When a massacre occurred in London in July 2005, I managed to avoid the conspiracy theories for a whole week. Most of the Muslims I know had long been saying that it was only a matter of time before one of the extremists in our midst did something like this. Indeed, after the Madrid train bombings I found myself looking at my fellow passengers suspiciously on my way to and from work.
When the explosions occurred that day, I desperately hoped that it was the action of extreme anarchists timed to coincide with the G8 Summit, but I somehow knew that this was unlikely. Working in the National Health Service, our organisation had been put on standby for an evacuation of injured people as London hospitals filled up. The initial estimates of number of dead were in the high hundreds, far out-numbering the eventual death toll, and all normal work ceased as we went into emergency-response mode.
For the days that followed, my anger was intense. Selfishly, my initial thoughts were around how I would have felt had it been my wife who had been cut to pieces, for until a month earlier that shattered Edgware Road train took us to work every day. Selfishly too, my thoughts were about this spelling the end to Muslim life in Britain, for at work uncomfortable comments were being made about Muslims all around me.
A few days later, however, a link to the BBC’s audio archive arrived in my inbox and I found myself listening to the famous interview in which crisis management expert, Peter Powers, explained that he had been running a walk-through of a simulated terrorist act which was premised on bombs going off simultaneously at the same stations that had been targeted in the actual attack, at exactly the same time that morning. It was not long before I was listening to the archive on the BBC website, catching his comments on Radio Five Live. Although we later learned that the walk-through was simply a paperbased exercise of little significance, I was soon saying to my friends, ‘things may not be as they seem’, but they probably were. Thank goodness we believe in the Day of Judgement.
Perhaps conspiracy theories are convenient for us, helping us to avoid taking ourselves to account. Seeing a plot where there is none—almost to the point wherein the plotters are considered omnipotent—is considered preferable to putting our house in order.
To be fair, there are some quite valid reasons why many of us chase after alleged conspiracies from time to time and it is not always tired anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism as is often alleged. Quite apart from the fact that Islam prohibits indiscriminate violence and forbids suicide, it is sadly true that we are all too familiar with the current state of the Muslim community. Al-Qaeda is seen as a ruthlessly efficient operation, but we know the state of our mosques, the disrepair of which provides clear evidence of a lack of organisational skills on the part of their members. A key characteristic of Al-Qaeda operations is said to be the use of synchronised bombing and yet we live in a community famed for its laxity around punctuality: it is so bad that lateness is the first non-sunna a convert picks up upon becoming Muslim. Sleeper cells are apparently able to launch operations on their own and yet we have difficulties taking the initiative to clean the dishes left in the corner from iftar a year ago. Of course, I am being cynical— perhaps in ignorance—but these are genuinely the kinds of thoughts that cross our minds every time we hear of complex Muslim plots.
There have been occasions when I would have been happy to believe in some of the conspiracy theories knocking around on the internet and in the cafes of Westminster’s Edgware Road. The one-world-government new-world-order theory that makes much of George H W Bush’s speech on 11 September, 1990, has its appeal: why get out of bed in the morning when we know that everything is being controlled by an all-powerful group of individuals? Unfortunately, despite its origin in fundamentalist Christian eschatology, today’s Muslims are investing in this nationalist ideology to their detriment. With each act of barbarity that seems to be the work of Muslims, some sort of need to explain it away arises. Seeking out conspiracy theories is the easy response, but real Muslims are people of truth. If we do not know where the truth lies, we rely on our Creator with whom stands all truth. On that awesome Day which will last 50,000 years, all truth will be made apparent. There is wisdom in our Creator’s great plan.
Today we can travel between different locations faster than ever before, whizzing along in our cars. Journeys that once took weeks, months, even years, can now be covered in hours. When I arose this morning I did not have to go out of my house to draw water for the day. In mid-winter I do not need to venture outdoors for fuel. At night there is no running around getting lamps lit. I arrive at work just after eight and leave again just after four. I have more time on my hands than the generations of the previous millennium and yet I complain that I do not have enough time to do everything that needs to be done.
And so what will be my excuse before my Lord on that awesome Day when I will complain that I tarried on the Earth for but a matter of hours, for that will be as it seemed on a day lasting 50,000 years? That the internet evaporated my evenings? That I was too busy to seek knowledge? My life is ease and I have no excuse. For followers of the two traditions, it is a reality that is drawing near.
Muslims and Christians hold much in common by way of their beliefs and yet so often it is as if a great chasm divides us. The Muslims in the news seem so alien and yet that lovely Muslim doctor at the hospital seems so friendly and sincere. Nowadays there is much talk of identity, of what it means to belong and of shared values, but sometimes there seems to be an assumption that we must all trace our values back to Hellenic roots as if this were the sole foundation of civilisation. My heart, however, 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.
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 of the era before Muhammad . I am not alone in reaching this conclusion. James’ address of the 12 tribes dispersed throughout the land nods to the Judaic-Christian world, whose resemblance to another tradition has been widely noted over the years: ‘the traditional and historical parallels between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam are inescapable.’[footnote]H Küng, Christianity and the World Religions–Paths of Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism (Doubleday Publishing, 1986), p.24.[/footnote] Indeed, while I would naturally dispute the case of dependence given my belief in revelation, Hans-Joachim Schoeps wrote 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 worldhistorical 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.[footnote]H J Schoeps, Theologie und Geschichte des Judenchristentums (1949, reprinted by Hildesheim 1988), p.342.[/footnote]
When I put the teachings of the Letter of James and the teachings of Islam side by side, the similarities are striking. Several 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. The truth, however, is that Semitic pathways have had a huge influence on our culture. Indeed, there is ample evidence that Europe would not have advanced as it has in science and philosophy had Semitic peoples not translated those ancient works held in such esteem: we are indebted more to Andalusia, note some of the more generous historians of our age, than to ancient Greece and Rome.
It might be said that the best starting point for any dialogue between faiths is at the beginning, returning to the fundamentals of a religion and therefore to its earliest history. A definition of fundamentalism that implies a study of history should be viewed in a positive light, recognising the origins and primal teachings of our beliefs. On Christmas Eve 2002 I listened as an Anglican bishop explained that the historical figure of Jesus was not of key importance to believers of his faith; what mattered, he argued, was what Jesus means to Christians today. This view is in fact illogical for if, as Muslims contend, Jesus was actually a prophet calling his people to the worship of one God, to then worship him as God would be to go against his teaching. Similarly, if, as Christians hold, he may be taken as an object of worship, then to deny his divinity would also be of consequence. In other words, the historical person of Jesus a—and Muhammad—is of great importance. It is peculiar then that the view that the figure of Jesus in faith is more important than the historic person is held by a fair number of contemporary Christian theologians, recognising that the gospels present the kerygma, not an accurate historical record.
At one extreme, the writings of John Hick in The Metaphor of God Incarnate seem to make a mockery of the notion that there is religious truth. If faith becomes merely what we make it, how does that help us? If Jesus himself did not teach that he was God incarnate dying for the sins of the world, as Hick argued, is the idea that divine incarnation should be understood merely as a metaphor not simply another way of saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what he taught; I wish to believe this’?
While many theologians reject Hick’s thesis, their writings nevertheless follow a similar pattern. Against this backdrop, a definition of fundamentalism as being the conviction that the authentic version of a faith is most likely to be found in its earliest period makes perfect sense. To follow our teachers, be it Jesus in the case of Christianity or Muhammad in the case of Islam, it is obvious that we should know what they themselves taught.
Unfortunately this task is not necessarily easy. Christian fundamentalism is often frowned upon precisely because the paucity of source material makes constructing a picture of historical reality difficult. Traditionally the image of Jesus has been based almost wholly on the narrations contained within the four Gospels, with two references to his life in the writings of Josephus now considered later Christian interpolations. Today the apocryphal writings of the Church, and the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hamadi Library are viewed by some as a secondary source.[footnote]17Vatican scholars, for example, have undertaken some work to incorporate information contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls into the biblical text.[/footnote]
The contemporary belief that each gospel was written to present a different face of Christ highlights the problem we encounter. If the primary sources themselves were written with the intention of converting non-Christians and strengthening the faith of believers, the biographer of Jesus’ a life must face the possibility that material considered unimportant in conveying a particular message has been omitted by the original authors. It is well known that if we collect all the words actually spoken by Jesus in the four Gospels, removing duplicate passages, they fit on no more than two sides of a sheet of A4 paper. Given the impact Jesus is said to have had on the life of countless generations of Christians, this is a woefully small amount of information.
The gospels do not tell us what language Jesus spoke, with Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Syriac and a Galilaean dialect of Chaldic all having been suggested as possibilities by scholars of Christianity. The gospels fail to teach us any of the doctrines later adopted by the church, although we note that the Nicene Creed is 41 lines longer than the earliest creed known to us.[footnote]FJ Badcock, The History of the Creeds (SPCK, 1938), p.24.[/footnote]
Nor do the gospels help us to understand that Palestine at the time was under Roman occupation; they are lacking in both historical and geographical accuracy. More importantly, the gospels do not tell us anything about the authors of the books; we are merely provided with first names and are then left to guess their relationship to Jesus a, whether they were eyewitnesses to the events of his life, whether they were known for their honesty and what their role in the early church was. The seasoned argument that the four gospels prove to be reliable witnesses by virtue of the fact that they agree on the main points but differ on a few of the details, pointing to the fact that the authors did not collude in their accounts, is unsurprisingly not supported by many biblical scholars. Evidence of copying from Mark is brought out by some, whilst others argue for the existence of an earlier primal document which they label Q.
It is perhaps predictable, therefore, that many Christians are cynical about fundamentalism and its claim to seek the authentic version of a faith in the earliest period. Yet this concern is not necessarily universal. By contrast, the earliest Muslims took the preservation of the Islamic message extremely seriously, providing us with a rich source of information about Muhammad’s appearance, conduct, manners and tastes. We know what he looked like, the colour of his hair, how he dressed and the speed of his walk, which is why the infamous controversy about cartoons said to depict the Prophet passed many practising Muslims by: the illustrations bore no resemblance to him whatsoever, but reminded us of early 20th-century caricatures of the great scheming hook-nosed Jew instead.
In terms of substance, the collected sayings and deeds of Muhammad—known as the hadith—would be equated with the gospels, since the Qur’an is considered a book of revelation brought down by the Angel Gabriel. It is notable that the Muslim community was concerned with documenting and committing to memory every verse of the Qur’an during the lifetime of Muhammad himself. In their midst, he dictated, explained and arranged every verse of the Qur’an and, following his death, his community took it upon itself to continue to preserve it meticulously. It was precisely because the Qur’an states that the previous scriptures had been corrupted from within that the Muslim community considered it crucial to put in place mechanisms that would preserve the final revelation.
When I set out to learn the Qur’an myself I was struck by the absolute precision demanded by my teacher, each pronunciation analysed in great depth, each verse studied as I tried to commit it to memory. In turn, the same is required of him by his teacher as he moves from memorising the entire Qur’an to mastering each of the dialects in which it was revealed. Indeed, the same is true of his teacher’s teacher as the science passes from generation to generation.
In order to safeguard both the Qur’an and the narrations concerning the details of Muhammad’s life his community established an elaborate structure based on the law of witness to diminish the risks usually encountered when passing information on from one person to another.[footnote]MM Al-Azami, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation (UKIA, 2003), p.167.[/footnote] During his lifetime his companions would relate his words and actions to one another by saying, ‘The Prophet said/did such and such.’ When such a report was mentioned to a further person the source would be related along with what was said or done: ‘Aisha said the Prophet said such and such.’[footnote]Islam is marked out amongst the world religions by the fact that huge numbers of its teachings were related through women. The Prophet’s wife Aisha was an outstanding scholar and doctor, famed for her extensive knowledge of the Arabic language and the division of inheritance, who narrated thousands of his sayings and deeds. Other women such as Hafsa, Maymuna, Umm Habiba and Umm Salama are also well known as transmitters of hadith. Biographical dictionaries provide a rich source of information about the great number of women involved in transmitting hadith over several hundred years.[/footnote]
As time passed by, the scholars of Islam insisted on carefully examining the source of all information which they received so that by the end of the first century of the Muslim calendar the practice had become a science in its own right. For a report to be accepted, scholars demanded that four conditions be met: that it was accurate, that all narrators in the chain of narration were trustworthy, that the chain of transmission was unbroken and that there was positive support for the statement from all other available evidence.
During the second half of the first century of the Muslim calendar, the sayings of Muhammad began to be categorised by subject in booklets. Again the scholars considered it necessary to establish a means of protecting the content of these books from possible adulteration. They therefore required any scholar involved in passing on his sayings to be in direct contact with the person to whom they were being passed. So insistent were they on the role of witness that they considered the use of a book without hearing it from the author tantamount to giving false evidence. One could not contemplate adaptations such as the incorporation of material from the Dead Sea Scrolls into the gospels at the beginning of the 21st century, or the 9thcentury addition of the story of the adulteress in John’s gospel. A personal commentary added to a book had to be signed, or else it would be considered to invalidate the text. Rigorous controls were instated even when it came to using books of the sayings of Muhammad where reading certificates which amounted to licences were mandatory. When transmitting such books, a detailed record of the attendance at the gathering was taken and added to the reading certificate, which then became an exclusive authorisation for those listed in it to read, teach, copy or quote from that book. Other checks were also employed to ensure that sacred knowledge was preserved in a suitably respectful manner.
Early in my journey of faith I became interested in the issue of safeguarding knowledge now that technology had brought publishing within virtually anyone’s grasp. As a new Muslim I was interested in the question of what constituted knowledge, given that I was able to lay my hands on any number of books on Islamic topics without really knowing anything about their authors. It was because of this that I decided to write my postgraduate dissertation on this subject, proposing a concept of review and accreditation for popular Islamic publishing in the United Kingdom.
More recently I began reflecting on this once more after encountering several instances of individuals sharing sincere advice with others on matters pertaining to our religion. The act in itself may have been commendable, but I was troubled by the fact that the advice was offered by those who cared not to reveal their name. One would understand that someone in fear of their life or prosecution might seek refuge in anonymity, but each of the cases I witnessed had been quite straightforward: the photographer receiving an anonymous letter warning him about his trade; the commentary on music published by a concerned anonymous Muslim; a writer given firm but kind advice by one who did not reveal their name.
Compare this to the enlightened days of our community. A reading certificate defined which books scholars could use, while a record of regular attendance was always kept by those promulgating books of hadith. Details were kept of who had listened to the entire book, who had joined in partially, which portions they had missed and the dates and location of the readings. The certificate was an exclusive licence for those listed within to read, teach, copy and quote from that book.[footnote]MM Al-Azami, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation (UKIA, 2003), p.185.[/footnote]
Muslims were so concerned about the preservation of their teachings that an entire science developed to determine the authenticity of hadith. In their Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages Anees and Athar wrote about the science of hadith: ‘It is the only branch of knowledge that requires personal ethical responsibility on the part of individuals who involve themselves in this endeavour. In its quest for exactitude, it held accountable those who transmitted information.’[footnote]MA Anees and AN Athar, Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages (Mansell Publishing, 1986), p.xiii.[/footnote]
By contrast, in the case of my recent encounters we did not know if the anonymous author was X, son of Y, student of Z, nor where they had obtained their learning. Consequently I found myself pondering the question I had first asked when I was very new to Islam. At the time—considering an Islamic heritage that placed great emphasis on the authentication of knowledge—I was interested in whether there was a case for the establishment of a review body, modelled not just on Muslim tradition but also on the structures of peer review set up in the scientific and academic publishing industries.
In a society that argues that there is no absolute truth, only contingent truths, the claim that Islamic knowledge needs protection can obviously be considered an affront to the concept of freedom of speech—indeed, to the freedom of individual Muslims to make their own fatwa. Two authors writing about publishing in Muslim countries almost a decade ago noted that the books now published by Muslims in great quantities, ‘set aside the long tradition of authoritative discourse by religious scholars in favour of a direct understanding of texts. Today chemists and medical doctors can interpret Islamic principles as equals with scholars who have graduated from traditional centres of learning.’[footnote]DF Eickelman and JW Anderson, ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the ‘Islamic’ book’ in LOGOS (Whurr Publishers, 1997), 8?4.[/footnote]
While many advocates of unrestricted free speech would welcome such a development, I argued that apart from opening our religion to the general threat of corruption, it could be used to support actions which have disastrous consequences. I had in mind wanton acts of violence, but the possibilities are endless. I was in favour, therefore, of the tradition which saw Islamic scholars confident of their role as guardians of knowledge. I noted that, writing in Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam, Franz Rosenthal argued that there was little that later influences and developments were able to accomplish by way of injecting new ideas into what constituted Islamic knowledge.[footnote]F Rosenthal, Knowledge Triumphant:The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (EJ Brill, 1970), p.19.[/footnote]
I was once asked how I could accept one book of the Bible while rejecting all the others when I sought to draw attention to the teachings of the Letter of James after I had become a Muslim. The question threw me because there was no sense that I accepted it over or in place of others; it merely interested me. All of us read books at times with which we disagree or which conflict with our own beliefs; because they sit on our bookshelves it does not mean that we concur with the words contained therein. In the case of religious texts, my view is coloured by the sciences established by the believers of my faith in centuries past. In this worldview, a text is not considered accurate purely on the basis of emotional attachment—like mine for the Letter of James—but rather as a result of exacting scholarship.
In Muslim tradition, a report concerned with matters of religion was always scrutinised for reliability on the basis of two factors: the study of the text itself and consideration of its chain of narration. The well-known orientalist, Montgomery Watt, explained:
The chains of transmitters were therefore carefully scrutinised to make sure that the persons named could in fact have met one another, that they could be trusted to repeat the story accurately, and that they did not hold any heretical views. This implied extensive biographical studies; and many biographical dictionaries have been preserved giving the basic information about a man’s teachers and pupils, the views of later scholars and the date of his death.[footnote]M Watt, What is Islam? (Longman, Green and Company, 1968), pp.124-125.[/footnote]
When a Muslim considers the reports presented in the Bible by contrast, the first thing with which he or she is faced is the absence of a chain of narration. The Jewish scholar, Bernard Lewis, wrote:
From an early date Muslim scholars recognized the danger of false testimony and hence false doctrine, and developed an elaborate science for criticizing tradition.
‘Traditional science’, as it was called, differed in many respects from modern historical source criticism, and modern scholarship has always disagreed with evaluations of traditional scientists about the authenticity and accuracy of ancient narratives. But their careful scrutiny of the chains of transmission and their meticulous collection and preservation of variants in the transmitted narratives give to medieval Arabic historiography a professionalism and sophistication without precedent in antiquity and without parallel in the contemporary medieval West. By comparison, the historiography of Latin Christendom seems poor and meagre, and even the more advanced and complex historiography of Greek Christendom still falls short of the historical literature of Islam in volume, variety and analytical depth.[footnote]B Lewis, Islam in History (Open Court Publishing, 1993), pp.104-105.[/footnote]
It would be illogical then for me to accept a book of the Bible as authentic when it does not meet the strict criteria required by Muslims in this regard. The biographical information offered at the beginning of this letter, for example, is severely limited. The Letter of James has never been a source of my religion, but its address to the believers in Christ amongst the twelve tribes interested me nevertheless, suggesting roots in Christianity’s earliest era. In my own studies as an agnostic, one of my major interests was the beliefs and practices of the earliest Christian communities for they should—I hypothesised—have been closest to the religion of Jesus a. Thus, as a matter of interest I always felt that the Letter of James carried great import. If we claim to follow Jesus and Muhammad we need to know what they themselves taught which entails going back to the source. During the month of Rabi’ Al-Awwal each year many Muslims remember our Prophet’s birth and life. The first time I encountered such commemorations—only a couple of years ago—I listened to a fascinating talk detailing his noble character, followed by recitation of poetry and then dinner.
On another occasion I listened as a group of Muslims, young and old, studied the Prophet’s sunna, reading from an-Nawawi’s Riyad al-Salihin, before spending over an hour reading poetry about him aloud. As I pondered on those I witnessed expressing such love for the Prophet as they read his biography and his sunna one year, I realised that I did not know him as I should. Taking note of my distance from his noble example I concluded that I too should pick up his sira again and read.
‘How can you accept one book of the Bible,’ asks an inquisitive voice, ‘and reject all the others?’ This is a question not just for an eccentric who became obsessed with the ‘tiniest spark’ in the Letter of James, but equally for the various denominations of the Christian church. After all, there is great difference between denominations even now with regard to which books are accepted as canonical and which are not. Historically, the famous case is that of Marcion who sought to reject the whole of the Old Testament, claiming that the loving Father of the New Testament was a different God from that of the Old. Today it could be said that many take a similar stance to Marcion even if they would never actually articulate it, as Walter Moberly wrote:
For many Christians the Old Testament tends to be more of an embarrassment than a resource, more of a stone to trip over than a well to drink from. The ghost of Marcion, who in the second century was the first Christian seriously to propose that Christians did not need, and would be better off without those Scriptures of Israel which came to be known as the Old Testament, still haunts many a Christian mind. Although the official position of the churches down the centuries has been that Marcion was wrong, the actual practice of many churches suggest a position more along the lines of ‘he was probably more right than wrong’.[footnote]W Moberly, Can Balaam’s Ass Speak Today? A Case Study in Reading the Old Testament as Scripture (Grove Books, 1998), p.3.[/footnote]
Where the canon of the New Testament is concerned, the debate about which books are considered authoritative has been on-going for centuries. In his work on the canon of the New Testament, Bruce Metzger presented a huge number that were accepted and rejected at different times throughout the ages.[footnote]B Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development (Clarendon Press, 1997), pp.305-315.[/footnote]
The gospels of Judas, Mani, Mary, Nicodemus, Peter, Philip and Thomas are clearly missing from the accepted canon of our era, as are the infancy gospels, such as the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, while the known lost gospels number at least 23.A number of books which were once considered part of the Roman Catholic New Testament canon, but which are absent today include several of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. The Didache was considered scripture by Clement of Alexandria and Origen. The 5th-century Greek Codex Alexandrius contained the first Epistle of Clement, which was read in services of worship at Corinth around 170ce.[footnote]ibid. pp.187-188.[/footnote]
More recently, Ulrich Zwingli insisted that the book of Revelation was not part of the New Testament at the Berne Disputation of 1528. Martin Luther called the Letter of James an epistle of straw, and denigrated Jude, Hebrews and Revelation. Although he printed them in his German Bible he explained in their prefaces his doubts about their authority. Andreas Bodenstein of Karlstadt divided the New Testament into sections of different levels, the lowest of which included James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, Hebrews and Revelations. Erasmus doubted that Paul was the author of Hebrews and James of the Letter of James, and questioned the authorship of 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. The Swedish Gustavus Adolphus Bible of 1618 labelled these books as ‘Apocryphal New Testament’.[footnote]ibid. pp.241-245.[/footnote]
It would be wrong to assume that the Bibles of today are all united upon one canon. Indeed, the major denominations actually differ as to which books they accept and reject. The Protestant Church has the Hebrew canon as its Old Testament, with some books divided, numbering 39 in total. This denomination rejected a number of books and parts of books which were previously included in the Old Testament in the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate. The Protestant New Testament is made up of 27 books. The Roman Catholic Old Testament includes Tobit, Judith, the Greek additions to Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. In total the Roman Catholic Bible is made up of 73 books. The Greek Orthodox Church has a Bible which includes all the books accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, with the addition of 1 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151 and 3 Maccabees. The Slavonic canon adds 2 Esdras. Other Eastern churches also include 4 Maccabees.
It is easy to ask one eccentric how he can accept a book of the Bible while rejecting all the others—as if that were the case—but clearly more difficult to address that question to fellow believers. For those who believe in divine revelation, authority lies at the heart of our way of life. Faith is not belief in doubt or uncertainty: it is confidence, trust and reliance. It is the belief that God has sent us guidance. ‘And verily We have raised in every nation a messenger proclaiming: serve God and shun false gods…’[footnote]From Qur’an 16:36.[/footnote]