Desi pub

I confess that the Desi Pub disappoints me. That’s because, in earlier times, I looked into the traditions of their proprietors.

“Even if wine is made from the water of the Ganges, O Saints, do not drink it.”

Guru Granth Sahib
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I think we Muslims might be better off focusing our efforts on understanding the Qur’an and recentering our lives around it, rather than making a fool of ourselves by taking words of the Bible out of context — in this case “machamadim” in the Songs of Soloman — and claiming they mean something else.

I learnt long ago that you need to read things in context. The Songs of Soloman in the Hebrew Bible are canticles about passionate intimacy between two lovers. Projecting the name of our Prophet — peace be upon him — onto a word in the midst of an erotic poem is just plain odd.

Read things for yourself; don’t just repeat the claim because it sounds convincing out of context. Reflect on the overall meaning of the passage and then draw your conclusion. It should be our approach in all things: to the Qur’an, to history and to life in general.

Calling the caller

I regret that I cringed when I read about a “da’wah training session” held for students over the weekend. “Da’wah training to unleash your inner da’ee,” read the poster.

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Taking a side

I have read Tony Blair’s Bloomberg speech in full, long winded though it was. It contains some truths, and some realities for Western interests.

I don’t know anybody who would deny that Muslim extremists are a threat to many communities around the globe; other Muslims are as much victims of their words and actions as non-Muslims. Yet history attests that these groups have always been there; it is just that modern communication media has amplified their reach.

Blair touches on certain truths, but he also glosses over other unfortunate inconvenient ones. The elephant in the room, of course, is his intervention in Iraq, which in no small part accelerated the religious sectarian anarchy he now laments.

Saddam Hussein’s loathed Arab Socialist Ba’ath regime was brutally effective in rooting out so-called ‘Islamist’ groups. Blair’s defence of the military recoup in Egypt today is no different from the Reagan administration’s relationship with Saddam Hussain in the 1980s: this is just realpolitik. Muammar Gaddafi was good for Libya, it now transpires, as Blair tells us that the democratic experiment has well and truly failed.

People are dismissive of Blair’s warnings and advice for sound reasons. It is not that he is a harbinger of ideas that nobody wants to hear. It is because he himself — personally — has played an active role in the region’s unrest.

Islam is indeed an important factor in the region, but so too are those unbelievably straight lines redrawn on the map by European powers at the end of each World War. Faith and visions of religious utopia play an important role in people’s lives, but so too do the malevolent excesses of Secret Police acting on behalf of undemocratic governments.

Who would blame anyone for seeking an ideal — suspect though it may seem to literate minds — when reality has proved so hideous? What serves Western interests is not necessarily good for the lived real lives of individuals and their families.

Blair tries to concede that other factors come into play early on in his speech, but he goes on to brush them out of the way in pursuit of his overarching agenda. An agenda that quietly mixes up facts. None of the countries he mentions by name have been actively funding and proselytising that narrow minded and dangerous ideology he refers to. But key British allies, conveniently overlooked? Can a thesis about the Middle East which does not once mention Saudi Arabia be taken seriously?

Particularly when his closing remarks refer to the atrocities of 11 September 2001, an act of terrorism said to have been perpetuated not by Afghans or Iraqis, but by a group of Saudi men.

I suppose this is what he means by “taking a side and sticking with it.”

Faith and Family

In 2003 my mother wrote an essay entitled “Help, there’s a Muslim in my family!” for the interfaith module of her Masters degree in Theology. After reading the copy she sent me, I wrote the following essay, and sent it back in May of the same year. It was a useful exercise for us both, I think.

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Easter weekend

It is Easter weekend and I am staying in the Rectory with my parents. As both of them are vicars responsible for different churches, they are in and out all weekend. The station of the cross on Good Friday after the night vigil on Thursday. My mother has already returned from her service this evening, but my father is still out doing his in the darkness. At dawn tomorrow my mother will be lead her congregation in another vigil, and then the main service later in the morning. It is 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 this weekend is a time of emotion for them, a time for reflection and giving thanks. It is a time of contemplation, and yet logically I find it a somewhat peculiar theology. The walls in my mother’s office are lined with books, mostly on different aspects of Christian theology. It is not that they have not reflected on it; in fact they believe in it with passion, considering it an altogether coherent philosophy. They live and breeth this theology. It is everything to them.

Still, I find it peculiar. For me, the ultimate example of God’s compassion cannot be seen in a ransom. Instead it is 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. The simplicity of the act is its blessing.

Let the Christians dwell on the cross and the empty tomb, but I will continue to dwell on the words of the Qur’an, on the supplications we are taught to say when we er and on that 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.

That indicates an infinetly 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.

The uncomfortable voice within

Mainstream contemporary discourse represents a relativist worldview, wherein there is no truth, only ideas and arguments; all beliefs are generally valid, although some are more valid than others. For people of faith this has major implications.

A few years ago, one of the discussions of the Church of England’s General Synod concerned Christian witness in a plural society. Writing in the Church Times at the time, David Banting noted that Muslims expect Christians to have convictions as clear as their own. He was right. While diversity of opinion is of course to be welcomed, the meandering, self-conscious spirit amongst many does not promote confidence in the process of dialogue. Representatives of the two faiths need to define clearly what it is that they believe, not wavering because they fear causing offence. Honesty must crown any efforts at dialogue and this means addressing issues even if they cause discomfort.

In my own case, as a convert, it is impossible to ignore the fact that my belief in Islam causes deep unhappiness within my family. While I am not a good believer and my practice is hugely wanting, I do believe sincerely. It is not something that I take lightly, nor is it something that I took on as a choice of fashion. I came down this path because I believe that it is the correct way to worship God. For this reason I cannot turn my back on it for the reason of bringing ease in my personal relationships.
Most people who are sincere in their faith hold a position similar to this, whether they are Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Buddhist, Baha’i or Jewish. I have been told that my family and friends continually pray that I may be guided back to the truth. They worry about me, fear that I have taken the wrong path and that, on the Day of Judgement, I will be amongst the losers. This situation is just one of the things which come with the territory of believing there to be a definitive truth and a reason for our existence. On both sides we believe that we have a hold of the truth.

Yet our relationship does not end there. Indeed there need be no conflict between the idea a faith’s uniqueness and pluralism. We do not need to be totalitarian about our faith — whatever that may be — because we believe in its uniqueness; it is perfectly possible to live peaceably with people of other faith traditions whilst maintaining our own convictions. Periods of Islamic history attest to the fact that pluralism can coexist with a one-way faith, however much today’s religious puritans and secular fundamentalists may wish to prove otherwise.

A survey of all the counties touched by Islam will reveal the existence of local and diverse culture. Just look at the mosques of Turkey, India, Mali or China: each of the designs manifest something of an indigenous tradition. Consider the mastery of the Urdu poets, the literature of the Arabs or the growing body of modern self-expression in blogistan and cyberspace. Jewish writers have noted that many of their forefathers flourished as scholars under Muslim rule in Spain. Srebrenica was once a glowing example of coexistence in the midst of Europe. It is true to say that our history was not all light, but for every instance of shame we can find another to be proud about.

Muslim tradition teaches that Islam was the religion of all the Prophets. At the same time it stresses that there is one path to God: that affirmed by all of them, that none should be worshipped except the one true God, the Creator of all things. The fact that I believe this does not negate my contribution to a pluralist society. We do not need to pretend that we cannot understand another person’s point of view because we maintain firm beliefs. Muslims believe in God as the Creator of all things and therefore as the God worshipped by Jews and Christians. A Christian, however, might well argue that this is not the case in view of their Trinitarian theology; since Islam rejects the idea that anything in creation can also be the Creator, the demarcation is clear. We may hold completely different beliefs, but we are not incapable of understanding one another. The argument for the resurrection in the Christian worldview is that humans are irreparably corrupt and so our only salvation is through the blood of Christ. Islam, however, denies the concept of fallen humanity and original sin. Does this mean we cannot talk to each other?

I believe it is a mistake for Christians to renounce their faith – to deny previously established beliefs – simply because they are now encountering people of other faiths. Indeed, people of other faiths expect Christians to hold their ground; the real source of discomfort is not religious pluralism but effective secularism. It is the latter which demands that there is no absolute truth (except this one), not adherents to other religions.

Unfortunately, this alternative view of pluralism has become dominant today. Conviction is aligned with intolerance, while those who reject the relativist worldview are accused of promoting cultural ghettos. Since the massacres in London last summer we have heard much about the failure of multiculturalism from politicians, journalists and commentators alike. This is nothing new. Over the past thirty years there has been a growing body of theologians determined to frame religion in relativist terms. One William Cantwell Smith argues that it is a form of idolatry for Christians to believe that Christianity alone is true. This suggests that they worship Christianity. It is true that a religion itself can become an object of worship, but that is not what believers are doing by insisting on its truth. For the majority of followers the religion is merely the transport towards an end; they do not worship it, but use it to worship.

Yet again I insist that the concept of pluralism need not pose difficulties for our mere existence as believers of different faiths. The question is how it affects our ability to share our faith. This is the crux of the matter for me as a convert. To believe in a path as the one authentic way to worship God and yet withhold that from my loved ones is a form of hypocrisy. In life it is easier to hide — fearing to cause offence by saying that you believe this to be the way — than to invite others to believe in what you believe. Because the dominant argument of our age insists that there is no single truth and that while some views may be more valid than others, all beliefs are nevertheless legitimate, we can feel uncomfortable when it comes to sharing our beliefs with others. We avoid being a nuisance or causing resentment at all costs.

Even as this dominates, however, with belief there is always an uncomfortable feeling inside: one day, when our meeting with our Lord finally comes, will my family and friends not hold me to account for failing to adequately explain this belief to them? The uncomfortable voice within says that though you fear their anger now, there is something worse along the line if you are silent.

For believers of whatever faith, it is the central dilemma of our age.

The Road Ahead: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Encountering Christian-Muslim dialogue for the first time eight years ago was naturally a culture shock. Every young and enthusiastic activist owned a grainy, yellowy video with poor quality sound of a great debate between Ahmed Deedat and Jimmy Swaggart. As pamphlets detailing 101 contradictions in the Bible were pressed into my hands I wondered what these well-intentioned souls would make of the Christianity I knew. But for a brief sojourn with a group calling itself The International Church of Christ, prior to my agnosticism I had only ever known the Anglican Communion of The Church of England. Swaggart and his fundamentalist counterparts represented a creed almost as alien to me as the faith I was to adopt, yet everyday Muslim engagement with Christians remained focused on these Deep South stereotypes.

The Road Ahead: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue is, in many ways, the perfect introduction to that other Christianity. Based on the proceedings of a two-day seminar hosted by Dr George Carey – then Archbishop of Caterbury – in January 2002, it stresses how far our simplistic caricatures of Christians are off the mark. While the seminar aimed to address how Christians and Muslims might overcome the obstacles standing in the way of mutual understanding, the book in fact paints a picture of a faith unsure of itself. Far from witnessing dialogue, we see that character whom every infuriated agnostic meets on his search; that bumbling self-conscious believer, so utterly apologetic about his faith and too shy to articulate his beliefs.

Perhaps surprised to find Christians and Muslims talking to one another, Dr Carey describes the not particularly unusual gathering as one of the most remarkable of his career as Archbishop. Writing in his introduction to the book, he acknowledges that Muslim-Christian dialogue is by no means a new phenomenon, but he believes the events of 11 September 2001 have made it ever more urgent. He stumbles at the first hurdle, for rather than overcoming obstacles in Christian-Muslim relations, he casts Muslims into the problem role. The Muslim, associated with these horrific acts, is placed into a defensive position to be interviewed rather than to engage in dialogue.

In a second introduction, Prince El Hassan eloquently rehearses that favourite Muslim topic of critique, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Unfortunately this has been so over-emphasized in recent years that the whole argument now feels stale, let alone irrelevant to the topic at hand. It is not all cliché, however: for dialogue to be fruitful, he suggests, we should put aside differences in theology and rite. This is true to a point – if the aim of dialogue is to discover how Muslims and Christians can work and live together then it is only natural that differences should be highlighted less. But what if the purpose was to convince the other of the truth of Christianity/Islam? Surely such differences are of fundamental importance.

It is understandable that Tony Blair, writing the third introduction as Prime Minister of a multi-cultural and multi-faith society, should choose to do so inclusively; yet in the process of dialogue should we not expect the Christian to speak as a Christian and the Muslim as a Muslim? Straddling the two faiths in order to project one’s own views onto both parties cannot be exemplary of dialogue, but this is what Mr. Blair achieves. It is true that principles of tolerance and respect are vital, but should we allow him to set the agenda where issues of justice or liberty might otherwise figure as key issues as well?

The Road Ahead is split into five chapters, each containing papers by both Muslim and Christian participants. The first chapter discusses Christian-Muslim interface, the second looking at the lessons history can teach us in regard to interaction. After focusing on communities of faith in the third chapter, the discussion moves on to examine faith in the context of change, before finally evaluating the way forward for dialogue between the two faith groups. It is a positive step that the first contributor should be a European Muslim. It could be said that we have come a long way in ten years, when one considers the European response towards its native Balkan Muslim population at its hour of need. In a thought provoking paper, excellently located as the starting place for dialogue, Mustafa Ceri? considers the question of assimilation or of isolation in terms of faith, a point relevant not just for Muslims in the West, but also for Christians in the East, or indeed for Christians in increasingly secular societies. Like the Jews of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, Muslims in Europe today are forced to grapple with questions of integration or isolation and tradition or reform.

Later, Mustafa Ceri? pulls out the right threads once more as he goes on to discuss monotheism. ‘The doctrine of monotheism is shared by Islam and Christianity,’ he writes, ‘but the perception of it seems unsettling, not because of an apodictic argument but because of a dispute conducted in an ad hominem manner…’ We cannot conduct dialogue if we insist on skirting around the fundamental issues and who we worship is naturally the most crucial of all. Sadly, some participants seem not to agree, for disturbingly there is very little mention of God within The Road Ahead, nor indeed of Jesus of Muhammad (peace be upon them) – it is as if these main players are not players at all.

Mustafa Ceri?’s discussion of cooperation makes good sense and his historical overview of the issue is helpful, but it would also be useful if he pointed out that such cooperation continues today. Furthermore, in speaking about Europe as a continent of many faiths he could have been more careful about not identifying Christianity solely with Europe at the same time as trying to disassociate Europe from the idea of it being a solely Christian realm; despite the missionary zeal of some Protestant churches aiming to ‘convert’ other Christian communities to their interpretation of the faith, there remain sizeable non-Western Christian communities outside Europe. This too is underplayed throughout the book.

Responding the Mustafa Ceri?, Michael Fitzgerald argues that Christians and Muslims should seek to understand their differences in a spirit of mutual acceptance. It should be implicit in the idea of honest dialogue that Christians and Muslims retain their beliefs with conviction. He goes on to explain the difference between overcoming and understanding, which seems to be a statement of the obvious. However he confuses matters: ‘Such an attitude in turn implies that truth is not to be seen as an object in the possession of one particular group…’ Does it? Why must a believer deny his beliefs in order to engage in dialogue with others? He goes on: ‘…indeed, for Christians truth is best understood as a Person by whom they are themselves possessed.’ This is confused double-speak. Tripping over themselves to be accommodating to those who do not share their beliefs, this mode of thought actually nullifies effective dialogue; what is there left to discuss?

Nevertheless his advice on discussing the similarities and differences between the faiths is practical, although it seems to ignore the wealth of literature already in the public domain: John Bowker’s excellent study of suffering in the World Religions or Hans Küng’s Christianity and the World Religions to name but two. It would be illogical for any inter-faith dialogue to begin without a discussion of the key theological and ethical concepts held by each faith. Always reasonable and accommodating towards his Abrahamic cousins, Michael Fitzgerald offers another olive branch: Muslims, he argues, have suffered from being misrepresented as a monolithic block. In reality, both faith communities experience this as a result of projection from within as well as from without. As Muslims we often talk of ourselves as a unified whole, ignoring the internal conflicts, as do Christians in their engagement with the outside world. The Road Ahead is often illustrative of this, taking the image of Christianity for granted, forgetting that there is an Ethiopian, Armenian, Roman Catholic and Adventist Christianity beyond their projections of self. Michael Fitzgerald is absolutely right, therefore, when he states: ‘Diversity and genuine pluralism within both Christian and Muslim traditions needs to be recognized equally by co-religionists and by members of the other faith.’

The third paper published in The Road Ahead sits uncomfortably amidst its counterparts, a peculiar contribution aimed at a different level of dialogue. Undoubtedly well versed in conversation between the two faiths having spent forty-five years in the Middle East and the author of at least thirty books, Kenneth Cragg seems to assume too much of the seminar and as result fails to make any real impact. The theme of his paper is his oft-repeated argument around Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) post-Hijra mission and Islam’s recruitment of political power to achieve its ends, as already developed in his previous works. The point of this often-incomprehensible paper is what Christians mean by Magnificat and Muslims by Allahu akbar; in what way, he asks, is God great? ‘Islamic confidence in the rightness of political power in the defence and propagation of religion has persisted ever since [the Hijra] and it remains a large issue in our inter-religious dialogue,’ he writes. Kenneth Cragg implies that the slogan Allahu akbar is denied by Muslims when they refuse to allow God to be ‘greater’ than an omnipotent Lord who creates, guides and forgives. The God of Christian faith is above this kind of greatness, he argues, as His grace and suffering are viewed as averting the punishment warned of by the Prophets. For Christianity, ‘it was a greatness utterly generous in its creative magnanimity and even more so it stooping to “our low estate” in the self-imaging so greatly given in the incarnate and redemptive Messiah Jesus…’

By contrast, he writes, ‘Islam “makes him greatly great” in the benediction of our human guiding into rightness by the textuality of sacred tanzil [revelation] and the summons into obedience by the discipline and the nurture ordained for us in the Qur’an and the Sharia.’ Yet this is simply a case of the author moulding his discussion about Islam into his own framework for the sake of convenience, for Islam actually makes God greatly great by its numerous reflections on the magnificence of the universe He has created. Pondering everything in it from the honeybee to planetary nebulae Allahu Akbar is the natural refrain. In reality Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim could just as easily be the beginning of our theology and if Kenneth Cragg’s paper were put in these terms (in what way is God compassionate and merciful?) the outcome could be quite different. Pushing Islam through his own filter of beliefs, we are left with a confused message, and one that is quite abstract and distant from the reality of life at that. Fortunately his paper is not without rebuttal and Sohail Nakhooda provides a coherent and – thankfully – erudite response.

The second chapter goes on to look at the lessons of history, beginning with an objective paper by David Kerr. Intelligently he chooses to speak as a Christian is his approach without stepping into the Muslim’s shoes to speak on the other’s behalf. He argues that we should see the relationship between Muslims and Christians as a single circle rather than a convergence of two. Mona Siddiqi responds fairly, calling for dialogue to take place in the spirit of genuine honesty on the part of all involved. Presenting the third paper in this chapter, Tarif Khalidi examines the figure of Jesus in Islam with an interesting – if brief – minor history of Muslim views of Christianity. In his view, the figure of Jesus in the Qur’an is very problematic, but he does not develop this, where a review of relevant verses would be useful. Yvonne Haddad’s response is intelligent and useful, with a discussion of dhimma, which seems fair and balanced.

Nasim Hasan Shah begins the third chapter on Communities of Faith with an analysis of Muslim society in Pakistan. Activists are always keen to point out that there are no true Islamic societies today, an argument which misses the point; it is important that we come to terms with the fact that we must deal with contemporary realities not historical ideals. In his response, Henri Teissier asks whether there is clarity in the Qur’anic position on the People of the Book because ‘some Muslims would apparently claim that the positive early verses were later abrogated by more negative verses’ (Qur’an 5:82, 9:29). Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in early Muslim history and Umar ibn al-Khattab’s charter with the Christians of Jerusalem. Evident occasionally in dialogue is an absence of appreciation of the sources of Islamic knowledge, the Christian often referring solely to the Qur’an. Later, Henri Teissier asks, ‘Should not people of faith recognize that religion is not the only factor leading to the moral improvement of humanity.’ The traditional viewpoint of both faiths has been that God defines morality; this question seems to advocate a Christianity that has had Christ washed out of it.

In his paper, Michael Banner considers toleration in the context of Western Christianity and can be commended for making the point that ‘existing under the conditions which obtain in the liberal democracies, Christianity is not called upon to make an active choice for or against toleration of other faiths.’ No Muslim engaged in dialogue could escape the self-satisfaction sometimes expressed by the contemporary Christian when discussing issues of tolerance, particularly in relation to Islam. However, he seems to overemphasise philosophical alternatives in his ‘Toleration: the Augustine alternative’. Why do contributors continuously fail to quote from Holy Scriptures, which, in their daily discourse, are the source of their faith? The absence of any mention of Jesus and what he taught in Michael Banner’s paper is unimpressive, but in any case, given his opening paragraph, what is the relevance of the Augustine alternative?

Writing the final paper in this chapter, Mohamed El-Awa raises a few points worth noting. He is right to say that the time for solving religious differences is the Day of Judgement when the final word will be with God. Secondly, he usefully clarifies the issue of making alliances with enemies. Lastly, he mentions that Christians in particular have always enjoyed a special status, based on the Qur’anic description of them as nearest to the Muslims in affection or love. He gives the example of the Christians of Najran who stayed in the Prophet’s mosque when they visited Madinah. Above all, it is refreshing that this participant refers to Scripture and the teachings of his religion in support if his arguments.

Regrettably the fourth chapter opens with reference to the events of 11 September 2001. David Ford quotes Jonathan Sacks as seeing the terrorist attacks as the greatest challenge to the religions of the world since the wars of religion in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Wrong; a genocide which targeted six million Jews in the 1930s and early 1940s was a far greater challenge to the world religions than the attack on the United States, no matter how terrible this surely was, not to mention the conflict in Northern Ireland over the past several decades or in Rwanda in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, David Ford’s paper is not unreasonable and his paper proceeds to cover fair ground. Is he the only Christian participant here who mentions Jesus Christ? This comes through in his ‘Christian faith and change: ten theses.’ Tariq Ramadan, already well informed in matters pertaining to faith and change provides a fair response. Seyed Amir Akrami follows this by arguing that Muslim debate is hindered by its alleged opposition to change. Following this, Christian Troll’s paper offers a critique of Islam, but does not forward views as to how bridges could be built. Once again, the Christian tells us what Islam should be, but fails to tell us about Christianity and what Christians believe.

If throughout this review there seems to be an imbalance, it is finally addressed in the final chapter, Setting the agenda. Rabiatu Ammah begins by arguing very strongly that self-criticism is severely lacking in the contemporary Muslim world. It is about time that there was more analysis of the issues we encounter in a truly honest manner without resorting to the tired refrain that the West is to blame. Christians might benefit from taking this approach as well. One does not have to put aside one’s convictions in order to recognise that communities of the faithful as well as individuals can fall short of their ideals, making mistakes and performing wrong actions. In his response Tarek Mitri expresses a very true sense that ‘Muslims are invited, sometimes in an unfriendly manner, to prove their innocence and that of their religion from the crimes committed by a minority of their co-religionists.’ Fair and objective in nature, this paper could be taken as a summary of the nature of Muslim-Christian dialogue. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, likewise, provides us with an impartial summary.

The final paper ties together the different strands of the dialogue quite nicely. In fact, Gillian Stamp hits one aspect on the head: ‘There seemed to be an imbalance in questions,’ she says, reviewing the proceedings, ‘– “the questions are all about Islam, the face of Christianity is covered”.’ She is right. If this is genuine dialogue questions need to be asked equally of the two faiths and it is hard not to be irritated when reading The Road Ahead by the role of a Christian speaking on behalf of Islam. This is not to say that Muslims and Christians should not play their part in analysing and questioning the other’s faith; this would be an exchange of ideas, the very aim of dialogue. She concludes with three possible next stages of the journey, the most important being the challenge of secularism, for this creed is the greatest threat to both religions, than either is to the other.

The Road Ahead concludes with a postscript written by Michael Ipgave, especially relevant in its last few points. God must be remembered, for presumably that is the aim of this dialogue; theological dialogue must be undertaken; and Christians and Muslim should not conceal their convictions. Nobody could argue with his last point: ‘When those who have faith in God meet with an open acknowledgement of their faith, the quality of their meeting is transformed, and together they can change the world.’ It is a pity then that a number of participants did not grasp this. Is this book about dialogue? It is hard to say. Reading The Road Ahead, which lacks any biographical information, I cannot help recalling the Playwright David Hare’s observations in When Shall We Live upon meeting a group of Priests in inner London who barely mentioned their faith whilst undertaking great social works, fearing that ‘stuffing Christ down people’s throats’ would put them off. On his meeting with one South London vicar he wrote:

‘The experience of meeting these good souls left me confused, because although I liked them so much personally – liked them, I suspect, far more than I would ever like their fundamentalist brethren – it did seem to me, as an outsider, that they were perhaps overlooking some essential point about the Christian religion. If Christ did rise from the dead, then call me a fanatic, but I think you probably do have to tell people about it.’

While this book is intended to be all about dialogue, it serves better as an introduction to that modest Christianity which treads the ground so carefully, always conscious of your feelings, but which never addresses the question at hand. Every activist who thinks Swaggart is the typical Christian should read it. TJB

Inter-faith Dialogue

If dialogue is to be of any benefit we should set aside philosophical debates on our approach to different faiths and come as we are with a view to first understanding what we each – as faith communities – believe. I have encountered time and again Christians writing about Islam with no real knowledge of its basic teachings; and, yes, Muslims writing on Christianity in a similar manner. The question of forgiveness is a key example, many writers convinced by the notion that Christianity exclusively amongst the world religions has addressed the issue. The opinion of the prominent evangelist associated with the Alpha Course is just one example amongst many.

Perhaps understandably, authors often view the beliefs of others through the prism of their own theology. As a result Christians are concerned about salvation to such an extent that they view its absence in other faiths as a great oversight. Salvation by good works, for example, is a Catholic concept, for Muslims do not believe that humans are by nature fallen and thus do not seek salvation. Instead, good works are undertaken for the pleasure of God, who loves goodness and beauty. We also believe that we are not judged by the deeds themselves, but by the intentions behind them. Thus one could feed the poor seeking people’s good opinion and it would not be of benefit at all. Yet sin is addressed by Islam, with a huge emphasis placed on forgiveness; it just happens to be a practical step, rather than a metaphysical one: ‘as long as you call on Me and hope in Me, I will forgive you whatever comes from you and I do not care.’

Church Rejection of Books in the Bible

THE QUESTION asked of me regarding the acceptance of one book of the Bible and rejection of others, could equally be asked of the various denominations of the Christian Church. For in fact it is the case that there is great difference between denominations even now with regard to which books are accepted as canonical and which are not. It is also the case that there has been great debate historically on the matter of the canonical books of the Bible.

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‘How can you accept one book of the Bible and reject all the other?’

THIS IS a question I was once asked when I sought to draw attention to the teachings of the Letter of James. This has been my way on various occasions, for historic parallels have been drawn between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam. The question, of course, is a perfectly fair one and it is one which I intend to address here. The truth is that I do not accept this book whilst rejecting all the others. I make reference to it because I find it very interesting, in the same way that other sources interest me, but I do not ‘accept’ it as authentic on its own or in the place of others.

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“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the Cross.” John Stott

DURING MY days of ignorance, 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 can’t help my sinfulness, and hell couldn’t be all that bad really. Indeed, many Christians today no longer think of hell in the traditional terms of centuries (even decades) past. There is ample evidence of this in Christian books: I find that hell is often described merely as a feeling of alienation from God. The above sentiment expressed by John Stott, a Preacher at London’s All Souls, is one I have heard more than once from Christian quarters. Only a God who had suffered as mankind suffers, the argument goes, could have any right to judge them.

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“Insha Allah?” You mean, “Whatever.”

OF THE Christians, I have only ever heard Roman Catholics use the phrase God Willing. We just need to turn the pages of English history to discover that there is good reason for this. It was only a few centuries ago that the Anglican Church engaged in theological debate on the topic of freewill and divine decree. The conclusion they came to is obvious when we consider how alien those two words are to the vocabulary of the Church of England.

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The Qur’an misunderstands the Trinity

I HAVE dipped into several books on Islam authored by Christians and the most common charge seems to be that the Qur’an misunderstands the Trinity. Christians do not worship three gods as Muslims often claim, these authors argue, but one God made up of three co-equal parts. This claim, I believe, is itself based on a misunderstanding of Islam’s teaching on Tawhid (the unity of God) and shirk (associating partners with God).

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“In Islam, sinners will face judgement without forgiveness”

Nicky Gumbel, 1994, Searching Issues, Kingsway Publications, England p.31

I WAS reading Searching Issues by Nicky Gumbel (of Alpha / Holy Trinity Brompton fame) recently and I came across the above statement in the second chapter, ‘What About Other Religions?‘ The question I want to address here is whether this is true. The actual context of his remark, I think, arises from a different theological perspective. To quote more fully, Gumbel writes:

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The tiniest spark

Today I felt a discomfort in my soul, like on another day a week or two ago. There was no reason for it really, but for a moment, seeking something in common with my peers, I complained aloud about my Project Manager. I fed upon my own boss’ cynicism about her abilities and complained that the translation that I was supposed to be working from was incomplete, and that she had written for me a note of what I had already explained for her on a yellow post-it note on my folder. ‘How stupid,’ was my implication. Ten seconds later, having said it, regret filled my mind. I felt like sending an e-mail to a brother. ‘I’m becoming no better than a kaffer [disbeliever].’ I didn’t write it. I questioned my intention. But I thought it. ‘I should know better. Maybe that makes me worse.’

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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.

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Honest dialogue

The starting point of any dialogue must be that the parties involved are committed to honesty. This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but it is a point which seems to have escaped many. To illustrate, we may refer to an article which appeared in the Church Times during the Lambeth Conference in 1998, entitled, ‘When the chips are down’ (Margaret Duggan, 31 July 1998, p.4). In this article, the author summarises a speach given at the conference by Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon of Kaduna diocese in northern Nigeria, on dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Duggan makes no attempt in her article to verify the Bishops’s statements; it is a report of his speech, but it is clearly also more than that. Although statements about Muslims, the Qur’an or Islam are all attributed only to the Bishop, the causal reader will finish the article with an idea that he or she has an accurate representation of these matters. This is especially true since the source is said to have degrees in Islamic Studies.

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Paul, in his letter to the Romans (Revised English Bible, Romans 3:7), wrote, “…if the truth of God is displayed to his greater glory through my falsehood, why should I any longer be condemned as a sinner?” And therefore, on these grounds that saint Paul says lying is alright, I will announce to you all a new religion and you will all follow me because I say it is true and you will not question me. Actually, I won’t announce anything of the sort; that was a wee lie; but there is a point to my incoherent meanderings.