Christianity: A Muslims’ Understanding

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‘Christians, Muslims & Jesus’ by Mona Siddiqui; Yale University Press; 288 pages; ₤20.

This book is a good answer to Charles Malik’s reproach. Mona Siddiqui, a devout Muslim, is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the Divinity School, Edinburgh University and author, among other works, of ‘How to Read the Quran’ and ‘The Good Muslim: Reflections on Classical Islamic Law and Theology’. The present work is a ground breaking examination of the way Muslim thinkers have approached and responded to Jesus through the centuries. He is, both, the bridge and the barrier between Islam and Christianity. The author embarks on a personal, theological journey exploring the centrality of Jesus in Christian – Muslim relations. She deals with the themes of revelation, prophecy, sin, salvation, redemption, law and love. Muslims revere Jesus as a uniquely inspired Prophet (ruh Allah, the Spirit of God); but they do not accept him as the Son of God. They accept the Immaculate Conception; but not the doctrine of Trinity of God.
This work of high scholarship ends with the author’s moving account of what Islam means to her and her insights on Christianity. “The book is to some extent my own journey exploring the views, doctrines and conversations Christians and Muslims have held on the figure of Jesus Christ, in particular even when Muhammad is used as a point of comparison. … How did Christians discuss the unique nature of Jesus and how did Muslims respond? … Can the theology of the cross have any meaning for a Muslim today?”

The author offers a rich store of primacy sources which make the work a “source book”. Her aim is not to dispel misunderstandings and recriminations, but to show more clearly what Christians and Muslims were saying in conciliatory as well as polemical terms in response to each other’s beliefs about Jesus.

“When I was growing up, my parents told us stories of the prophets as a way of conveying and elaborating the sacred tales contained in the Qur’an. It was a way of explaining how God connects to human beings and how these stories always point to a presence and power beyond us. In later years I discovered that many of the Prophets, including the great prophets of Israel, had scant mention in the Qur’an. The actual stories with the romantic amplification of the Qur’anic material were largely from the Qisas al-ambiya, the particular genre of literature known as the ‘ Stories of the Prophets’ ”.

That great authority on Islam, Hamilton Gibb wrote of the theme of continuity in Islam’s relationship to Judaism and Christianity. But he pointed also to a new departure in Islam: “The originality of Islam is nonetheless real, in that it represents a further step in the logical (if not philosophical) evolution of the monotheistic religions. Its monotheism, like that of the Hebrew Prophets, is absolute and unconditioned, but with this it combines the universalism of Christianity. On the one hand, it rejects the nationalist taint from which Judaism as a religion did not succeed in freeing itself; for Islam never identified itself with the Arabs, although at times Arabs have identified themselves with it.”

A Protestant scholar John Macquarie asserted that Jesus did not proclaim his own deity and that the expression “Son of God” is a metaphor. “God’s metaphorical sending of his metaphorical son can be understood in ways that do not imply pre-existence, once we accept that the language is metaphorical and not literal.”

At one point the author, noting “the structural differences between Islam and Christianity”, asks in despair whether they have anything in common. But she does not give up. “The absence of the cross does not diminish divine love, it is replaced by a different longing for God. I have a copy of the Qur’an always at my bedside table. I try to read at least a couple of lines before I leave the house every day. I do not see God physically in this reading but I feel his presence. To feel God’s gaze in this action is powerful, consoling, even moving, although I carry no physical image of a God whose dramatic death revealed his dramatic love. ..

“If the most profound message of the cross is about God’s power of love and forgiveness reaching out to all humanity, this is a message that I cannot ignore. … In my journey through this book, I have tried to understand how Christians and Muslims have talked to each other using their own doctrines. Christians have been baffled as to why Muslims refuse to accept the Incarnation and salvific role of Christ, while Muslims are baffled at the complex nature of the Christian God. Yet I do not think that Muslims and Christians worship a different God, whatever that question means to some. God is God and no amount of poetical or philosophical language can exhaust any definition of him.”

No student of Comparative Religion can ignore this path-breaking book. One hopes it is a precursor to many such efforts by Muslims.