‘Christians, Muslims and Jesus’

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Prepared for an interview with Revd Stephen Sizer on Al-Etejah TV. Broadcast date not known. 

Why do you believe this is an important book?

Because it is unique, a Muslim reflection on Jesus as a key figure shared by two religions who are divided by their different understandings. Mona highlights this in the Introduction and opens up why talking about Jesus is so important, ‘A revered prophet or God Incarnate, Jesus is central to continued theological engagement, yet Christology seems to be a difficult subject for discussion between Christians and Muslims in dialogue today. It is as if the divinity and humanity of Christ cannot be a basis for any scholarly discussion by Muslims because it represents everything Islamic monotheism has struggled against, the ultimate stumbling block in dialogue. This has then had the unfortunate consequence of closing off any real empathy with what Christ means in the life of Christians.’ (p.4,5)

The things that we don’t talk about become the things that we must talk about, otherwise they will bite us. There is potential for both resentment and hardened avoidance. So this book is important because it is rare and engages with difficulties and sensitivities. Those dialogues which generally take place between Christians and Muslims on the question of Jesus are not dialogues but polemical debates with neither side seeking to understand where the other is and why. There is a serious lack in the exploration of why, on the basis of Christian scripture and later theological developments, Christians believe what they do. There is a strand of Muslim apologetic which presents isolated texts and hopes to use them to ‘prove’ that Jesus is not who, or what, Christians claim him to be.

This book is also important because it is a book of passion, a commitment to going deeper in dialogue. I’m also writing a book on Jesus myself so I’m keen to see what others are writing, whatever their stance, as well as having a fascination with the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

What is Mona Siddiqui trying to achieve by writing this book?

The easy answer is that she is doing what she says, opening up the dialogue, listening to Christian scholars and presenting their thoughts in their original words. Her bibliography includes Balthasar, Barth, Cullmann, Dunn and Macquarrie.

But she is also taking Christianity and Christian scholarship seriously. I have a real sense of being heard and recognised, which is a rare thing in dialogue. I know only a handful of British Muslim scholars who have both an interest and the will to attempt what Mona attempts, one of them is writing a book on Christianity. What we must not lose sight of is that this is a book that is aimed at both Christians and Muslims, it is a rare book, or writer, which attempts this let alone achieves it, which she does. For those who are committed to honest dialogue without seeking to change the other then this is a very attractive book. A few of my Muslim colleagues are keen to read what she has to say.

Are you convinced?

Definitely, this is a very honest book and is very clear in describing Christian belief. It also describes Mona’s own journey, probably none of us expected a Muslim to write a chapter called ‘Reflections on the Cross’. She is dwelling in the inter-religious space of uncomfortability, wrestling with another tradition that cannot be ignored, as I have found in my own experience. Hence, she writes ‘… I don’t think I have reflected on why the cross remains so powerful. Maybe it is unsettling, for it blurs the boundaries between God and humanity.’ (p. 234) If we aren’t convinced by her own openness which speaks so loudly in the book, she also gives space to some of her Christian friends who share what they think and feel about the Cross. After these reflections she comments, ‘ Yet the more I read the personal account of the cross, the more I am convinced that for most people the cross reveals a surprising truth about the way God really is, a God for whom no rejection is final’ (p. 239, 240). A definition that works for me so, yes, I am convinced.

In what way is this book an expression of her own personal journey of faith?

Mona begins the book by stating, ‘the book is to some extent my own journey’ (p.2). Also at the end of the book she says, ‘this book … has been a personal and spiritual journey for me … In my conversations with my Christian colleagues, in my reading of Christian theology, I have been fortunate enough to listen and I have learnt in greater depth how to talk of God’ (p. 224, 225). In an ideal world all Christians and Muslims would have this experience with each other! One of her personal closing reflections is that, ‘The cross is powerful and the crucifixion is sorrowful. But as I sit here I feel that while the cross speaks to me, it does not draw me in. Its mystery is moving, but I cannot incline towards what it says about a God in form, a God who undergoes this inexplicable agony for an inexplicable act of mercy. It is not the language of redemption which I cannot understand, it is the necessity of God’s self revelation for this act of redemption.’ (p. 242)

What can Christians learn from this Muslim scholar?

The most straightforward response to this is that we can be inspired by a believer of another faith who has wrestled with our beliefs and represented them so well. I was struck by her description of Christian belief  on the very last page of the book ‘It is in our woundedness that the risen Christ came with the message of peace, love and forgiveness so that the deeper emptiness of our lives becomes a privileged place where we can encounter God. In both religions it seems to me that our journey in life rests on these immeasurable realities of suffering and hope.’ She continues, ‘However differently Christians and Muslims define God and their relationship to God, God remains the deepest presence in our lives … I am convinced that whenever and wherever I turn to God, I share this humbling but joyful relationship with all who turn to him in faith.’ (p. 248)

At the deeper level we can witness the radical appreciation across difference of someone who has looked into our beliefs more deeply than we have.  I studied the Early Church Fathers but never delved into the scholars who were contemporaneous with early Muslim thinkers, reminding us that this dialogue has been going on for a long time, but only very, very rarely in the open and appreciative way that Mona has done.

What is the point of looking back at ancient texts in history?

This is our Abrahamic legacy. Those who have written and dialogued in the past, have left us ancient texts which are a little less ancient than our foundational texts. But they are also the texts that we have built upon, even if we have forgotten them. What we have forgotten, and perhaps ignored, is the serious dialogue that took place long ago when our two faiths were neighbours getting to know each other. This coexistence and dialogue was shaken up by the long period of the ‘Crusades’ and in the last 50 years or so, in the West, we have begun to encounter each other anew, often underlined by historical animosity rather than historic dialogues. So we need trailblazers to take us back in time to begin again and reintroduce us to our spiritual ancestors who took the trouble to read each others texts, when these days we don’t always read our own.

Are the similarities between our faiths greater than the differences?

Essentially, the key difference between Christianity and Islam is Jesus. Given that he is a dividing figure between the two faiths, while having some characteristics in common I think we must say that there is a great deal of similarity. This commonality, indeed Jesus himself, invites us to come and share our similarities and share our differences and in doing so recognise each other and say ‘you look familiar, and so do your beliefs, except …’

Do you believe Muslims and Christians are closer now than at other times in history?

Definitely. We are more mixed up than ever, living alongside each other almost everywhere, a new pattern in God’s, and our, world. In fact in the UK, the census tells us that there is a Muslim living in every borough. Add to that the many Christian-Muslim and inter faith groups all round the UK, America and elsewhere. We also have a lot of scope for learning and understanding about each other. Mona’s book is unique in its subject but there are many books we have written about Christianity, Islam and inter faith dialogue for each other.

How does a book like this help further Christian Muslim dialogue?

It takes things to a new level, provides an inspiration and, from the conversations I have had, is appealing to both Christians and Muslims. It helps that Mona is well known to many people due to her appearances on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. One of my friends at the church I attend – The Square Methodist Church in Dunstable – was telling me that he hopes to get the book for Christmas because he is so impressed with Mona’s wisdom and spirituality on the radio. Perhaps, as she says in the Introduction, it breaks a few taboos too. My colleague Anjum Anwar based at Blackburn Cathedral has organised an event on 30 January 2014 at which Mona will be talking about her book. We hope that it will be as well attended as the last event on Jesus and Muhammad, when we had 200 people in the cathedral. 

If you were writing a sequel, what would you emphasize?

First of all, I think there is a choice of sequels: ‘Christians, Muslims and Jesus: A Response’ (which I would see as a shorter book, especially as I am not an academic like Mona) or ‘Christians, Muslims and Muhammad’. I would want to emphasise, as I have done already, the importance of the conversation and an appreciation of Mona, and others, for opening the way. I would also want to highlight that, although we bear his name, Christians do not ‘own’ Jesus. We should be encouraged that others want to speak about him, and at least intrigued that he features in the scriptures of another religion. I think many Christians, though not all, are aware of this by now but we need to take this intriguing feature of the Qur’an and Islam as an invitation to dialogue, not a red rag, as sometimes happens. As a campaigner and activist I would also be encouraging Christians and Muslims to meet together and talk about Jesus, perhaps Jesus can lead us into a better conversation.

Julian Bond

Director, Christian Muslim Forum

16 December 2013

 

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