Christians, Muslims and Jesus. By Mona Siddiqui. New Haven: Yale University Press. Pp264. PB. 2013. £20
Jesus occupies a very important role in both Islam and Christianity. In the former, he is revered as a mighty Prophet (nabi) and the Spirit of God (ruh Allah), while the latter considers him to be the self-revelation of Divinity in flesh and as the founder of the faith. The author of the book under review states that she has been engaged in interfaith dialogue for many years and, despite being a faithful Muslim, she has always been interested in exploring Christianity. This book is a result of her quest to understand the role of Jesus in Islam and Christianity, two of the great religions of the world.
According to the author, the ‘overall aim of the book is not any concerted effort to dispel misunderstandings and recriminations, although if that is a consequence of the book, it is a most welcome consequence. The aim is 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. The book can therefore be seen as a historical overview of what the scholars said rather than what the ordinary Christians and Muslims did.’ (p4)
The perception of Jesus as a Prophet or God Incarnate, or the question of his Divinity or humanity, has so occupied Islam and Christianity that scholarly discussions of these and other related topics are rarely undertaken by representatives of both religions, thus Christology becoming a stumbling block to serious debate and dialogue. The author calls for understanding on both sides to enable real empathy and understanding to prevail in order to facilitate real Christian-Muslim dialogue for the benefit of all, not just the followers of the two religions concerned.
Consisting of an Introduction, five chapters and a Conclusion (Chapter 6), this book is a partly personal, partly objective and a partly comparative account, but without being dull and wishing-washy in its approach. In Chapters 1, 4, 5 and the Conclusion, the author explores topics such as Prophecy, Divinity, Mary, Sin, Redemption, Love and Law in both Islam and Christianity. Chapters 2 and 3 consist of interesting survey of historical writings about Christianity and Islam by the followers of both religions from the eighth century onwards. By contrast, the last chapter of the book is a personal reflection by the author on the cross to understand ‘how Jesus’ death on the cross remains for many Christians the centre of their faith, and on what the cross says to me as a Muslim.’ (p3)
Although this is a very difficult and tricky topic for a Muslim to tackle, the author’s approach is very interesting and admirable. In her own words, ‘the more I read personal accounts 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.’ (p240) Swiftly adding, ‘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. Why does the fall become the paradigm of human life making the cross the ultimate paradox of death and new life?’ (p243)
By contrast, argues the author, Islam takes a different approach by lifting ‘God back into the transcendent, not in the sense of a distant God but a God who chooses to retain the secrets of his Self. Prophecy points to the transcendent, but prophecy can only guide to the divine, it cannot assume the divine.’ (p245)
The author admits that Christians are baffled by Muslim refusal to accept the Incarnation and salvific role of Christ, while the latter are baffled by the complex nature of the Christian God, yet concludes that they do not worship a different God.
This is an interesting and thoughtful book, and I recommend it to both Muslims and Christians especially those engaged in interfaith debate and dialogue. The book includes endnotes and a useful bibliography.
Muhammad Khan. Acclaimed author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013).