An Honest Hearing

Review by David Bertaina

In this work of comparative theology, professor Mona Siddiqui of the University of Edinburgh presents a provocative exposition of Islamic and Christian Christology (specifically the Incarnation and the Trinity). The book is not about personal experiences or worship practices related to Jesus. Instead, its methodology is intellectual history, addressing what Christians and Muslims have believed about Jesus. While the title is succinct, the book is more accurately a Muslim theological perspective on Jesus and Christianity in comparison with Siddiqui’s vision of Islam. The order of questions and topics are determined by the classical Islamic approaches to Christianity.

Christians, Muslims, and Jesus
By Mona Siddiqui.
Yale. Pp. 296. $32.50

Siddiqui begins by pointing out that Christians and Muslims must be able to explain their views of Jesus (her first goal) and know their sources (her second purpose). In the first chapter, she argues that while Scripture and prophecy are primary sources of authority for Muslims and guarantee divine communication, the Incarnation plays the primary role of God’s message to the world for Christians. Although the chapter is titled “The End of Prophecy,” it is more about the concept of authority and “Word,” meaning the Qur’an for Muslims and Christ incarnate for Christians.

The second chapter focuses on the question of monotheism and the Trinity. Muslims emphasize God’s oneness and transcendence, while Christians emphasize God’s triune nature and immanence. Siddiqui tries to show that both embody the characteristics of transcendence and immanence. She concludes that while believers may see creeds and dogma as barriers to discussion, they should be able to share the passion of their faith and attempt to make it comprehensible to another.

The third chapter covers the scholastic debates of the medieval period. Siddiqui sums up medieval Islamic approaches to Christianity by highlighting that they failed to address what faith in Jesus Christ meant for Christians. In particular, the absence of the language of divine love and its influence on Christian life and culture is not a part of these Muslim polemics (p. 113). In the same way, medieval Christian authors failed to grasp the Islamic view of God’s immanence. For Muslims, divine transcendence was upheld when the prophets received God’s revelation. For Christians, God revealed himself in the Incarnation and his divine immanence overcame the distance between human and divine (pp. 147-48). Siddiqui concludes by highlighting that Muslims must comprehend the meaning of Christian belief and worship and its effect on the lives of individual Christians. Dialogue requires sympathy and understanding.

The fourth chapter focuses on the role of Mary within each tradition in light of Jesus. Siddiqui makes an insightful point that Mary is not as amenable to interreligious dialogue as is sometimes supposed. For Muslims, Mary’s work was complete with the birth of Jesus and her role as a liberator in Christianity is absent (pp. 167-68). While Siddiqui analyzes Mary in the Qur’an she never mentions that Sura Maryam (Q 19) is a commentary on the Proto-Gospel of James, a second-century Christian story about Mary. This is an important point because it is a good example of how Muslims can learn to read Christian literature faithfully alongside the Qur’an. Sharing biblical stories is incumbent upon Christians who want Muslims to understand their faith and practice. Another valuable theological point left out of the chapter is the qur’anic text that castigates Christians for taking Mary as one of the Trinity (Q 5:116: And when God said: “Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to the people: ‘Take me and my mother as gods apart from God?’”). Certainly the theological implications of this verse need to be addressed in the Islamic community: when they critique Christian Trinitarian belief, what exactly do they think Christians believe about Mary?

The fifth chapter examines the contrast between the themes of law and love in Islam and Christianity. Siddiqui argues rightly that the religions lack agreement about the concepts of sin and salvation. The drama of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, Siddiqui argues, is not essential to Islamic concepts of sin, redemption, and salvation. Sin is temporary and God’s mercy at the time of judgment will determine one’s fate. One’s actions will give God a criterion to determine one’s salvation. But for Christians sin is relational because it breaks communion with God. One can freely choose to enter into reconciliation with God or to abandon him.

The contrast between law and love is important to Christians and lacking from Islamic frameworks. For Muslims, their ultimate faith is in the law, because it is not seen to bring condemnation when it fails. Law is the instrument of salvation and the medium for God’s grace. For Muslims, God’s mercy is of his own choosing, bestowed out of his desire to be merciful. For Christians, God’s love is of our mutual choosing, generously given through Jesus Christ to all people in order to be freely embraced by humans for eternal life. One of the challenges for Christians is to understand how Muslims do not have a problem with believing that neither will nor action makes God merciful, particularly since the Christian concept of sacrament — repentance and acceptance of God’s grace in this life — is absent from Islamic frameworks. Thus God’s love is not as central as his mercy, nor is his relationship to us, and his immanence, important as a redeeming factor in our lives. One of the missing aspects of this chapter is a sufficient discussion of sanctification in Christian theology and life. Siddiqui does not address the fact that Christians see God’s love fundamentally through the lens of communion. Further, the chapter compares the dialectics of law and love exclusively in relation to God. The commandment to love one’s neighbor in relation to Christian faith would develop this topic with greater symmetry.

The concluding chapter on the cross addresses the rejection of the crucifixion by Muslims. The tone of the chapter is fundamentally Islamic in its mourning over Jesus’ death as a tragic image that God failed. Siddiqui acknowledges that “the tragedy of the human situation” allows Christians to be close to those in poverty, suffering, and death. And yet the triumph, the life of sanctification, the power of the cross is absent from her analysis of the crucifixion. The chapter does not fully appreciate that Christians proclaim Jesus’ victory over death on the cross and its path to eternal life. Siddiqui notes that the cross is impossible in an Islamic framework because “[f]orgiveness is not a given, it has not happened yet, not because it needs to be earned but simply because we have not witnessed it yet” (p. 243). More discussion of Christian ecclesiology and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, would help to make this comparison more fruitful and to better understand the positive work of redemption.

The most important goal in comparative theology is to create a symmetrical model, that is, a structure that compares the traditions of each faith without misrepresenting or idealizing one over the other. This is perhaps the greatest challenge to anyone who does comparative studies, and in this case there are some instances where more fruitful comparisons could have been made. One of the asymmetrical comparisons in this book comes from the use of sources. On the one hand, academic debates about Christology by pluralists (including non-Christians) are portrayed as if they were normative for Christianity. Yet their views are compared with traditional Islamic thinkers. In another instance, the book gives a detailed historical-critical assessment of Jesus but nothing about the historical Muhammad. Eliminating these skeptical analyses of Jesus, or adding them for Muhammad, would actually put the two figures in closer symmetry.

One value to Siddiqui’s book is its honest Islamic inquiry into the relationship of Islam to Christianity. We need more Muslims making honest attempts to understand Christianity. Reading Christian sources and taking them actually to mean what they say is an important step in entering dialogue. This attitude is taken for granted in Western cultures, but it needs to be taught at the popular level in the Islamic world, where polemics still pervade the mindset of religious communities. Finally, Siddiqui’s book is welcome because it encourages Muslims to read the Bible in order to understand the context of their own scripture. Siddiqui’s analysis of the Bible and what Christians believe is important, despite some analytical asymmetries. Instead of repeating polemical mantras of the past, Siddiqui has put forward a book demonstrating that Muslims and Christians are in dialogue. Books like this should be encouraged from academia and the wider Islamic community.

David Bertaina is the first comparative religion specialist at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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