Monday, 21 September 2009

Christians Reading the Qur'an



The Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan has now finished. I'm still not rooted enough in Birmingham and Sparkhill to enjoy the levels of participation in the month that I particularly experienced in my parish in Leeds between 2004 and 2006 and reflect upon in my forthcoming book.

However, I was invited by Birmingham Young Citizens and Islamic Help to engage in a sponsored fast towards the end of Ramadan to raise money for projects in Tanzania, and went to an enjoyable inter faith Iftar organised by the group with Muslims, Christians and Sikhs in attendance.

It was during the Ramadan fast of 2005 that I first seriously engaged with the Qur'an and haven't put it down for long since. Annie and I try to read something from the Qur'an daily after we have said the Morning Office prayers and readings. And I have received much spiritual insight from reading the Qur'an.

What is the nature of the Qur'an for Christians willing to openly engage with it?

It has been argued that in the latter years of the last century three lines of explanation developed amongst Christian readers of the Qur'an - beyond the negative dismissals of simplistic Christian apologetics - on its value to Christians (1)

The first position recognises that the Qur'an is of spiritual benefit to Muslims but tends not to explore its possible spiritual benefit for Christians. It emphasisesthe differences between Qur'anic statements and Christian conviction. Jacques Jomier in The Bible and the Qur'an has said 'According to Islam, God's message has not been incarnated in a man, Jesus Christ, but rather delivered in a book, in the Qur'an. This book gives guidence to Muslims to follow the path of obedience to God's law, which they believe, leads to salvation. For Christians, public revelation is full. complete and concluded in Jesus Christ. And because the Incarnation and Redemption are denied in Islam, the whole idea of salvation is different in this religion'. For Jomier the benefit of reading the Qur'an for Christians is simply to help them better understand their Muslim neighbour.

The second position argues that the text is divinely inspired and can be read with spiritual benefit by Christians but tends to recruit the Qur'an as a Christian text. its proponents argue that Islamic tradition has misunderstood the Qur'anic revelation and emphasises a Christian influenced interpretation or appeals to a 'higher' level of truth/reading in which the differences between the Qur'anic and Christian revelation are overcome. Franciscan, Giulio Basetti - Sani's The Koran in the Light of Christ - Islam in the plan of History of Salvation (1977) is an example of such an approach.

The third and to my mind most interesting position takes a mediating path between these two, trying to respect the Qur'an as Islamic scripture and to respect Islamic traditions of interpretation, whilst showing how it might also function as spiritually beneficial to Christians.

Hans Kung has argued that the Qur'an can act as a 'prophetic corrective' for Christians to the overly 'high christology' of concilliar Christianity and aid the recovery of an earlier Jewish Christianity with a lower Christological perspective. Although I think there is some merit in this argument the way Kung goes about it appears a little too much like recruiting the Qur'an to his modernist Christian theological project.

On the other hand Kenneth Cragg seeks to work in the other direction to Kung. Whilst being steeped in a deeply appreciative understanding of the Islamic interpretation of the Qur'an Cragg argues that Christians can interpret the Qur'an from within the perspective of Christic revelation. Cragg arguesthat certain Quranic themes can be illuminated more fully through an engagement with the Christian gospel. Whilst Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman was very appreciative of Cragg's encounter with the Qur'an, if not uncritical, other Muslims have argued more forcefully that he reveals an overly Christianizing and indeed orientalizing tendency in his approach.

Perhaps the most interesting mediating perspective is found with the long term Muslim-Christian Research group - a European- North African initiative of the 1980s that brought together Christian and Islamic scholars to read the Qur'an and the Bible together over a number of years. The small but richly engaging book The Challenge of the Scriptures - The Bible and the Qur'an was one of the results of this dialogue. The Christians in the group, at the end of the process, when asked to reflect on the meaning of the Qur'an said:

'We see the Qur'an as an authentic Word of God, but one in part essentially different from the Word in Jesus Christ'

Peter Ford argues that ' these Christians have thus been willing to be drawn in into a certain spiritual tension, to live with a measure of paradox. it cannot be denied that their approach, at once honest and respectful, holds an excellent prospect for constructive dialogue with Muslims, and not least because such statements are formulated within such dialogue.'

The first decade of the 21st century has seen a new phenomenon the Scriptural Reasoning movement developing amongst Jews, Christians and Muslims. This movement may be said to share the same spirit as the earlier Muslim-Christian Research Group but this time including Jews. A very interesting film showing one such scriptural reasoning group in process can be found here.

Reading the Qur'an as a Christian and listening to and reading about how Muslims understand and interpret the Qur'an has been a challenging and enriching spiritual experience. I find myself drawn to the tension ridden paradoxical position of the Christians in the European - North African initiated dialogue of the 1980s.

Below I recommend some resources for any Christians who would also like to step out on a journey of their own into the Qur'an

(1) See F. Peter Ford Jnr 'The Qur'an as Sacred Scripture: An Assessment of Contemporary Christian Perspectives' in The Muslim World April 1993

Some resources for engaging with the Qur’an written by Muslims or taking an approach that is sensitive and knowledgeable about how Muslims engage with the Qur’anic revelation, that I have found helpful.

Books on the Qur’an by Muslims

Farid Esack, The Qur’an – A Users Guide (One World 2005)
A very good all round introduction from a Muslim committed to a faith activist and liberationist perspective but who also undertook traditionalist Islamic studies. Esack was a leading Muslim activist in the anti Apartheid struggle in South Africa and has been involved in activism on war, imperialism and Aids. Esack’s more academic earlier work based on his PhD thesis at Birmingham University and drawing particularly on his involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle is Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism (One World 1997) and very much worth the effort.

Mona Siddiqui, How to Read the Qur’an (Granta 2007)
Muslim academic’s accessible introduction to the Qur’an. An interfaith practitioner who has featured in recent years as one of the main speakers at the Greenbelt Arts Festival

Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur'an, (1989)
A modern classic probably better read after some time of engagement with the Qur'an.

Asma Barlas, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an (University of Texas Press 2002)
A brilliant reading of the Qur’an from a woman’s perspective emphasising the radically egalitarian and anti-patriarchal nature of its teachings. Asma Barlas is amongst a leading group of women scholars challenging readings of Islam based on western media stereotypes and cultural patriarchy.

Reading/Hearing the Qur’an

Approaching the Qur’an – The Early Revelations Michael Sells (White Cloud Press 2007)
This is an excellent starting place. The book goes through each of the Surahs - the shorter Meccan surahs of early Qur’anic revelation - that a young Muslim would learn as they first became familiar with the Qur’an. Sells translates these surahs and has a scholarly but accessible commentary on each. The book also contains a CD with recitations of some of surahs by world renowned reciters.

The Book of Revelations: A Sourcebook of Themes from the Holy Qur'an edited by Kabir Helminski (The Book Foundation 2005)
A good next step with commentaries by respected modern commentators on a large number of selected passages .

The Qur’an translated by M A S Abdel Haleem (Oxford World Classics 2008)
A good modern accessible translation of the whole Qur'an

The Message of the Qur'an (Book Foundation 2008)
The Arabic text with transliteration, translation and commentary by modern scholar Muhammad Asad - for deeper engagement.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Dear Ray
Janice and I have just spent a substantial part of Ramazah (as it is known in Turkish(travelling through Asia Minor)and reflecting on the nature of Islam within a very dynamic democracy, I look forward to sharing a few of our insights into how such an expression of faith differs from that of Islam of the Indian sub-continent which is much more in evidence within the UK. Given that we shall be in residence at Queens for the next 5 weeks, I hope there will be opportunities for such a sharing. Peter