Book review: Christians, Muslims And Jesus by Mona Siddiqui

IN THIS enlightening and inspiring book, Mona ­Siddiqui, the Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at Edinburgh ­University’s Divinity School, discusses how Jesus is both the “bridge and barrier” between Christianity and Islam.

Christians, Muslims And Jesus

Mona Siddiqui

Yale University Press, £20

It is in itself a significant work of inter-faith understanding, and in its account of the historical debates on the role of Jesus in both religions, offers an important model of how such theological dialogues might ideally be conducted without either bigoted intransigence or relativistic self-censoring.­

Jesus is revered within Islam as the most significant prophet before Muhammad, and is seen as a key precursor in bringing the message of God’s unity and sovereignty to humanity. He is not, however, worshipped as God; and the ideas of the Incarnation, Resurrection and the Trinity led Muslim scholars to see in Christianity a surreptitious polytheism.

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While Islam can read Christianity as a partial stepping stone towards the truth (and the Koran contains more references, for example, to Mary than the Gospels); Christianity has often read Islam as a “scourge”, a heretical deviation allowed by God to punish Christians for backsliding. In concentrating on how the New Testament, the Koran, Christian theologians and Islamic practitioners of kalam (or dialectic philosophy about the divine) have variously interpreted Jesus, Siddiqui shows how each clarified itself in dialogue with the other.

The central part of the book presents the relevant texts from the earliest exchanges through to the Reformation and the poet Rumi’s various works on Jesus (Rumi writes “When someone asks you ‘How did Christ quicken the dead?’ Then give me a kiss in his presence, ‘Thus!’”).

Many of these texts will be unfamiliar to Western readers and make for a fascinating and precise account of the key concerns. These are framed by a discussion of the idea of the Prophet and of prophethood (some Islamic commentators claimed that mention of Muhammad’s coming was expunged from the Bible, an idea vigorously dismissed by other Islamic thinkers), an investigation into the role of Mary in both religions, an extensive argument about the relative roles of law, love and grace and finally Siddiqui’s own meditation of what the cross can mean to Muslims.

It is a moving personal testimony, fully admitting of both doubts and optimism: and 
for Christian readers, Sid­di­qui’s contention that “I know that I must go to him eventually, that he has not already come” ought to provoke self-reflection.­

In analysing how the religions approached the figure of Jesus involves Siddiqui discussing far wider concerns. In particular, it requires a sensitive reading of how each of the faiths approaches the idea of evil. Islam sees evil as fundamentally temporary, whereas through original sin, Christianity sees it as intrinsic.

It is telling that in the Old and New Testament, Satan is seen as the tempter and the adversary, whereas the Islamic Iblis is a figure who causes despair and whose original crime was the failure to bow down to Adam, not God. Siddiqui cleverly observes that Islamic anxieties about the nature of the Trinity were mirrored in Christianity’s own vexations, from the Arian heresy through to the Council of Nicaea

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The idea of the Crucifixion – that God could voluntarily elect to die – struck Islamic theologians, particularly of the Mu’tazilite school, as a paradox verging on blasphemy. It should be said that it was a problem for many Christians as well: the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream Of The Rood struggles to make it a form of victory; and even the greatest Christian poet, John Milton, became curiously reticent about the crucifixion (his poem on the subject is significantly unfinished).

Indeed, it is this paradox that GK Chesteron, for example, made fundamental to the moral genius of Christianity. As he wrote in Orthodoxy: “Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete... [there is] only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”