Siddiqui, Mona, 2013, Christians, Muslims and Jesus

Christians, Muslims and JesusSiddiqui, Mona (2013), Christians, Muslims and Jesus, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 285pp, £12.99, pb

Synopsis

This is a courageous book, and it is a significant addition to the discussions that have continued since the beginning of Islam in the seventh century. It brings light to an area of Christian-Muslim relations that has been characterised by excessive heat and the gloom of widespread misunderstanding.  Drawing on both Muslims and Christian sources it explores the history of the debate between Christians and Muslims over the person of Jesus, discusses why Muslims cannot entertain the idea of incarnation, and reflects on the Qur’anic denial of the crucifixion.

Reviewer

Prof. David Thomas

Nadir Dinshaw Professor of Interreligious Relations, University of Birmingham

REVIEW

Date of Review: January, 2013

Rare among religions of the world, the scriptures of Islam and Christianity contain teachings about the same figures. Among them, the figure of Jesus features more prominently in the Qur’an than anyone else apart from Abraham and Moses. Like the Bible, the Qur’an describes his birth to the Virgin Mary, refers to his teachings and miracles of healing and resuscitation, mentions his ascension to God and makes allusions that have been interpreted by Muslims as his return to the earth at the end of time. It also calls him the Word of God and a Spirit from him. This all makes Jesus a very unusual character, unique among all the others who appear in the Qur’an, including Muhammad. However, the Qur’an is clear that Jesus was created and not divine, describes him denying divinity or equality with God, and in one verse, ch. 4:157, it states plainly that the Jews did not kill or crucify him, “but it was made to appear so to them”. The Jesus of the Qur’an has none of the characteristics of the Son of God or God on earth, and in the way this verse has been interpreted by Muslims he did not die an atoning death. He is thus a puzzling figure, both seeming to transcend the limits of humanity and also insistently restricting himself within the creaturely status. It is understandable that Christians and Muslims have discussed their respective claims about him, and have argued over their differences ever since they began to enter into discussions together. From the start the tone was combative, as followers of each tradition sought to defend their own version of who he was and what he had done, and tried to use the scripture of the other to support their own views. There has rarely been a sincere attempt to understand what the other was saying.

This is why this book is so important. Written by a Muslim woman who holds a professorial chair at Edinburgh and is known to millions for her weekly thoughts for the day on Radio 4’s Today, it is more or less unique as a sustained and sometimes profound examination of what Christians understand Jesus to be, and why Muslims differ. It is a demanding though not an over-demanding read, and at just under 250 pages it can be managed in two reasonable sittings. But few readers will go through it without halting often, either to ponder the host of quotations it contains, most of them from Christian theologians, or its pithy comments on the differences between Muslims and Christians in approach or understanding.

The cross remains baffling for Siddiqui, who is left at the end gazing on an empty symbol for which the God of the Qur’an has no use. She has taken her search as far as she can, and her final distance from the Christ of Christianity attests to the strength of her faith as a Muslim. Can the search be taken further than this? One hopes that it can. But it has not reached this intensity of sympathy before, and any further inquiries, which this book will hopefully promote, must be deeply indebted to its conscientious and sensitive exploration.

 

SUMMARY

In the first chapter Siddiqui sets the scene by presenting the Christian and Muslim positions about Jesus and the doctrines related to him that influence the different attitudes they hold. Her main thrust here is that the Muslim doctrine of the absolute oneness of God rules out any possibility of him sharing his divinity with a Son or of extending it into personal involvement in the world. The God of Islam is so utterly transcendent that Incarnation or presence among creatures is impossible for him.

In chapters two and three she recounts significant moments in the history of encounters between Muslims and Christians, and outlines the main points of difference in the debate. These are the gloomiest parts of the book, as they examine repeated instances of misunderstanding, failure to give adequate explanations, and purposeful intentions to misrepresent. While there were sincere efforts to understand, they were nearly always hampered by the inability to move away from the familiar tenets of one’s own faith in order to see how and why the other understood theirs in the way they did.

Chapter four, on the status of the Virgin Mary in Christianity and Islam, continues this emphasis on difference as Siddiqui underlines Mary’s relative ordinariness in Islam by contrast with her status as God-bearer and co-redemptrix in branches of Christianity. But then chapter five, the most important in the book, presents a Muslim reflection on issues that Christians have pondered for centuries: why did God become human; can sin be inherited; why cannot God simply forgive without need of the cross? It is full of extended quotations from medieval and modern theologians, and it demonstrates a thoroughness in approach that few Muslims have ever matched.

Chapter five, the conclusion, continues this reflective examination, bringing in the difficulty of the Qur’an’s apparent denial of the crucifixion, and taking further the problem of a God who seems unable to grant forgiveness of sins from his own majestic power. Here, the significance of the book and the courage it took to write it are palpable. Siddiqui has methodically worked through theological giants such as Thomas Aquinas, Carl Barth, Paul Tillich and Jorgen Moltmann, teasing out the nub of their thought about Jesus. But this chapter is also the main source of the book’s perplexity. For neither here nor anywhere else does Siddiqui show more than a passing awareness of a God whose majesty and transcendence is tempered by his righteousness, so much so that forgiveness was only possible at a cost to himself that is inconceivable for the surpassingly powerful God of Islam – she can amass instances from Muslim literature of God coming close to his creation, forgiving and showing mercy, but these show a God who makes an act of his will, something that can be reversed, not a God into whose eternal nature is written the sacrifice of the cross.

The cross remains baffling for Siddiqui, who is left at the end gazing on an empty symbol for which the God of the Qur’an has no use. She has taken her search as far as she can, and her final distance from the Christ of Christianity attests to the strength of her faith as a Muslim. Can the search be taken further than this? One hopes that it can. But it has not reached this intensity of sympathy before, and any further inquiries, which this book will hopefully promote, must be deeply indebted to its conscientious and sensitive exploration.

 

USEFUL LINKS

For another more critical view of this book by Dr David Marshall see http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Muslims,+Christians,+and+Jesus.-a0352230855

“While the very fact that such a book has been written by a Muslim scholar is to be warmly welcomed, I have to acknowledge that my expectations were not entirely fulfilled. The project is admirable, but the execution of it is in many ways disappointing.” (Dr David Marshall)

Christians, Muslims and Jesus

Comments (3)

  • Richard McCallum Reply

    I have just posted a ‘useful link’ to another review of this book by Dr David Marshall (http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Muslims,+Christians,+and+Jesus.-a0352230855). It is rather more critical and raises some important points. Some highlights:
    “while the very fact that such a book has been written by a Muslim scholar is to be warmly welcomed, I have to acknowledge that my expectations were not entirely fulfilled. The project is admirable, but the execution of it is in many ways disappointing”.
    “Why is there no accompanying commendation by a Muslim? …. How representative of Muslim thought is this book?”
    “S. offers very little analysis of her own. Through most of the book she summarized the arguments of other writers, Muslim and Christian, often citing them at great length”.
    Has anyone else read this book? What are your thoughts?

    July 21, 2014 at 1:04 pm
  • Conrad Reply

    I would like to have a read of this book, I am also searching for Dr Saeed Hamid-Khani, the man is a legend, his take on the Gospel of John is enlightening. Does anyone know where he is today?

    September 20, 2014 at 3:08 pm
  • Richard McCallum Reply

    Hi Conrad. Afraid I’m not familiar with this writer. Is anyone else? Is he Muslim? Ex-Muslim? The only book I found of his looks interesting (but technical). For anyone intereted it is ‘Revelation and Concealment of Christ: A Theological Inquiry Into the Elusive Language of the Fourth Gospel’. see a synopsis at http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Revelation_and_Concealment_of_Christ.html?id=Y2qH5C4-7gQC&redir_esc=y

    October 6, 2014 at 8:27 am

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