Symposium Review: Some Reflections

Four Quick Lessons…

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Around 60 people attended the December 7th symposium on Muslim Views of the Bible: past and present (anyone who wishes can listen to three of the four talks here).

Obviously we could only touch on some of the issues in such a broad area of research, but some important themes came out. Looking back on the day, I was glad that the aim of putting issues on the table was fulfilled.

One of those issues that struck me most comes from near the beginning of Muslim reflection on this topic. The earliest commentaries on the Qur’an do not explain Qur’anic references to concealing or twisting the words of the previous scriptures in the same way as later works, and, for that matter, most modern introductions to the topic. It is common to divide Muslim views of corruption of the Bible into corruption of the actual text or corruption of the interpretation [i.e. there is a sound text, but misunderstood by its followers]. Instead, the earliest Qur’an commentaries explain these Qur’anic verses as describing the actions of particular Jews concealing the information about Muhammad which they themselves should have known from their own (presumably therefore sound) scriptures.

Related to this, I was also struck by Shabbir Akhtar’s comment – as a Muslim – that the burden of proof is on Muslims to find any proposed alternative, ‘original’ versions of the Biblical texts which predate canonical texts. This would be a much more typical remark if coming from a non-Muslim.

…while academia  sometimes has a reputation for delighting in the obscure, or incomprehensible, at its best academic study enables questions…

There is plenty to explore in this field in the future. It is worth doing this not because everyone will eventually agree if only more studying is done. The aim of such exploration is better seen as understanding, not necessarily agreement. In particular, it would be fascinating to explore more of the contemporary perceptions, for example what school books in Muslim majority countries teach about the Bible.

So, what did we learn? I hope that many saw what some of us already knew; that it is possible for Muslim, Christians and others to discuss some hard issues, and deeply held convictions, in a way which blends honesty with respect for others in the room.  It is particularly heartening because the possibility of such interactions is a prerequisite for much of what we do at the Centre.

Secondly, we saw how the past is relevant to the present. For example,  the argument, mentioned above, that the Qur’an does not in fact teach corruption of the Biblical text, ought to lead to more serious reflection on an assumption often regarded today as so obvious that it needs no defence.

Thirdly, it was obvious that some Muslim writers have tried to find space for accepting much of the Bible – but they make this space by interpreting it in line with Islamic teachings.

Fourthly – and not so much a lesson but a happy reminder – while academia  sometimes has a reputation for delighting in the obscure, or incomprehensible, at its best academic study enables questions –  whether broad or detailed – to be posed in a way which is honest and open, probing yet respectful.  It is at this point that academic work can bear real fruit, and I hope that 2014 brings many more opportunities to explore the positives of academic study.

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Author
Dr Martin Whittingham, Director, Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies

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