Chapter 1: Introduction
"The question today is what is true religion, not what is the true religion". These words of Bishop George Appleton some twenty years ago are particularly relevant as we approach Islam today and may also encourage us to reflect on the authentic Christian message. A recent Tablet editorial also speaks about "rescuing true religion".
Islam and Christianity are two great monotheistic religions. They do not always agree, but I think we should see their disagreements as in a sense complimentary. Perhaps the image of balancing scales may be helpful. An over-emphasis on God’s mercy may neglect demands for justice but to stress justice may limit compassion. Only the Almighty holds a true balance. In our respective faiths we seek a similar balance as we try to do God’s will. There is great variety within both Islam and Christianity and we shall find different traditions in each religion have their own emphasis.
Let me give another example, I have engaged in conversations with Jews, Christians and Muslims about repentance and forgiveness. Does repentance have to come first? There are passages in the New Testament, such as the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son which suggest that, like the Shepherd or the Father, the injured person may need to take the initiative in seeking reconciliation. But others will say "How can we forgive someone who is not sorry?" They may also say that to show kindness to the cruel is to betray their victims. I have myself felt that the early release of some prisoners in Northern Ireland who had been found guilty of "terrorist" offences must have been very painful for the relatives of those who had been killed.
These are issues to which we shall return. My point here is that our reflection on them is deepened as Christians and Muslims -- with when possible people of other faiths -- when we can discuss these great issues together.
To give one more example. I was trained in historical-critical studies of the Bible. This suggests, for example, that we only know of the life and sayings of Jesus as they have been handed down to us by the early church and recorded by the Evangelists, each of whom had his own special interests. Can we then be sure of any saying of Jesus that it was actually spoken by him? Has the authority of scripture in effect been replaced by the authority of scholar’s, often very different, reconstructions of the text. There is now, in fact, a renewed emphasis by some Christian scholars on the received text. Muslims hold that the Qur’an is the very word of God, but they have traditions of interpretation. My point is that although Christian and Muslim views of scripture may, at first sight, seem very different, the issues are more complex and together we can come to deeper understanding of the place of scripture in a faith community.
This book is not an "Introduction to Islam" in the usual sense, although I hope it will be self-explanatory to those Christians who know little about Islam. Rather it is a reflection on my reading about Islam and meeting with many Muslims over some forty years. When I first went to India, I was told that the exterior dialogue had to be matched by an interior dialogue. Exterior dialogue is the conversation with people of another faith or the reading about it and the attempt to understand what, say, Muslims believe and practice. Inner dialogue is the subsequent reflection, in the light of my Christian discipleship, on what I agree with, where I have questions and disagreements, and on what I can learn. Certainly Islam has helped to deepen and purify my faith in God. I hope this approach will help Christians understand and enter into conversation with Muslims. It is I think more exciting and spiritually enriching to talk about our beliefs and devotions rather than just to accumulate "external" information about a religion, although our conversation with Muslims may require us first to unlearn inherited prejudices. Indeed, it is as I have engaged in discussion with Muslims that the Qur’an has become an alive and exciting book, whereas on first opening it, without any background, it can seem like much of the Bible, difficult to comprehend.
Indeed preparatory reading for this book has made me more aware how prevalent both ignorance of Islam and prejudice against Muslims is in the West. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, said when he addressed Muslim scholars at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, "It is extraordinary how ignorant we are of one another. Yet ignorance is the most terrible of cultural diseases for from it stem fear, misunderstanding and intolerance." Indeed some years ago the French Catholic priest and scholar of Islam, Louis Massignon (1883-1962) said that Christians had to accomplish what amounted to a Copernican re-centring in order to understand Islam. It is a task on which we have scarcely begun.
Yet important as it is to gain correct knowledge of each other’s religion, it is I think more exciting and spiritually enriching to talk about our beliefs and devotions rather than just to accumulate "external" information about a religion. Indeed, it is as I have engaged in discussion with Muslims that the Qur’an has become an alive and absorbing book, whereas on first opening it, without any background, it may seem, like much of the Bible, difficult to comprehend.
The book was planned before September 11th, but I did not start writing it until the beginning of 2002, so that is not unaffected by the momentous events of recent months. I try to address some of the issues in the chapter on "Islam in the Modern World", but the deeper dialogue with Islam, which has a long history, also needs to be maintained and deepened. I hope this book will introduce a wider audience to this conversation which has such exciting and mutually enriching potential.