The Qur’an in Christian-Muslim Dialogue: Historical and Modern Interpretations
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THE QUR’AN IN CHRISTIAN-MUSLIM DIALOGUE – Book Sample
About the Book – The Qur’an in Christian–Muslim Dialogue
Offering an analysis of Christian–Muslim dialogue across four centuries, this book highlights those voices of ecumenical tone which have more often used the Qur’an for drawing the two faiths together rather than pushing them apart, and amplifies the voice of the Qur’an itself.
Finding that there is tremendous ecumenical ground between Christianity and Islam in the voices of their own scholars, this book ranges from a period of declining ecumenism during the first three centuries of Islam, to a period of resurging ecumenism during the most recent century until now.
Among the ecumenical voices in the Christian–Muslim dialogue, this book points out that the Qur’an itself is possibly the strongest of those voices. These findings are cause for, and evidence of, hope for the Christian–Muslim relationship: that although agreement may never be reached, dialogue has led at times to very real mutual understanding and appreciation of the religious other.
Providing a tool for those pursuing understanding and mutual appreciation between the Islamic and Christian faiths, this book will be of interest to scholars and students of Islam, the Qur’an, and the history of Christian–Muslim relations. C. Jonn Block is an intercultural management consultant. He has spent several years in inter-faith dialogue
Motivation for the study
The quantity and diversity of voices in the interfaith conversation between Christians and Muslims highlights the necessity for a concentrated approach to knowledge stewardship. Gone are the days when single epic conversations between great leaders like the Caliph al-Mahdī (d.168/785)1 and Patriarch
Timothy I (d.208/823) could prove sufficient for their followers to understand the Christian-Muslim relationship.2 Instead, shocked to life by missionary passion, religious extremism, and the secular academy, the realm of Christian- Muslim dialogue has in recent times exploded into a cacophony of lay and scholarly opinions.
A quick Google search for Christian-Muslim dialogue renders thousands of hits, and the world’s largest online bookseller Amazon.com carries more than ten thousand books in its Islam section alone.3 Flying across digital, academic, and lunchroom tables, voices on the relationship between Christianity and Islam are vying for earspace in an increasingly crowded environment.
The modern polylogue of Christian-Muslim relations, fuelled by the internet and global media, has spawned thousands of new voices, and there are nearly as many trains of thought as there are contributors to the conversation. At the center of this paradox of a plethora of commentary, each claiming exclusive interpretive rights, sits the Qur’an, unedited by the variety of ways in which it is being employed.
In this kind of globalized conversation, where there is no agreed-upon central mediation or central representation from each side, how is one to follow the dialogue, or know which interpretation of a Qur’anic verse is right, or even helpful? Few key transactions such as those formal documents issued by the World Council of Churches or even the Vatican can be said to speak on behalf of Christianity.4
And even were the whole of Christianity to speak with a single voice, its commentary on the Qur’an would likely be rejected by Muslims as heresy.
As Harold Birkeland noted, “Representatives of a ruling doctrine usually do not admit that their view is due to a special interpretation of a sacred text. When heretics support their view by another interpretation, traditionalists tend to maintain the view that interpretation is illegitimate.”
It was this reluctance to entertain alternative interpretations of the Qur’an, and perhaps frustration at the flexibility with which it was being interpreted, that led to an early Islamic movement against tafsīr altogether.5 And if there is no central voice in Christianity, there seems to be even less of one in Islam where the factions are just as plentiful, and still viewed by each other as the heretics that Birkeland highlighted. With so much commentary, is a rejection of the practice of tafsīr on the horizon again?
Since the times of Ibn ‘Abbās (d.c.66/686) however, there has been virtually no limitation on tafsīr, despite the aforementioned efforts of some Islamic scholars to restrict the practice. Qur’anic commentary, diverse in topical interpretation, has also been historically diverse in tone.
Through commentary and polemic alike, the building blocks of the Qur’an have historically been as likely to be hurled as weapons at one’s opponent as used for construction material to build bridges of communication.
It may be argued that in recent times the former represents the attitude of the vocal masses, and the latter moderate voices of authority from either side. In any case, it seems that the Qur’an is being interpreted by anyone and everyone,6 for both benefit and harm to the Christian- Muslim relationship.
As interfaith dialogue diversifies, how are we to steward the knowledge that is being gained? Will the helpful innovations of quieter voices disappear without academic support? Will epic outreaches like the Common Word project be broadly accepted, or fade once their novelty is gone?7 And what of the Qur’an:
who is monitoring how it is being treated, interpreted, used, and hurled? Does it have a voice independent of its interpreters? How will the truly beneficial interpretations be given earspace at the grand dialogue table?
The present author has yet to encounter a detailed study in this area, so it is to these questions that this research will respond.8 The secular academy should attempt to keep track of the knowledge being developed in the realm of Qur’anic interpretation as it pertains to the interfaith dialogue between Christians and
Muslims. Interpretive innovations, especially those helpful to the dialogue, should be captured, recorded, and amplified. It is to this task that we will turn in what follows.
The aim of the present study is to benefit Christian-Muslim relations by noting how Qur’anic meaning and interpretation contribute to either improving or hindering the dialogue. This study may help dialogicians on either side, as well as secular Qur’anic researchers, to see at a glance the role of Qur’anic interpretation in the conversation.
It will then be potentially easier for all parties in the conversation to calibrate their voices to harmonized topics and tones in Qur’anic interpretation that have borne fruit in the dialogue, or show potential for doing so.
This study will likely be of benefit not only to dialogicians in general, but to Qur’anic scholars: Islamicist, polemicist, and revisionist. The reader will discover herein a filtered survey and analysis of Qur’anic interpretation in dialogue between Christianity and Islam, import and commentary from the secular academy, and occasional commentary on the possible meaning of the Qur’an in its original context.
It is hoped that these highlighted interpretations provide insight into the role of the Qur’an in interfaith dialogue, and by way of both encouragement and caveat, prompt the reader toward helpful directions for Qur’anic interpretation.
Philosophy, assumptions and delimitations
Outside of the realm of historiography, this research is intended to benefit interfaith dialogue, and therefore religious representatives of both Christianity and Islam. Religious scholarship may however question the validity of research on religious issues from a secular historical perspective, as it is often the view of religious representatives that research on religion from the secular academy attempts to remove or reduce religion from the wonderful to the mundane.
The author concedes the validity of this concern, and stipulates that this is not a goal of the present work. This research will be presented as well as possible from a non-reductionist historical perspective. In the words of Wilfred Cantrell Smith:
The academic study of religion may be uncouth; but it is making progress. And these days, when we are fortunate in having before us in this realm a recently acquired massive array of historical data – far beyond anything available to past generations, so as to constitute a quantum jump – our great task is to forge new concepts that will do those data justice, that will serve appropriately to comprehend and to clarify the facts that we now know: new concepts that will be adequate to our rich and subtle material – that will both penetrate and make coherent, will analyse and synthesize.9
It is with this in mind that what is presented below aims to respect not only the history of religions, but the wonder beyond the secular that these religions add to the human experience.10
In practical terms, this entails a reporting on events and interpretations, commenting on their probability from a historical or empirical perspective, including traditional narratives, and not from any singular theological position.
It is also not the position of this work that, “disinterested historical inquiry would be fatally undermined”, by respect for the dynamic influence of religious life on the human experience.11 It is not intended here to defend either higher criticism or traditional narrative, as though the two
philosophies of historicism exist in dichotomy. Rather, historical criticism and tradition inform each other in a non-reductionist approach that may produce a coherent, sometimes synthesized narrative of historical meanings.
In the context of this research, reductionism and non-reductionism are to be understood as Smith defines them: reductionism as the presentation as history of only what is objectively verifiable in the mind of the historian, and non-reductionism as the presentation as history of what is most probable in the mind of the historian given the materials available, including traditional narratives.
Smith’s approach requires that all interpretations of the Qur’an are valid according to their historical context. He further notes that once an author has published a work, the intent behind their words loses validity in meaning to the meaning interpreted by their readers.12
This view is further developed by semiologist and novelist Umberto Eco who views texts as, “… machine[s] for generating interpretations”,13 remarking shortly thereafter that is it better that, “the author should die once he has finished writing.
So as not to trouble the path of the text,” or in the Islamic voice of Mohammed Arkoun, “Any text, once written, escapes from its author and takes on a life of its own, whose richness or poverty, expansion or desiccation, oblivion or revival, will henceforth depend on its readers.”14
In the case of the Qur’an, however, this implies that the original intended meaning of the Qur’an is of less importance than the meaning created by its present interpreters. Since from an Islamic perspective it is God who “wrote” the Qur’an, we are left with an interpretive conundrum. If there are differing interpretations of the same verse over time (for example), we can understand this reality from the following positions:
- The author was not able to communicate clearly enough that his audience would understand its meaning.
- The audience is not capable of understanding the intended meaning from what the author wrote.
The language of medium is insufficient to communicate and research on the influence of culture and history on leadership style and corporate governance, and has written for diverse publications such as Business Islamica and the Journal of Islamic Studies.
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