Bearing the Word Bearing the Word
Prophecy in Biblical and Qur'anic Perspective

Michael Ipgrave
ISBN 0715140507 (9780715140505)
Church House Publishing, 2005

Category: Islamic Studies

This work is the third in a series of volumes emerging from Building Bridges meetings between prominent Christian and Muslim scholars held in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

This latest volume records an engagement by twenty-nine scholars concerned with the Qur'an and the Bible, especially focusing on the theme of prophecy. The back cover states that "at a time when inter faith dialogue so often seems to consist either of bland platitudes or of sterile disputations, this pattern of scriptural encounter provides an engagement which is honest, profound and refreshing."

In Chapter One The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, calls for the Abrahamic faiths to "spend more time looking at what is disbelieved in other religious discourses", adding that respective systems of disbelief "pose significant mutual challenges." Professor Mustansir Mir (Youngstown State University) adds to this sense of frankness by commenting that "bluntly unequivocal about the validity of its message, the Qur'an seems to leave little choice to those whom it addresses: believe or else." He calls for a new approach among Muslims which aims at identifying a Qur'an-based theology of interfaith dialogue.

Chapters Two, Four and Six focus on a comparative examination of selected passages from Bible and Qur'an on certain themes: God's call to prophethood and apostolic ministry; prophets being sent to humanity; the completion of prophecy.

Chapters Three, Five and Seven present a series of scholarly papers which consider the issues arising from the particular scriptural passages studied. To some extent these papers place the scholars in the shoes of the other faith, as it were. For example, Professor Mahmoud Ayoub (Temple University) considers the Christian Jesus and Dr Dan Madigan SJ (Pontifical Gregorian University) considers the Muslim Muhammad.

In the concluding Chapter Seven, Dr Michael Ipgrave (Archbishop's Council) observes the contrast between Muslims' reverence for (the Islamic) Jesus with Christian disinterest and often disdain for Muhammad. He laments past Christian criticism of Muhammad and calls for a new, more open, approach, stating "in some Christian circles even today, it is still common to find people construing all Muhammad's actions according to the worst possible motive, alleging that his prime motivation was a desire for power… There is pressing need for the purification of Christian discourse in this area…"

It is on the question of Christian views of Muhammad that I have most questions. Madigan says "can Christians take Muhammad seriously as someone who listened for the Word of God? — Indeed I think we can…", adding "our way forward, perhaps our only way forward, is on the basis of our recognition of one another as sincere listeners for the Word." This has a certain appeal, to be sure. However, if Muhammad was a sincere listener for the Word, so were vast numbers of Christians, Jews, Muslims, as well as members of other faiths.

Furthermore, the new approach called for by Ipgrave would risk stifling debate about the person of Muhammad, a debate which is fed by conflicting accounts of his life in the primary Islamic texts. However, Ipgrave's call for a positive view of the prophet of Islam has its limits, as seen in his statement that "… there is urgent need for Christians to seek a generous and fair appraisal of Muhammad while retaining their commitment to the finality of Jesus." Generous perhaps, fair certainly, commitment to the finality of Jesus — absolutely.

Though most of the material in this volume is detached from lay Christian and Muslim contexts, it does illustrate the importance of dialogue among scholars. We can look forward to the next volume in this series which, hopefully, will push further at the boundaries of interfaith relations.

Church House Publishing

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Peter Riddell, August 2005

Prof Peter G Riddell is Director of the Centre for Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Relations at London School of Theology. He is the author of several books on Islam and is co-author with Peter Cotterell of Islam in Conflict.

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