PART IV: “Christians, too, Can Recognize the Quran as the Word of God”
As the Muslim years pass, one's sense of gratitude and humility increases, usually with the realisation that one still knows little. Theory becomes (attempted) practice. There are meetings with remarkable men: the beauty and compassion of Sufism; and the lessons learned the tragic superficiality of Wahhabism. There is the fellowship with a true global community, and also, without compromising that fellowship, a commonalty with others of one's world who have been taken through the same gate. Six years after the Witnessing, I turned to the man beside me in a London mosque, and saw that he was an old school-friend, the son of an atheist Jewish MP. And although I have protested against the tendency to place the mühtedis on a pedestal, I have formed a cautious sense that as inhabitants of both worlds, we may be a legitimate source of information and - who knows? wisdom - to some in the Umma, who struggle to understand the modern West in its imperial mode.
Is any of this story of larger significance or helpfulness? Muslims often ask me what they should study; and are perplexed when I usually warn them against joining the legions of believers now populating departments of politics or social science. The crisis of our age produces political and social disruptions, but it is not their consequence. Religion is about truth, and unless truth be properly discerned and defended, nothing else will come right.
Despite appearances, and the urgent but mistaken desire of many Muslims to engage in dialogue with purely secular thinkers and ideologies, we are primarily called to speak to the ‘People of the Book'. Years ago, as I turned away the machine age to consider alternative voices, I expected to find the heirs to the monotheist scriptures as the most serious prophetic dissidents of our time. By no means is that always the case, as there are many churchmen who are willing to lower the price of their goods in the hope of selling them to a trivial and lazy world. Yet I take heart conversations with other scripturalists, and experience the accompanying fellowship as momentously important. I find, too, that God has placed Muslims in a privileged situation in such environments. Followers of Ishmael, who revere the founders of the other monotheisms not just for reasons of conviviality or diplomacy, but as a doctrinal necessity, are better-placed than Jews or Christians to benefit the eirenic and mutually-affirming ethos which is informally demanded in such encounters. (1) The clarity and apostolic authority of our doctrines proves a no less precious advantage. It is helpful, and not difficult, gently to help the People of the Book confront their inherited misunderstandings about our faith, which are often based on errors already challenged in the Koran. In earlier centuries, and in certain right-wing Christian circles even today, a furious and hate-filled polemic existed based on utterly erroneous information, (2) and it is still not unusual to hear, even reputed mainline theologians, wild opinions based on hearsay or long-dead scholarship. Pope Benedict XVI's various pronouncements on Islam, for instance, seem to be drawn not consultations with the Vatican's established Islam experts, but on concerns shared, to a visible degree, with right-wing activists and journalists such as Oriana Fallaci. (3) He does not condescend to speak to us; any more than the Roman emperors spoke to the new Christian believers multiplying in their inner cities.. But there are many others, perhaps very numerous, who seek humbly to listen and to learn. Many of them are seekers. Many of them, too, harbour the doubts about Christian doctrine which once precipitated my change.
1. For a persuasive list of reasons for Muslim participation in dialogue, see Mustafa Alıcı, Müslüman-Hıristiyan Diyalogu (Istanbul: Iz Yayıncılık, 2005), 365-386.
2. Norman Daniel, Islam and the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1960); Aftab Ahmad Malik (ed.), With God on Our Side: Politics and Theology of the War on Terrorism (London: Amal, 2006).