S Parvez Manzoor
Islam in a World of Diverse Faiths.
Ed. by DAN COHN-SHERBOK. London, Macmillan Press, 1991. Pp 218. Price HB £45.00. 0-333-52612-0.
The tabloid title is misleading: The primary concern of this book is not Islam but inter-communal harmony between Jews, Christians and Muslims. Hence, its interest in the ideological challenges to Islam, posed by a diversity of faiths, is part of the broader search. However, what it delivers is neither a pragmatic reflection on the dynamics of a universal Gesellschaft, nor an utopian vision of a future Abrahamic Gemeinschaft, but a fairly conventional academic dialogue that is part theological and part sociological. This lacks of radicalism (or realism!), however, is somewhat atoned for by the courtesy of its tone and seriousness of purpose. Based on a conference on pluralism and Islam at Selly Oak College, the collection of essays presented here deals with the issues of religious absolutism, revelation, apostleship, the prophecy of Muhammad and the sociology of faith.
John Hick's opening statement that recapitulates his otherwise well-publicised bid to radically re-interpret Christianity's cardinal doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation, may not help attenuate the theological hybris and soteriological exclusivism of official churches, but it certainly testifies to the failure of the cognitive nerve of contemporary Christianity which today asserts absolutely nothing substantive and positive. Similarly, the editor, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, makes a rather mute point when he pleads that 'Muslims, Christian and Jews should free themselves from any absolutist standpoints' but does not specify how.
The two Jewish contributions that follow are diametrically opposed: From the failure of Reform Judaism to find any adequate methodology for the formulation of legally binding norms, Cohn-Sherbock acquires the insight that for a 'law-religion', adherence to the letter of the text is ineluctable; while Rabbi Solomon, drawing from the historical rulings of a number of eminent Jewish rabbis, comes to the 'postmodernistic' conclusion that the Text is subservient to the reader, that without 'changing the text' or renouncing its authority, the exegete is able to abrogate it in practice. Further, as the text is incapable of delivering any unambiguous judgement on concrete historical issues, his 'Protestant' conclusion is to keep Church and State separate. (If so, the only practical option for 'law-religions' that lack the institution of the 'church' would be, in my view, to keep religious and civil legislation, ibadat and mu`amalat, separate.)
Among the Muslim contributors, Yaqub Zaki's presentation of the traditional model of revelation is curt and cavalier to the point of stifling any further dialogue. In contrast, Hasan Askari's reflection on 'the Quranic conception of Apostleship' is far too submissive of the rationale of trilogue. At any rate, it is quite 'eccentric', ie wide off the mark of historical Ijma`. Muhammad Arkoun's elucidation of religion and society in Islam, unfortunately, is largely unintelligible. Notwithstanding his formidable erudition, Arkoun's attack on the windmills of 'classical' and 'Islamological' epistemologies turns out to be quite Quixotic.
Arkoun seems to have hit the mark, however, when he concludes his unduly lengthy essay by claiming that: 'In this age of world crisis, Islam serves as a resort for societies overwhelmed by problems, as a refuge for many of those who cannot tolerate violence; as a repair, finally, for objectors of all kinds who cannot find a political framework for their expression and actions. Let us also add that the strategies for the commercial and ideological expansion of the great powers, also use Islam as the means to penetrate and create a dialogue. This interplay of influences on a world level puts an end to the simplistic distinction between State and religion, spiritual and temporal; the two orders interrelate again and we are forced to reconsider theological problems that we believed had been resolved.'
Thus, if there is any theme that, wittingly or unwittingly, confers order and unity to this dialogue, it is the problem of the City, the global city of our times in which both Greeks and Barbarians, Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Peoples without the Book must coexist. In this regard the two Christian attempts to 'appraise' the prophecy of Muhammad are of particular interest.
John Hick's essay, 'Christ and Muhammad', is a curious mixture of sociological determinism and theological relativism. The difference in the approaches of the founders of Islam and Christianity, he opines, is simply due to the constraints of history: one founded an 'empire' because his social milieu lacked a well-defined political structure; the other paid no attention to the problem of the City, because, for his age, the state was a fact of life. Indeed, the Prophet and the Messiah acted the way they did because they could not have done otherwise. Even Men of God are caught in the karma of history and soiled by the original sin of society, seems to be the gist of Hick's Manichaean insight. Whatever its appeal to the votaries of historical materialism, alas, there is no room either for the will of God or that of man in this vision.
Elaborating this bleak view of human existence, Hick pronounces his 'thesis' about 'two aspects of religious truth': "One is the transforming claim of God upon the individual, thereby creating a redeemed community of saints, the church, as a select minority. The other is the claim of God upon society as a whole, saints and sinners alike, but with laws inevitably written with sinners in mind. Jesus's own life and teaching embodies the first aspect.... Jesus himself was a pure pacifist, whilst the church, from Constantine onwards, has always been a patron of wars. Muhammad on the other hand, was never a pacifist, although he did seek to moderate the savagery of war." (118; italics added)
Leaving aside the odd assumption that every non-pacifist is automatically assured of 'worldly triumph' (and divine disapproval!), Hick fails to supply any convincing reason for regarding all drop-outs of history as 'saints' and all makers of history as 'sinners'. Nor does he offer any moral argument for accepting Peace, rather than Justice, or Truth, as the supreme value of faith. Indeed, absolute pacifism can easily become co-terminous with absolute evil. For the logic of 'pure pacifism' would demand that even during the years of the Holocaust, Jews - and Gentiles - 'redeem' the evil of Nazism through 'peaceful means'! Pacifism, then, cannot be made the touchstone of religious truth, for it can neither abolish warfare nor deliver an unambiguous judgement on the morality of a historical event. In short, there is something perverse or sanctimonious in Hick's typology of religious truth. (Incidently, in an other essay, Norman Solomon makes a very cogent case against 'stereotyping other theologies'.)
The second Christian statement on the prophecy of Muhammad by David Kerr generally avoids the temptation of facile schematization. And yet his presentation of the 'city of the prophets' is anything but unschematic: 'Moses, Jesus and Muhammad wrestled with the task of creating peace in the city - Moses as he withdrew from the tyranny of Pharaonic Egypt in an exodus which brought the Children of Israel to the land of Canaan and eventually Jerusalem; Jesus as, entering upon the climax of his ministry, 'he drew near and saw the city and wept over it, saying "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace"'; and Muhammad as he made his hijra (migration) to Medina in his search for the 'umma muslima'.'
Though Kerr chooses not to expound these exotic terms, the Muslim must uncover the visage that lies hidden under the mask of arabic language. For him, the Prophet's search for the umma muslima not only recapitulates the Exodus of Moses and the Sermon of Jesus, but it culminates in the actual foundation of the City of Peace. For Islam means peace, peace both in the soul of man and in the city of humanity.