In the introduction to her book Christians, Muslims, and Jesus, Mona Siddiqui contends, “that to be religious today, one has to be aware of the inter-religious.”1 If this is true broadly, it is all the more accurate in the case of the two largest world religions: Christianity and Islam. Since the beginnings of Muhammad’s prophetic ministry in Mecca, Muslims and Christians have engaged in philosophical dialogue, been locked in heated theological debate, and lived alongside in a variety of social and political contexts. Given this complex and often acrimonious history, recent studies of and dialogue between these two religions have often avoided the most contentious theological topics—Muhammad, the Trinity, and Christology. Instead, studies of Christian-Muslim relations have largely favored more conciliatory conversations that opt to focus on areas of overlap — a shared Abrahamic heritage, social justice, the formation of the secular, love of God and neighbor, ritual practice or the One God.2 This strategy risks circumscribing the complexity of Christian-Muslim relations and overlooking the ways that sociological, ritual, and ethical commitments are intertwined with theological and scriptural claims. Christian-Muslim relations are by their very nature pluriform and cross-disciplinary; as such, attention to the broadly inter-religious nature of our world also demands openness to specific religious claims of others. Fortunately recent theological and ethical reflection such as the work of David Burrell, John Renard, Kate Zebiri, Felix Körner, and Mahmoud Ayoub—just to name a few—are beginning to chart alternative approaches beyond what Clinton Bennett terms the dominant motifs of either conciliation and dialogue or confrontation and polemics.3 These new trajectories of scholarship aim to account for the genuine overlap and shared learning between Christian and Islamic thought and practice around themes such as creation, justice, God, prophecy, and politics, but they also consider how these very same shared common themes also often produce the most contentious debates and disagreements.
Siddiqui’s work on Christology is a welcome intervention into the current terrain of Christian-Muslim Relations and interfaith dialogue; she models a disposition of dialogue that is simultaneously particular and inter-religiously open. Her work does not regurgitate old arguments or polemical accusation against Christians, but nor does she ignore this history of debate. Instead, without denying the real differences in Christian-Muslim ideas about Jesus, Siddiqui enters the conversation as a person of Muslim faith open to learning from Christian claims and practices, even as she critically speaks back to them as a Muslim theologian.
Siddiqui’s book is marked by two fundamental commitments or methodologies, which bring together two distinct approaches, and often competing approaches, to Christian-Muslim relations. The first, as Klaus von Stosch’s opening contribution argues, is akin to developments in comparative theology; it involves an attentive listening to the importance and place of Jesus in Christian life, piety, Scripture, and theology. Siddiqui gives space for Christians, past and present, to speak for themselves and from this posture, she is able to clearly articulate how and why Christians say and believe the diverse things that they do about Jesus. Such listening, however, not only aims to clear up misunderstandings, but is leveraged in order to enrich her own Muslim commitments and gesture toward a constructive Islamic theology of Jesus, God, sin, the law, Mary, and Muhammad. On these points, Nancy Roberts and Mark Beaumont both press Siddiqui to consider further the implications of her thinking for theologies of Mary and Jesus. Roberts, for instance, evaluates the shared traditional Muslim and Christian position on the virgin birth and wonders what it would mean to both traditions and for interfaith relations if Jesus’ conception and birth was as human as any other. She asks, “Is it possible that, contrary to all expectations and despite the violent controversies down the ages between Islam and Christianity over matters of both theology and historical fact, Christianity and Islam might founder together on the same historical rocks?” While Roberts focuses on the beginning of Jesus’ life, Mark Beaumont examines the contentious issue of Jesus’ earthly end. The dominant Muslim position, following interpretations of Sura al-Nisa’ (4:157), is that Jesus was not killed or crucified (wa mā qatlōho wa mā ṣalabōho). For theological, scriptural, and historical reasons, Christians have long contested this Muslim interpretation of Jesus’ death. Beaumont commends Siddiqui’s work, particularly the final chapter, where she offers a moving personal theological reflection on the meaning of the cross and why it both draws her in but also seems unnecessary for understanding God’s mercy. “Siddiqui’s desire to understand the Christian commitment to the death of Jesus on the cross is a testimony to her generous spirit, and a very fine example both to her fellow Muslims and to Christians like me of how to engage in conversation over the deepest divisions that exist between Christians and Muslims.”
The second commitment, grounded in methodologies drawn from the the history of Christian-Muslim relations and classic approaches to interfaith dialogue, is to offer readings or glosses on key figures, theologians, and periods of debate. Thus, Siddiqui’s work probes classical philosophical conundrums and theological discourse by engaging figures such as al-Ghazali and Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth and Ibn Taymiyya, Theodore Abu Qurra and Ibn Sina. The book, then, is also something of an introduction to and commentary on the rich theological, textual, ethical, and philosophical resources in Christian-Muslim relations, with a particular focus on the insights and work of Arab Christian thinkers. In the final contribution to the symposium, Mun’im Sirry engages this rich theo-philosophical debate and considers again the question of how a shared commitment to the One God is expressed so differently. He draws from Siddiqui, Vatican II, Christian Troll, and mostly Ibn ‘Arabi to argue that the “different ways in which God is conceived by both Muslims and Christians are the consequence of His merciful radiance, rather than the source of misguidance.” This argument opens up a host of questions around God’s unity, mystery, revelation, and prophecy; these send us back to the other contributions to the symposium, but also beyond to the work of comparative theology and philosophy.
By bringing together both Christian and Muslim thinkers to constructively and critically evaluate Christians, Muslims, and Jesus, the symposium attests to the vitality and complexity of current interfaith dialogue, comparative theology, and studies of Christian-Muslim relations.
Mona Siddiqui, Christians, Muslims, and Jesus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 1.↩
Clinton Bennett, Understanding Christian-Muslim Relations: Past and Present (New York: Continuum, 2008), 1-13.↩