While scholars and pundits debate whether in fact we are facing a “Clash of Civilizations” (in Samuel Huntington’s words) between the West and Islam, there is a different kind of encounter that is possible in universities in many parts of the world. Christians and Muslims attend classes together, form friendships, compete on intramural teams, and stay up late together sometimes, talking about the deepest questions. While such conversations can’t resolve the violent clashes occurring elsewhere, no one knows what might happen where conversations of respect and mutual understanding across religious differences occur.
Barbara Hampton has given us a wonderful resource to foster such conversations in her study guide, Reading Scripture Together: A Comparative Bible and Qur’an Study Guide. This guide was developed out of Barbara Hampton’s work with College of Wooster students while she served as faculty advisor for the InterVarsity chapter at this school. The guide consists of seven studies, each of which parallels a text from the Bible and the Qur’an, along with a summary “Challenge” and paired “Witnesses” from Christian and Muslim perspectives. These studies can be pursued over seven weeks, or if participants elect, fourteen, doing Christian scripture one week, and the Qur’an the next.
The studies are organized around seven key aspects of Christianity and Islam where the two faiths both touch and differ: Abraham and Isma’il, the Name and being of God (and what can be known of this), Jesus as Incarnate Son or Prophet, the nature of salvation, whether Jesus was in fact crucified, the nature of the scriptures of each faith, and the ethics of the faith, captured in the beatitudes versus the call to jihad understood both as spiritual struggle and at least defensive war with unbelievers.
The person considering using this guide should be forewarned: Hampton has sought to be extremely even-handed in the presentation of these texts and witnesses. Some of the “witnesses” include former Christians who have embraced Islam and well as former Muslims who have become Christians. Equally, her questions about each text follow an “inductive” format and deeply probe the meaning of each. This makes sense as a prerequisite to genuine dialogue, yet may be unsettling for some committed believers of either faith. Yet a genuine search for truth as well as a human rights commitment to a person’s freedom to change their beliefs recognizes that changing one’s beliefs may be the consequence of such dialogue.
This is reflected in Hampton’s own premises. She believes the search for truth matters and that different religions are not “different paths up the mountain.” She is a convinced Christian and this comes through in the leaders notes and bibliography (forty pages of this hundred page book). While the leaders notes provide in depth commentary from both Christian and Muslim perspectives, it is evident that she envisions this dialogue being initiated by Christians who are at least open to or praying for their Muslim friends to embrace the Christian faith. What she advocates is not aggressive proselytizing or argumentation, but thoughtful consideration of the differences between the two faiths, as these emerge from the texts, in terms of what makes more sense out of one’s life and the world. What the leaders notes do not discuss is the possibility of Christians embracing Islam, and it occurs to me that perhaps she may have refrained from dealing with this issue in her attempts to remain as even-handed as possible while writing this guide as a committed Christian.
If one is looking for an absolutely “neutral” resource for such a dialogue, this is not that. Hampton believes that religion concerns matters of truth about which we ultimately must choose. At the same time, this guide represents the fruit of field-tested, respectful Muslim-Christian dialogues around scriptural texts that is an important resource in promoting respectful understanding between Christians and Muslims that takes the truth claims of each faith seriously.
[In the interests of full disclosure, the reviewer has had a long time friendship with the author including collaboration on various projects. However I purchased my own copy of this book.}