The Qu’ran in Context, Mark Robert Anderson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.
Summary: A study by a Christian theologian of the Qu’ran in its seventh century AD context exploring its teachings in relation to Christian teaching, noting both similarities and points of divergence in the hope of encouraging open and honest dialogue between adherents of these two faiths.
There is a strand of public discourse, drawing both upon the ideas of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, and incidents of terror, that propose that there is a war or clash between Islam and the West, or at least between elements of Islamic cultures and the west. Then there are others who pursue perhaps a quieter conversation proposing that given the clashes that have occurred and a desire to maintain and protect a pluralist society recognizing freedom of conscience and belief, that some effort needs to be made between Christians and Muslims to find common ground. The most newsworthy was a statement by a group of Muslim clerics, “A Common Word,” with responses from other major religious bodies, calling for interfaith dialogue and action based on commonly shared teachings around the love of God and neighbor.
Some who would take the former view criticize, in my view justly, some of the efforts of dialogue that minimize or altogether mute differences or take at face value assertions about Islam without careful textual study. In The Qu’ran in Context Mark Robert Anderson offers a resource grounded in a Christian perspective that seeks to read the Qu’ran both sympathetically in its seventh century AD context, delineating its teachings, noting both similarities with Christian teaching and places where these diverge. He writes:
“My goal of encouraging dialogue should need little justification from a Christian
perspective. The psalmist says how pleased God is when brothers and sisters live together peaceably and the New Testament calls us to do all we can to be at peace with everyone (Ps 133:1-3, Rom 12:18, Heb 12:14). In our global village, that demands dialogue.
But true dialogue does not deny or minimize difference. Rather, it begins with an honest acknowledgement of difference no less than similarity. Without that, we cannot be truly heard and understood. Using the term neighbor in its broadest sense, Jesus commands us to treat our neighbor as we want her to treat us (Mt 7:12; cf. Lk 10:25-37). Paul also counsels us to do good to everyone, Christian or not (Gal 6:10). So we lovingly speak what we hold to be true and graciously listen as our Muslim brother or sister does likewise. And we remain ready, as Peter charges us, to offer a defense to anyone who seeks the reason for our hope, doing so with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet 3:15-16). So our truth telling is to be marked always by kindness and honor for our partner in dialogue—as a Thou, not an It, in Martin Buber’s terms.”
Anderson proceeds along the following lines to do this. Part One of his book looks at the origins of the Qu’ran and the history of Muhammad and his context. It is particularly fascinating to understand the tribal rivalries of the Arabian peninsula in this time and the mix of pagan religion and contexts with Jews and Christians through trade.
Part Two is the longest part and considers what Anderson calls the “Qu’ranic Worldview.” He explores the Qu’ran’s teaching about God, God’s immanence and transcendence, and justice and mercy. He explores Adam’s creation in an extra-terrestrial garden, and his fall, with Satan, and humanity’s reprieve from the judgment of God. He explores the concepts of sin and salvation, the ideas of prophethood, scripture, and revelation, and the devotional, social, and political dimensions of Qu’ranic spirituality. While noting points of similarity, he also contrasts the aloofness of God, the absence of grace, and the differing ways the two faiths engage the political realm, among a host of other differences.
Part Three focuses on Jesus in the Qu’ran: his origins and person, his words and works, his death, and the community he established. He shows how Jesus is both exalted and marginalized such that the supremacy of Muhammad as prophet is maintained. In particular, it highlights bizarre instances of miraculous works by the child Jesus, while showing him deferring to the disciples as an adult. He also explores the conflicting claims he finds in the Qu’ran about the death of Jesus.
Part Four then summarizes the discussion and explores the relation of Bible and Qu’ran, including the claim that the differences between the two may be accounted for by intentional distortions and falsifications by both Jews and Christians (even though these two were opposed to one another for most of the relevant history). He notes three critical biblical themes running through both testaments and contrasts these with the Qu’ran:
- Friendship with God
- The free grace of God
- The humility of God
One place where I could see this work facing criticism is the approach, which Anderson, drawing on N. T. Wright, calls critical realism, approaching the text in its historic context and prevailing worldview. He does not ignore Muslim interpretive traditions, particularly where they differ from his reading of the text, but does significantly background these, while admitting evangelical and reformed presuppositions in reading the Christian scriptures. I suspect this may work fine where lay evangelicals are in dialogue with lay Muslims where the focus is comparative study of texts and discussion, but would be much more nuanced between scholars of both faiths, whose understandings are shaped by a millenia or more of interpretive tradition as well as study of the text in its context.
However, I would commend this as a helpful resource for interfaith discussions in universities and community contexts. It models both grace and forthrightness of approach without a combative spirit. While trying to meet the Qu’ran on its own terms, it doesn’t pretend to be less than what it is, “a Christian exploration.” Also, it demonstrates another truth often discovered through interfaith conversations: that participants may come to a deeper grasp of the contours of their own faith, as well as that of the other, through these encounters.
Might we avert the much touted clash of civilizations? That remains to be seen. Certainly, there will be violence in the name of religion. What Anderson’s book gives us is a picture of the real work and perhaps the harder struggle that must take place if adherents of Christianity and Islam are truly to understand each other’s sacred scriptures and beliefs, to find ways to co-exist, rather than to fight and seek to dominate each other.