Sacred: the Abrahamic Religions and their Books - The Quran

24 June 2007 at :00 am

Through the Sundays of June, I have been responding at Matins to an exhibition at the British Library called Sacred. The exhibition presents a marvellous collection of the texts of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, side by side. It's been widely publicised as an exhibition in which we can explore what we have in common. By presenting the three sacred books in parallel this is emphasised. What is not so well explored are the differences between the three religions.

I have been trying to look at both. Clearly, it is good to see what we share. The message of the exhibition is that since we have so much in common, we ought to be able to live side by side in peace - which indeed we ought. On the other hand, it's only by facing our differences that we shall see where there needs to be dialogue, and where there are real possibilities of learning from each other. I speak as a practising Christian, so what I can say about Judaism and Islam is from that perspective. The question I have been asking is how a Christian should view the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and now, how a Christian should view the Quran. Actually, this whole series began to take shape in my mind when I was asked exactly that question: how should a Christian view the Quran? - just about the time I first visited the exhibition Sacred.

I have to confess that only after visiting the exhibition did I begin seriously to read the Quran for myself.1 What I noticed straight away are the differences from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament rather than the similarities. The Quran is not a collection of different kinds of books. It is a collection of chapters of very varying length, with passages taken from different times in Mohammed's life. These chapters, or suras, are meant to be recited. The word Quran means recitation and the Quran itself is like a long poem, written in Arabic, collected and written down at some time, perhaps as little as twenty years, after the prophet's lifetime. Commentators tell us it is written in fine Arabic and is difficult to translate well. Any translation inevitably becomes an interpretation which does not convey the quality of the original.

It is striking how much of the text is spoken in the name of God. In this way, the Quran is rather like the prophetic books of the Old Testament with their passages that begin, 'Thus says the Lord'. The content is pretty similar too: promises of blessing if the people keep to the way of the Lord and of punishment if they do not. Much of the teaching is very like those passages in the Hebrew Bible which condemn the worship of gods other than Yahweh and insist that he alone is to be worshipped. The worship of the one God, Allah, is linked with right conduct, with justice and compassion towards the poor. Each of the 114 suras in the Quran begins 'In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful' and the whole Quran begins, 'In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, king of Judgement-Day! You alone we worship, and to You alone we pray for help. Guide us in the straight path, the path of those you have favoured, not of those who have incurred your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray.' The echoes of the Wisdom literature are very strong.

There is much in the Quran which is recognisable to Christians. Many of the prophets of the Old Testament are mentioned and their fidelity to Allah applauded - Abraham above all. But also Noah, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon and Jonah. It seems likely that Mohammed had contact with Jews and knew Genesis and the books of the Law, together with the historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms. There are also references to the New Testament Gospels, though not to the Epistles or other New Testament writings. One of the suras is entitled 'Mary'. It affirms the virginal conception and the role of John the Baptist as a prophet. Jesus is made to say from his cradle: 'I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Gospel and ordained me a prophet. His blessing is upon me wherever I go, and He has commanded me to be steadfast in prayer and to give alms to the poor as long as I shall live. He has exhorted me to honour my mother and has purged me of vanity and wickedness. I was blessed on the day I was born, and blessed I shall be on the day of my death; and may peace be upon me on the day when I shall be raised to life' [19:29]. Having said that, though, the sura goes on, 'Such was Jesus, the son of Mary. That is the whole truth, which they [the Christians] are unwilling to accept. Allah forbid that He Himself [Allah] should beget a son!' This rejection of the incarnation, of Jesus being the 'Son of God', is repeated several times. It is well known that the Quran also teaches that Jesus did not actually die on the cross but was taken to heaven, to be restored to earth at the end of time, when he really will die. Mohammed was certainly familiar with Christians, but he seems to have known of Christian beliefs about Jesus partly through what we would call apocryphal writings which were not included in the New Testament. This would account for some of the peculiarities in the Quran's references to New Testament narratives.

I do not see how Christians and Muslims can ultimately agree in what we say about the founders of our faiths. The Quran repeatedly contradicts all talk of Jesus as 'the Son of God'. I tried to show last week how the central criterion for the inclusion of books within the New Testament was a recognition of the incarnation, that in Jesus God had taken human flesh. One of the ways of looking at Jesus within the New Testament is indeed as a prophet, but he is always more than a prophet. To deny Jesus' giving of himself to death on behalf of others, and his being raised on the third day, as the Quran does, is to take the heart out of the Christian Gospel. Jesus becomes a prophet who gave an example of godly living (the Quran says of him: 'Jesus was no more than a mortal whom We favoured and made an example to the Israelites'[43:59]) - not one who was more than a prophet, and who gave his whole self, without reserve, to die, so there might be reconciliation between human beings and God, and reconciliation between alienated human beings.

Having said that, the Quran itself says, 'Be courteous when you argue with the People of the Book, except with those among them who do evil' [29:45]). This is a welcome reminder of the spirit in which we can enter into dialogue, for there are important areas where Christians, Muslims and Jews have much in common. We all see ourselves as children of Abraham; and the key thing about Abraham is his faith in God. We don't see life as a cosmic accident: unlike many in our society, we see life as a gift given by a creator God who calls us to use this gift well. Christians and Muslims, guided by our sacred book, seek the path of justice, of right dealing with one another and obedience to God. There is much to discuss between us (and within our own faith traditions) about what that means in practice.

Sacred shows the immense love and skill with which beautiful copies of the Quran have been created and passed from generation to generation. Love for our holy books is a central feature of all three Abrahamic religions. Here is an exhibition which reminds us just how much that love has contributed to our civilisations, but, more that that, it challenges us through dialogue and friendship to turn that love for a sacred text into love for one another.

1 Using the translation by N.J. Dawood (London: Penguin/Allen Lane, first published 1956).

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