Saturday, December 16, 2006

Islamic Dialogue

A few weeks ago, I attended a dialogue between three Islamic scholars from Al-Azhar university in Egypt and three Christian scholars from Oxford.

Lots of interesting stuff was said – here are a few highlights.

Attitude to Revelation

The Muslims, understandably, went for the traditional line, with the Qur'an as perfectly dictated from God. The Christians, by contrast, also took the traditional line, which is far too often neglected in the popular understanding. They defended the view that God's perfect revelation of himself is in the person of Jesus.

The Muslims also took the somewhat odd, though orthodox Islamic view that the gospels were revealed verbatim to Jesus rather than written by and through human authors, albeit inspired by God. The Christian view is that the books have both human and divine authorship – that God used the people who were writing them and their situations and knowledge to have written exactly what he wanted written. It's interesting that that has been the view back as far as we can tell, including at the time of the rise of Islam. In fact, the only evidence for the Muslim view of the origin of the Christian Scriptures at all is that the Qur'an says it.

Attitude to Jesus' Death

The Muslims seemed scandalised by the idea of the cross – that Jesus could take the punishment for others. Probably the clearest explanation for them to understand was in terms of taking the dishonour and shame for humanity. The importance of recognising that Jesus' death was voluntary was also stressed.

I was interested in asking them two questions, but didn't get the chance.Given they believed that God was all-powerful, whether they believed that God could have made himself human, or how they recognise that God is both just and merciful – how they reconcile those two facts. For Christians, the two are reconciled in Jesus – that God is both just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus, to quote Romans 3:26.

Attitude to Conversion

As with Tariq Ramadan, the Muslims argued that people should be allowed to follow Christianity if they wanted to, and should be allowed to convert from Islam to Christianity or vice versa. They recognised that most Muslim countries did not allow this and that the “classical” view was that people who converted from Islam should be killed. Also as with Tariq Ramadan they argued that that view should also be respected and seemed disinclined to try to change the situation in Muslim countries.

On the other hand, when the subject got near the idea of blasphemy, they got angry having previously been chatting in a kind manner for over an hour. They seemed adamant that speaking ill of Mohammed should be very illegal. Which made me wonder what about religious freedom. If I am allowed to be a Christian, am I allowed to say that Jesus is God's perfect revelation, and therefore that the Qur'an is not? The answer seemed to be “no”, but again I didn't get a chance to ask in more depth.

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