A common tongue

 — Apr. 8, 20048 avril 2004

Dr Mona Siddiqui is senior lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies, and head of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Glasgow. Rowan Williams and George Carey have each spoken recently of the challenge of the Muslim faith. An Islamic scholar suggests a route to dialogue.

On Monday 29 March I left Glasgow for the third Building Bridges seminar convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury and hosted by John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University in Washington. A few days earlier, the former Archbishop George Carey, the man responsible for hosting the first of these seminars at Lambeth Palace in 2002, had made front-page headlines after delivering a public lecture in which Islam and Muslims had come under severe criticism over a variety of political and theological issues. “It is sad to relate,” he said, “that no great invention has come for many hundred years from Muslim countries.” “During the past 500 hundred years,” he continued, “critical scholarship [in theology] has declined, leading to strong resistance to modernity.” Dr Carey added that moderate Muslims must “express strongly on behalf of the many millions of their co-religionists, their abhorrence of violence done in the name of Allah.” Much to the dismay of many Muslims and non-Muslims, in subsequent interviews, Dr Carey remained steadfast that he had not meant to offend the Muslim community.

It was clear that for many of the Muslims and Christian participants arriving in Georgetown, George Carey’s pronouncements lingered uneasily in the air. Did these comments on Islam need to be addressed? Was there any point in dialogue between faiths when those in high positions used their time in office to say one thing and their unofficial role to say the opposite? How you say something is, of course, as important as what you say, and perhaps this is the reason why many Muslim individuals and Islamic organisations were angered by some of the remarks. The issue was not raised at the conference in any formal way, largely because Rowan Williams, Lord Carey’s successor, made a thoughtful and well-articulated public lecture at the beginning of the conference (and published in abridged version in The Tablet) which convinced us all that while Christian-Muslim dialogue can mean many things, here at least was someone who realised that both text and context were important factors in delivery.

George Carey must have known when he spoke that his words would carry weight and resonate with thousands. He remains still an authoritative voice in the Church of England and his previous post will no doubt continue to ensure that his speeches and lectures are influential. His generalisations leave Muslim commentators little scope for anything but defensive manoeuvres — not a desirable position but his criticisms need answering.

First, Islamic theology and its innate conservatism. Muslim thinking has always been based on interpretation of the Koran, and Islam as a religion has survived and grown through an internal dynamism that reflects itself not through the authoritative voices of bishops and archbishops but through the pious dedication of the many. Their words reverberate within Muslims circles, but the wider media of secular society picks up them up in little more than muted tones.

Second, Lord Carey’s critique of Islam and its connections with terrorism. Of course, Muslims have been condemning suicide and terrorist bombings. In the current political climate does Dr Carey really think that “moderate” Muslims are not trying to resist the political radicalisation of Islam by certain groups? It is an absolute imperative for the well-being of Muslims all over the world, not just those living in Western countries, to take on the challenges of extreme political rhetoric and lead the faith into a meaningful existence with diverse values and systems.

Muslims living in Europe and America are also Westerners and the polarising of Islam and the West is an artificial construct that is always played out in the language of extreme ideologies. I for one had hoped that somebody of Lord Carey’s stature would have reflected on why it is important for religious communities to understand the continuing power of scriptural expression at a time when the international political process is in danger of becoming little more than ill-expressed reactionary views.

Scripture is not the reason why people are killing each other, however extremists cloak their arguments. Religious arguments are always potent arguments, and we must understand how mainstream theology and marginal views compete on the same platform.

Perhaps the real problem is that until now Western society has never felt a need to understand the Islamic faith. Now there is a fear that Islam, expressed through killings, wars and conflicts, and never too far from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is the religion of the Muslim masses. But do people judge Christianity by everything that is in the New Testament, or through the propaganda of right-wing evangelicals?

In Washington, Dr Williams talked about the necessity of discovering “the appropriate language in which difference can be talked about.” Through this debate, the true meaning of contemporary dialogue surfaced. He claimed that “binary oppositions” should not dominate our attitudes, a mistake that is so often made when people end up treating dialogue of any sort as a comparison between two sets of scriptural and divine values.

I would like to take up the point made by Dr Williams regarding possible challenges between different religions. If the Muslim challenges the Christian’s monotheism regarding the idea of plurality of divine agents as manifested in the Trinity, the Christian is then obliged to reflect more deeply on how his belief is understood in such a way that both Jews and Muslims “find inconsistent with belief in the oneness of God.” If the Christian can challenge the Muslim for not believing in a “Church,” is it enough for the Muslim to respond by saying that only by following God’s revealed law can there be a society that is both stable and just? Such a response involves more than merely stating that a theocracy is the correct political expression of God’s law. It must also take into account “the free exercise of different faiths” and “free submission to God’s law.” But it does highlight the central issue facing Muslims today — the voice of authority and how one decides the issue of obedience to God. Which political expression will Muslims use to realise God’s will and how does one freely submit to its laws?

When scholars who are also believers talk together about their respective faiths, their scriptural worldviews, the problems within their hermeneutical traditions, and the legacies of post-scriptural commentaries, their challenge is to recognise the tensions everywhere. They cannot do this by pretending that religion is confined to textual critiques alone, for religions live and breathe not only in our own lives, but shape the way we see the lives of others. But for all the recognition that one needs to pay to the life lived, scholarly debate holds its own value as something distinct that must reach out, push boundaries and face up to the internal as well as the external challenges of the written word.

Coming together for the third of these conferences, the theme of prophecy, which remained the focus for the three days, was an excellent example of how apparently simple terms which presume a certain common use in the Abrahamic faiths could be so widely understood and contain such differences of opinions and visions. But therein lies the essence of valuable dialogue. For true dialogue is essentially about exploring difference, and the mark of a truly civilised society is how it respects difference. To hold on to a fundamentalist worldview based on scripture in today’s climate is a dangerous thing. What is even more dangerous is to place that worldview in stark competition with another.

Posted: Apr. 8, 2004 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=6674
Categories: TabletIn this article: Archbishop of Canterbury, Christian, Christianity, George Carey, Islam, Rowan Williams
Transmis : 8 avril 2004 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=6674
Catégorie : TabletDans cet article : Archbishop of Canterbury, Christian, Christianity, George Carey, Islam, Rowan Williams

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