Muslims, Christians and the global human challenge

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
16 Apr 2007

Kenneth Cragg, The Qur’an and the West: Some Minding Between, London, Melisende, 2006, h/b, £18.00.

Kenneth Cragg, A Certain Sympathy of Scriptures: Biblical and Qur’anic, 2004, Sussex Academic Press, 2004, p/b, £14.95.

Kenneth Cragg, Am I Not Your Lord? Human Meaning in Divine Question, London, Melisende, 2002, h/b, £18.00.

In terms of engaged observers originating from the West, there are few (if any) in the world today who could claim a better pedigree in assessing Semitic religion in local and global societies than Kenneth Cragg. Now well into his 90s, and still as acute, analytical and evocative in his writing as ever, Cragg lives in retirement in Oxford, where he is an honorary assistant Anglican bishop and Honorary Fellow of Jesus College. But it as an interlocutor with Islam that he is best known. The importance of his contribution to the field of religious studies, the humanities and cross-cultural theology is incalculable. He has served as both a scholar and a church leader in the Middle East and has also held academic posts in Britain, Lebanon, Nigeria and the USA. He is the author of a considerable number of studies in contemporary relations between the ‘the peoples of the book’ (Muslims, Jews and Christians).

Given Cragg’s track record in contrast with the depressing superficiality of much modern commentary on religion, it is a great relief to turn, first and foremost, to Am I Not Your Lord? The title, of course, has profound Jewish and Christian resonance. But in this case it is drawn directly from the all-embracing interrogation of Allah in the Qur’an (7.172). The full Arabic quotation and an English translation by the author is included in a series of citations at the beginning of the book (pp. 6-7) which indicate some of the literary, biblical and historical sources informing Cragg’s observations.

His viewpoint throughout is wholeheartedly ecumenical, in that it takes seriously both the actual and potential convergences among the Semitic faiths and civilizations. But it is also critical and realistic. Cragg is no sentimentalist. His rigorous honesty about the capacity of belief to serve evil as well as good puts him well beyond the comforting solipsisms of religious apologia that can sometimes consume the critical faculties of those whose lives have been dedicated to inter-faith understanding.

In spite of its hard-headedness, however, Am I Not Your Lord? is a hopeful work. The final chapter, ‘Satan Under Our Feet’, contains a clear-sighted repudiation of religiously sanctioned nationalisms, a call to discernment and discrimination (in the technical, non-pejorative sense of the word) among faith communities, and a redrawing of the virtue of secularity away from being a mere cipher for irreligion and anti-religion. Both the character of the transcendent God and the unity of human beings in a world divided by ideological manipulations are at stake in the commitments we develop. Rigorous self-examination is implied in ‘the divine question’, says Cragg. If society is not to be overcome by cancer, faith (that is, reasoned trust) is needed. But if faith is not to turn bad, despair, despotism and false hopes must be overcome. This is crucial to the religious quest.

How far this approach is from the destructive religious pride that sanctioned the destruction of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, for example. Cragg exhumes the dark side of faith through a paradoxical exploration of purity in religious thought, relating an account of cleansing rituals to core questions of human and communal identity, to the ‘laundering’ of global finance, and to the concomitant soiling of politics by the unconstrained passion to control. No one, ‘religious’ or ‘secular’, comes away with clean hands and the simple ability to denounce the other.

The book takes us on a journey that involves discovering how the human situation is ‘minded’ and ‘resolved’ in Islam; how servanthood, covenant, division and unity are narrated in Hebraic experience and in the transformative pedagogy of Jesus; how the legacies of history and theological difference might be handled in relation; how loyalties and meanings may be redeemable; and how we might together learn more about how we are formed (and by whom). The task, says the author, is to move from aversion to embrace within an unfolding vision of all-encompassing good, that is God.

Among the potential pitfalls in Kenneth Cragg’s perspective in Am I Not Your Lord? Human Meaning in Divine Question, one arises directly in the text and another lurks in the sub-title. The first (see especially pp. 165-170) is Christian in character. The author is deeply immersed in Islam and in respect for its enlarging traditions. His is no distanced ‘dialogue’; it is an offering (as exposition, appraisal, affirmation and critique) from the heart – one that beats with intensity for what it knows and experiences of ‘the other’. Cragg is in no doubt that the God he worships in and through Jesus Christ also moves among those he meets beyond his own household of faith. Yet he is also deeply committed to the distinguishing features of the Christian account of God, and especially the radical difference made by Jesus’ outright embracing of suffering as an expression of the divine heart. No cosy pluralist, Cragg knows that difference matters, and that if its value is to be realized it has to be lived through relationship, not wished away by theory. For Christians (or secularists) tempted either to demonize Islam or to shore up the singularity of their own convictions this will be a tough pill to swallow. But it perhaps shows a way beyond the paths of exclusion, assimilation and mutual relativization which have dominated inter-religious traffic for too long.

The second potential pitfall is secularization, which Cragg importantly distinguishes from practical secularity in civics and statehood. Just as he illustrates so tellingly how ideological secularism is (quite literally) incomprehensible from the perspective of Islam, so many secularists will want simply to reverse his sub-title so as to render it ‘divine meaning in human question’, and thus dispose of God. The author is well aware of this challenge. What we do with the divine Name is crucial for him. His response, however, is not some unfeasible pan-religious apologetic. Nor is it over-accommodation to populist critiques of religion which have failed to take it seriously. Instead he concentrates on exposition of 'the good' (starting from particular traditions) on the one hand, and the allocation of different (but shared) ethical responsibilities, on the other. In the same way that Cragg has humbly walked with other religions and cultures in order to discover both common hope and divergence among them, so he courteously invites those to whom faith is anathema to reconsider how human beings and the world might be positively reconstrued by what they reject. My only fear, given the particular and learned nature of the discourse, is that the effort will be too much for those who would benefit from it most.

The publishers, Melisende, are to be congratulated for a first-rate book, well produced. Their other Middle East related titles are well worth exploring, too – not least a fine collection of essays in tribute to Kenneth Cragg himself. A Faithful Presence, edited by David Thomas and Clare Amos, was published in March 2003. They publish five other books by him, too, including The Tragic in Islam and The Order of the Wounded Hands: Schooled in the East (November 2006), with a foreword by Rowan Williams.

Recently, Kenneth Cragg has also followed up his earlier Readings in the Qur’an (1988 and 1989) with a volume published by Sussex Academic Press called A Certain Sympathy of Scriptures: Biblical and Qur’anic. This is a profoundly poetic collection of reflections. Its dynamic of critically-aware commitment also has many echoes with the project of ‘scriptural reasoning’ pioneered by academics and some inter-religious centres, like St Ethelburga’s in London, whereby people from different traditions learn to read their classic texts together – sharing insights and principles of interpretation, but without the constraint of some prior literary theory to limit the encounter. The point is to discover how spiritual, moral and intellectual formation actually takes place in a religious/cultural/social environment, and to develop a practice-based account of what is going on which can help break down barriers without dissolving particularities.

A review in the journal Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations (University of Birmingham - vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 79–95, January 2005), summarizes both the book and its project well: “Kenneth Cragg … pushes a stage further in his lifelong project of developing a Christian reading of Islam – more specifically, of the Qur’an. As always, his writing uniquely combines a density of allusion with a precision of meaning … [He has] a detailed mastery of facts and extraordinarily broad scholarship … Whereas his starting point, 60 years ago in The Call of the Minaret, had been a Christian reading of Islam in the sense of an account of that faith which interpreted to his own community its attractiveness and power, the purpose for which he offers a Christian reading of Islam is now quite different. Cragg’s purpose is to propose to Muslims a fresh understanding of their own faith which could be appropriated for the twenty-first century.”

This is a bold venture which the sensitivities of both recent inter-faith and inter-disciplinary scholarship would often say cannot be realized. Cragg demonstrates otherwise. His interest is not comparison but painstaking mutual enrichment. By ‘sympathy’ he means much more than ‘affinity’ – an understanding of how the other thinks, lives and operates, together with the challenges this poses both to self-appreciation and to appreciation of the other. This is profoundly counter-cultural. The tendency at the moment, under pressure from lacerations attaching themselves to religion, is to seek merely to show the incongruity of the other in terms of a (usually uncritically assimilated) viewpoint based in secular or religious commitment.

The overall impact of A Certain Sympathy of Scriptures is therefore to move towards global (one might say cosmic) horizons, and to relativize tribal tendencies within both Christianity and Islam, by rediscovering the universal trajectories in both faiths. To worship God and to attend to the texts and traditions of those who have done so in different circumstances is to open up an expectation beyond self-assertion, we find.

In the case of Islam, Cragg draws upon a notion of khilafah as the whole of humanity, a foundation for the concepts of popular sovereignty, human responsibility and opposition to systems of domination. He then situates it in a wider dialogue. “This ‘caliphate’ of humankind belongs in a now global situation as the abiding reality of Semitic humanism. We are not ‘on our own’, but trustees in a sacramental order, neither playthings nor puppets of a bland omnipotence but ‘associates’ of the God who willed to create and cared to inform, inspire and invite as such to be.”

Further: “Deep disparities remain between our Scriptures. They have to do with what goes beyond our ‘education’, as more than prophethood. They enlarge into all that Jesus fulfilled in Christhood. They involve a truer measure of human perversity and, in turn, a larger expectation concerning the ‘greatness’ of God. Yet what divides need not alienate. The mutual ground – this certain sympathy – gives hope of wiser recognition of the divine stake in our humanity.”

Another angle on the role of scripture in opening fresh pathways for religious reformation is offered in The Qur’an and the West: Some Minding Between, published last year. I have only had a chance to dip into this, so I cannot offer much by way of guidance. But Cragg’s starting point is that only in attending to the actualities (and difficulties) of language is it possible for people formed by very different commitments and customs to attend to vital common themes. Those he tackles include the sanctions of truth, the moral nature of power, the use and abuse of science, the pride of nations, “the sacramental earth in human custody”, the role of ritualized understanding in time and place, and the question of how divergent ‘establishments’ might “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly”?

An appropriate last word is Kenneth Cragg’s final flourish in to Am I Not Your Lord?, where he explains cogently and daringly just why this title is about something that matters deeply: “The voice that spoke out of transcendence did not say: ‘Am I not your tyrant?’ Such a question would have no meaning. Tyrannies do not consult. Neither do they interrogate either themselves or their victims. The enquiring voice did not say: ‘Am I not your Shari’ah?’ Nor: ‘Am I not your Dawlah?’ Nor again: ‘Am I not your Ummah?’ All these, at best, could only be in a serving, not a usurping role, contributory within our entrusted vocation to divine obedience. Nor, yet again, did it say: ‘Am I not your Pentagon?’ The divine question was – and is – ‘Am I not your Lord?’ Of all claimants to our fealty we have in all good faith to say: ‘Exalted be He above all that ye associate.’”

See also: A tale of two Islamic cities (Church Times); Cross meets Crescent: An interview with Kenneth Cragg (Christian Century); and Kenneth Cragg, The Secular Experience of God (Gracewing, 1998).

[A substantial section of this review has been adapted from an earlier piece in the journal Connections (CCOM/CTBI), first published in 2003]

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