We live at a time when religious diversity has become a fact of life in our globalized societies. Yet Christian engagement with Muslims remains complex, complicated by fear, misunderstanding and a history fraught with political and cultural tensions. With acts of religiously motivated violence filling our headlines and religious discourse widely succumbing to “clash of civilizations”-mentalities, the need for thoughtful, critical, and genuine Christian understandings of Islam is as urgent as ever.
The Religious Other: A Biblical Understanding of Islam, the Qur’an and Muhammad is a new book that has been crafted with these realities in mind. A collection of essays, drawn from past consultations hosted by the Institute of Middle East Studies, engage the need for a carefully developed theological understanding of religion and of Islam, its origins, and its sacred text. Weaving together the work of evangelical scholars of Islam, the Bible, theology and missiology, this book combines scholarly exploration with pertinent ministry practice, offering a rich framework for the church to continue its conversation about ministry among Muslim communities worldwide.
On December 10, MEC 2020 concluded its webinar series by launching The Religious Other and facilitating a high-level conversation among leading Christian scholars of Islam. To explore this important topic, Martin Accad hosted Ida Glaser, Colin Chapman, and Daniel Brown.
Webinar host and book co-editor Martin Accad begins the conversation by introducing the rationale for The Religious Other. He acknowledges that the discourse around a Christian theology of Islam involves many controversial issues rooted in suppositions about the beliefs, traditions, and adherents of other faiths. The premise is thereby adopted: the more negative your view of the other’s religion, the less likely you will be to accept ongoing connections with them; however, the more you are willing to see the other’s religion in all its diversity and complexities, the more you will be willing to share ongoing connection with them. The book builds on this logic by casting its discussion through the framework of a Kerygmatic approach to Christian-Muslim relations that 1) focuses on Christ the person rather than Christianity the religion, 2) bears the virtues of respect and love, and 3) calls for a prophetic stance and scientific honesty in the study of religion. Accad shares that these three pillars establish the spirit, the tone, and the foundation of The Religious Other. It is an interdisciplinary collection that considers Islam’s many dimensions from a variety of academic and personal perspectives, and the result is an innovative resource for Christian scholars and practitioners alike.
Martin is then joined by esteemed scholars Ida, Colin, and Daniel to further discuss The Religious Other. Their dialogue identifies ways in which the book contributes a Christian theological discourse on Islam, and they offer scrutiny on its contentious elements. Each contributor shares from long journeys of academic curiosity about Islam and personal regard for Muslims. Their thinking proceeds from deeply held convictions of faith in Christ and the sincere desire to see Christian witness strengthened within the realities of our times.
The panelists remind us of the necessity to rethink our understanding of religion. For many, this requires a normalization of the religious world; one Evangelical academic norm of maintaining a Christian-Secular divide does not suffice when comprehending Islam and Muslims. Christianity has valuable tools for this rethinking. The Bible is a text written by and for people of deeply religious contexts, and scripture is inspired to enhance our understanding of Islam today. Normalizing religiosity effectively undermines many problematic constructs of religious others since religion is no longer grounds for otherness.
The discussion highlights the need for a posture of humility when engaging Islam. Though humility is valued in the interaction with Muslims at a personal level, the commitment to intellectual humility is more elusive. Little is actually known from non-Muslim sources about early Islam, the historical Muhammad and the Qur’an’s emergence. From a dispassionate historian’s perspective, therefore, Islam’s origins are opaque. But Christian scholarship often fails to acknowledge this and instead over-extrapolates what is known about the religion, which easily results in a conceptualizing of Islam that is overconfident and, regrettably, inaccurate. Embracing the fact that so much of Islamic origins remains unknown effectively fosters an intellectual humility that then produces hospitality. Such a position safeguards against the trap of religious competitiveness- an ethos that so often permeates religious discourses- by inviting theological conversation and encouraging collaboration in the social sphere.
The panel discussion notes that The Religious Other does not present a collective consensus or agreement of thought. There are points that do not resonate with all, particularly in the treatment of soteriology, but this is not taken as a weakness. The issue of salvation is identified as an area of significant implications for a theological understanding of religion, and much more work is warranted to explore the nuances of this doctrine in a Christian understanding of Islam.
The webinar covers numerous other important questions and reminds us that The Religious Other is meant to move an urgent discussion forward rather than provide the final word. Throughout the conversation, the panelists reinforce a point that authentic, personal relationships with Muslims are formative to building any genuine and serious understanding of Islam. The book and this webinar aim to inspire and equip thinkers and practitioners alike to deepen their connections with people of other faiths as they partake in the fruitful endeavors of faith, witness, and discovery.
This Middle East Conversations 2020 webinar seeks to explore questions that recognize challenges and identify opportunities for faithful witness. Watch the webinar and continue the conversation facilitated by Martin, Ida, Colin, and Daniel, and keep the discussion going by sharing questions and thoughts in the comments section below.