Kissing Cousins: Christians and Muslims face to face, by Bill Musk

Beyond Crusade or jihad
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The Independent Culture

Historically, Christians and Muslims may be cousins, but there has always been a problem with the kissing bit. Muslims can marry their cousins, and often do, as well as kiss them. Christians, on the other hand, find the idea of kissing, let alone marrying, their cousins, rather inappropriate. These different attitudes towards cousins have theological counterparts.

Western aversion to having a healthy relationship with one's cousins is reflected in Christianity's attitude towards Islam. A recent letter in that foggy organ of Middle England, The Spectator, sums it all up: "Islam specifically denies that Jesus Christ is the Son of God... so any true Christian must believe that Islam is profoundly wrong and that its growth in this country, or indeed anywhere in the world, is a bad thing."

Muslims have a somewhat different approach to their cousins in faith. Islam contains within itself recognition of Christianity and its legitimacy: Muslims accept the virgin birth of Jesus, regard him as a true Prophet, and accept the Bible as one of the Books of God. Hence Muslims have never had any real problem kissing their Christian cousins.

Mask wants Christianity to return this ecumenical courtesy. The Christian view of Muslims as simply "rejecting" the Jesus of the Bible, he argues, has to be abandoned. Conventionally, Christians have seen Mohamed was the founder of Islam. By definition, he established a post-Christian religion. Islam is therefore open to the charge of being deliberately anti-Christian due to the Koran's alleged rejection of several key doctrines of Christian belief - the Trinity, the incarnation, the crucifixion, and humankind's need for redemption. As such, Christians see Islam as a backward step from a revelation of the grace of God to a religion of law and prophecy.

To get out of this impasse, Mask suggests, Christians have to readjust their focus. They must differentiate between Islam as an organised religion and Islam delineated by the Koran. The concept of Islam in the Koran is one of personal, active faith expressed through obedience to God. In this sense, Islam existed long before the arrival of Prophet Mohamed.

Mohamed himself is a prophet in the Biblical sense and should be recognised as part of the same tradition. Western, Christian understanding of Islam has no basis in the Koran or in Mohamed's self-awareness. Both the Koran and Mohamed's concern is with Islam rather than the law-based religion that has come to be known as "Islam". It is this realisation that will move the two sides closer to each other.

Conventional Islam, as organised religion, is too obsessed with the "oughts" of its system and leaves no space for seeing beyond the list of dos and don'ts. But Islam as a faith expressed in terms of active belief and ongoing trust in God is quite akin to Christian faith. The appropriate comparison is not between Jesus and Mohamed, but Jesus and the Koran. It is this comparison that shows us close parallels between the two faiths: both see God as omnipotent, who creates, is one, rules, reveals, loves, judges and forgives. Both offer weekly communal prayers and venerate Jerusalem.

Migration has played an important role in both faiths. Both have struggled with, and manifested, truth and power in their respective histories in similar ways. In short, Muslims have been trying to answer the call of Jesus. But it takes two to kiss. Musk argues that Muslims have a great deal to learn from Christian understanding of Jesus. How theologies develop and find expression, he rightly suggests, is as much about the realities of power, clan loyalty or cultural difference as about knowledge of God.

Power has played an important part in shaping Islamic theology. It is evident in gender relations, how Islam looks at the world and in the position of religious scholars in Muslim society. Obsession with an unchanging law and the Islamist vision of a single Islamic state for all Muslims - indeed, the entire globe - have transformed Islam from faith to a dangerous ideology.

Muslims need to return to faith as described in the early part of the Koran. It is the verses revealed to the Prophet Mohamed in Mecca, which have a considerable connection with the Bible, to which Muslims must now pay attention. They need to see that the Arab identity of their faith now outweighs its embrace of other cultures and languages. This Arab chauvinism - with its obsession with a particular type of dress, tribal customs and arid, archaic outlook - has to be transcended.

Kissing Cousins is not a particularly original book. Much of what Musk has to say has been said before more eloquently. But it is the strange personality of Musk himself that makes this book fascinating. He is an evangelical Anglican priest, the kind of person who ought to be dead against any rapprochement between the two great faiths.

But he sees danger in the missionary outlook of both. The notions of dawa in Islam and mission in Christianity, he suggests, not only generate tension, leading to competition, but could become a civilisational fault-line in the 21st century. At times he seems to want much more than the two cousins to kiss. There is a positive invitation to share the marital bed!

But this sharing is not on the basis of total equality. Musk wants Christian to change their attitudes towards Muslims so that they, in turn, may move towards Jesus. His evangelical outlook sometimes transcends his objectivity, for example, when he absurdly compares the Islamic notion of knowledge, so deeply rooted in rationality, with the Christian concept of Original Sin. A sense of superiority is also evident in his discussion of the Messiah. Moreover, while he uses serious intellectual sources for Christianity, his Muslim sources, apart from the classical ones, are largely cheap propaganda pamphlets and known anti-Islamic tracts.

Nevertheless, Kissing Cousins offers both Christians and Muslims a great deal to chew over. Meanwhile, I am still waiting for a decent proposal from one of my Christian cousins.

Ziauddin Sardar's 'Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a sceptical Muslim' is published in Granta paperback