Muslims and Christians Face to Face
by Kate Zebiri
Oxford: One World, 1997. 258 pp. $22.95.
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly
Zebiri, lecturer at the University of London, takes up one of the most important factors lying behind the international politics of the Middle East: the way Muslims and Christians see each other. In a readable, insightful, and mercifully objective manner, the author covers two levels of contemporary discussion of this intricate relationship: the way popular writers and scholars see each other's religion. The result is an exemplary one-volume survey of a key topic.
Several similarities emerge from the wealth of evidence Zebiri provides: (1) Each side tends to fault the other side for lapses that the other side does not even consider a problem: Muslims disdain Jesus as a career failure, Christians dismiss Muhammad as less than perfect. (2) They extend their religion's techniques to the other: thus do Christians see the Qur'an as a mix of the human and the divine, while Muslims feel free to dismiss certain of Jesus' words as "inauthentic."
If anything, Zebiri points out differences that are even more interesting. (1) Muslim views have remained largely static over the centuries, whereas Christian ones have much evolved. In the twelfth century, a scholar justified fantastical stories about the Prophet Muhammad on the grounds that "it is safe to speak evil of one whose malignity exceeds whatever ill can be spoken." Today, it is Christians who initiate dialogue efforts and sponsor ecumenical meetings. (2) Christians undertake the serious study of Islam far more often than Muslims do the study of Christianity, and for good theological reason: Muslims tend to assume they know all they need about Jesus from the Qur'an, and so have little reason to study actual Christianity. Substantial Christian institutions exist to study Islam, but not the reverse. (3) Christians tend to see their own missionaries as past history and pay little regard to Islamic efforts at proselytizing; Muslims rate both endeavors far more important. (4) Most Muslim writing on Christianity is raw and aggressive polemic ("Jesus was the leader of a band of highway robbers"), whereas Christian discussions of Islam seek to learn from it (one missionary writes that "perhaps the ideal of Muslim prayer has a challenge for the devout Christian"). (5) Muslims dismiss Christianity as a has-been (which "at the popular level celebrates its two central rites by tying gifts to a fir tree and rolling eggs down the hill, and at the intellectual level no longer exists at all"), but Christians are wary of a revived Islam. (6) Some Muslims display very bellicose attitudes ("We cannot afford peace and reconciliation with the Ahl al-Kitab [People of the Book] until we can humble them and gain the upper hand") which are not echoed on the other side.
In all, Christians bend over backwards to understand the inner genius of Islam; in contrast, Zebiri notes, few Muslims are willing to explore "what makes Christianity attractive to Christians." It often happens that Christians who study Islam intensively feel attracted to it, whereas Muslims who familiarize themselves with the Christian truths find them all the more repugnant. Louis Massignon's sense of "walking on holy ground" symbolizes his faith's predominant spirit of religious pluralism; in contrast, Ismail Al-Faruqi's implication that the Christian Fathers were cynical deceivers represents the defensive Muslim outlook. Thus do Christians show their self-confidence and Muslims their self-doubts.
Related Topics: Islam | Daniel Pipes | June 1999 MEQ
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