Striving Together: A Way Forward in Christian-Muslim Relations
Author: Charles Kimball
Publisher: Orbis, Maryknoll, New York, 1991, 132 pages
Review by: Seena Fazel
Humanity's increasingly fragile well-being and its growing interconnectedness present Christians with certain problems and opportunities in their relations with Muslims. The problems stem from a pervasive Western ignorance of Islam and a deep bias against it. The ignorance and prejudice have perpetuated the long-standing stereotypical Western view of Islam as inherently intolerant, fanatical, and violent. The opportunity that our global village offers is one of inter-religious understanding and cooperation, the achievement of which may well be the most important factor in assuring a safe and secure future for humanity. The pragmatic need for improving Christian-Muslim relations is argued in Charles Kimball's short and timely book, Striving Together A Way Forward in Christian-Muslim Relations,
which reflects on the means to achieve a partnership between Christians and Muslims.
Kimball's first step is a step backward. He begins in Chapter 2 by describing the fundamental tenets of Islam. He argues that Western views of Islam be examined so that negative images, fears, and stereotypes may be unlearned. He succinctly relates the history of Christian-Muslim relations, explaining how they came to be characterized by mistrust, misunderstanding, and mutual animosity. The brunt of the blame for this state of affairs is attributed to Christians, for it is they who have generally assumed Islam to be false.
Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the Christian response to pluralism and the dialogue movement that has arisen in conjunction with the now pluralist thinking pioneered by a number of Christian theologians. Kimball admits that the thrust of the New Testament is toward an exclusive Christianity, yet he summarizes the work of liberal Protestant theologians, such as Wesley Ariarajah and Kenneth Cracknell, who argue for a new interpretation of some difficult passages in the Gospels in the light of pluralist thinking. For example, John 14:6 ("No man cometh unto the Father, but by me) and Acts 4:12 ("for there is no name under heaven given among men, whereby men must be saved") are interpreted by such theologians in new, intelligent, and creative ways.
Kimball poses what he considers to be the three vital questions that Christians must face in response to Islam: Is Islam a path to salvation? Is Muhammad a Prophet of God? Is the Qur'án the Word of God? Kimball's examination of these three questions relies largely on the work of others, particularly that of Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Hans Küng. However, Kimball's own approach to the questions is innovative. He suggests that the answers to the questions are not to be found in the Gospels or in Christian tradition. Rather, they must be worked out through the practice of dialogue, a dialogue that addresses "poignant points of tension."
Although there are no quick solutions to the problems that have plagued Christian-Muslim relations, Kimball presents a practical, achievable agenda on two fronts: education and dialogue. He challenges Christians to find out what their community is doing to promote better relations with Muslims and urges them to help promote interreligious activities and to join local interfaith groups. The next step, he suggests, is to organize study programs, which, he feels, should include Muslims in order to add authenticity to the endeavor and to provide alternative ways of understanding Islam and valuable insights into life as a believer. Visits to mosques are also an important component in learning about the Islamic experience. Finally, Kimball suggests cooperative social action in combating drug abuse, hopelessness, and poverty. Such cooperative social action is conducive to friendship and trust as well as practical success. He concludes by emphasizing the grassroots nature of such efforts and discussing the benefits that will accrue to both communities as they engage "in the on-going process of self-understanding in the midst of pluralism.
From a Bahá'í perspective, the book is both enjoyable and frustrating. The information is presented clearly and succinctly and includes an excellent bibliography. Lucid summaries of the successes and shortcomings of various interfaith movements are intriguing. The focus on dialogue is creatively discussed and supported. The practical suggestions for progress are applicable to any interreligious encounter and could serve the Bahá'í community well in its quest to "consort with all religions with amity and concord."1
Moreover, Kimball's sense of optimism about the future is refreshing.
However, there are a number of omissions that detract from the books value. Kimball's description of Islam fails to emphasize the remarkable qualities and innovations of Islamic civilization. The chapter on dialogue neglects some immediate and important barriers to Christian-Muslim relations, particularly Muslim views on the crucifixion of Christ and on the reliability of the Bible,2
and Christian views on Muhammad's wives and the use of violence to spread Islam.3
Such subjects can stop dialogue before it has even begun. But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Kimball's study is his ambiguous treatment of the station of Muhammad.
Is Muhammad a Prophet? To answer this question, Kimball endorses Hans Küng's recent pioneering work developing a "nonexclusive approach to Islam" - one that does not assume Islam contains no truths within it and, consequently, does not offer salvation. In the case of Muhammad, this approach rests on the seven historical parallels between the Hebrew Testament prophets of Israel and the life of the Prophet of Islam:
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad did not base His actions on any mission given to Him by the community but on His special relationship with God.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad was a man with a staunch will. He was wholly imbued with His divine vocation, totally taken up by God's calling, exclusively absorbed in His mission.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad spoke amidst a religious and social crisis. With passionate piety and a revolutionary message, He stood up against the wealthy ruling class and the traditions of the age.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad wished to be nothing but God's mouthpiece and to proclaim God's word, not His own.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad tirelessly glorified the one God, Who tolerates no other gods before Him and is the kindly Creator and merciful Judge.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad exhorted His followers to practice unconditional obedience, devotion, and "submission" (the literal meaning of "Islam") to God.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad linked His monotheism to a humanism, connecting faith in the one God and His judgment to the demand for social justice. The unjust are warned that they will go to hell, while the just are promised paradise.4
In his work Küng implies that Muhammad was more than a Prophet by referring to Him as "the model for the kind of life that Islam wishes to be."5
Küng and other Christians who support this view must be applauded for their efforts to explore new territory with courage and honesty. Their approach to Muhammad may well be the paradigm by which Christian thinkers are enabled to understand Bahá'u'lláh as their dialogue with Bahá'ís increases, a fact that should give Bahá'ís even more reason to examine the approach in greater detail.
The understanding of Muhammad as "a model" is essentially the same as the model of the early Jewish-Christian christology, which has been lost and which Küng seeks to revive.6
The early disciples of Christ probably reflected His view of Himself as an eschatological Prophet Who was intimately infused with God's presence and Who could speak, represent, and mediate God. Paul Knitter, a Catholic professor of theology, concludes from their roles as archetypes of human perfection that there is a significant similarity: "Therefore, in its origins, the Christian view of Jesus was essentially the same as the Muslim view of Muhammad: they were both unique revealers, spokespersons for God, prophets." Knitter also argues in an insightful critique of Küng's position:
I suspect that, like many Christians today, he [Küng] stands before a theological Rubicon. To cross it means to recognize clearly, unambiguously, the possibility that other religions exercise a role in salvation history that is not only valuable and salvific but perhaps equal to that of Christianity; it is to affirm that there may be other saviors and revealers; besides Jesus Christ and equal to Jesus Christ. It is to admit that if other religions must be fulfilled in Christianity, Christianity must, just as well, find fulfillment in them.7
This "theological Rubicon" - the crossing from Christian inclusivist Christocentrism (Christ at the center) to a pluralist theocentrism (God/the Ultimate/the Real in the center) - offers Bahá'ís an important opportunity to help their Christian friends cross. It is vital to stress that acceptance of Bahá'u'lláh does not negate Bahá'ís' love and devotion for Jesus Christ, just as the early Christians did not suffer any loss of attachment to Moses by believing in another Savior. By extension, Christians will not lessen their passion for Jesus Christ by admitting that Muhammad and Bahá'u'lláh are also the perfect Word of God.
Perhaps Kimball should have the last word about crossing the theological Rubicon. He argues that the inner crusade of developing awareness, questioning assumptions, and reshaping consciousness "is a journey we are compelled to undertake." This jihad, the internal struggle against what Bahá'u'lláh calls our "vain imaginings,"8
will continue to be the challenge for all seasons - before, during, and after the challenges of Christian-Muslim relations are overcome.
- Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, The Most Holy Book, 1st ps ed. (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1993), ¦144.
- For a discussion of the crucifixion of Christ and the authenticity of the Bible in the context of Christian-Muslim relations, see Juan Ricardo Cole, "The Christian-Muslim Encounter and the Bahá'í Faith," World Order, 12.2 (Winter 1977-78): 18.
- These are examined in the light of modern theological developments in Udo Schaeier, The Light Shineth in Darkness: Five Studies in Revelation after Christ, trans. Hélne Momtaz, Neri and Oliver Coburn (Oxford: George Ronald, 1977), 150-63, 168-73.
- H. Küng, et al., Christianity and the World Religions: Paths to Dialogue with Islam Hinduism and Buddhism, trans. Peter Heinegg (NewYork - Doubleday, 1986), 25-26.
- Küng, Christianity and the World Religions 27.
- It is of interest that Shoghi Effendi, in a letter dated 11 March 1936 addressed to the Bahá'ís in the West, anticipated these developments: "If Christianity wishes and expects to serve the world in the present crisis, writes a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America, it must 'cut back through Christianity to Christ, back through the centuries-old religion about Jesus to the original religion of Jesus.' Otherwise, he significantly adds, 'The spirit of Christ will live in institutions other than our own.'" The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh: Selected Letters. 1st ps ed. (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1991) 184.
- P. Knitter. "Hans Küng's Theological Rubicon," in L. Swidler, ed, Toward a Universal Theology of Religion (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987) 225.
- Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqan: The Book of Certitude, trans. Shoghi Effendi, 1st ps ed. (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983) 3.