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Guiding Christians Through Islam

David Pinault’s new book provides a readable and scholarly comparison of Islam and Christianity. It is the fundamental question raised by Jesus himself (“But who do you say that I am?”) that divides Muslims and Christians. This candid book shows how we might improve interfaith dialogue by not shying away from difficult issues.

The quality of books presenting themselves as Christian investigations of Islam tends to vary widely, particularly when the books are intended for popular audiences. I am happy to say that David Pinault’s The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch: A Christian’s Companion for the Study of Islam is a well-informed, respectful, and helpful guide.

Pinault, a Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University, has two broad agendas for the book. First, he wants Christians, particularly Catholics, to “learn what is distinctive and uniquely precious” about Christianity, even as they deepen their understanding of Islam. Second, he wants readers to avoid attempts at “Christological rapprochement,” which he sees as a disservice to both faiths. In Pinault’s view, interfaith dialogue cannot make progress until it admits the fundamental differences regarding the person of Jesus Christ in the Bible and Qur’an.

Before the book delves into the Jesus question, Pinault provides several lengthy yet helpful chapters to set the stage. He explores the pre-Islamic world into which Muhammad was born; the promulgation of the Qur’an; Muhammad’s active life preaching, ruling, and fighting in Arabia; and Qur’anic and non-Qur’anic representations of and interactions between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. One chapter looks at his fieldwork in Indonesia as a case study of the range of contemporary Muslim beliefs, from syncretic tolerance to exclusionary violence. The last several chapters examine Christian communities and their travails in Egypt, Yemen, and Pakistan today.

The majority of the book, however, consists of a rigorous comparison of how Muslims and Christians have understood the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Muslims and Christians tend to agree on Jesus’s “‘simple and pious life,’” his devout following, and his ability to work miracles like healing the sick and raising the dead. Yet most of the ninety-three verses of the Qur’an that refer to Jesus are more concerned with refuting Christian views of Jesus. Broadly speaking, the divergences of Christianity from Islam can be seen in three areas: (1) the kenosis (self-emptying) of the second Person of the Trinity in becoming man, (2) God’s solidarity with the suffering of created beings, and (3) the redemptive Passion of Christ.

Muslim Understandings of Christ

Let us unpack these a bit. An obvious difference regards the Trinity, which Muslims see as violating the absolute oneness (tawhid) of Allah and his transcendence. Another chief stumbling block is the crucifixion and all its attendant meanings. In 2010, Muhammad Mahmud al-Sayyid published a book with the endorsement of al-Azhar University, a preeminent center of Islamic learning, that makes the standard charge dating back to the seventh century that Christ’s crucifixion was not real, since Allah would never have allowed one of his prophets, much less his son, to be so shamefully executed.

This view is regularly complemented by an appeal to the concept of tashbih (“the act of making something appear similar to something else”). Many Muslims believe the Romans and Jewish elders crucified a facsimile or disguised Jesus. Usually Judas is said to have been made to look like Jesus and killed, thus punishing him for his betrayal. For most Muslims, Allah is considered free of all needs, immune to suffering, and never subjected to shame. Therefore, many Muslims would agree with the renowned twelfth-century philosopher and theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), who points to Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross as a sufficient refutation of his godhood.

Such weakness and seeming failure in Jesus’ life is scandalous because, as Pinault rightly points out, the Qur’an paints all of Allah’s prophets “as ultimate victors” without noticeable blemishes. We see this in the absence of adultery in the Qur’an’s narration of King David. Pinault also contends that some modern commentators, like Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali, further imply that “all of Allah’s prophets are ma‘sum, that is, sinless, perfect, infallible, and divinely protected against error.” Something to note, however, and which Pinault leaves unsaid, is that from the earliest Islamic creeds (such as Fikh Akhbar II), there was ambiguity about the stainlessness of prophets, with some allowing for “stumbling,” “mistakes,” and questions about when exactly a prophet becomes inviolate.

The final component of the traditional Muslim understanding of Jesus relies on the important concept of tahrif (corruption, distortion). The Qur’an asserts that over time Jesus’ followers “distorted and corrupted” the Gospel. The irony is that much of the Qur’anic biblical references, such as the baby Jesus speaking, appear to derive from Christian apocryphal texts like the Arabic Infancy Gospel translated from Syriac and Jewish folklore tradition contained in the Haggadah, all of which are considered distortions or embellishments by their respective communities.

Christianity’s Suffering Savior

Turning to the Christian perspective, Pinault emphasizes kenotic Christology. Here, kenotic Christology refers to the affective theology of Hans urs von Balthasar and the Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, which Pinault summarizes as “what it was like for Christ himself to undergo enfleshment and fully taste the fears, anxieties, and joys of the human condition . . .” The suffering of an enfleshed God is what makes Christianity so “unusual.” This is a God, self-emptied and crucified, who loves us and gives himself over unto death for the sake of our salvation. The Christian Jesus understands the travails of humanity instead of lording his transcendence over us. Christ’s cross and human frailty are not sources of shame but vindication that shines forth like light, revealing a loving and sympathetic deity (Psalm 37:6; Heb 4:15).

As part of this argument, Pinault rejects the thesis of German Catholic theologian Hans Küng, who argued that an early Jewish Christianity associated with St. James held to a “doctrinal purity and simplicity” lost in later Trinitarian formulations until Muhammad recovered them. This is also a thesis that informs the Turkish Muslim journalist Mustafa Akyol’s 2017 book The Islamic Jesus, which Pinault admires but finds deficient in its main, Küngian argument. Historically, the earliest Christology we find firmly “acknowledges Christ as divine Lord” and celebrates his sacrifice on the cross.

Some readers may find Pinault’s exuberant endorsement of von Balthasar and Dupuis’s affective theologies more problematic than his analysis of Islam, since it claims that “Jesus was not born with complete knowledge or understanding of his messianic mission.” Such a view risks diluting Christ’s true divinity. For interested readers, Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s recent book The Incarnate Lord puts forth what I consider the most thoroughly cogent and incisive Thomistic critique of this understanding of kenosis.

Ultimately, Pinault argues that the Jesus of the Qur’an “never weeps, never shows self-doubt or fear.” He has the “flat emotionless tone of a tiled arabesque: admirable, but remote.” For Pinault, the “Koranic Jesus served largely as a shadowy reflection of Muhammad,” his preoccupations, and his anxieties about himself and his religious mission. Pinault thoroughly demonstrates that it is this fundamental question, raised long ago by Jesus himself (“But who do you say that I am?”), that proves so dividing for Muslims and Christians and requires greater engagement.

The Flaws in Pinault’s Book

Pinault’s book, however, is not without its flaws. Chapter Ten, for example, which deals with Sunni-Shi’ite sectarianism, is utterly unconnected to the rest of the book. It also oversimplifies Iran and Saudi Arabia’s regional conflict as only a religious rivalry. A more important and pressing issue is that much of Pinault’s analysis in the first part of the book depends on the distinction between Meccan and Medinan revelations, with the Meccan occurring earlier and tending to be more conciliatory in tone. New scholarship by Gabriel Said Reynolds (see his recent The Qur’an and the Bible: Text and Commentary) and others, however, has called into question whether such a distinction can clearly or easily be discerned from the Qur’an itself or from the later traditions that constitute the occasions of revelation on which Pinault relies.

Another crucial problem is the absence of any treatment of how religious authority operates within Islam. Pinault repeatedly refers to “Islamic doctrines,” but seems to imply a false equivalence with a Christian understanding of how doctrine unfolds, which I have shown is not the case. Explaining religious authority would have also helped readers make sense of whom they should be engaging in interfaith dialogues and what efficacy they should expect them to have. It would also have clarified who gets to speak for Islam about Muhammad’s life, the role of Jesus, Qur’anic exegesis, and other issues Pinault raises.

This is especially important when Pinault jumps quickly from Qur’anic verses on jihad and the theory of abrogation (that later verses cancel out earlier verses) to Osama Bin Laden, and then suddenly stops. He never mentions Sura 3:7, which says there are clear and ambiguous verses and only Allah knows the interpretation, thus complicating the idea that abrogation is some clear-cut “Islamic doctrine.” Secondly, he leaves the reader with a cliffhanger, wondering whether the implication is that “true” Islam or “real” Muslims are those who accept the Qur’anic basis of such violence.

Yet the most recurrent problem in the book is one of inconsistency, particularly in providing historical context and in justifying the reliability of sources. Pinault plays fast and loose at times with historical context, leaving the reader with incomplete and sometimes misleading explanations. For example, he never discusses imperialism or colonialism, even when discussing nineteenth-century interactions between Muslims and Christian missionaries. It is as if the politics of the day had no bearing on the harsh words Muslims had for Christians. Additionally, he exaggerates the differences between Sufis and mainstream Muslims. Referencing al-Hujwiri’s (d. 1073) famous Sufi text The Revelation of the Mystery or Valerie Hoffman’s work on Sufis in Egypt would have set him straight.

A second pattern of inconsistency involves justifying his evidence. For example, why should we regard a hadith (saying of Muhammad) that originates in the eleventh century as reliable? This problem is most obvious in his extended use of Ibn Ishaq (704-767), who compiled a famous biography of Muhammad. Pinault seems to take everything Ibn Ishaq reports at face-value, even though on one occasion he acknowledges that the Arab biographer concocted a “hagiographic Islamic legend.” More strangely, Pinault expects the reader to accept as accurate a paragraph-length quotation purporting to be Muhammad’s exact words. Considering that Muhammad died in 632, this is quite a stretch. If the sources are inaccurate or problematic, Pinault’s argument starts to crumble in parts, so a more thorough evaluation of evidence would have been useful.

Improving Interfaith Dialogue

None of these problems, however, undermine the book’s overall value. This is particularly true of Pinault’s well-expressed concern that interfaith events cannot move beyond the laudable but limited goals of mitigating bigotry and preventing religious violence. Pinault is absolutely right that tough questions must be open to discussion. How should we understand Muslim claims that the Qur’an is inerrant, despite its seeming inclusion of Mary in the Trinity? If we are going to take theological positions seriously, can we really conclude that we worship the same God?

I only wish that Pinault had elaborated on what he imagines productive interfaith dialogue should look like in more practical terms. After all, when Muslims and Christians fail to engage meaningfully and respectfully with each other, it tends to reinforce the belief among non-Muslims that Muslims seek a protected position for themselves and their religion, marking certain topics as unacceptable for a non-Muslim to raise. For people already suspicious of Muslims, perhaps from reading about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the ongoing plight of Asia Bibi, interfaith dialogues that avoid substance or thorny questions seem to take place from a position of caution and fear of offending rather than equality and freedom. This is not conducive to the mutual trust needed for dialogue in a pluralistic society.

At the same time, I think that any interfaith exchange must be marked by self-critique. Pinault’s book, for example, occasionally mentions Christian violence, but it never provides a sufficient framework to explain how Christians understand the problematic relationship between violence and religion, especially when it comes to the Old Testament. Its dark passages, such as the killing of the Egyptian first-born, do not vanish just because the New Testament appears. You can make a more convincing case to a Muslim for the truth of Christianity if you can show how your faith better resolves what you see as a problem (violence) in his or her faith.

Regardless, Pinault has written a compelling and thought-provoking book. Even if one disagrees with his arguments, they are the product of a critical and intelligent mind and merit a fair hearing. The book’s rougher parts can be supplemented by reading more works grounded in historical methodology by scholars like Hugh Goddard, Max Weiss, and Heather Sharkey. Pinault’s work moves us closer to a more intellectually honest, well-informed, and productive interfaith engagement.

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