Sacred Misinterpretation (Martin Accad) -- A Review

SACRED MISINTERPRETATION: Reaching Across the Christian-Muslim Divide. By Martin Accad. Foreword by Gabriel Said Reynolds. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019. Xxx + 366 pages.

                There is much that Christians and Muslims share in common. We claim a common inheritance from Abraham. We both venerate in some form or another Jesus. At the same time, there is much that separates us. Part of what separates us from one another is our differing understandings of who Jesus is. Christians have, traditionally, affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ (the second person of the aforementioned Trinity). Muslims consider Jesus to be one of the great prophets of God, but they reject both the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. The story of Christian-Muslim relations, therefore, is a complicated one. It involves differences in theology, but also crusades, colonialism, and the conquest of formerly Christian lands by Muslim forces. Both sides have killed each other in the name of God. While the two communities hold Jesus in common, they are not of the same opinion when it comes to Muhammad. So, how do we bridge the divide?

                Martin Accad attempts to address many of the questions that have been raised over the years, including biblical interpretation and interpretation of the Quran. He believes much of the confusion is the result of misinterpretation of both the Bible and the Quran. This misinterpretation is often the result of polemics. What if we set aside the polemics and listen to each other? To do that, we need experienced guides, someone like Martin Accad, the author of this book.

Accad is the Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the Arab Baptist Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon (his home country). He also directs the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary (my alma mater). He approaches this task from the perspective of an evangelical, who holds out the hope that Muslims will come to know Jesus as savior. At the same time, he wants to make sure that when it comes to presenting Islam to a Christian audience, he does so respectfully and honestly. This includes the way he presents interpretations of the Quran and descriptions of Muhammad. He writes this book for Christians, having seen evangelicals represent Islam unfairly, highlighting the negative without giving due attention to the positive elements. Many of these presentations have taken a polemical or apologetic approach, but such is not the case here. What he wishes to do is try to understand Islam on its own terms and present Islam in those terms to Christians. The approach he takes, according to Accad is a kerygmatic one. This invites theological engagement and involves witness to the good news of Jesus. In other words, he doesn't shy away from sharing his beliefs in Jesus but does so believing that the Quran and Islamic tradition provide a bridge to faith in Jesus. That will involve, of course, navigating differences of interpretation of each other's faith positions.

Accad's book contains ten chapters, with chapter one being an introduction to contextual issues, including his own story. He introduces us to the whole dynamic of Christian-Muslim interaction (including his own engagement growing up among Muslims in Lebanon). Having laid the foundation for the conversation, he moves to the issue of hermeneutics (chapter 2). This is an important chapter because he introduces us to the differing ways the two religions approach their own texts and how each tends to read the other’s text in the same light. This leads to misinterpretation. With that in mind, and knowing he is writing to Christians, he introduces us to legitimate forms of interpretation. He also reminds us that to Muslims, there Islam stands in continuity with Judaism and Christianity. Muslims see Islam as the natural fulfillment and correction of the prior Judeo-Christian tradition, much as Christians see themselves as heirs of Judaism. This leads, of course, to a bit of supersessionism on the part of Islam. It also leads to questions as to why Christians won't receive the Muslim witness to God’s truths.

In chapter three Accad addresses the central theological question: Who is God? Here we deal with the question of how Islam's embrace of an absolute form of monotheism might allow for a fruitful theological conversation with Christians (who traditionally affirm the doctrine of the Trinity),  The other question has to do with how Jesus fits into this theology.

The Quranic vision of Jesus differs in significant ways from the New Testament. This leads Accad to devote two chapters (four and five) to Jesus. The first of the two chapters explores the negative perspective of Jesus. He looks into the question of what Islam says about Jesus that is different from what Christianity has taught.  Standing at the center is Christ's divinity, but it also includes the way Muslims view the cross (Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified). Then after laying out the negative, he invites us to consider who Jesus is in Islam. What do the Quran and Islam say about Jesus? Accad responds to these views, which focus on Jesus being a venerated prophet and Christian soteriology.

From Jesus, Accad turns in chapter six to the Islamic interpretation of the Bible. One of the issues at hand is the idea of tahrif. This is the charge that Christians and Jews have corrupted the text of their Scriptures, and thus the bad theology inherent in both traditions is a result of that corruption. At the same time, especially early on, the Gospels and Torah were understood to be authoritative documents. The issue of tahrif really became significant in the medieval period and then continued to gain steam as time moved into the present. Accad lays out how Muslims have understood the Bible, with a chapter devoted to the development of Tahrif, which he believes emerged over time and makes it more difficult today to have a conversation about the Bible. Chapter 8, invites us to consider Islam's "Muhammado-Centric reading of the Bible." Think here of how Christians have read the Bible Christocentrically. Muslims do the same, using Muhammad as a lens and assuming he is the heir to these earlier positions (only it is now complete). For Christians, this exercise could be rather helpful in that it may help us understand how Jews feel about how Christians read the Hebrew Bible.

Chapter 9 is fascinating because Accad introduces us to the belief common among many Muslims that Muhammad is the promised Paraclete of John's gospel. Instead of the Spirit who appears on Pentecost, it is Muhammad, who fulfills Jesus’ promise of one to come who would reveal the true meaning of Jesus’s teachings. It's a view that emerges over time, but it connects Muhammad in an intriguing way to Jesus. Of course, there is a debate within Islam as to the meaning of the Arabic words that relate to this concept, as well as its application to Muhammad, but it is intriguing to think of Muhammad as the one who teaches again all that Jesus taught.

Accad brings the book to a close with some proposals for building bridges between the two religions. Among the insights he shares with the reader concern the two stages of Muhammad's life, and how these two stages might give clarity to the different emphases within Islam. According to Accad, there is the Meccan period, in which Muhammad focuses on the spiritual. We see this emphasis present, he believes, in "moderate Islam." When we think of Islam as a religion of peace, we can trace this to the Meccan period of Muhammad’s spiritual awakening. Then there is the Medinan period, in which Muhammad and his followers take up a more militant stance. He suggests that the more militant forms of Islam tend to emphasize the parts of the Quran that call for military action and violence in the defense and advancement of the faith. Thus, in pursuit of dialog, he tries to make a case for drawing upon the Meccan form of Islam. In this chapter, he also addresses the status of Muhammad for Christians. He asks the important question: In what way might Christians affirm the prophethood of Muhammad? How might he play a role—for Christians—as a precursor to Christ through his challenge to the polytheism of the Arab tribes. In that sense, he would be more like John the Baptist than the Paraclete, but it is another intriguing possibility. The truth is, if there is to be honest dialog Christians will need to deal with Muhammad’s place in the conversation.

At times I got lost in the breadth of interpreters and interpretations laid out in the book. Islam is a complex religion, even if it portrays itself as a rather simple affirmation of the oneness of God and Muhammad’s calling as God’s final prophet. The fact is, Islam is not a monolithic faith, any more than Christianity is. There have been developments over time, some positive and some negative. That adds to the complexity. Recognizing that complexity, as Accad introduces it to us, makes for a better dialog. In other words, both Sufis and Salafis are legitimate interpreters of Islam, though we might find Sufis to be more compatible as partners in conversation. That is, Sufis might be more likely to engage in dialog than Salafis (one of the conservative militant forms of Islam).

Ultimately this is a scholarly book. It's not an easy read. It's lengthy and it covers a lot of ground. Although I've had significant exposure to Islam and have advanced theological training, I’m not an expert in Islam. I don’t know the full history of Islam. So I have much to learn, and this was overwhelming at points. Nevertheless, being that I’m a historian by training, I appreciated the fact that he took a historical approach to the questions of theology and interpretation of sacred texts. I was intrigued at points by how Islamic interpretations of Scripture, of Jesus, and of Christianity, changed over time. Unfortunately, it seems that it became more negative as time passed. Misinterpretations rooted in differing hermeneutical approaches contributed to this negativity. So, if we can adjust the way we read each other’s texts, not assuming that our approach to our own text applies to the other, we might find a path forward.  

Having read the book I believe I am more informed and better equipped for the coming dialogues, though I still have much to learn. For that, I give thanks to the author and to the publisher. As Gabriel Said Reynolds writes in his foreword, "Accad's book offers a serious and clear analysis of the theological issues in Muslim-Christian relations in a style that is free from polemics, but also free from truisms" (p. xix). Indeed!


Steve Kindle said…
Once again you have provided through your hard work and critical eye a very helpful review. Your reviews continue to inform us and elevate our perspectives. Thank you.

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