Mona Siddiqui - Jesus, Islam and interfaith humbleness
Mona Siddiqui is a highly respected Pakistani-British theologian. She's Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Siddiqui is also a patron of The Feast, a pioneering youthwork charity which is focussed on community cohesion between Christian and Muslim teenagers, and a regular contributor to BBC, The Times, The Scotsman, The Guardian and the Sunday Herald.
As her expertise encompasses both classical Islamic law (and the interface with contemporary ethical issues) as well as the theological history of Christian-Muslim relations, her works include books like 'The good Muslim: reflections on classical Islamic law and theology' as well as 'Christians, Muslims and Jesus'.
The highly respected Pakistani-British academic Mona Siddiqui focusses on two distinct fields of research. As a professor at Edinburgh University, her primary area of interest is classical Islamic law, juristic arguments and the interface with contemporary ethical issues. Her second focus, however, is the theological history of Christian-Muslim relations. Her concern for the subject grew through her involvement in a series of international seminars convened by the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams but it became more than just some sideline interest. In 2011 Siddiqui was eventually appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to inter-faith relations.
In 2013 prof. Siddiqui wrote the interesting book 'Christians, Muslims and Jesus', which delves deeper into the various views Muslims held of Jesus throughout history and the ways in which these views determined the relation between the two faiths. Since an Islamic view on Jesus obviously intrigues a Christian theologian like myself, I met Mona Siddiqui at the Tilburg University where she was going to give a lecture about that particular topic.
What brought you to study Jesus in Islam?
Someone once asked me to write a book to in which I could ‘sell’ Jesus to a Muslim public. “Sorry, I can't sell Jesus ” was my simple answer, but through my encounters with many Christians, I realized how Jesus could be the focus of so many theological questions between the two faiths. So I gradually felt the subject needed more attention.
Of course, the Qur’an has a particular theme which is that Mohammed is walking the same path as Old Testament prophets such as Abraham, Moses as well as Jesus. The Qur’an relates that Jesus was born to a virgin called Mary, preached God’s word, gathered disciples and performed miracles. Jesus will even return to Earth, according to Islamic tradition, as al-Masih – the Messiah. The crucial difference from the Christian narrative lies in the essence of prophetic revelation, however. For Muslims, Jesus cannot be acknowledged as ‘the Son of God’. Within Islam, revelation appears but divine distance is maintained while for Christians God is revealed in Christ and as such, distance is overcome.
I find this theological difference in the modes of God’s disclosure quite fascinating.
This quite poignantly summarizes the traditional Islamic and Qur’anic view on Jesus as well as the very theological essence that makes this view crucially different from Christianity. But how would you describe the symbolic or spiritual meaning of Jesus in the lives of Muslims – if there is any at all?
I could of course refer to a statement like Rumi’s that Jesus is a prophet in who the attributes of God became manifest, but eventually the Muslim community holds Muhammad in ultimate veneration. Even though Muslims revere Jesus as God's prophet and messenger, there is no understanding of Jesus as God incarnate. It’s only in scholarly debates you’ll find Muslims talking about Jesus from a variety of perspectives. On a daily level people will simply say He’s one of the prophets. But he has little ‘devotional value’.
So although Jesus could be a perfect bridge figure between Christianity and Islam, because he doesn’t feature in the daily life of Muslims and because, theologically speaking, He will also always be the quintessential element on which ‘the twain shall never meet’, there is little chance of Him becoming such a bridge figure.
The two don’t have to meet anyway. Dialogue isn’t necessarily about bridging anything. It’s about understanding themes, persons and ways of looking at how God expresses Himself in different religions. So the interest in Jesus isn’t to say: “Oh, now we’ve reached some good compromise.” Certainly for me personally, it’s more about trying to understand another way of looking at God and about wondering how I can make sense of it as a Muslim.
That reminds me of something that happened at an interreligious dialogue group which I recently attended. The group reads and discusses certain passage of both the Qur’an and the Bible that focus on similar topics. Suddenly however, the tone of the conversation became quite tense when it got to a very crucial difference between the two traditions: some of the Christians said that God was in need of humans in order to relate to them. For Muslims of course, this is quite unthinkable. In their view, God doesn’t need anyone. The Qur’an often emphasis the ultimate self-sufficiency of the divine. Christianity, on the other hand, stems from the very idea that God became human. That was one of the many moments that increasingly convinced me that efforts of interfaith dialogue shouldn't be too obsessively trying to find common ground. Perhaps more than that, they should in fact focus on learning to accept the difference.
It shouldn’t even be about that necessarily. It’s simply about exploring the fact that you noticed a fundamental difference. It might make you wonder how the God of Christians and Muslims can be one and the same if they have such different understandings of God. And it might make you dig deeper into your own tradition as well. There are ways of talking about God in relation to sin and repentance, mercy and compassion which open up all kinds of dialogue. There are hadiths that recount how someone went to the Prophet and asked him to give him a prayer that would prevent him from sinning ever again, yet God told him: “Don’t give him such a prayer, for if my servant does not sin, upon whom will I bestow my mercy?” So does God need us after all, if He wants us to turn to him for repentance?
I remember using such hadiths in a talk once and asked the question, “does God want us to sin?”. There were Muslims in the audience who said: you can’t say such thing. But I can say whatever I want. It’s just exploring the idea. It doesn’t mean I know anything more about God. It’s a theological exercise to see what we can make of such texts and traditions. Constructive dialogue does not reduce one’s faith, it rather enlarges it.
A Muslim could therefore say: God has no need. Full stop. But simply hearing Christians talk about the ‘humanization’ of God, in many ways, can make you reassess the manner in which you think about God as a Muslim.
But if dialogue does not have a specific goal and is only an exploration, don’t we then deny it’s capacity to dispel certain prejudices and conflicts?
Of course, if people are getting together in community groups to get to know each other, that’s great. Because at the community level, people might have misconceptions about many things that can easily be clarified by simply talking to each other. But if you do scholarly work, you have to be open to the possibility that there might be no definitive outcome at all.
Actually, one of the pitfalls of efforts of dialogue is the idea that we should reach some kind of goal with which we should all be happy. I’m opposed to a ‘dialogue on the surface’ as well. We need to go deeper. But how do you know you’ve gone deep enough? It makes no sense to say: “oh this is deep enough.” It’s just about trying to understand how people talk about the things that matter to us in life. And once you start to look at it like that, you don’t go into any dialogue setting with some sort of intended goal. You’re just there to learn. You’re not there because you have to defend your viewpoint but to listen how somebody else is expressing something that you’re interested in.
Which implies you learned a lot through your own interaction with the Christian theological tradition.
Absolutely. And we actually touched on it already: there is a vulnerability in talking about God that Christians have and that Muslims don’t. Muslims are very certain about God. Christians might be very certain about their convictions but the way they talk about God and His vulnerability is not something that we have in our vocabulary. And that’s quite intriguing. It makes me wonder: most of our convictions about God, are they convictions because that’s really what we believe or are they convictions because that’s what we derive out of centuries of theological thinking? I already mentioned some hadiths but I could just well refer to someone like Ibn Arabi who said that God created creation so that creation would love Him. There is vulnerability there. But on the whole these questions weren’t always the central questions asked by Muslim theologians because they were concerned more with human worship, adoration and love for God as opposed to God’s love for us.
It’s interesting you mention the vulnerability as something you’ve learned because during my own journey through Islam the certainty and conviction of Muslims and the way they put God so strongly at the forefront, has been some sort of ‘mirror’ for me. Even something as basic as the fact that many Muslims pray five times a day continuously challenges me.
A good friend of mine, who’s an American scholar, spent a long time in Jerusalem and has recently gone back to the States. When he gives lectures – often for a Christian public – he sometimes says: “When I hear the adhan, the call to prayer, it always touches me. I’ve been listening to it five times a day for years in a row but I’m still so moved by the ‘come to prayer, come to prayer’ and when it resounds, I feel like I want to go and pray with the Muslims. But then I stop because in so many inscriptions in mosques it reads: ‘He didn’t begat neither was he begotten.’ (a Qur’anic sentence that often places itself within the theological discussion about the nature of Christ and the question whether He is the son of God or not.) And that stops me in my tracks because I realize they still deny what is fundamental to my belief.”
I think that’s quite beautiful. He’s not saying he rejects anything but he’s saying that there is always a certain truth in somebody’s beliefs – whatever you mean by truth – and it has a way of inviting all of us to believe in God. We may not, in the end, respond to it the way a believer would, but the very fact that we’re pulled in that direction is really quite moving.
When we speak of encounters with other religions, ‘being moved’ indeed seems far more important, than being convinced.
You know, when we are looking for a bridge, we have to realize that there’s emotional and intellectual common ground. And often the intellectual common ground offers no basis at all in the lived lives of people. In the lived lives it’s mostly the sense of love for God that moves Christians and the sense of compassion of God that moves Muslims. There’s a lot more common ground there.
Which is why, in some of your writings, you have made a plea for a theology of compassion rather than a theology of salvation, is it not?
Indeed. It has changed a little, but I think that for too long traditional dialogue was about whether someone would be ‘saved’. But how do we talk about people in terms of salvation? You get nowhere with that. In strict Muslim theology, I don’t even know whether I’ll be saved myself – whatever that may be – so how am I making pronouncements about anyone else? In a way, therefore, that’s almost a futile exercise for me. I would never stand up and say: Jews and Christians can’t be saved because the Qur’an has an ambivalent relationship with them. The truth is that I don’t know what the truth is. But there’s a sense that God is always present in our own nature as human beings. And that sense makes it possible to relate to one another. So being in a certain way, just being humble for example, is a theological exercise as well.