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The Arab Christian - A History in the Middle East.

The subtitle of this very helpful and enlightening work speaks volumes about the author's knowledge and intentions--"A history in (rather than of) the Middle East." Cragg's point is that Arab Christians and their presence in that part of the world is itself history--and of considerably more antiquity than the Arab Muslims and their history. Cragg does not mean by pointing out that obvious fact to denigrate Islam, but he does make it clear that Islam was a late-comer to the region by some six or so centuries. He also concedes that Islam fits the Middle Eastern Arab temperament better than Christianity, which itself is theologically and otherwise a mutant of its parent, Judaism, to which in many ways Islam is closer.

Acknowledging that there are two historically integral factors among Arabs--the Christian and Islamic, both with long and respected traditions--affords the possibility of explanation of the smoldering wreckage of Lebanon, for example. Cragg isolates and examines what, because it is so obvious, may have missed the more focused attention of scholars: Islam and Judaism posit the one God--the God that is One with an upper-case "O." Christianity, on the other hand, affected by Greek thought, sees the deity as diffused into two or even three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

As Cragg observes, "At stake was the very nature of Christianity as Hebraic in its messianic quality and Greco-Roman in its christological expression. Islam brought an imperious theism, reasserting a Semitic faith that had been not only subtilized but betrayed--as Islam saw it--by Christian theology." Cragg sees in the early development of Christian theology among Arabs a "de-Semiticized Jesus," one who was torn away from the prophetic tradition of Judaism (and later of Islam) into the world of Greek mythology. That, Cragg says, is in part what set Islam against Christianity.

Such a clear-headed historical analysis is exceedingly helpful to such folk as this reviewer who cherishes friends of both the Arab and Jewish, of both the Arab and non-Arab, of both the Arab/Islamic and Arab/Christian persuasions.

Cragg, an Anglican priest whose orthodoxy is nowhere in question, is willing in this work to point out that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation of God in Christ is "a travesty of the divine," in so far as Muslims are concerned. The transcendence of God (Allah) is of first importance to Arabs, Cragg says. Even, perhaps, to Arab Christians who proceed from that doctrine of transcendence to incarnation. But the real contemporary pinch comes in the area of ethics--or "What shall we then do, think, or plan?"--the basic question of moral theology.

There is, Cragg says, a kind of absolutism among Arab Muslims (and he reminds us that there are many other kinds of Muslims besides Arabic ones) that makes the Christian doctrines virtually impossible for adherents of Islam. Islam says, "God is One" and the ethic that derives from that belief is as clearcut and unambiguous as the belief itself.

Islam is basically a desert faith. The god apprehended there is a stark and austere god who does not walk in the garden in the cool of the day. The god of Islam sets down certain immutable principles, and those within that god's purview violate such principles with no guarantee against impunity. Christianity begins, in a sense, with four versions of the gospel instead of one--already an offense to the Muslim sense of oneness and unity. The ambiguity and built-in contradictions, Cragg explains, deters the Arab Muslim mind and mind-set from such meaningful dialogue with Arab Christian mind and mind-set. It can be of little help that the Christian-oriented people who might attempt dialogue with their Muslim brothers and sisters are likely to accept and even celebrate the contradictory aspects of their own scriptural witness. The Holy Qu'ran, on the other hand, is not to be dealt with so subjectively.

Cragg sheds a gentle light on the twisted history of Arab Christian and Arab Muslim exchange. In an early chapter "In Arabia Before Islam," he documents the centrality of early Christianity among Arabs and, with a keen if muted sense of pride, locates the heart of the Second Century in the original Semitic patriarchates. In so doing, Cragg establishes at least a parity for Arab Christians with their overwhelmingly numerous Arab Muslim counterparts.

The author's style is at times pedantic and fussy. He tells us in one chapter what he will cover in another. But the book is organized in workman-like fashion passing from history to analysis to the concluding chapter, "A Future with Islam?"--a question Cragg answers by removing the question mark: "For there is no future for Arab Christianity except with Islam."

Cragg is retired as the Honorary Assistant Bishop of the Church of England's Diocese of Oxford and has also published "The Christ and the Faiths." Historians, diplomats, clergy--all would benefit from a thorough reading of this volume as it affords a helpful perspective on the tumult of the Middle East, the origins of which, of course, are religious in nature.
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Author:Cook, Harry T.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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