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The riddle of man and the silence of God: a Christian perception of Muslim response.

Long years ago in Beirut when I was teaching English American-style, we used a textbook called Sentence and Theme. It was meant to develop the art of exposition in cogent prose that had a careful sequence.

It would often seem these days that we work with "Headline and Sentence," in the other sense of the second word. In some newspapers there is scarcely any small print at all. Banners do justice for thought. Contemporary media are strong on exposure but short on exposition. "Spots" and "soundbites" drastically shorten the dimensions we are willing to give to vast issues. The comprehensive theme goes by default.

Islam has been much victimized by such superficiality. It is true that each religious faith must take some responsibility for the image it presents. It will not do to allege that all public image-making is travesty and disown it as malicious. Yet, when we have fully allowed for the biogtries of Hizballah, the fatwas (judicial verdicts) issued by Khomeini, and the barbarities of hostage-taking, it remains true that many people in the West have a caricature of Islam. They accept a hasty verdict on these adverse aspects and seem unable, or unwilling, to take authentic stock of the qualities of Islam as evident in art, culture, discipline, and other clues to its meaning.

Former President Reagan's perception of Iran's Ayatollah in the 1980s matched Khomeini's estimate of American mentality as satanic. Following the collapse of the Soviety system and the shift lin geopolitics it has engendered, there are Western headline writers and analysts who are tempted to identify in Islam and Muslims the new bete noire of the 1990s. If they feel at a loss without evil things to be fighting against, and if they require phobias behind which to rally belligerence, then it seems that Islam will serve. Some are genuinely alarmed about a threat of world domination coming from Islamic fundamentalism. Such fears are based on the evident capacity of some Muslim regimes, as in the Sudan and Iraq, to operate in ruthlessness and criminal defiance of international civilized standards of humanity and the rule of law.

These fears need careful assessment, but in current global terms of power and technology it would seem credulous to surmise a physical Muslim jihad achieving across the world the kind of subjugation Hitler's Germany attained in Europe in the forties. That, however, is not to say that a Muslim militarism might not atttempt, or contrive, local ventures of power and dominance capable of causing a global disquiet.

Our duty here has to do much more with intellectual and spiritual themes rather than with political prognosis. In trying to get those themes into focus, Christians--whether in scholarship and education or in mission--must appreciate and understand how ambivalent and apprehensive the Muslim mind is about the West. If, in effect, there is only one superpower, the opportunity that leaders like Abd al-Nasir utilized to play off one against the other has passed. It was evident in the Gulf War how effective American-led internationalism could be vis-a-vis an Arab power in conditions where both politics and terrain facilitated the likes of Desert Storm. (That lesson is underlined by how dilatory or evasive such internationalism can be when the will is different or the circumstances are ill suited.) The point here is to register how much the Muslim mind sees and feels itself threatened by the preponderance of the West in the theorizing and the marshaling of any such world community organized through the United Nations for "peace and security."

Threatened and disadvantaged it certainly feels. On the one hand, there is no option but to concede the shape of the future as technology, the information media, and the global neighborhood are contriving it. These are largely Western initiated and Western controlled. On the other hand, such conceding goes against the grain of Muslim autonomy, of Islamic self-sufficiency. It makes for a sort of love-hate relationship, for a tension between the irrestible and the unwelcome.

Islamic Resurgence

It follows that Islam is renewing in contemporary form its instinctive sense of finality and self-sufficiency, with the West as the foil. In turn, its attitudes to Christianity are clearly involved. The late Isma'il al-Faruqi took a strong lead in campaigning for what he called in Islamization of all knowledge. A Palestinian who studied and taught in Montreal and was later professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, he insisted that education, especially higher education, must be rescued from spiritually debilitating (Western) presuppositions and based exclusively on norms and values that are safe only in the keeping of Islam.(1)

This demand regards the Western social sciences as assuming and fostering secularity. Anthropology, sociology, and psychology most of all are either "value-free" (as the jargon goes), or they leave divine truth and human obligation to God out of their reckoning. Rational, pragmatic, and empirical as they are, they undermine the sense of the divine absolute on which Islam rests. They study faith as a mere phenomenon and assess its significance solely in term sof social function or personal idiosyncrasy. Or it is no more than an epiphenomenon of human behavior or psychic need. All this is in complete, apparent disregard of issue of truth and questions of reality. In this way such sciences introduce a lethal element of optionality into all religious faith and they do so precisely where youth is most malleable and vulnerable. Thus, Islam--in fact or by implication--is deprived of its categorical authority and fears a subtle seepage of disease into its fabric.

In this way the Western academic and intellectual climate is seen to work against Islamic norms, values, and patterns. Religion contracts into a private affair and is withdrawn from the total aegis over life and society that Islam always assumed to be the role and right of the Qur'an, the sunnah ("divine way"), and the shari'a ("sacred law"). On the analysis, only the Islamization of knowledge will suffice to stop the rot among Muselim youth and reinstate the full and effective authority oif the final Iman ("faith") and Din (religion").

Before considering how this affects Christian mission and interpretation to Islam, we must take the measure of how it seems to be borne out in Muslim experience of the secular manifestations of Western society. These may be directly felt by Muslim people in European and the States through emigration and global intercommunity; or, within Muslim nations, they are experienced in sundry forms via the media, technology, and tourism. The break from former patterns of sexual honor, reverence, human dignity, and personal probity in the West leaves many Muslims dismayed, perplexed, and angry. They sense a direct threat to their tradition and are tempted (or glad) to write off Christianity as a played-out faith, disproven by its own presenbt predicament and unable to discipline its own societies or achieve in the concrete its own high ethics.

Islam's Abiding Validity

Before coming to what this situation requires of Christians and how it puts into question the whole meaning of evangelism ("physician, heal thyself"), it is first necessary to remember how impressed Islam is with its own virility. Traditionally, it has wbeen a very self-assured faith. Heart-searching and mind-querying have not normally been congenial or even thought necessary in Muslim history. Islam, it is said, is an implacable religion.(2) Faruqui's call for the complete Islamization of knowledge is never in doubt of itself. It is made in confident reaction to what is seen as insidious "colonization of the mind" through the legacies of Western history. It reacts against a vision of European arrogance as always holding the rest of the world in intellectual and spiritual tutelage to itself.

The declaration of independence on the part of th eMuslim community belongs with the classical faith. The Qur' an, on its own showing, it "a Book in which there is nothing dubious" (Surah 2.2). Islam is understood as the one religion divinely suited to human nature, and human nature is divinely suited to islam, this being the double sense of the world fitrah in Surah 30.30. The Qur' an reveals and enshrines what all religion ought to be and, indeed, has truly been since Noah and Abraham. It does not innovate or initiate the true faith; it confirms and finally institutionalizes the faith that always was. Thus, other faiths that now deviate from this divine norm, which fail by test of this revealed plumb line, are by the same token astray.

The Isamic posture of mind and dogma gives it enormous self-confidence and tends to a certain triumphalism--all the more heartening in times of disadvantage. It is, of course, grounded in the traditional comprehension of the form of quranic revelation. This is understood as having been verbally received by Muhammad in entire, syllabic, stenographic inerrancy, through the mediation of the very words of God. The Prophet's part was completely passive--indeed, not a part at all. Analogies used here are, for example, a robot, or " as a piple conducting a jet of water through a stone lion in a Persian garden."(13) Modern apologists and medieval Sufis are one in this regard.

A scripture received in these terms makes for a total, impregnable reliance on its contents, despite the crucial issues for throughtful, believing scholarship in respect of prophetic experience, history, and exegesis. Our Christian relationship to Muslims has vital and exacting tasks in this critical field. The field first of these tasks is to know the measure of it.

Armed with this formidable self-sufficiency and minded to see the West as spiritually moribund and effete, Muslims stay fortified within their Islam, "Fortified" is the right word if we think of ramparts and bastions, walls and bulwarks, and the sense of defensiveness that goes with them. Any Christian ministries of mind and spirit in these circumstances have much to do to find a hearing.

One obvious us whether unilateral solutions, such as the Islamization of all knowledge would entail, are really feasible. Answers to the secular situation cannot be had in isolation, even for self-assured Muslims. How far can they be immune from secularization factors that have so powerfully beset the West? Some modern thinkers in Islam are keenly aware that the West? Some modern thinkers in Islam are keenly aware that human issues are universal and that responses cannot be theirs and their alone without reference to the parallel experience of shared humanity. There is no Islamic aeronautics, just as there is no Christian zoology or Hindu chemistry. To some degree culture may well vary medicine and hygiene but not astrophysics or pathology. To a fair degree, in fact, the sciences unify the world that religions claims to interpret.

Inasmuch as Jews, Christians, and Muslims share many areas of faith that the sciences address or interrohate, we are to that extent concerned together about a consecration of all knowledge. We must together assess, possess, and affirm the meaning of creation as all our scriptures Semitically confess it. Human creaturehood, dominion (khilafah), and responsibility under divine law are commonly affirmations. The Qur' an has also a strong emphasis on divine signs in the natural order, which, given due human cognizance in gratitute, come close to what we Christians call a sacramental world, in which all experience--sexual and procreative most of all--has to be acknowledged as both a sphere in our autonomy and a liability Godward for hallowing, gratitiude, and awe.(4)

Keeping that common territory of faith always in sight, we can best proceed to where we differ. This means trying to clarify the bearing of Christian faith and the Gospel on all those issues of human life and meaning that arise from the sphere of the social sciences, and that produce the strains many Muslims propose to isolate within a separate Islamization of knowledge, thus serving notice of irrelevance on all other faith systems. We need to bring to bear on this Muslim self-sufficiency or self-reliance the witness and the credentials of those Christian convictions of which they feel no need.

There is a deep irony in this situation inasmuch as a great commmonality is present about the situations for which Islam believes it must have wholly unique and unilateral answers. The bewilderments and tensions of the modern mind, which some Muslims see Islam escaping in splendid exemption or contrived immunity, are emphatically present among Muslims here and now. Our best way into any study of a continuing Christian ministry in this field will be first to explore what the bewildered and the alerted say in their report of them.

The Riddle of Man and the Silence of God

An outstanding example is that of the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner (for literature) Najib Mahfuz. In recent story he has a character say: "God doe not relate to us and I cannot relate to Him. There is nothing but dead silende between us .... I have always concluded that God--praise to be Him--has decided to leave us to our own devices."(5) How clear it is that all the issues of what Christian theologians call theodicy, or "the justification of God," are in that sentiment. The Muslim writer is in line with a recent Western writer remarking that he thought he could believe in God if he did not have to relate him to he world.

No doubt Najib Mahfuz hides behind his fictional character and remains himself enigmatic or silent. Even so, we have to ask why the author wants it said. When the story's character is reproved for what is near to blasphemy, Mahfuz has him respond: "Belief in God demands demands belief in His lack of concern for the world, just as implies that we are on our own." If that is so, what has happened to islam? No theism can long survive a perceived lack of divine concern for the world. Indeed, the ultimate question in all theism is how far such concern goes, needs to go, is competent to go. There can be no question of its not relating at all.

In his Faith for All Seasons, Shabbir Akhtar concedes that Muslims must respond to modernity and be alert to "the riddle of man" and "the silence of God." Yet he denies that we need to register "riddle" and "silence" in the deep and tragic terms charactristic of Christian faith. He understands "being on our own" as being left with guidance and an inclusive shari'a, a blueprint for priate piety and public order. The rest, in crude language, is up to us. As Akhtar sees it, we are for the most part adequate. "Men according to Islam are on their own in this whole affair of life. If there is failure one accepts it patiently. The only cure for failure is success. Nothing suceeds like success is a very Islamic sentiment."(6) He continues: "We can imagine Muhammad face to face with Pilate," unseating him by political action and, in vigorous rulership, inaugurating what the Qur'an enjoins. It follows that "we are on our own" only in the robust terms of an infallible directive to which, via Din wa Dwlah ("religion and state"), we can readily be amenable and, within these terms, perfectible.

I think that for many contemporary minds, Muslim and others, the "riddle" and the "silence" go much deeper into sharper measures of disquiet and perplexity. This is partly so by the evidence of Islam itself, the unloveliness of fanaticism, the dishonesty of obscurantism, the political cynicism, and the violation of human rights. Is there no Shirk, or "denigration of God," we must ask, in the violence done by our pervesity to the design and intention of God? Is our human scene well diagnosed as "getting along reasonably well despite a few disappointments"? Or are we not required to take our theology into a more radical perception of what it must take for God to be God in the light of a radical honesty about the ways humans are humans?

It is significant how far classical Islam tends to discount such questions. As a confident and articulate exposition, it seems fair to take A Faith for All Seasons as representative, even though ordinary Muslims might not express themselves in such forth-right terms. It is the more relevant for our present purposes because Shabir Akhtar, in writing it, is eplicitly responding to Christian ministries of meaning such as we would always hope to bring.

Islam's Refuge in inscrutability

"Muslims," Akhtar writes, "must...refuse to concede the tragic failure of man on pain of having no theology left to articulate." They must require and practice "an almost total freedom from the tragic instinct" and "be resolutely determined to guard against the temptation to tragedy" in which Christians indulge.(7) There are very similar sentiments in all the writings of Isma'il al-Faruqi. Akhtar also sees the Christian faith as taking the human predicament too seriously; he charges Christians with falling back romantically on ideas of divine pathos, of condescension into suffering in ordfer to avoid oppressive thoughts of a mere "spector-God." Muslims, by contrast (so Akhtar states), have no right and certainly no need to affirm that God is love.(8)

"The capacity of a religion to excite pathos," writes Akhtar, "increases as faith declines, as practical piety and serious acceptance reach a low ebb." Thus, Christian concepts of incarnation and atonement are unhappy travesties of a really sovereign God whose authority is exercised in law and scriptured revelation, exercised unimpeachaly by him and adequately for us. At worst, Muslims here can fall back, as A Faith for All Seasons does, on divine inscrutability. Its author notes Surah 82.8 about God making man in whatever form he pleases. This may include the very perversity that is our common problem. Even if the divine creating, however, has in facts made us for damnation, God is not answerable to external, rational, or philosophical critique or question. "To question further would be blasphemous." Surah 95.4-5 refers to humans as "fairest and lowest of the low" in creation. There the puzzle of human perversity must rest.

By this logic, the burden of theodicy evaporates. We are given the problem back as an answer. God remains Allahu akbar, while idolatry, as well as shirk, zulm, and nifaq--perversity, wrongdoing, and hypocrisy--remain. These, however, are only problematic for "a certain kind of morally constrained sovereignty," which has to be judged "always more or less helpless." The divine government of Islam, with this Islamic version of human amenability, is not that sort o "morally constrained sovereignty."(9)

A Faith for All Seasons squarely demonstrates the vital areas of Christian ministry in mind and meaning and shows how exacting they are. While adamant in his resistance to Christian sentimentality, as he sees it, Shabbir Akhtar is also frank in his reocgnition of "the shallowness of Muslim responses to the challenge of modernity." He acknowledges the need for urgent self-criticism and cites Surah 2.286: "Lord not burden us beyond what we have strength to bear," applying the words to "the silence of God being increasingly oppressive...on the heart of every reflective believer."

The Gospel Response: God in Christ

In response to such sober Muslim reflections, any sense of the Christian "word in season" has to be aware of how patently short is the Christian community itself in upholding it. The Gospel, Shabbir Akhtar remarks, "is in no better shape vis-a-vis recalcitrance than Torah or Qur'an." But this is precisely why, according to the Christian Gospel, the world needs God in human flesh, redemptively suffering on our behalf.

A Faith for All Seasons decides that "Islam has no human, or partly human reality that can correspond to Christ," adding cryptically: "If Islam has a Christ, it is Allah."(10) Has the author realized that this must mean there is a Christ-dimension in the being of God? The New Testament witnesses to what that dimension is. As Paul has it: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). It is precisely this divine capacity to have the Christ which allows us to speak of "the Christ in God." The credal language concerning "the only begotten of the Father" has exactly this sense: the eternal nature of God, which enterprises and brings about all that we have historically in the person and the passion of Jesus. This is understood as disclosing, in initiative and action, what is therefore index to the divine being. It is as if we are saying that God is, thereby, "credentialled" as truly divine in that he has truly come to grips with the wrongness of the human world in terms congruent with his own being and our earthly need. On both counts God is known to be "most great." We Christians see in the insignia of redeeming love the very criterion God give us both for our theology and our ministry to others. Credential, character, and criteron are one and the same. They answer blessedly to what we know most radically about the humanity we share, if sin is to be known for what it is and savingly forgiven.

The foregoing has ended in a confessio fidei but one that has wrestled on the way with Muslims in serious mutuality of personal integrity. Ministry has always to be reprocessing and clarifying what its content is. If it is truly "ministry," it must surely bring us back to the daily world. Much of that world will be oblivious of the treasures we have examined in theology. Dialogue is often elitist and exceptional, depsite its popularity and the spate of books about it. The masses of illiterate and inarticulate believers, the growing number of merely formal or bemused adherents, have little mental time or economic leisure fo theodicies. Yet they feel and know the human loneliness and, in their own indiom, are no strangers to perplexity.

One vital area of interfaith concern alongside the intertheology we have studied here is the need for common penitence, the sense of suffering vicariously for one another.(11) This would mean undertaking not only what is criminal in our own guilt but what is tragic for us all. Christians find the paradigm in Christ, in the figure of one who undertakes to redeem evil by the worth of the love that bears it. Those who see their salvation in and through the cross must be ready to read and apply its redemptive principle in every relatonship of their own. Only so do we confess the forgiveness of sins as being both that which grace grants us as receivers and also what grace asks of us as givers.

Then our verdicts do not exonerate, nor idly accuse, nor cynically scorn, the world as we see it. Rather they are to be bent always toward salvation, toward what salvation means and what salvation demands.


(1.) Isma'il al-Faruqi, Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Work-Plan (Washington, D.C.: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1982). See also his "Islamic Critique of the Status Quo in Muslim Society," in ed. B.F. Stowasser, The Islamic Impulse (London: Croom Helm, 1987), pp. 226-43. Reference should also be had to his mastepiece (with Lois al-Faruqi): The Cultural Atlas of Islam (New York: MacMillan, 1986), pulished just after his tragic death. See discussion in my Troubled by Truth (Durham, U.K.: Pentland Press, 1992), pp. 126-46.

(2.) Gai Eaton: King of the Castle: Choice and Resonsibility in the Modern World (London: Bodley Head, 1977), p.20. Al-Faruqi also was fond of the adjective.

(3.) The one analogy is used by Shabbir Akhtar, see below; the other comes in Discourses of Rumi, trans. and with commentry by A. J. Arberry (London: J. Murray, 1961), pp.51-52. For Akhtar, see also Be Careful with Muhammad (London: Bellow Publ., 1989), section on "The Qur'an."

(4.) The theme is developed further in my Mind of the Qur'an (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1973), pp. 146-62.

(5.) Najib Mahfuz, Fountain and Tomb, tr. S. Sobhy, E. Fartouck, and J. Keuneson (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1988, no. 73), pp. 110-11.

(6.) Shabbir Akhtar, A Faith for All Seasons (London: Bellew Publ., 1990), p. 160.

(7.) Ibid., p. 160-61. Earlier quotations (after footnote 6) are on pp. 181 and 207.

(8.) Ibid., p. 181. see also Isma'il al-Faruqi, Christian Ethics (Montreal: McGill Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 193-235.

(9.) Shabbir Akhtar, Faith for All Seasons, pp. 236, 157, 209, 213.

(10.) Ibid., pp. 157 and 187.

(11.) I tried to develop this theme of a collectie penitence as a vital area of interreligious concern in To Meet and to Greet (London: Epworth Press, 1992), pp. 63-80.
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Author:Cragg, Kenneth
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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