This is a guest post by the Rev’d Dr Gavin Ashenden, Chaplain to the Queen.
I have just returned from Paris where I was invited to be part of a conversation with three imams sponsored by Lebanese TV.
I thought they were kind, impressive and delightful people. It was a privilege to meet them and talk to them. We had many things in common, but most of all a deep attraction to God who made us, whose intentions towards us, we know, are love and mercy.
The strength of the encounter was the friendship and mutual admiration it produced. The weakness was that we did not speak at all about ‘the problem’.
The problem was not about the ‘Good’ which we recognised together; it was about two things: the ranking of God’s virtues, and the struggle between truth and deception.
Islam sees power as God’s primary defining characteristic, and Christianity tells us that it is love. The difference is enormous in implication. Power remains invulnerable; love reaches out to the beloved and becomes vulnerable.
Jesus, to a Muslim, cannot be the Son of God, the Word made Flesh, for it makes God vulnerable. In which case anyone claiming that God is like that is peddling a deceit.
Christianity finds, however, in the life and person of Christ, that God is above all else Love – and holds that view because of what it finds written in the Gospels.
Christians also experience the spiritual dimension of putting the Gospels into practice. It confirms for them the integrity of the whole venture; the loving of the enemy, the turning of the other cheek, the forgiveness without limit – these practices flow from a God of Love who invites us to make ourselves vulnerable as He is vulnerable.
To Mohammed, and those who look to him for their window into God, the writers of the Gospels are deceivers. They have invented or distorted the claims and the evidence that Jesus is God incarnate, and that to look on Him is to experience the Father. The Koran claims to expose this deception and condemns it.
As you might expect, there are practical out-workings of these two different theologies and claims about God.
How does ‘power’ act when it is affronted and challenged? It usually confronts whatever challenges it and then contains or even destroys it. This is how power acts to be true to itself.
And, indeed, this is how Islam acts on behalf of Allah when faced with Christianity and Christians who insist that the life of Jesus shows God as pre-eminently Love, whether it is by the invocation of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, the Jihadi beheadings of Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach, or the complete ban on churches and the Christian faith in Saudi Arabia.
Love, when denied, confronted or attacked, responds with more love. We have, beyond the example of Jesus, those who faithfully embody him: the known, like St Francis of Assisi; the famous, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta; or the hidden, like Charles de Foucauld of Algiers.
In the turbulent conjunction of Christianity and Islam we are not faced with two sides of the same coin, or different legs of the same elephant. We are faced with two forces or energies with very different preoccupations and outcomes.
This is not to say that Christianity does not get touched and deflected by a preoccupation with power. It has often. And when it does, it behaves more like Islam in its crushing of the opposition and its exercise of force against its opponents.
Nor is it to say that Islam is not touched or infused by love. It is, as evidenced by the dignified, warm and impressive imams I met through Lebanese TV. Evidenced also by certain aspects of Islam, particularly the Sufi tradition or the Ahmadiyya sect. (Though it needs to be pointed out that both Suffism and the Ahmadiyya are often badly persecuted by mainstream Islam – which only goes to offer further support for the analysis offered here).
What is the significance, then, of a Muslim standing at the lectern in a Christian cathedral and publicly proclaiming words from the Koran which announce that the Gospel writers were engaged in a blasphemous deceit?
‘Allah can have no son’ insists Surah 19. Jesus was mistaken or misreported when he proclaimed himself one with the Father, the Way, the Truth and the Life, the only access to Him.
For this is what happened in Glasgow Cathedral when a Muslim law student called Madinah Javed read out from the lectern Surah 19 on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany:
It’s hard to know what was in the mind of the Provost of Glasgow Cathedral when he arranged for this assault on Jesus and the apostles who authored the Gospels, during the proclamation of the Word in the Epiphany Eucharist at the place of the bishop’s seat, the heart of the Christian community.
The accusation of lying or deception was not just directed towards Jesus and the Apostles; but is also directed against those who have lived out this deceit; those who as a tribute to them who built the cathedral in which he serves, in the shape of a crucified God; to those, too, who have been martyred at the hands of Islam, because they refused to renounce this deception when confronted with it.
The Provost, the Very Rev’d Kelvin Holdsworth, has helpfully explained what lay behind his strategy of having the Koran read in the Cathedral. He intended that it should help build relationships between Christians and Muslims in Glasgow.
This is a laudable aim. Who could be against such a worthwhile strategy? But is that what happened? Only if he had set about it with a sufficient degree of theological awareness and political acumen. He hoped it might “lead to a greater awareness of the things we hold in common and to dialogue about the ways in which we differ”.
The flaw in his approach is that while the Muslims who chose the reading seem to have been only too aware of the differences, and chose to declare them in their Koranic reading during the Christian worship, the Provost, on the other hand, appears to have been unaware.
When asked if he had known what the passage of the Koran said about Jesus, how it denied what Christians hold central to their faith, he “declined to comment further”.
This was not, then, “a dialogue about the ways we differ”. It was not even a strategy of parity. If there had been a conversation in which he had said, “Let us insert into each other’s worship and prayers readings from our sacred scriptures which confront and contradict each others’ faith”, how would the Islamic community have responded? We will never know, because the exercise was not actually the one he claimed it to be.
There was no dialogue in the Epiphany Eucharist; only a refutation of what Christians hold most dear and upon which salvation depends – God himself in Christ, dying for our sins and inviting our worship – which Surah 19 denies.
As for the strategy, in over 30 years of interfaith conversations, I have never yet come across a Muslim community which allowed those passages in the Gospels acclaiming the divinity of Christ to be read in Friday prayers.
Kelvin Holdsworth’s lack of awareness, and his carelessness with the sanctity of worship offered to Christ, declared by the creeds to be “God from God, Light from Light, of one very substance with the Father” is not so much a contribution to interfaith dialogue as a betrayal of those Christians throughout the world whose churches have been forcibly torn down and desecrated by an Islam that energetically repudiates the claims of Christian revelation.
There are ways of setting about creating a deeper trust between Christians and Muslims, and personal friendships between Christian priests and Muslim imams is one of them. Honesty and informed theological dialogue is another. But offering a platform for Koranic repudiation of the central tenets of the Christian faith during the Holy Eucharist on the solemn feast of the Epiphany is not one of them.
The Provost might consider apologising to Christians, especially those who have suffered so deeply at the hands of a re-energised Islam that has violently assaulted Christians and the Christian faith across countries and continents, from Europe to Australia.
Some people will wonder if he has sufficient theological astuteness to remain in such a responsible office in times as fraught as these? Our interfaith relations require both integrity and competence. The strategy in Glasgow appears to have been short of both.