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THE BIBLE AND THE QUR'AN, by Jacques Jomier OP
THE BIBLE AND THE QUR'AN
For today's Christian, the very word 'Islam' presents an unnerving paradox as the terror of fundamentalist violence is stamped firmly in our consciousness. Yet in the battle to save an ailing values-based culture, are not the devout, tight-knit Muslim communities, nestled in pockets around the country, those in whom Christians may find their most steadfast allies?
We are united by so much faith in the One, True God, as indeed by our common spiritual ancestry. Nevertheless the gulf between these two dominant world religions seems unbridgeable, a source of tension.
Yet, for as long as each continues to thrive, Islam and Christianity are bound to meet, interact and clash. Each professes to hold the fullness of divine revelation. Each claims to know the path to paradise. Each seeks to spread the good news. For Christians - and particularly for future Christian generations - it is therefore vital to have a more than superficial understanding of Islam.
But where does one begin? The Qur'an (Koran), Islam's sacred text, looms formidably for the uninitiated. Fortunately in Fr Jacques Jomier's The Bible and the Qur'an, we have a succinct, comparative analysis of the sacred Scriptures of Christianity (and Judaism) alongside those of Islam.
Fr Jomier's book was first published in 1967, indicating that the present need to engage with Islam is by no means new. The present revised edition, reprinted in 2002 by Ignatius Press, was published with the post-September 11 Christian in mind. Several chapters have been re- translated from the original French, and a number of chapters have been appended, including relevant (though brief) commentaries on the relationship between Islam and the Catholic Church by Cardinal Francis Arinze and the late Pope John Paul II.
This is a brief work, more starting-point or executive-summary than an in-depth analysis, with the author moving methodically and concisely through the major points of comparison - differences and similarities - between the Qur'an and the Bible.
An overview of the origins of the Qur'an sets the historical, social, political and religious context in which Islam's holy book was composed. This is followed by an analysis which, although brief, is thorough.
For example the nature of Islam's 'universal mission' is explored. Fr Jomier suggests this evolved and gathered momentum as its adherents grew in number, before crystallising in its present threefold mission to 'ensure the victory of the oneness of God over paganism; to correct the errors of the Jews and Christians, particularly about the person of Jesus; finally, to further the spread of the Muslim community' (p. 13).
Several chapters address the complex question of the Qur'an's ambivalent attitude towards Christians and Jews, and their Scriptures. Here the author unpacks the familiar and paradoxical notion that, while Islam recognises, in some capacity, the authenticity of the Old and New Testaments, it rejects outright the conclusions drawn by both Jews and Christians from those texts, and questions the fidelity with which these Scriptures have been transmitted through history.
In this regard, Fr Jomier notes that the Qur'an incorporates and expressly acknowledges certain figures, stories and themes from both the Old and New Testaments, but, in the course of appropriating them, reinterprets their significance to match the designs and teachings of Islam.
The Qur'anic way of life is next examined, both in terms of Islam's general attitude of total submission to an almighty and unreachable God, and in relation to what the author sees as being the chief motivating force in the devout Muslim's life: fear of eternal damnation for failure to abide by the law as it is set out in the holy book.
A reflection on the primacy of faith in both Christianity and Islam reveals a fundamentally divergent understanding of this virtue, and a far greater emphasis in Christian faith on the immensity of God's love for mankind.
An entire chapter examines the special place of honour reserved by Muslims for Jesus and His mother Mary as persons of unsurpassed purity. Here we learn that whereas the earlier texts of the Qur'an reveal a reverence for Jesus as the Christ, later verses increasingly urge that Jesus, although blessed among creatures, was not God.
The analysis includes a reflection on the Qur'an's variable tone and function: at times it is a guide in Islamic apologetics; at others it is a codification of the Islamic law. In the Qur'an, the faithful find all they need in order to live lives that are pleasing to God, which Jomier suggests is to be expected in a religion which restricts itself to ordering human behaviour in the natural sphere. It is unfathomable to the devout Muslim that a Christian could profess to actively participate in the divine life of God.
Finally various cultural aspects of Islam are considered, including the unique phenomenon of Muslim unity, or 'brotherhood', the cultural context of the religion's early years, and Islam's own view of its place in the religious history of mankind.
As mentioned earlier, this is a careful and methodical book, written with precision and skill, and in a sensibly systematic way. Lacking footnotes, The Bible and the Qur'an may be of limited appeal to scholars, however this is unsurprising in a book clearly intended for a broader audience. Ultimately this is an effortless read, and an excellent introduction to a potentially trying subject.
Notably absent from the account is any trace of hostility or prejudice. In a landscape fraught with danger, our guide treads cautiously but confidently. Intimately familiar with the Islamic world, and with the Qur'an itself, he navigates without fuss or fear, but always with the deepest respect for his subject matter.
The respect Fr Jomier clearly harbours for the Islamic faith reflects more than mere impartiality; it is clear that the author writes in the firm hope that one day the divide between Christians and Muslims will be bridged. There is frequent reference to the devotion which the Islamic people harbour towards Our Lady.
Fittingly, the last appendix in the book is a short piece by Fulton Sheen, written in 1952. In it, Monsignor Sheen envisages the conversion of the Islamic people through the intercession of Mary. Although I cannot guarantee this chapter will induce in all readers the goose bumps I felt, it surely fills one with great hope: Our Lady, says Sheen, always turns her beloved children to Christ.
This, then, is the goal of Fr Jomier's book: to educate Christians so that calmly, and with hope, we may engage our Islamic brothers and sisters in constructive dialogue, trusting in our Heavenly Father to draw all of His children into the fullness of salvation. Another book for our time.
Tim Cannon is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 22 No 2 (March 2009), p. 17
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