Mic to the Middle, Please: “Sacred Misinterpretation” Seeks to Steer Christian-Muslim Interfaith Dialog toward “Moderate” Voices -A Critical Reflection

The Context

Few books are written in a vacuum. Martin Accad, a top-flight scholar on Middle Eastern Christianity and Islam, sets the contextual background for writing Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching Across the Muslim-Christian Divide in the first sentence of his Preface: “Many books have been written about Islam since September 11, 2001…” Accad references this event 13 times in a book he states took him 15 years to write. He concludes with a discussion of ISIS, which he mentions 11 times.

The ultra-conservative Muslims who perpetrated the 9/11 event made an unmistakable statement about their jihadist goals and their view of interaction with infidels. Subsequently, some conservative Christians made strong statements against Muhammad, Islam, and Muslim immigration to the West. This book seeks out middle ground in this interfaith dialogue.

 

The Audience

Accad’s intended audience is primarily Western. He states that he has written Sacred Misinterpretation for “professors of Islamic studies at universities and Christian seminaries,” Christian “seminary students,” and “the educated layperson in the church” (xxv, xxvi). He does mention that Muslims may also be interested in the book, yet the trajectory is toward the Christian audience (xxvi). It is important to note that the book was written in English rather than Arabic. Accad concedes the provocative nature of his project: “I attempt to stretch some of the traditional evangelical boundaries” (xxvii).

 

The Summary

In Sacred Misrepresentation, Accad attempts to steer Christian-Muslim interfaith interaction away from reactionary voices, both past and present, by amplifying “moderate” voices. Unfortunately, his efforts de-emphasize important voices which tend to be conservative. He therefore marginalizes those Christians whom he has placed on the “polemic” and “apologetic” end of his interfaith spectrum. He hopes, understandably, that the jihadists’ bully megaphone will be muffled, but his initiative, in the final analysis, comes across as naïve and unconvincing. In short, this book reflects poor stewardship of the author’s laudable scholarship and preeminent academic talent.

In this review, I will present a background of Accad’s work, as well as its strengths and its weaknesses.

 

Background

It is impossible to fully appreciate Sacred Misunderstanding without understanding Martin Accad’s earlier writings in their post-9/11 milieu. A book review lacking such background would be neither accurate nor fair to the author’s stated 15-year project, which amounts to nearly 400 pages.

After 9/11, President George W. Bush, likely for strategic reasons, declared Islam to be a religion of peace. In 2003, the US Department of Justice awarded a $1 million grant to Fuller Theological Seminary to catalyze peace-making efforts between Christians and Muslims.[1] About this time, a flurry of peacemaking organizations and initiatives originated from the Christian side, especially from Fuller, where Accad currently serves as an adjunct professor.

This trajectory continued. In 2006, 138 Muslim scholars issued the tantalizing “Common Word” document, which ultimately invited Christians to embrace Islam. The theme verse chosen by these Muslim scholars, Sura 3:64, invites Christians to “come to a common word” and warns them against “shirk,” or associating partners with Allah, which is a typical Islamic rejection of the Divine Son. Shortly thereafter, a “Yale Response” to the Common Word conciliatory document was issued and signed by over 300 Christian leaders, including Martin Accad himself.[2] In Sacred Misrepresentation, Accad acquiesces to the Islamic invitation, noting, “The qurʾanic mandate that calls Muslims to find ‘a common word’ with Jews and Christians (āl-ʿImrān 3:64) is an unmatched foundation for interfaith engagement” (101). It is unclear how engagement on these terms will help Muslims to better understand the Gospel.

Since then, Accad has weighed in on Christian missiological issues, such as Insider Movements and a possible prophetic role for Muhammad, taking nuanced, though liberal, positions on these issues. He has advocated for Muhammad’s prophetic role and various liberal positions held by proponents of Insider Movements. He states, “the controversy over the illegitimacy of so-called ‘Insider Movements,’ in my view, essentially boils down to the inability of some evangelicals to find anything redeemable in Islam.”[3]

 

Strengths of the Book:

  1. Historical breadth. Such breadth is coveted in any discipline, particularly Christian-Muslim relations. Too many writers and speakers have jumped into the discussion since 9/11, lacking the historical competency which Accad so abundantly possesses. Accad helpfully brings to light the treatment of the Bible by Islamic commentators from the 7th to 14th Centuries. He notes an increase of theological hostility from the Islamic side in the 11th Century, which the author links to the commencement of the Crusades and the Reconquista: “I want to emphasize, however, that the disputative tone was in no way the most widespread in that past” (64).
  2. Theologically robust and engaging. For those who enjoy theology, this is an engaging read.
  3. Christological questions are kept in the forefront. The author deserves credit for focusing on Christological issues, which are the main theological tension between Islam and Christianity.
  4. The author writes from a Christian perspective. This is not the work of an atheist or secular writer.
  5. Accad possesses a sensational grasp of Islamic sources, as well as Islamic hermeneutic principles. These he shares with the reader, springing from his expertise in Arabic. All of the major Islamic commentators are widely referenced: Baydawi, Zamakhshari, Tabari, Jalalayn, Bukhari, Tabataba’i, Ibn Hazm, Iby Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Sayyid Qutb, etc.
  6. The author wisely encourages the building of interfaith relationships and lines of communication. These can prove helpful when times of conflict arise.
  7. The book recommends a respectful tone in interfaith dialogue. This is something everyone can learn from.
  8. Accad recognizes the major contemporary controversy regarding Islamic origins and the life of Muhammad. He writes, “Too many questions and doubts about the historical reliability of this material have been raised by Western scholars to permit us to make use of them without a serious critical lens” (286).
  9. The author wisely exhorts Christians to refrain from “Reading Christian Thinking into the Qur’an” (36), and Muslims to likewise refrain from “Reading the Bible Muhammado-centrically” (38). He appropriately reproves both Christians and Muslims in cases where they have mishandled each other’s scriptures.
  10. The author is himself involved in interfaith dialog as a practitioner. This is not just a theoretical foray. His personal involvement is laudable.

 

Weaknesses of the Book:

Since a corrective evaluation warrants appropriate explanations and examples, I have provided a significant number of these below.

  1. Accad employs a “microphone-to-the-middle strategy” by amplifying moderate Christian voices and marginalizing those which he considers “extreme.”

Accad recommends that theologically liberal or moderate voices represent Christians in interfaith discussions. Specifically, he exalts the “trailblazing” recent works by Miroslav Volf, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, and Ida Glaser (77, and 323). Volf is well known for championing his belief that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Polemicists such as Father Zakaria Boutros and Jay Smith, whom the author grants have their merits, are nonetheless marginalized by Accad, who states that their “aggressive attitude needs to be abandoned” (218). Accad states, “I don’t expect this book to be received with great fervor by extremists of either community” (24). This marks a departure from the respectfulness Accad expects from others.

  1. Accad likewise employs a “mic-to-the-middle strategy” by amplifying “moderate” Muslim voices in interfaith dialog.

Accad seeks to accomplish this by splitting the Islamic community between “Meccan Muslims” who are “Moderate Muslims,” and “Medinan Muslims” who tend to be more “Violent Muslims” (327). He pleads for an amplification of the moderate Meccan voices. Students of Islam will realize, of course, that Islamic scholars have long dated surahs chronologically as Meccan or Medinan. However, Accad’s attempt to elevate those contemporary progressive Meccan voices results in marginalizing the Medinan Muslims.

Accad explains: “The focus on the universal nature of the Meccan message—as opposed to the more temporal and historically bound message of Medina—is a way of thinking that I encounter increasingly in my conversations with progressive Muslim scholars” (330). One such “progressive Muslim scholar” celebrated by Accad is ʿAbdullahi Aḥmad an-Naʿīm, who had to flee his native Sudan after the execution of his progressive mentor, Mahmud Muhammad Taha. Na’im now teaches Islamic Law at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, a seemingly pleasant place for interfaith religious discourse.

Moreover, Accad describes an interfaith event he attended in Lebanon on Textual Criticism of Scripture. He notes that the Muslim speaker at that event “affirmed that any critical study of the Qurʾan as literary text is illegitimate from an orthodox Islamic perspective” (42). While many would hope this were not the case, this imam was championing the classical, orthodox Islamic position on the subject. And, if the orthodox Muslims are scripturally-constrained from this type of exploratory dialog, will dialog with moderate Muslims be any more fruitful in the long-term?

Accad identifies the 11th Century, and specifically the conservative Islamic commentator Ibn Hazm, as the historical turning point at which these commentators turned more polemical in their treatment of interfaith issues. For example, concerning taḥrīf (the corruption of the Bible), they argued for a corruption of the text itself rather than a corruption of the meaning or interpretation. Accad promotes and praises the interpretations of non-polemic scholars such as Ibn Qutayba. Yet, the author fails to prove that the moderate voices are better Qur’anic commentators, nor does he make a convincing argument that the voices of contemporary Islamic moderates will rise above the din, even if many would prefer that to be so. Though Accad amplifies Islamic interpretations regarding corruption of meaning (a plausible understanding even for Christians), it is not possible for Islamic commentators to abandon their position of corruption of the Biblical text itself—for, if the Biblical text is authentic, then the Qur’an, Muhammad, and Islam itself become, at best, unnecessary.

  1. Many of Accad’s own “kerygmatic” (proclamational) positions are better assessed as slippery syncretism. Accad presents an interfaith “Dialog” scale which advances from:

D1. Syncretism   –   D2. Existential   –   D3. Kerygmatic   –   D4. Apologetic   –   D5. Polemic.

In his end-of-chapter reflection on the “Same God Question,” Accad adopts a position with which conservative Christians may take issue: “I am personally convinced that the difference between the Christian and Muslim understandings of God is far more a matter of emphasis than one of nature” (80). Though nuanced, this statement will constitute a problem for Trinitarian Christians.

Moreover, Accad states, somewhat shockingly, “Notable for Christian-Muslim relations is that nowhere in the Qurʾan or in the entire Muslim tradition do we encounter any slander of Jesus” (82). “Slander” is not the right term for assessing the Qur’anic treatment of Jesus. The question is whether the Qur’an exalts or diminishes Jesus. Is there any book in history that has done more to de-throne Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords than the Qur’an?

Lastly, Accad takes a slippery syncretistic position regarding Muhammad. While Christians can legitimately discuss Muhammad’s legacy as a historical leader, it is not necessary for Christians to confer some type of prophetic status on Muhammad. Accad states that Muhammad “was burdened enough for his Arab people, and devoted enough to God, to take the risk of giving up a life of potential wealth and comfort in order to bring the good news of the one God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus to the world” (321). Exactly what “good news” did Muhammad bring? Why does Accad need to attribute to Muhammad the specific term “good news,” which Christians always equate with the Gospel of Christ, when other terms, such as “message,” would have conveyed his point?

  1. Accad emphasizes “metadialogues” in each chapter, pertaining to theological issues; yet, he overlooks the theological metanarrative. Simply put, when Jesus stated, “It is finished” on the Cross, he left no room for another prophet to come and start another religion.

Consider two Qur’anic verses:

Q 5:72,

Those who say, “God is the Messiah, son of Mary,” have defied God. The Messiah himself said, “children of Israel, worship God. He is my Lord as well as your Lord.” If anyone associated others with God, he will not permit them to enter heaven. Their destiny will be hell. No one can help such unjust people.

Q 5:116,

God said, “Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people, ‘Worship me and my mother as gods instead God’?” [Jesus] answered, “May you be exalted in your limitless glory. It is not for me to say what I have no right to say. Had I said this, you would have known it. You know all that is within me, whereas I do not know what is in you. It is you alone who has full knowledge of unknown things.”

Accad views these verses as having potential for furthering interfaith dialog, yet these are the prominent verses Muslims cite to rebuff Christians. Individual verses which depict the Islamic prophet Jesus positively cannot obscure the fact that the Qur’an leaves Jesus shorn of His Divinity, Lordship, and saving passion. Here, Accad misses the forest for the trees.

For example, Accad deals heavily with verses from the Sura 3 narrative, in which the Najrani Christians visit Muhammad. He looks continually for the “positive approach” from Muslim commentators about various verses in this passage (182). However, the historical account concludes with theological impasse and Muhammad himself cursing the Najrani Christians. This reality imposes a low ceiling on the potential for contemporary interfaith rapprochement.

Accad would do well to esteem the quote he provides from the classical Islamic commentator and historian, al-Tabari, who was himself a Christian convert to Islam: “The Islamic tradition strives hard to depict Jesus as a faithful Muslim prophet. Jesus becomes a significant qurʾanic mouthpiece to affirm the cardinal elements of the Muslim doctrine of God” (84). This statement is certainly true; it is difficult for any Islamic commentator to stray too far from it. Thus, the quote provided by Accad undermines his high hopes for this “positive approach.”

  1. For the reasons stated above, Accad overestimates the potential for improving Christian-Muslim relations through theological discourse. While improving inter-communal relations is a commendable goal, the respective Scriptures of the two faiths may impose limits to how far interfaith theological discourse can go in getting us there.

Accad seeks in every chapter to “Use Deadlocks as Assets.” In this spirit, he states strangely, “The vindication of Jesus (al-Māʾida 5:116) remains the most powerful asset in conversations about God between Christians and Muslims today. It is the most stable and promising element of our common ground” (100). Rather, this verse is a polemic rebuke of the divinity of Jesus (likewise, it rebukes the divinity of Mary). Accad’s hopefulness rises to naïve optimism.

Accad likewise champions Miroslav Volf’s statement in the book Allah: “…combating highly negative—and, importantly, inaccurate and prejudiced—Christian views of Muslims is a significant contribution to combatting Muslim extremism” (6). I would disagree with Volf’s assessment. Muslim extremists will do extreme things regardless of how Christians perceive them. It is wishful thinking to believe otherwise.

In short, any statements approaching a biblical Christology are de facto statements that Muhammad was in error. Such statements would thus collapse Islam itself. Accad fails to appreciate these theological and practical constraints faced by Muslim commentators. The type of interfaith dialog Accad desires would be impossible in conservative Islamic countries, unless the outcome was very likely to promote Islam. Furthermore, even Western or liberal Muslims will never accept a divine Jesus or a Triune Deity.

While Accad may paint a rainbow of hope for the future, Christianity has declined since the Arab conquests which eventually accelerated conversions to Islam. Even today, many predict an inevitable extinction of Middle Eastern Christianity; perhaps the tide can only be turned by the influx of Muslim-background believers into this population. Nevertheless, we are not witnessing, overall, a time of unity, peace, or interreligious harmony which benefits Christians and Muslims in lands that were once largely Christian. So, not only is the textual metanarrative de-emphasized, but the historical subjugation and near-elimination of Christians from the Middle East is overlooked. The persecution of apostates is not covered in this book, but any meaningful interfaith dialog must include it, especially if one is quick, as is Accad, to point out the sins of the Crusades, the Reconquista, and US foreign policy. Notably, the term Dhimmi never appears in the book.

 

Conclusion

Sacred Misrepresentation is an interesting read full of educational and theologically-rich information. Yet, Accad falls short of the responsible stewardship of scholarship which is expected from Christian theologians. The book simply contains too much palpable agenda, demonstrated by Accad’s marginalizing of “extreme” Christians and Muslims while amplifying “moderate” voices, by unnecessary political sniping, and by failing to appreciate the overall metanarrative in the interfaith dialog. By urging intercommunal reconciliation through a narrow theological dialog gate, Christ and His gospel will inevitably be diminished.

Martin Accad wisely encourages promoting inter-communal harmony through meaningful relationships. This avenue must be fully explored going forward. The author mentions one fruitful and heart-warming incident in which a Muslim imam rejected the proposal of an interfaith dialog event among seminary students. Instead, the imam recommended going on a picnic together (4). A good suggestion, indeed! After all, the commonality between Christians and Muslims lies in our humanity, not our theology.

[1] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-dec-06-me-muslim6-story.html

[2] https://faith.yale.edu/common-word/common-word-christian-response

[3] See, http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/28_4_PDFs/IJFM_28_4-Accad.pdf, p. 180; and,   http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/31_4_PDFs/IJFM_31_4-Accad.pdf


Dr. Fred Farrokh is a Muslim-background Christian. He has a PhD in Intercultural Studies, with a dissertation on Muslim Identity. He currently serves as an International Trainer with Global Initiative: Reaching Muslim Peoples. He has previously served with SAT-7 Cyprus, YWAM Middle East, and Jesus for Muslims Network.

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