Islam and Christianity are today the two religious superpowers. The sceptre of Islamic imperium stretches from Morocco to Indonesia; and Christians have conquered souls and cities worldwide in the name of a crucified God whose kingdom was not of this world. Muslims see Christians as errant monotheists who are righteous but confused. Christians see Islam as a custom-made insult to Christianity.
It has always been a bloody encounter. Kate Zebiri stands well inside the conference hall, away from the genocide in Bosnia, distant from the population transfers effected with such casual brutality. Her anaemic essay, like so much academic writing, gives the impression that Christian-Muslim rivalry is restricted to the footnotes of scholarly journals. The streets of Sarajevo and Beirut are better mentors.
Zebiri's task is the comparison of whole religions. Neighbours naturally compare household goods though it is in bad taste. She pretends to neutrality and occasionally succeeds, but she confuses a studied silence about her own convictions with the pursuit of objectivity.
Zebiri rightly condemns Christian missionaries who denigrate Islam just as she condemns Muslim polemicists who ridicule Christianity. But there remains a virtuous motivation in these tracts she dismisses as crude. Their honest hatred is born of the best lineage, the love of their god. It is a hatred uncorrupted by diplomacy, erudition and theology. A tolerant but powerful secular western world rightly permits such committed Muslims and Christians to fantasise, in mosques and churches, about remoulding the world nearer to their hearts' desire - if they ever became powerful again. Fortunately, there is no chance of it happening. Ironically, both western secularism and the traditional faiths are in decline. Like the ancients, we moderns shall turn to magic and the occult.
Zebiri describes accurately and respectfully the influential opinions of that sect of Christian Islamicists who teach Islamic studies in western universities. She sees them as colleagues entitled to write on Islam. But she is patronising towards the Muslim thinkers, including myself, treating them as naive polemicists unqualified to write on the Judaeo-Christian traditions.
Take her account of the late Ismail al-Faruqi, the Palestinian stylist who proudly defended Arab Islam. Discussing his work on Christianity, Zebiri wrongly asserts that Faruqi had no direct access to the Bible. Faruqi did equip himself with Greek, and classical Hebrew is, in any case, virtually identical to his native Arabic. Faruqi's real failure, like that of all Arab Muslim thinkers, lies in his totalitarian, even racist obsession with the exclusively Arab genius of Islam. This ethnic passion led him to dismiss Arab Christianity, despise non-Arab Islam, and even deny lslam's undeniable debt to Judaism. Ironically, he accused the Jews of confusing race with religion while his own racist views were a libel on Islam and a crime against humanity.
Zebiri regrets that there are no recognised modern Muslim experts on Christianity. She finds this puzzling since, according to her, "Christians and Muslims now participate in the same intellectual culture". But do they? They may read the same newspapers or watch the same documentaries. But how many practising western Muslims edit a mainstream newspaper or present a major television programme or teach Islam, let alone Christianity, at a university? It is irrelevant to retort, as she does in chorus with others in her field, that prejudice is not the monopoly of Christians. Power, not prejudice, is the issue. Prejudice without power does not count. In general, Zebiri is too ready to excuse Christian prejudice against Islam on the grounds that such prejudice is more European than Christian. If so, a Muslim could equally argue that the anti-Christian sentiments of believing Turks, Pakistanis and Egyptians are not really Islamic but merely oriental. This type of argument presupposes that religions are superior entities that cannot be identified with the varied opinions of their adherents. Zebiri underestimates the seriousness with which Islam confronts Christianity. She approves of the condescending view that the Koran succeeds in attacking merely heretical and peripheral forms of Christian theism rather than "the mainstream orthodox tradition". But what is the mainstream orthodox tradition? And why should the Christianity, formulated by the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, couched in Greek philosophical language, be identified with Jesus's first-century Aramaic outlook?
We are dealing with a faith whose doctrinal complexity hardly needs advertisement. The Koran does condemn the various Christian heresies but it also clearly intends to attack the views of most Christian believers. Moving targets are unfair to the hunter. No religion is immune from the intelligent anger, sarcasm, ridicule - or, failing that, simple denunciation - of its rivals. But, admittedly, the Koran does not successfully refute Christian dogma unless we endorse the Koran's own presuppositions.
Zebiri concedes that there is a deadlock between Islam and Christianity. Beyond that, her concluding chapter is crowded with cliches about mutual understanding. The political troubles here are deep, the theological ones deeper still. Can Christians reasonably expect existential self-security from a people who are politically in such a mess? Theologically, if inter-faith encounters, why not inter-doubt relations? No doubt that would require mutual humility. In the meantime, modern Muslims and Christians will continue to sit face to face exchanging increasingly vague platitudes.
Shabbir Akhtar has written on both Islam and Christianity, and is writing a biography of St Paul.
Muslims and Christians Face to Face
Author - Kate Zebiri
ISBN - 1 85168 133 7
Publisher - Oneworld
Price - £14.99
Pages - 258