Rivals for the hand of grace

Jesus and the Muslim - Muhammad and the Christian

June 11, 1999

With God as teacher and man as promising but wayward student, Islam recognises no supernaturally sanctioned facility higher than the prophethood that brings revealed law and guidance. Putting it this way, we can fruitfully explore the central dispute between Christians and Muslims.

In these two books, originally published some 15 years ago, the Anglican Arabist Kenneth Cragg questions the Muslim confidence that law and prophethood, aided by retribution, suffice to achieve their own avowed aim of making us righteous. Does divine legislation indeed fulfil the divine intention that inspired it? The Koran sees man as a promising but often disobedient student who can learn through repeated exhortation and devout attention to excellent example. But he can also fail miserably - as the scripture readily admits and as Cragg steadily emphasises. Relying on a multilingual scholarship and on half a century of practical experience of the Islamic world, Cragg's account deserves serious attention.

Cragg wonders whether we need something superior to the institution of prophethood. And could that higher institution be "Sonship", understood not as a physical relationship but rather as the spiritual climax of the divine response to our species, a relationship defined by divine initiatives of suffering love and grace? Do we not need a God who comes rather than brings, who gives Himself to us in unconditional love? Does our condition not instinctively crave gifts of grace and love that a resourceful and worship-worthy sovereignty is well able to supply? Why should we be content merely with prophethood and the threat of supernatural sanctions? Doctrinally and morally, these are thoughtful questions, surely; and let us grant to Christians and Muslims alike the right to their own consciences in matters of moment.

Islam and Christianity adopt different theological positions partly because of their different estimates of human nature. Cragg's Protestant lament is that, given the fact of human perversity, Islam overestimates the educative influence of divine law. Evil is inveterate; it resides in the heart; it cannot be removed by external action or belief. Islam, Cragg alleges repeatedly, for all its enthusiastic condemnation of idolatry, misjudges the sheer depth of the perversity that flouts the law of God. The idolatry that the Koran condemns from cover to cover is not more inveterate than the perversity that fathers it.

If the argument is ad hominem, directed by a Christian against Jews and Muslims, then Christianity, notwithstanding Cragg, is in no better shape vis-a-vis human recalcitrance than Islam or Judaism. For we are as free to reject the grace of Christ as of Allah or Yahweh. The perversity of man is a part of his constitution. Nothing, irresistible grace apart, can cure it. Nothing, arbitrary grace apart, can save us from our own sinful perversity.

The logic of prophethood itself, argues Cragg, demands the saving actions of the Christ. Christianity is the natural terminus of Islam, "Sonship" the natural heir of prophethood. Islam, concludes Cragg, terminates the divine engagement with man at the jejune level of law and warning, thus arresting arbitrarily and prematurely the further movement of love and grace. But such claims carry conviction only with devotees. For others, the step Cragg describes as natural is not even intelligible. No one, not even God, could take it. Cragg ignores the conceptually prior problem of the coherence of the Incarnation and the intelligibility of the related doctrines of the Trinity and Sonship. He believes that the Incarnation supplies a richer moral potential than anything on offer in Judaism or Islam. Even so, the question of coherence must stay. The moral potential of an incoherent doctrine counts for nothing.

Cragg contends patiently that Islam misunderstands the greatness of God when it deflects the issue of human perversity into the political dimension where rejection is subdued, not redeemed. In both books, Cragg insists that Muhammad's political activity was a necessary corollary of his belief that prophethood exhausts the divine resources for dealing with sin. God has warned through his spokesmen; men disregard and ignore. Cragg asserts that when divine tuition fails the sovereignty that has no resources richer than prophethood must opt for coercion. For if the prophet sticks to his guns, the message is not merely taught but enforced. The prophetic sword is then mightier than the divine pen: God and His Messenger are bound to have the last word.

By contrast, the Christian God, continues Cragg triumphantly, is above this kind of unworthy greatness. For when his message fails to educate, as it nearly always does, his gracious love and long suffering serve to pre-empt punitive options. Christian agape suffers willingly, suffers unjustly, to redeem the unjust. It is merely human to resort to force in the face of failure. Divine ends require divine means; God's prophets must represent God's way of dealing with us. The weapons of Muhammad's battles must, charges Cragg, be carried backwards into the character of his God. Islam's own slogan, "Allah is greater", is denied internally by the Muslim refusal to allow God to be really "greater" than merely the omnipotent Lord who sends prophetic instruction manuals to us and punishes failure with hellfire. For Cragg, only the Christian God is truly great and only He ought to have the last word.

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

Jesus and the Muslim

Author - Kenneth Cragg
ISBN - 1 85168 180 9
Publisher - Oneworld
Price - £14.99
Pages - 315

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