CMCS Reflections: Day Two

**This is a couple of brief reflections hopefully for each day I will be at CMCS‘ summer school in Oxford. My intentions behind these posts are similar to those behind the purpose of this blog – a space to publicly process my own thoughts. 

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Picking off 

Yesterday was an indication of what today had to offer. Things have been ratcheted up quite a few notches before breakfast could be digested. We started with being eased into historic engagement between Christians and Muslim and quranic justifications of the favourability of fellow “people of the book”. References by Ayatollah Milani comes from 2:285 which tell Muslims to “believe all messengers”, specifically those from the “people of the book” of which Christians are a prime example of alongside Jews with specific Prophets approved of by name and others in principle. There was also 2:136 which states that there shouldn’t be any discrimination between prophets. The ‘question begged’ of course is the logical law of non-contradiction and how a Muslim abrogates differing elements of the two revelations with the Quran obviously taking precedence. This is also where the corruption thesis comes in useful for Muslims, though some factions of late in the Islamic camp have called this into question.

The Christian response was in the form of historical documents responding to the early Islamic phenomenon. The first reputed to have been written by an Armenian by the name, Sebeos. His account appeared to start on a positive note and tries to make sense of Islamic ascendancy and conquest as the return of an Abrahamic people as rightful covenant heirs of land and are encouraged to “go and take the country which God gave to your father. No one can successfully resist you in war, since God is with you”. The apocalyptic turn in the second half though sees the Islamic phenomena as the fourth beast in Daniel’s vision. The account of Sebeos presented (in an except given as a handout) ends on the scary note of “the fourth beast will create a fourth kingdom upon the earth, more wicked than all other kingdoms, which will make a desert of every country”.

The other apocalyptic text mentioned is that of Pseudo-Methodius.

The view of “John of Damascus” on the contrary is not sympathetic at any point, linking Mohammed to Arianism and it is very much a critique rather than an interpretation of the rise of Islam. John (of Damascus) seems very conversant with the content of the Quran, quoting and alluding freely to the text; of significance is one from 19:28. This text refers to Mary as a “sister of Aaron” which some take as an error brought about by the Quran not having a proper grasp of Jewish genealogy or a confusion of the many Marys or Miriam. Possible explanations in  the Study Quran are:

  1. “The name Aaron signified righteousness among the Jews of this time” and so was meant as a title rather than a biological reference.
  2. “The name Aaron was common among the Israelites and that Mary had a half-brother named Aaron”

As an avid reader of another ancient literature as scripture, this appears to be a non-issue. The only significance is that John was surprisingly conversant with Quran enough to quote it in all its peculiarities.

Creation, humanity, Adam/Eve

Prior to the mosque visit and presentations from 2 groups from Christianity and 2 from Islam, the most interesting part of today’s event occurred. Texts were selected from the two scriptures and the other religious party was asked to respond to what was read with the theme being each other’s creation account. Genesis 2 & 3, alongside Romans 5 was the text from the Christian side; Surah 2 – the Cow – from the Quran. The difference between the two accounts is something that I have had a chance to reflect on in an essay, the relevant section I quote below:

“There are myriads of significant differences between the two scriptural accounts of ‘the fall’. First being that the location of the Eden is in heaven, with Adam (and Eve) banished from the presence of God and told to ‘get down…on the earth, [where] a dwelling place shall be yours, and enjoyment for a while’; the punishment for disobedience then appears to be limited to simple banishment rather than the many curses listed in genesis chapter three. The command to not eat of the tree also does not have any reasons attached to it except the warning to not become ‘among the wrongdoers’. Within the Quranic account, restoration of Adam has already happened and God has already relented all hostilities between all parties, all that is left to do is to simply now follow the ‘words from his Lord’ in other to obtain a future salvation on the day of judgement. Of all the differences however the most significant is the absence, even an abhorrence of any notion of ‘original sin’, this is explicitly stated in a recent commentary on the verse where Adam’s punishment was meted out. It instead insists on a ‘primordial norm’ or ‘fitrah’ that every child is born according do. This explains the Islamic insistence on a cycle of revelation that culminates in the Quran, since Sin in the Islamic account merely amounts to forgetfulness hence the need for constant reminder through the prophets”

Sin then as a problem in the biblical account appears to be a severe problem calling for a radical solution in comparison to the “state of forgetfulness” in Islam. The Christian charge against the Islamic account is that of the triviality of disobedience of Adam who is simply forgiven by divine fiat, hence the Islamic opposition to the Romans 5 idea of “original sin”.

Final Reflections

The major theme for today has been Interpretation – either textual, personal or historical. A significant proportion from both groups spoke of coming back to religion “for the first time”, in their testimony.

** Clarification from previous post: Quranic texts about the life of Jesus classed as ‘D’ have apocryphal sources or corroboration.

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