A History of Christian-Muslim Relations
- ISBN: 9781474466806
- Published By: Edinburgh University Press
- Published: April 2020
In 2000, Hugh Goddard concluded his first edition of A History of Christian-Muslim Relations by invoking the gardens of Parcevall Hall, the retreat center of the Anglican Diocese of Bradford, which feature the Stations of the Cross laid out in a Moghul-style garden. Goddard suggested that this example of Christian spirituality in a physical environment inspired by Islamic tradition might symbolize the best model for the future relationship between Muslims and Christians. This model envisions them “as fellow-pilgrims on the road towards the truth, which neither has yet grasped in its immensity” (2000, 194). However, the often-dramatic events that followed in the new millennium seem to have had a sobering effect on this optimistic notion. In this regard, the recent publication of Goddard’s second edition of his History offers an important and timely update of this work. In this review I offer a reflection on this book, focusing particularly on its new chapter on developments in Christian-Muslim relations over the last twenty years.
While Goddard begins this chapter on Christian-Muslim relations in the 21st century with some hopeful events, he soon turns to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and an extensive discussion of the numerous ‘“confrontational approaches” that followed. Goddard devotes special attention to violence perpetrated by Islamist groups around the world, the acts of warfare by the United States and their allies in the Middle East, and the—at times violent—Islamophobic provocations of the far right. The author also suggests that the “culture-wars” between what he terms the World of Islam and the West have shifted from the literary domain (e.g., the affair concerning Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses) to the visual domain (e.g., the controversy following the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad by a Danish newspaper). Next to this detailed discussion of such confrontational events, Goddard provides an equally extensive account of “collaborative approaches,” many of which will be less known to members of the general public. He focuses on various (global) initiatives of interreligious dialogue and a number of prominent declarations concerning interfaith relations.
A key question that Goddard’s volume raises for me is how one actually determines what qualifies as “Christian-Muslim relations.” To what extent do the conflicts and collaborations described pertain essentially to Islam and Christianity and to what extent do other factors, influences, and modes of identification play a role? This issue can be addressed on at least three different levels, each of which is brought up, or at least alluded to, by Goddard himself.
A first level concerns the question of religious credentials and representation. Goddard emphasizes that the (often young male) individuals who have carried out terrorist attacks in the name of Islam in Europe were “not necessarily particularly pious” (181). Likewise he writes that it is “vitally important” (190) to recognize that someone like Pastor Terry Jones, the American evangelical preacher who claimed he burned a copy of the Quran in his church, represents a tiny church congregation and does not possess the conventional religious qualifications to serve as a pastor. The views of these “radical” exponents of Islam and Christianity are usually not widely accepted by their co-religionists. The thorny question here is how one determines when a religious expression is representative enough to count as an “official” religious position. And, if an expression is scarcely representative, is it then less valid as a constitutive part of inter-religious relations? Furthermore, while less representative, the actions committed by the likes of Jones might, unfortunately, have a greater impact on the relations between “ordinary” Muslims and Christians than the peaceful encounters between highly recognized religious leaders, such as the occasion – brought up by Goddard – on which the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and Pope Francis signed the Declaration of Human Fraternity.
A second aspect of the question “what counts as Christian-Muslim relations” relates to the issue of motivation, especially in the context of conflicts. To what degree were the attacks of 9/11 motivated by antagonism toward Christianity rather than, say, “America” or “Western imperialism”? Conversely, would it be justified to describe the subsequent “War on Terror” as a Christian one? It has often been pointed out that political interests, ethnic identity, or claims on land or oil may be more important sources of motivation than religion in such conflicts – even if all of these factors often feed into one another. Goddard addresses this point when he writes about the need to distinguish between religion, culture, and politics, suggesting that some of the most dramatic cases of confrontation pertain more to “the relationship between the World of Islam and the West” than to that between “Christians and Muslims specifically” (204). These categories could be questioned further by asking whether “Islam” as such necessarily takes a central place in these conflicts. For instance, Saddam Hussein’s regime, as Goddard notes, could hardly be described as Islamic.
In relation to this, a third level on which the question “what are Christian-Muslim relations” can be posed concerns the salience of religious identity. Terms like “Islamic societies,” the “World of Christianity” and, indeed, “Christian-Muslim relations” suggest that religion is a paramount category of identification in the particular phenomena under discussion. However, this does not always need to be the case. Thus, Goddard points out that categories such as “Christianity,” “the West,” and “secularism” need to be carefully distinguished, even if the boundaries between them are “somewhat fuzzy” (185). Similarly, he remarks that recurrent religious “culture-wars” have pertained less to the Christian-Muslim binary than the secular-Muslim one. These boundaries, however, are indeed fuzzy: Anti-Muslim politics in Europe today not only refer to secular values but also mobilize notions of Christian identity. Indeed, these upcoming identitarian and culturalized forms of Christianity (not addressed by Goddard) show that religious identifications do not always carry much confessional or theological depth. It can therefore be instructive to look beyond the explicit discourses people use to position themselves, be they self-professed Christians, seculars, or Muslims.
As the questions raised here demonstrate, Goddard’s new volume offers important input to ponder the manifold relations between Muslims and Christians in nuanced and contextualized ways. Above all, it invites us to reflect on what we actually mean when we talk about “Muslim-Christian relations.” As such, and given its impressively wide-ranging scope and erudite discussion, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in this topic.
Daan Beekers teaches religious studies at Utrecht University and sociology at the University of Amsterdam, both in the Netherlands.Daan BeekersDate Of Review:March 31, 2022