The Qur'an and the West

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Kenneth Cragg
  • Washington, DC: 
    Georgetown University Press
    , December
     244 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This most recent edition of The Qur’an and the West opens with a new foreword in which John Esposito, University Professor at Georgetown University, briefly describes the remarkable life and tremendous scholarly contribution of author Bishop Kenneth Cragg. In a lifetime just shy of one hundred years, Cragg served as Assistant Bishop of Jerusalem for the Church of England and wrote forty books, including The Call of the Minaret (Oneworld Publications, 2000) and Sandals at the Mosque (Oxford University Press, 1959). Rightly described as a “pioneer and a trailblazer in Christian-Muslim encounter and dialogue in the 20th century,” he engaged these activities with great sincerity of heart (3). 

Cragg has a poet’s sensitivity to the purpose and power of language, and the title of the book is telling. He first notes how antiquated our notion of “one East and one West” has become, given globalization and the presence of “a significant Muslim presence in a diaspora far from its birth territory” (5). Substituting “Qur’an” in the more common formula “Islam and the West,” he maintains the Qur’an is “the crucial text in which to encounter Islam in its own recognisances” (6). Reflecting on the “grim aftermath” of September 11, 2001, Cragg makes hopeful appeal to an American spirit of liberty rather than force, and a Qur’anic warrant for peace rather than belligerence. He firmly asserts, “contemporary peace calls all religions to be satisfied only to persuade in their first, original intent” (11). This sense of peace and purpose is essential to the correct understanding of our relationship as creation to creator. Cragg puts it succinctly, “[w]e understand theism truly when we perceive the truth of our own humanism” (13). The entirety of his book can be read as a reflection on this theme.

Cragg’s first four chapters explore what he calls “founding themes,” beginning with “A Deep Divide in a Single Situation.” The human being is creature and addressee in the Qur’an, we are all in a single situation with respect to our Lord. Reflecting on the “and” in “Islam and the West,” Cragg laments efforts to read each side of the conjunction as a monolithic bloc doomed to conflict. Instead, might “caring and careful attention to the Qur’an” remedy some western misapprehensions concerning Muslims? Cragg believes so, and he further believes our “single situation” is characterized by the press of “time and actuality” as we—all of us—share economic interdependence and the peril of looming environmental disaster (26). In the following chapter, Cragg reflects on what “the West” must learn from the Qur’an—humility. Unlike the violation of political colonialism, the Qur’an envisions human beings as colonials for God with the dignity and liberation of the caliphal delegacy (29). Cragg’s next theme is “Legitimate Selfhood,” understood by the Qur’an as a state of thankfulness toward God along with responsibility toward creation and a sense of the future. With this selfhood comes the potential to become self-serving, and in his fourth chapter, Cragg offers an intriguing treatment of this theme by comparing the “whisperings in the bosom” of Qur’an 114:4-5 to the Christian concept of original sin.

The next six chapters offer in-depth exploration on terms and concepts relevant to the relationship among the Qur’an, Christianity, and “the West.” A skilled Arabist capable of careful examination of word roots and associations in the Qur’an, Cragg has an equal genius for the English language. Love of letters is apparent in his frequent poetic citations: Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, Dylan Thomas, and scores more. Cragg describes the “vital point of the secular” with reference to the power of words to enrich the “things” of the world (77). He acknowledges “[t]he Burdened Significance of Words” in the fraught negotiation of meaning and belief. In the seventh chapter, Qur’an 50:37 is cited with its reference to “dhikraqalb and shahid.” Dhikra is translated with the neologism “enminding” to provide a sense of its perpetuity, “not merely as a notion in the head but as an affection in the heart” (95). Soon after making this observation, Cragg asserts, “[t]here is no sane meaning for that ambiguous ‘and’ in the ‘Islam and the West’ formula but one of mutual openness of heart and a human peace of the divine bond” (106). In chapters 8 through 10, Cragg explores several important concepts for Muslim-Christian dialogue: art, ritual, sacrament, Eucharist, and incarnation. Each topic is treated with careful reference to Qur’anic passages, those offering points of connection and those expressing clear differences.

The final two chapters work as a pair: “Divinely Liable Politics” and “Our Humanly Liable Lord.” Caliphal responsibility is necessarily political, but it is not immediately clear how to exercise this authority. Difficulties in establishing a political Caliphate after the death of Muhammad are discussed along with the shortcomings of democracy. This is a considerable challenge, but Cragg believes there is hope in acknowledging God’s own liability toward us. He believes this idea is also the “Qur’anic conviction” held by “Muslims no less than Christians” (173). With this, he connects the Qur’anic injunction that there must be no compulsion in religion and asserts, “[i]t is only in making itself gentle that a faith makes itself great” (191). Cragg closes his book where he began, focused on the necessary relationship between theism and humanism. He writes of a “sacrament of divine hospitality,” and “the clue to all human kinship, the proof-text of our mutuality” (191).

While a thorough glossary and index helps with accessibility, The Qur’an and the West is a difficult book in the best sense of the word. It has richness and depth of ideas paired with an extraordinary sophistication of prose. Any reader with an interest in Islam or Muslim-Christian discourse will find much of value here.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Canzona is Senior Fellow in the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Date of Review: 
April 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kenneth Cragg (1913-2012) was one of the world's foremost scholars of Islamic and Christian theology. His books on the Qur'an and Arab Christianity, including The Event of the Qur'an, The Tragic in Islam, and The Call of the Minaret became classics in their field. Cragg served in academic and ecclesiastical posts in Jerusalem, Beirut, Cairo, Nigeria, and the United States in addition to serving as the Warden of St. Augustine College in Canterbury. He was the author of thirty-five books.


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