Akhtar, Shabbir, 2018, The New Testament in Muslim Eyes: Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

Publisher’s Synopsis


This book explores Christian origins by examining a key New Testament epistle, Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches, seen by Christians as the charter of Christian liberty from the inherited Jewish law.

The New Testament in Muslim Eyes provides a close textual commentary on perhaps the earliest declaration of Paul’s apostleship and of his undying commitment to the risen Christ. It notes the subtleties of the Greek original against the backdrop of an exciting glimpse of Quranic Arabic parallels and differences. It asks: Does Paul qualify as a prophet of Allah (God)? The thoughts of Paul are assessed by examining his claims against the background of Islam’s rival views of Abraham and his legacy. The Arabic Quran framed and inspired the life of the Arab Apostle, Muhammad, who was sent, according to Islam, to all humanity, Jewish and Gentile alike. Pauline themes are set in dialectical tension with the claims of the Quran. Akhtar compares and contrasts the two rival faiths with regard to: the resources of human nature, the salvation of the sinner, and the status of the works of the law. Both Christians and Muslims concur on the need for God’s grace, an essential condition of success in the life of faith. The core Pauline Christian doctrine of justification by faith alone is scrutinised and assessed from a variety of non-Christian, especially Islamic, stances.

Providing an Islamic view of Christian origins, this book helps to build bridges between the two religions. It will be a valuable resource to students and scholars of Biblical Studies, Islamic Studies, and the Philosophy of Religion.

Review

By Prof Hugh Goddard, University of Edinburgh

AKHTAR, SHABBIR, 2018, THE NEW TESTAMENT IN MUSLIM EYES: PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIANS, LONDON AND NEW YORK: ROUTLEDGE, 284 PP., PBK. 978-1-138-21349-4, £27.99 (ROUTLEDGE READING THE BIBLE IN ISLAMIC CONTEXT SERIES, VOL. 2).

This is an extremely interesting, and very important, book.  Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, with its insistence that the Galatian followers of Jesus do not need to be circumcised,  is an absolutely central text for understanding the evolution of Christianity as a tradition of faith distinct from its Jewish ancestor, and this is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time that a Muslim writer has wrestled with it in as much detail as Dr. Akhtar has; he is very much to be congratulated for doing so with such thoroughness, and the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies in Oxford is also to be commended for providing the environment within which he has been enabled to do so.

The book is structured as follows: after a 13 page introduction, in which the purpose and scope of the volume is outlined, there is then a 40 page preface to the commentary (Chapter One), after which Chapters Two to Seven then comprise the detailed commentary on the letter, with Chapter Two focusing on Galatians 1:1-12, Chapter Three on 1:13-3:5, Chapter Four on 3:6-4:7, Chapter Five on 4:8-20 and 5:2-12, Chapter Six on 4:21-5:1 and 5:13-26, and Chapter Seven on 6:1-18.  All the major themes of these chapters of the letter are thoroughly discussed, and my New Testament colleagues in Edinburgh have confirmed that the author has succeeded in genuinely understanding Paul’s message, with one of them saying that he will definitely keep this volume close to hand when he is working on Galatians, even if the author’s eventual conclusion is that Paul is in error.

Chapter Eight is then an extended discussion of the central theme of the letter, under the title ‘Crisis of law, promise of grace: interfaith interfaces in Galatians’, before a 7-page Epilogue draws out some of the wider implications of the message of the letter, including for Muslims, under the title ‘Missionaries in reverse: learning from the rival’; it is this section which is, in my view, most intriguing, inspiring, and challenging.

Rumour has it that, before agreeing to publish this volume, Routledge contacted seven reviewers, rather than the customary two, to comment on the typescript, and this in itself is tribute to the novelty and originality of the work, as well as to the creativity of its author; over the years, Dr. Akhtar has engaged thoroughly with the text, and also with those who study it, including through membership of the Society for New Testament Studies, and participation in its conferences.  While, over the course of the centuries, there are undoubtedly a number of Muslim writers who have engaged with the writings of the New (and also the Old) Testament in terms of describing them, for example the work of Najm al-Din al-Tufi, recently edited and translated by Lejla Demiri (Muslim Exegesis of the Bible in Medieval Cairo, Leiden: Brill, 2013), this book seems to me to take the discussion to a very much higher level, in terms of suggesting that there is something rather significant in the epistle from which Muslims themselves could potentially learn.

The particular theme of Galatians which could be instructive to Muslims, Dr. Akhtar suggests, involves ethnicity, and especially Paul’s insistence that (in Christ) ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female’ (3:28).  This is an important message, according to the author, for the worldwide Muslim community, in terms of what he describes as Arabolatry, the sometimes rather uncritical assumption, not only in the Arab World but also across the wider Muslim World, that there is some special pre-eminence in the Muslim community for those of Arab descent.  The negative aspects of this the author has himself experienced, not only in the context of the South Asian Muslim community in Britain in which he grew up, but also in the context of Higher Education institutions in Malaysia, where he taught for a number of years.  ‘Understanding Paul’s concerns’, he suggests, ‘could help Muslims to make Islam a more self-consciously universal faith, finally removed from traces of its historically conditioned Arabolatry’ (p. 267).

Along the way there is some very interesting discussion of Paul’s potential significance for Muslims, based on the fact that, even if Paul is discussed in considerable detail by Muslim thinkers such as ‘Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025 CE), there is no reference to him in the Qur’an, with the result that it is relatively unproblematic for a 21st century Muslim to reflect on Paul, given that there is no scriptural (i.e. Qur’anic) material about him (though there is some discussion in the Hadith/Tradition).  At the very end of the book Dr Akhtar actually goes so far as to ask if it might be possible, and legitimate, for a Muslim to describe Paul as ‘the lost prophet’, coming in between Jesus and Muhammad: ‘If Muhammad was the last prophet, Paul was the lost prophet’ (p. 268).  Elsewhere Paul may be described as having ’a volatile personality … enthusiastic, impulsive, sincere, affectionate, vulnerable, spontaneous, dogmatic, and stubbornly pugilistic’ (p. 3), but this is still as different as can be from the discussion of medieval Muslim writers such as ‘Abd al-Jabbar, who described Paul as a ‘cunning and roguish Jew, out for mischief and assisting mischief-doers, a trouble-maker and power seeker who employed all kinds of tricks …'. The suggestion that Paul could be considered as a prophet is likely to cause some perplexity, and possibly even alarm, in some Muslim circles, given the established tradition of antipathy towards recognising anyone who is not explicitly referred to in the Qur’an as a prophet; asking questions such as this is surely perfectly legitimate, however, and Dr Akhtar, in my view, definitely deserves credit for asking this particular one so constructively.

For an author who made his name with a work entitled Be Careful with Muhammad: the Salman Rushdie Affair (London; Bellew, 1989), there are some interesting comments about Muhammad too, which may be seen by some as being quite provocative: a sentence such as ‘Muhammad … the man himself and his Semitic audacity bordering on a psychopathic level of self-assertion and certainty’ (p. 1) might at first sight seem more likely to have come from the pen of a somewhat unsympathetic outsider, rather than a committed insider, but it certainly demonstrates that the author has taken seriously some of the insights of the psychology of religion as applied to the complex processes of inspiration and revelation.

The interfaith dimension of the epistle, as it relates to Jewish, as well as Christian and Muslim (i.e. ‘Abrahamic’) concerns, is also highlighted throughout the volume, with the book being described as ‘an effort in comparative interfaith intellectual encounter’ (p. 1), and the role of Paul himself being summarised as: ‘In the battle of the baptised versus the circumcised, Paul is the greatest knight of faith’ (p. 5).  In the course of the book, there is also interesting discussion of Paul’s sojourn in Arabia (1:17, discussed on pp. 74-75 and 95-98), and the allegory of Isaac and Ishmael, whose later textual history has often been problematic for the relationship between Christians and Muslims (5:21-31, see pp. 179-188). 

In conclusion, there is some way to go before we have a Muslim equivalent to The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which was edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, with a team of 48 other Jewish writers, and published by Oxford University Press in New York in 2011.  This work, which consists of the New Revised Standard Version translation of the New Testament, with introductions and annotations, or short commentaries, to each of its 27 books, supplemented by 30 short thematic essays on the background to and context of the texts, brought together Jewish scholarship on the New Testament in a way that is highly instructive for both Jewish and Christian readers of the texts, as outlined by the editors in their very helpful short preface (pp. xi-xiii).  This includes carefully nuanced discussion of such difficult themes as the attitudes towards Jews and Judaism displayed in the Gospel According to John (by Adele Reinhartz on pp. 154-6), and it is of course instructive to compare the comments on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, by Shaye J.D. Cohen on pp. 332-344, with the much fuller work under review here. 

In this volume Dr. Akhtar has begun a comparable tradition of careful, and in the best sense critical, study of the New Testament by a Muslim writer, and it is very much to be hoped that in 100 years’ time, assuming that humanity still exists, there may be a companion volume entitled The Muslim Annotated New Testament, which will be very much to the advantage of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and towards which goal The New Testament in Muslim Eyes is a very powerful first step.