Shumack, Richard, 2014, The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, Island View Publishing , 240pp, pb
Contrary to popular perception, Muslims view Islam as a deeply rational faith and take pride in its philosophical tradition. At the same time, many thoughtful Muslims view Christian belief as being, at best paradoxical, and at worst nonsensical. Until now, many Muslim objections along these lines have gone unanswered by Christian thinkers. In The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, philosopher of religion Dr Richard Shumack tackles nine key Christian ideas that Muslims find philosophically troubling. Some, like the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, are predictable. Others to do with God’s hiddenness and the proper role of certainty and doubt are more unexpected. All, however, are addressed rigorously, accessibly and with gracious humour. This important book should find a place in the library of all students of religion, religious leaders and participants in Muslim-Christian dialogue.
(Taken from the website of The Centre for Public Christianity)
Reviewed by Professor Trigg, Senior Research Fellow at the Ian Ramsey Centre, University of Oxford. His latest book is Religious Diversity: Philosophical and Political Dimensions, Cambridge University Press, 2014.
This book, by Richard Shumack, who is based in Australia, confronts common objections made to Christianity by Muslim thinkers. He particularly responds to philosophical objections made by the British Muslim, Shabbir Akhtar. Shumack gives him the compliment of saying that he is ‘unique among contemporary Muslim thinkers in the depth of his engagement with Christian belief.’
A basic theme is the difference, as Shumack sees it, between Christian and Muslim understanding of divine/human interaction. The Muslim, he believes, sees this in terms of a ‘legislative’ model, according to which God lays down laws for humans through the medium of the Qur’an. Christians, on the other hand, adopt a ‘ fellowship’ model. The first model sees God as Lord with humans as his servants, obeying His commands. The Christian model places greater stress on a personal relationship between God, as Father, and the individual believer.
A few words of summary cannot do justice to the complexity of the discussion, and the philosophical understanding displayed. Such dialogue between Christians and Muslims too rarely happens. There seems to be little appetite for philosophical argument amongst many Islamic scholars. On the other side, too many Western thinkers seem anxious to minimise differences between religions, and to pretend that they are even unimportant. The pluralism of the philosopher of religion, John Hick, was of this kind, and it can ultimately degenerate into a relativism that discards the idea of objective truth.
We must accept that Christianity and Islam claim truth, but both cannot be right. The doctrine of the Trinity, discussed in one of Shumack’s chapters, is a case in point. Muslims may portray it as a belief in three gods, and glory in a strict monotheism. Christians can say that is a misunderstanding. What cannot be allowed is the relativist conclusion that, for Muslims, God is one, but the Christians he is a Trinity. What is true must be true for everybody whether they accept it or not
Shumack’s book is profound and readable, but raises questions. He says that ‘both Christianity and Islam make the confident declaration that their respective holy books consist of the received and inerrant Word of God.’ He concludes that both equally have to face the question how extant Scripture ‘did originate with the testimony from God’. Yet this comparison cannot be quite right, even given different Christian understandings of the role of Scripture. The Qur’an is seen as itself a direct revelation from God. The Bible, though, witnesses to such a revelation. The Qur’an is viewed as literally God’s Word. The Bible points to the incarnate Logos (or Word), namely Jesus Christ. Things are not true because they are in the Bible. They are in the Bible because they are true, or so Christians believe. The latter worship a Person not a text.
A major gap in Shumack’s treatment is the issue of human freedom, which he barely mentions. There are differences about this between the two religions. Christianity believes it is a God-given gift which must be respected. Human rationality is impossible without it. God wants our freely given love and adoration, and coerced belief is not genuine belief. The Western tradition of democracy springs from this basic idea. How far Islam and democracy are compatible is still unresolved. It is sometimes said, too, that Islam is more fatalist than Christianity, accepting all that happens as the will of Allah. These difficult matters remain to be debated. This book, though, illustrates that an informed and courteous interchange of views can help each religion appreciate some of the richness of the other, while still holding to their own convictions about what is true.