Dr Shabbir Akhtar
Research Fellow, Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies, Oxford
‘Repent of your evil deeds’ is a motto dating from early Islam which was consumed by continuous controversy over the status of the sinner’s works, a fierce legal battle that led to the emergence of opinions that later ossified into Sunni juristic orthodoxy.
The hidden impulse behind this ‘gospel of works’ was to track heresies that could affect the integrity of the state, since every religious controversy, if we use that word with its narrow contemporary secular meaning, was a surrogate for some political disagreement that could threaten the cohesion of the community. By contrast, a Muslim reader of Galatians might see the slogan of Christianity, with its offer of a gospel of free grace, as: ‘Repent of all your deeds, good and evil!’ Reliance on works is a subtle kind of idolatry (shirk).
It was the Apostle Paul who first rejected a key inherited ritual of Judaism, namely circumcision, an emblem of the law and its works. Virtue is beyond the Law. Paul preached Christ crucified, not Christ circumcised. Sinners need a saviour, not mere guidance; they crave salvation, not only the gifts of divine education and edification. They need the Christ, not simply another messenger from God.
In the interests of Christian-Muslim relations, Muslim readers should seek to understand the subtlety and nuance of Pauline teaching (in Galatians and related teaching in other Pauline epistles). Otherwise, it is easy to slander Christians about ethically relevant matters of the law versus grace debate. It is as easy to deal in caricatures in such matters as in matters of doctrine dealing with Christology and the Incarnation.