Contours of an Islamo-Christian Civilization

Jack Goody, Islam in Europe. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004; 
Richard W. Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004; 
James A. Bill and John Alden Williams, Roman Catholics and Shi’i Muslims: Prayer, Passion, and Politics.Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

There can be no doubt that the twenty-first century has begun – and continues – under the ominous cloud of enmity between Muslim groups or nations and western ones, from the attacks on American soil on 11 September 2001 to those in Madrid and London, to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and now in the growing tension with Iran. Unsurprisingly, this has spurred a mushrooming of publications on the troubled relations between “Islam and the West,” with almost every book pointing out the bold Christian rhetoric emanating from a militarily aggressive White House.

Kenneth Cragg, the veteran Christian expositor of the Qur’an, more prolific than ever in his nineties (seven titles since 2002), astutely named one of his latest books The Qur’an and the West (Georgetown University Press: 2006). Not only is “Islam” misleading in terms of the wide diversity of cultures, sects, and spiritualities inspired by the Qur’an and the Hadith literature, but for Cragg, Muslims in today’s globalized world, whether living as “exiles” in the West or within Muslim-majority states, will have to choose between the vulnerable faith proclaimed in the early years in Makkah and the religion cum political rule exemplified by the Prophet in Madinah. As usual, Cragg also challenges the Christian side, which, in its American incarnation, largely rationalizes the use of power to extend its hegemony from Israel-Palestine to Central Asia in the name of democracy.

Though all three books under review here share Cragg’s motivation to reduce tension and foster greater understanding between Muslims and Christians, only the third (on Shi`ites and Catholics) represents the kind of theological dialogue that Cragg and others have nourished over the years. The thread running through this review is that the urgent task of breaking down stereotypes and building peace between Muslims and Christians needs the contribution of people on both sides, a contribution graced with a breadth of scholarly expertise and solid commitment.

Jack Goody is a Cambridge emeritus professor of social anthropology with a string of publications to his name, mostly related to West Africa but also touching on general themes of modernity, culture, and economics. Richard Bulliet is another veteran scholar, a Middle East historian at Columbia University. The authors of Roman Catholics and Shi`i Muslims are not theologians: James Bill teaches political science and international studies at the College of William and Mary, while John Williams (at the same college) is professor emeritus of the Humanities in Religion and an Islamicist. Each one brings an array of analytical tools to the task of “de-othering” Muslims for Christians and vice versa. Together, they mount a solid case for the internal and external congruence of a Muslim-Christian alliance for human betterment in an irreversibly interconnected world.

Islam in Europe is a deliberate rebuttal of the current western reflex to see in Islam the faith of backward and violent people. Of his four chapters, the first one, “Past Encounters,” is by far the longest (100 pages). In it, he provides a great deal of historical information to support his thesis that from the eighth century onward, Muslims have always been present in Europe, contributing handsomely to European civilization in the fields of science, literature, philosophy, medicine, and the arts. Secular scholars too often either ignore or dismiss outright the religious dimension (p. 10). Goody writes that it is difficult for people with no personal faith to understand the power of religious ideas in shaping one’s worldview and prioritizing action in society, whether individually or collectively. Naturally, faith convictions coalesce with other factors determined by time, location, and culture; they are crucial nonetheless. Witness the staying power of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union or the impact of Islam on the resistance fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s or today in Chechnya.

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