The Nearest in Affection: Towards a Christian Understanding of Islam
by Stuart Brown
Geneva, Switzerland: Risk Book Series, WCC Publications, 1994. Pp. 124.(Paper).
reviewed by Rev. Bassam M. Madany
As we approach the end of the Second Millennium, we are becoming aware that we live in a new phase of history. It may be called the era of globalism. More than ever, people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds live in close proximity to one another. This is especially the case in the West, where societies are becoming quite pluralistic. Politically and socially, it is necessary for the dominant ethnic groups to acquaint themselves with the religious beliefs of the immigrant minorities who are living among them. One of the most "visible" sub-cultures is the growing Muslim immigrant group coming from the various parts of the household of Islam and establishing itself in the major metropolitan areas of Western Europe, North and South America. Thus the need for understanding Islam and Muslims is very urgent today. The Nearest in Affection is one of several books which will contribute towards a better understanding of this subject.
According to the information found on the back cover of this paperback, "Stuart Brown, a lay member of the Anglican Church of Canada, has many years of experience as a student and teacher of Islam and a participant in dialogue, both formal and informal, between Christians and Muslims. From 1983 to 1988 he was secretary for Christian-Muslim relations in the World Council of Churches." The title of the book is based on a statement in the Qur'an (5:82) which reads in one of its English translations: You will surely find that the nearest in affection to those who believe are the ones who say, "We are Christians."
This small book is packed with information about such topics as: The Essential Beliefs of Islam; Branches of Islam; Points of Contact: Theology and Philosophy; Angles of Divergence: The Understanding of Law and Politics; and An Agenda for Affection.
I have found the book extremely valuable in expounding the fundamental points in the Islamic religion. This is especially the case when the author deals with the Sufi (Mystical) tradition in Islam. Perhaps it is the strongest and most helpful part of this undertaking to explain Islam to Western Christians. A few topics should have been made clearer to the uninitiated reader. For example, on page 10, reference is made to Iblis, the chief devil or Satan, who "refused God's command and is now permitted to tempt human beings from the path of truth." While this account is based on the Qur'an, it is rather incomplete. According to the Holy Book of Islam, Allah commanded the angel to bow down to Adam. The angel protested, for how could he worship a creature! Because of this refusal to obey Allah's order, he fell from his lofty position and became an enemy of God and man.
While one cannot but applaud the irenical tone of the entire book, it is rather puzzling the way our author tries to explain the "classical Islamic political theory." It is commonly understood both by Western and Muslim scholars that in Islam the world is divided into two distinct realms: Daru'l Islam and Daru'l Harb, i.e., the household of Islam and the household of war. The first realm is that part of the world which has been conquered by Muslim armies, while the second one is the area where war is a legitimate means for the expansion of Daru'l Islam. Why this second realm should be described as "territories where Muslims have been prevented from fulfilling their religious duties," is really baffling! Muslims, up till very recently, have always resided in contiguous areas of the world where they have enjoyed the freedom to fulfill their religious obligations. It is quite obvious that those areas of the world which are not part of their realm should not be described as places which prevent Muslims from observing their religious duties. As they move outside their homelands in our day and age they meet with no obstacles which prevent their religious practices.
Most of the Western Christian writings on Islam during the past tended to be polemical. It seems that nowadays, as the winds of theological pluralism are blowing hard in Western circles, the radical differences between Christianity and Islam are rather blurred or minimized. While it is true, in a certain sense that "Muslims and Christians have much in common," (p. 95) as they both belong to the theistic tradition, it is quite obvious that the two religions differ radically when it comes to the doctrines of God, of man and of Christ. Christians in the West should approach Muslims in an irenical spirit, but it does not follow that the fundamental distinctions are to be avoided. The quest for a Christian Understanding of Islam is very, very important, but does it have to be at the expense of the Apostolic motif of missions? This important factor of historic Christianity is nowhere to be found in the book. If dialogue is our ultimate goal and not the presentation of the Biblical Christ to our fellow Muslim neighbors, what is the meaning of the word "Christian" as used in the sub-title of the book?
Another related topic which should not be avoided when attempting to understand Islam from a Christian perspective is the status of Christian minorities within Muslim lands. Whether one surveys their situation in Africa, the Middle East or South Asia, their plight is rather tragic. This state of affairs does not substantiate the hope expressed by Stuart Brown in his preface where he writes about the Qur'anic words which inspired the title of the book. "This text provides the title for this book. Not only does it point to a primordial impulse for Muslims of every age and nation to live in harmony with Christians, but it should also inspire modern Christians to reflect upon their own affection for Muslims in the light of the injunctions of Jesus and the church concerning attitudes and actions of love and peace." This agenda for Western Christians is a very lofty and commendable one. Unfortunately in today's world, it is the Muslims who must concretely reflect the teachings of this verse taken from the chapter of The Table (Q 5:82) The trouble is that with the rise of Islamic radicalism throughout the entire Daru'l Islam, this Qur'anic injunction is not heeded at all. Rather, it appears that an earlier verse from the same chapter seems to be more prominent in the minds of many Muslims today. "O ye who believe: Take not the Jews and Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them. Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk." (Q 5:51 Translation of Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall)
These critical remarks are not intended to detract from the value of The Nearest in Affection. Rather, they are meant to bring a proper balance to the subject highlighted in the subtitle of the book, Towards a Christian Understanding of Islam. In any discussion of Christian-Muslim relations we must be aware of the great imbalance which exists and which must be redressed. Muslim minorities in the West do enjoy great freedoms which are not accorded to native Christian minorities living within Daru'l Islam. While we in the West must seek to rid ourselves of many past prejudices in our attitude to Muslims, the plight of Christians living in Muslim lands must improve, and cannot be forgotten. Countless of them do not feel any affection from the majority population and are made to live as aliens within the lands of their ancestors.
Return to Islamics page
Return to Middle East Resources home page