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Book Reviews

Risks and Reductions in Muslim-Christian Dialogue

Marie-Thérèse et Dominique Urvoy, La mésentente, Dictionnaire des difficultés doctrinales du dialogue islamo-chrétien, Les éditions du Cerf, Paris, 2014

Islam and Christianity have experienced confrontation right from Islam’s birth. Indeed, the Qu’ran provides the first clear evidence of the encounter between the two religions: in presenting itself as a Revelation designed to complete the Scriptures that preceded it, Islam’s holy Book intends, on the one hand, to confirm and protect them and, on the other, to rectify and correct them. The similarities and differences between the two faiths fuelled a very articulate and wide-ranging debate during the classical era. Often highly polemical and dominated by intentions that were essentially apologetic and defensive, this debate nevertheless allowed the two parties involved to reach a greater understanding both of their own and of the other faith, albeit passing through quite strained doctrinal interpretations and no fewer misunderstandings. La mésentente concentrates precisely on the misunderstandings, but those of the present era, in which argument has now made room for dialogue. The thesis posited by the authors (both of whom are well known Islamologists) is that such dialogue carries with it no fewer dangers. These are presented in the Introduction: the risk of relativism or of unduly levelling all religions; the part played by emotivity, which in the West would dominate the approach to dialogue, dimming “lucidity regarding doctrinal aspects” (p. 11); and an asymmetrical involvement on the part of the interlocutors, with the Christians engaged in a divulgation effort and promoting initiatives in which the Muslims would participate on a purely personal level, generally without enjoying the support of governments or their community. The authors recognise that efforts on the Muslim side have not been lacking recently, particularly following Benedict XVI’s controversial “Regensburg Lecture,” but there would nevertheless exist an imbalance and, in order to mitigate it, Christians would often choose either to minimize the differences or to ignore them, for the purposes of “avoiding conflict” or out of “ignorance, naivety and fear” (p. 24).

 

 

These are the thorny issues to which the authors intend to redirect attention, conceiving of their text as a genuine dictionary of the doctrinal difficulties of dialogue. The book concentrates on 42 topics that are both ancient and modern but always treated in a present-day perspective. These range from the figure of Abraham to that of Christ and from the classic topics of love, forgiveness and salvation to those that have only recently emerged, such as modernity or the confusion between Christianity and the West or, again, aspects linked to the new methods of enquiry, such as the objectivity criteria or the idea of intertextuality. A useful and interesting picture emerges, even if the fact that no solutions are proposed (which is certainly consistent with the book’s declared aim of simply wanting “to allow some open questions to be lucidly re-considered” (p. 26) doubtlessly risks generating a certain disorientation in the reader, giving him/her to understand that, in many cases, there is no way out of the doctrinal impasse. Thus, for example, it would be impossible for Muslims and Christians to feel united by the figure of Abraham without reducing him to a purely symbolic function. Or by love for one’s neighbour, without “desacralizing the [Christian] commandment” (p. 71) and transforming it into a generic, mutual respect having a purely secular flavour.

 

 

Despite this, the general premise guiding the authors’ critical journey remains a valid and important one, namely, the invitation not to smooth away the constituent differences of one’s own faith simply in order to open oneself to the other. This conviction nevertheless seems to generate an overly severe view of the parties engaged in dialogue. Indeed, the Christians would be too inclined to self-criticism and compromise, at the expense of their dogmatics, and the Muslims would profit from this position in order to absolve themselves and send fresh criticisms over the net. In this sense, a careful, meditative reading of the text that sees it as a challenge to overcome the difficulties is certainly the best way to profit from it.

 

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