Muslim-Christian Understanding and Reflections on the Death of Kenneth Cragg

Today I am honored to have my brother, Dr. Daniel W. Brown, guest post for Communicating Across Boundaries. Author of Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought and A New Introduction to Islam, he is currently an Oxford fellow en route to Istanbul to direct the Institute for the Study of Religion in the Middle East. This thoughtful article not only offers a tribute to Kenneth Cragg, but also insight to the challenges of Muslim-Christian understanding.

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On my bookshelf here in Oxford I have a green first-edition of Kenneth Cragg’s The Call of the Minaret inscribed “Ralph E. Brown, Ratodero, W. Pakistan.”  Dad passed it on to me a few years ago. The book is well-worn. I remember when I was a teenager, then living in Shikarpur, Sindh, taking it down from my dad’s bookshelf. I had no idea of its importance. The book was a radical challenge, urging Christians to listen, and to listen with deep sympathy, to Muslims. The Call of the Minaret was published in 1956. Cragg went on to write more than 40 books, and hundreds of articles. He earned unparalleled respect among Muslim scholars for his gentle, thoughtful, theological engagement. His was a life dedicated to intellectual hospitality, loyalty, mutuality, honesty.

Kenneth Cragg died on November 13, about four months short of his hundredth birthday. His death brought a glowing tribute from Rowan Williams and a lengthy and appreciative obituary in Daily Telegraph. Other tributes to Cragg and his extraordinary achievements will continue to flow, as they should. But perhaps we should add to these tributes a more sober accounting of the world, especially the world of Muslim-Christian relations, that Kenneth Cragg leaves us to.

There is plenty to encourage sobriety. But in tribute to Cragg’s own optimism let’s begin with the good news. For me the good news is illustrated by a book I am reviewing, Do We Worship the Same God? edited by Miroslav Volf. Much of the book is yawn-inducing, but it is worth its price for two of its essays, Denys Turner’s “Christians, Muslims and the Name of God:  Who Owns it, and How Would We Know?” and Reza Shah-Kazemi’s “Do Muslims and Christians Believe in the Same God.” Turner is Christian, Shah-Kazemi Muslim. Their essays are theologically sophisticated, intelligent, unflinchingly honest in facing the real issues that separate Muslim and Christian understandings of God. And they are good-humored and witty — especially Turner. On some points I disagree with both authors, sometimes profoundly, and they disagree with one another, but they would be great fun to hear, and they are a pleasure to read.

I think Kenneth Cragg would be cheered by Turner and Shah-Kazemi’s clear-eyed, substantive theological engagement. I find around me other, similar reasons to cheer. Shabbir Akhtar, who has been a forthright critic of Cragg in the past, learned New Testament Greek and is busily writing a commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. As a Muslim he is grappling with the Apostle Paul’s theology with seriousness and sympathy. I may disagree with Shabbir’s arguments at points, sometimes profoundly, but I also expect it will be a cheerful sort of disagreement. This is the kind of warm-hearted, honest, hospitable exchange for which Cragg pleaded and worked, and the good news is that it is happening more than we might realize, and that more initiative for such exchange comes from Muslims than ever before. The Common Word project is one catalyst, the Scriptural Reasoning movement another. And while the level of theological exchange sometimes falls woefully short of the standards set by Turner, Shah-Kazemi, or Cragg it surely beats tossing grenades, rhetorical or real.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is measured in body counts, uprooted lives, YouTube diatribes and Qur’an burnings. Thirty Christians killed in central Nigeria. Ten dead as suicide bomber targets church in northern Nigeria. Christian mob burns a man alive in reprisal. Rimsha Mashi, mentally handicapped young Christian girl, tried for blasphemy in Pakistan. Dozens of churches destroyed In Tanzania; east Africa violence spreading.  American man behind anti-Muslim film that sparked unrest due in court.  Anti-Muslim bus ads stir controversy. Five Egyptian Copts injured in inter-religious violence. In much of the world, relations between Muslim and Christian communities are far worse than they were when Kenneth Cragg began writing. Ignorance of what Christians actually believe remains at epidemic levels among even well-educated Muslims — and vice versa.

I see no reason for optimism. If a man like Kenneth Cragg, gifted as he was in intellect, long life, focused determination, and generosity of spirit seems to have made so little progress against the headwinds of Muslim-Christian misunderstanding, what hope is there for those of us with lesser minds and gifts? Not much. That conclusion won’t surprise those who know that I find Ecclesiastes especially inspiring. Nor will it surprise my mom, from whom I inherited a bracingly realistic attitude toward life. But Ecclesiastes also provides the way out: “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” Regardless of any immediate or visible results, we might add. What is good or excellent in the work of Kenneth Cragg, or the work of those of us who remain, will remain worth celebrating even if no one celebrates — our labor in the Lord is not in vain — and all that matters is anticipation of that final commendation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

10 thoughts on “Muslim-Christian Understanding and Reflections on the Death of Kenneth Cragg

  1. As I read this post, I was reminded of the very thing that Robynn said above: the most basic definition of God is, “God is love”. Without Love, we are nothing. It is so simple and, yet, just like Robynn and Marilyn both said, we make it so complicated. Yes, theological studies help us gain more understanding at times, but too often such arguments and theories become so lengthy and detailed that they detract from the overall message: love one another. I also think humans have an innate desire to “choose sides” in many ways (look at athletic teams, politics, countries, etc.) and we have transferred this fervor onto our religious beliefs as well. Perhaps we are afraid we might be wrong or serving on the losing side? But when we approach others with hatred or distrust, I think we all lose. I wish, sometimes, that we could just keep it simple and stop trying to find ways to legitimize our anger and fear.
    And perhaps that is what Cragg was trying to teach us?

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    1. I look forward so much to your comments Dawn. They are insightful and thoughtful. As I read this comment what struck me was your last 3 sentences – particularly the line on “legitimize our anger and fear”. Recently at our state office of elder affairs I was over at a meeting and saw on a bulletin board this sign “When you reach out to take my hand, what fear will you unlearn?” It has stayed with me. In my faith tradition I’m taught that perfect love casts out fear…..how do I live that in the real world becomes the question. Thank you.

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  2. Dr Dan! Humanly speaking this is so depressing… And so we must hold on to love. Unlike Cragg– we are often surrounded by people who want to argue and debate and consider it good apologetics. ..and that’s really very pointless without love!

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  3. Wow, what a beautiful tribute to a amazing man – and also a strikingly realistic challenge to us today! My own life has been profoundly influenced by the writings of Kenneth Cragg. I weep sometimes when I interact with my friends in the Middle East. Most Americans don’t get to see the people – they see the radical jihadis, the violence, Sept. 11. They don’t see the women with children, living lives just like their own, working day and night to earn a education. They don’t see the guys that are living in oppressive countries, bravely speaking out and trying to work for freedom – a work that could cost them their lives. They don’t see the families that pray for and love the Christian people that radical Muslims are busy hating. They don’t see the Muslims that weep over the hatred and violence, but are powerless due to restrictions. I think we need more listening, more dialogue, more friendship, more open hearts – because it’s only love that is going to heal the great divide. We each can make a difference.

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  4. I am so glad you relayed this story. We have family friends who are Muslims – to make a sad story short, we’ve known them for years – he was Cliff’s best friend in college. They moved next to a Christian family who would not let their kids play with our friends’ sons…..I felt myself go into a rage when I found this out. I don’t know when I was that angry before. It illustrates your last point perfectly – that the failures are at a personal level and those of us who want to do something about that feel the frustration of being misunderstood in our intent. Thanks for extending the conversation to that all important personal piece.

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  5. Marilyn, I’m afraid to comment on this topic on your blog because I have so much pent up frustration on this issue. Friday, while tutoring my 3 Muslim students ,,,adorable little girls ages 5, 7 & 9…I was reflecting on how much I enjoyed this family and how much we have in common. I am teaching the kids Micah 6:8 which elevates values held by both faiths….”do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Habiba, the mom, is my closest friend in town. We share meals, laugh, gossip….a couple months ago we talked her way through a marriage crisis. My husband and I have joined her extended family for Eid celebrations, and 11 kids in her family came over to my house to make Christmas cookies one year.
    As I commented on fb…it is hard to demonize people you love and pray for. The failures at a global level in M-C relations, is at least in part, a failure at a personal level to befriend and love people who are different than you.

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