Martin Accad discusses his new book "Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching across the Christian-Muslim Divide"

Martin Accad is associate professor of Islamic studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon, and at Fuller Theological Seminary, as well as director of ABTS' Institute of Middle East Studies. Having a rich multicultural background in his own family, he is very involved in faith-based peacebuilding and bridging Arab-Western cultural divides. In the conversation below we discuss his book Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching across the Christian-Muslim Divide (Eerdmans, 2019).

John Morehead: Martin, thank you for making time to discuss your new book. The context I work in is with conservative American evangelicals. I'd like to connect some of the ideas in your book to those in that context where fear and negative perceptions of Muslims are quite strong. To begin, how long have you been studying Islam, and what is it about your experience and reflection that led you to write this book?

Martin Accad: Hello John, thank you for hosting me on this forum. I have been studying Islam since the mid-1990’s, so for over 20 years. My PhD studies were in the history of Christian-Muslim relations. But I also come from a family that has been engaged in friendships with Muslims for three generations. I also grew up on the Muslim-majority side of Beirut through our (un)civil war from 1975-1990. I tell a number of personal stories in my book that connect with those experiences. My point is that I do not come to Islam purely from the angle of intellectual curiosity. As a matter of fact, I don’t think there exists much inquiry that is purely intellectual. We tend to approach any subject through our own background and experience. Our feelings and emotional predispositions are intimately related to the way we approach any topic. That’s the meaning of “hermeneutics,” a word I use rather extensively in my book: “hermeneutical questions,” “hermeneutical context,” “hermeneutical framework,” “hermeneutical keys.” It is because of my childhood friendships with Muslims that I am positively predisposed toward Muslims and Islam. It is because I grew up through Lebanon’s civil war that I believe that every religion (Christianity and Islam included) has tremendous potential both for good and for evil. It is because of that experience as well that I am a staunch believer in the importance of multi-dimensional dialogue and engagement, particularly in theological dialogue with Muslims. On September 11, 2001, I was in a room at the University of Oxford, defending my dissertation after 3 years of research and writing about 6 centuries of Christian-Muslim relations. So between the time I started my PhD research to the day I completed it, the world had changed dramatically for everyone, specifically as a result of sour relationships between Christians and Muslims, between East and West. I therefore feel called to be a bridge between cultures and religious traditions. It is because of all these experiences and because of my personal story that I was led to write this book.

John Morehead: What is the basic starting point for your book, and how does that shape what unfolds in its pages?

Martin Accad: The basic starting point of my book is that our relationships begin at the affective level. So I start in the first chapter by presenting a spectrum of possible approaches and attitudes to Islam. I have developed what I call the SEKAP Spectrum of Christian-Muslim interaction. It’s an acronym for 5 positional points on a spectrum, from the extreme of Syncretism on one end, to the extreme of Polemics on the other. Other positions on the spectrum are the Existential and the Apologetic. As this is a spectrum, the fixed points are evidently artificial. There are a myriad of other possible options all along the continuum, and most of them are viable and have their benefits and problems. However, the one position I am particularly interested in is the middle one: the Kerygmatic, which stands for the letter “K” in the SEKAP. This position derives from the Greek word Kerygma, which means “proclamation.” I believe that there is a legitimate need and desire to “proclaim” in every interfaith engagement. For Christians, it is the proclamation of the good news of God revealing himself in Christ; for Muslims it is the proclamation of God’s unicity and the invitation to humanity to surrender and find peace in God. My book, however, is unapologetically Christ-centered and Evangelical. But it is Christ-centered as opposed to Christianity-centered. I am not interested in entering the cosmic conflict of religions or to score points for Christianity over against Islam. What I am interested in is to revisit the centuries-old doctrinal arguments between Christians and Muslims about God, Christ, the Bible, prophethood, and Muhammad, from a “history of ideas” perspective. My basic question is, “how does a comprehension of the history of development of a doctrine help us identify historical highs and lows, points of contention, and moments of deadlock, so that history can then inspire our present conversations by offering potential ways to break out of those deadlocks.” Through the “kerygmatic” lens, I am not interested in scoring points against Islam. What I am seeking is to explore our dialogical history, expose our bad hermeneutics, and invite us to take a fresh look at our theological conversations. The Kerygmatic approach is thoroughly Christ-centered, seeks to move beyond the boundaries of institutional religion through what I call the “supra-religious” approach, strives for scientific honesty, and is unapologetically mission-driven, steeped in the missio dei—God’s mission in the world through Christ.

John Morehead: Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals, have an essentialism understanding of Islam, and a literalist approach to interpreting the Qur'an that leads to negative descriptions and understandings that are reinforced in conservative media. What approach are you advocating in your book, and why do see this as the better way for understanding?

Martin Accad: The essentialist Evangelical understanding of Islam is one of my great pet peeves! But lest we fall into the same sin that we are judging, we need to remember that Evangelicals are vastly diverse and that their positions toward Islam are many. I consider myself an Evangelical and many in my community understand Islamic diversity. To essentialize Islam is to consider all Muslims as fitting a single mold. Essentializing anyone or any ideology is the beginning of prejudice and injustice. It is the root of racism and xenophobia. It has led to wars and ethnic cleansings. But Evangelical Christians are not the only group guilty of essentializing. Muslims essentialize Christians as well when they associate every moral behavior they see and disapprove of in the West as representative of Christianity. When it comes to Islam and recent historical developments, essentialism is when a Christian says, with reference to ISIS, that “Islam has finally revealed its true face!” But essentialism is also when a Muslim says that “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam!” I put all of these attitudes under the referent of “sacred misinterpretation.” Some of it may be well-meaning, but it is narrow, one-sided, and therefore quite wrong.

I dedicate the second chapter of my book to comparative hermeneutics. I show, there, how each of our faith communities has developed a particular methodology for interpreting its sacred scriptures that has come to be viewed as “legitimate interpretation.” “Legitimate” here is not the same as “true.” Legitimacy is true within a community that sees itself as the owner of a scripture. So, for example, Muslims have generally been taught to interpret the text of the Qur’an by reading it through the lens of the so-called “occasions of the revelation” (asbab an-nuzul in Arabic), which is essentially an attempt at reconstructing the historical settings within which verses were revealed. These “occasions” are derived from traditions attributed to sayings and accounts reported by the first few generations of Muslims. The problem is that Muslims apply a similar principle when they approach the biblical text, reading it through the lens of their own tradition. The Bible becomes captive of the Muslim tradition and the text is never allowed to speak on its own terms. But many Christians tend to do the same with the Qur’an. Unlike Qur’anic interpretation, biblical exegesis is first and foremost interested in literary context. Christian readers of the Bible are taught to interpret their scriptures by looking both at the immediate and the broader contexts of the verses they are reading. The problem is that when they approach the Qur’an, Christians also have a tendency to look for the meaning of a verse in its literary context. But due to the largely arbitrary structure of the Qur’an, this hermeneutic inevitably leads to “illegitimate interpretation” as well.

My book, therefore, calls both Christians and Muslims first to learn the hermeneutical methodology that the other community considers “legitimate.” As I have said, “legitimate” does not necessarily mean “true” or “logical.” But without first demonstrating familiarity with “legitimate” hermeneutics, neither Christian nor Muslim can venture legitimately further into the other’s scripture, let alone explore the possibility of new meaning. When we first learn to color inside the lines, and thus demonstrate our appreciation and respect for the other’s scripture, it becomes possible for us to venture outside the blueprint more legitimately. I venture a fair amount in my book beyond traditional Qur’anic hermeneutics as I explore new avenues into doctrinal dialogue. But I hope to have earned some legitimacy through my attitude of respect and appreciation of the Muslim method.

John Morehead: Can you mention a few of the areas of disagreement between Christians and Muslims that you discuss in the book that might be of interest to American evangelicals?

Martin Accad: The 7 core chapters of my book deal with 4 main themes of the Christian-Muslim interaction, namely God, Christ, the Bible, and Muhammad. Each of these overall themes contains several issues of interest and disagreement between Christians and Muslims: Do we worship the same God? Does the Qur’an speak respectfully of Jesus or polemically? Do Muslims hold the Bible in high regard or do they consider it as having been corrupted? Was Muhammad preannounced in the Bible? What should Christians make of Muhammad? Should he be viewed as a prophet or an imposter? Each of these questions is complex and has a long history in what I call the Christian-Muslim “metadialogue.” But by exploring each theme from the angle of the history of ideas, I hope to have shed some light on the past that can enlighten new paths for contemporary Christian-Muslim encounter. I argue, for example, that much of the Muslim critique of the Christian understanding of God derives from the ultimate Muslim concern for God’s absolute otherness, and on several occasions it is a critique of theology that mainstream Christianity would not view as orthodox either. I show that the Qur’an’s polemic against Christian Christology derives more from a desire to vindicate Christ from perceived excesses that Christians have imposed on him, rather than from any negative attitude toward Jesus himself. I demonstrate how diversely Muslims have used the Bible through multiple literary genres, and how the accusation of textual corruption, or tahrif, against Christians and Jews was a late comer that made its way onto the dialogical scene as a fruit of geopolitical change and military conquest. I show how the Muslim claim that Muhammad was prophesied about in the Bible emerged as an apologetic reaction to Christian attacks against Muhammad’s character and ministry, rather than from a dispassionate exegetical exploration of the Judeo-Christian text. These and many other issues are discussed extensively in my book.

John Morehead: One of the topics you address is whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Without consideration of different ways to approach the question (i.e. from the vantage point of the Abrahamic tradition one the one hand or within Christendom on the other hand), this discussion often leads evangelicals to fears of syncretism. Can you share a few thoughts on productive ways to navigate this issue so that it doesn't give way to thoughts of compromise?

Martin Accad: Because no argument emerges from a vacuum, as I have noted in my opening remarks, I like to respond to this question first from my gut: the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God repulses me! I had never heard anyone question the commonality of our object of worship until I traveled to live and study for a few years in the West. Linguistically, as an Arab Christian, I have always worshiped Allah. Allah was the central hero of my Arabic Bible that I read daily. My pastor and Sunday school teachers had taught me about Allah’s love and care for me. My Muslim friends and I visited each other to pay our respect on religious occasions. I sometimes fasted Ramadan in solidarity with my Muslim friends, and some of them went with me to Sunday school. We viewed these occasions as mutually enriching and as opportunities to consolidate our friendships. I mention in my book the first time an English person asked me what I thought about this issue. I remember clearly wanting to cry, so repulsive was the thought that my childhood Muslim friends might have believed in a God different than mine. Of course now I can talk about it, now that it has come past my gut reaction, and I do so in my book. I now believe that the question is a fallacy. As a historian of Christian-Muslim dialogue, I approach the question not systematically but from the perspective of scriptural development. And here there is one point that is unquestionable: when the Qur’an refers to Allah, it is always in reference to the God of the Bible, always in reference to the God who created Adam, the same who revealed himself to Noah and called Abraham into his promises. He is Yahweh who revealed the law to Moses and inspired the Psalms to David. Allah is the same God whom Jesus related to and whom, according to the biblical tradition, he called Father. We may discuss the attributes and character of God as we compare the biblical and Qur’anic witness, but I see no reason to question the common object of our worship. I think that what has triggered this questioning even more among Christians is the violent behavior that some Muslims have adopted in the name of Allah and of Islam in recent decades. It is 9/11, other terrorist attacks, and the murderous behavior of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS that have enlivened this controversy. But when we remember that historically, Christians have also been murderous on so many occasions in God’s name, then we can do nothing but be humbled. Jihadi terrorists know as much about the true God as crusaders, Christian and Muslim slave traders, or exterminators of aboriginal populations and ethnic cleansers.

John Morehead: The final chapter of your book is "Beyond Conflict." As with the other chapters, you cover a lot of ground in this one. But can you share a few thoughts on how American evangelicals might view Islam and Muslims in ways that set conflict aside, or at least help navigate through differences and deal with conflict in hospitable, Christ-like ways?

Martin Accad: Let me build on the previous question. The other issue that seems to feed into the problematic question of whether we “worship the same God” is the erroneous logical leap that I believe many Christians make between the question of worship and belief and the question of salvation. I think that many Christians believe that if they concede to Muslims that they worship and believe in the true God, then they need to concede that Muslims are saved outside of Christ. And this conclusion rattles the foundation of the Evangelical Christian belief in mission. Personally, I refuse to pronounce myself on anyone’s salvation, because only God is the knower of hearts. On the other hand, I believe that the proclamation of the Gospel of God’s salvation in Christ should emerge out of our joyful relationship with God as Father, whom we have come to know in all his fullness and Grace through Christ. Our kerygma does not need to destroy Islam in order to stand as Good News. The church’s mission in the world should, therefore, always and only be a joyful witness, never a gospel of condemnation. From this perspective, the question of who is saved is irrelevant to the necessity of the kerygma—the proclamation of the Good News. This realization is liberating, and it releases us to be true disciples and witnesses of Christ who are also able to admire the beauty of the Qur’an’s message as we journey together with Muslims into the truth. I invite American evangelicals to learn more about Islam, and to do so authentically not polemically. Make friends with Muslims. Be hospitable to those who are “different.” Educate yourself about who Muhammad was historically and about the nature of his message found in the Qur’an. Open yourself to new possibilities. Do all of this through your solid faith in Jesus who was welcoming to all, who taught the truth, and who invited all into relationship with God as Father. He is the door, the good shepherd, the one who gives his life for his flock. There is no better news, no better Gospel or kerygma, than his promise and invitation: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” (John 14:6-7) My hope is that my book will open up the minds of evangelicals to the new possibilities that come to us through genuine friendships and through the pursuit of knowledge and the truth.

John Morehead