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The Sum of All HeresiesThe Image of Islam in Western Thought$

Frederick Quinn

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195325638

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195325638.001.0001

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(p.173) Appendix “Am I Not Your Lord?” Kenneth Cragg on Muslim–Christian Dialogue

(p.173) Appendix “Am I Not Your Lord?” Kenneth Cragg on Muslim–Christian Dialogue

The Sum of All Heresies
Oxford University Press

No person in modern times has contributed more to an understanding of Islam in the non‐Muslim world than Kenneth Cragg, who turned ninety‐four on March 8, 2007. During an Oxford sabbatical in 2003 I spent several sessions interviewing Cragg, who was generous with his time and hospitality despite a busy schedule of writing and speaking. His base was a dining room table with a small 1960s portable typewriter. Near it was a yellow pad and fountain pen, polished with years of use, and carefully arranged folders, all in a tidy ground‐level apartment in Pegasus Grange, Whitehouse Road, Oxford.

The Call of the Minaret, one of his thirty books, was a path‐breaking work half a century ago, which described the basis of the Islamic faith to Western audiences, and urged Christians to respond with love, inclusiveness, and patience. It was now in its third printing, and from Cragg's pen poured a series of related volumes, including The Event of the Qur'an, Jesus and the Muslim, Readings in the Qur'an, Islam among the Spires: An Oxford Reverie, and Am I Not Your Lord?

“It was considered enemy country,” Cragg said of the Middle East he first visited as a young missionary in 1939 and from which he officially retired as an Anglican bishop in 1985. He was born in 1913 in the northern seacoast city of Blackpool, where his father was a struggling but devout shopkeeper who wanted to apprentice young Kenneth as an errand boy to a local pharmacist. A master at the local school persuaded Cragg's parents to let Kenneth continue his education, which led to a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, where he read modern history and took his first degree in 1934. Financially, Oxford life was “pretty much near the bone.” The youth could not afford to join the social life of the Oxford Union, but after some (p.174) hesitation joined the Christian Union, an evangelical group, and “it seemed to be the right thing.” He began to think about ordination after graduation, took a short course at Bristol, and was ordained on his twenty‐third birthday in 1936.

His first Middle East posting was to Beirut, where he spent eight years, and on New Year's Eve 1939 married Milena, his companion for forty‐eight years. His assignment was as head of a Christian hostel, St. Justin's House, at American University. Cragg added Arabic to Latin, acquired an Arabic concordance, and became fascinated with the Koran and the richness of Islamic spirituality and culture. Eighteen months later he could preach in Arabic. The next sixty years were spent studying, translating, and writing about Islam and Christianity. In 1947 the Craggs and their two young sons returned to Oxford, where Kenneth became vicar of a small church near Oxford and completed a D.Phil. in 1950 on “Islam in the Twentieth Century: The Relationship of Christian Theology to Its Problems.” From 1951 to 1956 he was professor of Arabic at Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut, and editor of The Muslim World quarterly. He returned to Jerusalem in 1957 as study secretary for the Near East Council of Churches and residentary canon at St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem, where he established a series of seminars and other educational programs. From Jerusalem he moved to Canterbury to become part of the faculty and eventually warden of the Central College of the Anglican Community at Canterbury, until it closed in 1967.

Cragg next served as an Anglican assistant bishop in the Jerusalem jurisdiction, based in Cairo but covering a string of parishes from Morocco to the Arabian Peninsula. A visit to a city meant a meeting with local Islamic leaders, and the bishop was one of a handful of Western Christians to actively seek an open exchange with Islamic counterparts. Not all his clergy were similarly inclined.

From 1974 to 1978 he taught comparative religions at the University of Sussex, and also continued as an honorary assistant bishop, visiting the Middle East periodically. At various times he held visiting lectureships abroad, including in Lebanon, Egypt, the United States, and Nigeria. Cragg is an honorary fellow at Jesus College, and was a Bye Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he had a year free to do research. He presently is honorary assistant bishop in the Diocese of Oxford, and is active many Sundays.

In public presentations, his clear Lancashire accent and strong preacher's voice fill a room. Not far from his home is St. Matthew's Church, a large, bustling evangelical congregation that considers the distinguished scholar an active pastor in its midst. More than sixty persons gathered on a Wednesday night for his presentation on “At School in the Middle East.” This was a play on words, suggesting there is always something more to learn about Arab history and religion. “Those who drink of the Nile always return,” he quoted an Egyptian proverb. Presiding over a Sunday Eucharist, he resembled an eighteenth‐century divine, with reflective countenance and sparse gestures, dressed in a simple long‐sleeved white bishop's gown, as in a period engraving. The only hint of his international presence was a plain olivewood cross.

Cragg was one of the leaders who helped launch Oxford's Center for Islamic Studies, a controversial undertaking in the 1980s and beyond. Local residents and some conservative Christians did not want to see a mosque and minaret among the (p.175) town's ancient stone spires, and only a tie‐breaking vote by the City Council's chair allowed the project, even though it has the enthusiastic backing of its royal patron, Prince Charles. In 2006 construction was well advanced in Magdalen College's old Deer Park. The completed center includes space for thirty scholars, a library and lecture hall, plus a place of worship for Oxford's growing Islamic community. Centers for Jewish and Hindu studies exist already as satellites to Oxford's colleges.

Our questions and answers were compiled during several meetings from February 18 to March 18, 2003, and during the summer of 2004 in Oxford, supplemented here by occasional quotations from Cragg's books.

What do you think the shock waves of the Iraq war will be on Arab–Christian relations?

“I think they will set things back quite a lot. I feel very unhappy about this. Within the Koran there is a warrant to retaliate in a collective sense, and the whole concept of jihad—you must respond if you are attacked. It's giving democracy's opponents an excuse to censor, to display enmity and apathy. America is playing into the hands of hostile people. Even if the conflict goes well in terms of brevity, I think it will intensify the feeling that this is an enormous power resorting to bullying.” As for violence, “It is no good politicians saying ‘This is not Islam!” It is an Islam, just as Christianity was marked by the violence of the Crusades, Inquisition, and the Wars of Religion.”

Is it possible for Muslims, Christians, and Jews to find a greater religious convergence than they have found to date?

“What I have always thought is there is a genuine, honest, real overlap between Muslims and Christianity, so that the attitude many people had of ‘them and us’ alienation is misleading. It is important not to let that sense of otherness dominate; we can fraternize over what is genuinely mutual. The concept of creation, human creaturehood, the divine stake and human response, and the whole concept of prophethood are concepts we share.

“An approach can come through a greater appreciation of the mystery of God. ‘Am I not your Lord?’ (Surah 7.172). The question is asked in the Koran. It is at the heart of all theology. All of the progeny of the sons of Adam are congregated like a vast audience, and are addressed with this question. A negative question, I learned as a young student in Latin class, expects a ‘yes’ answer. All humanity answers, almost in anticipation, ‘Yes, we bear witness to it.’ Although for Islam and Christianity the patterns of response are both significantly akin and yet in crucial ways different.” In Muhammad and the Christian, the author wrote, “This is a deep and unifying truth that we all share. There is no doubt of our common Muslim/Christian theism. Where we differ is about the divine involvement this entails. It seems clear God cannot create and be as if He had not. … It is a divine enterprise hinged on man, an intention on God's part, staked in a human concurrence … to which the divine calls and the human responds.”1

(p.176) What do you say to those whose goal is to see the entire world become Islamic or Christian?

“Religions have to coexist and witness, but not demand to dominate in universal terms. Islam has to coexist. The modern world can not be properly addressed as something to be Islamized. One‐fourth of all Muslims are in dispersion, and can not realistically anticipate Dar‐al‐Islam, an Islam exercising unilateral power. They need to ask themselves: what does it mean to be a British Muslim or an American Muslim?

“The Koran should not be taken like a telephone directory where every line is considered authoritative by itself. Also the Bible should be considered both a book of revelation and one written by several authors across a considerable span of history. Today we would regard ethnic cleansing in the Book of Joshua as obsolete, though we still have it in the text.” The goal is, “to keep an honest realism and not be patronizing. To balance our apprehension of others considering not only what defines them but what commends them. So much depends on how we present our faith, at its core it is a mystery.

“What about the theology here? The question is how to diminish reliance on power. It is always a principal of Koranic exegesis that the content of the message reflects the temporal situation from which it emerges. The sequence of the Koran follows episodes of Muhammad's life. The occasions of revelation have to be interpreted in the context of ‘time when’ or ‘place where’ over twenty‐three years.”

Mission is common to both Islam and Christianity, but must it result in conflict?

“Mission is not fixed and static, it is something learned as we go along. The ten lepers learned of Jesus as they were cleansed, as they ministered they received.

“The Great Commission, the idea of making disciples out of all peoples, is in the plural. ‘Peoples’ means cultures, languages, and religions. The object of the Christian religion is to bring the individual into faith. The symbol of that is baptism. I wouldn't for a second suggest that we forsake that, but we must ask, ‘Is there a discreet and compassionate Christian relationship we can establish with other religions as such, realizing they are going to be part of the scene?’ They are not going to disappear. They are going to stay.

“These great religions have so much in their care. They preside over peace and war as we can see today. Plus questions of poverty, malnutrition, emigration. Christianity of itself cannot monopolize the answers to these human issues. Therefore surely other faiths are part of a genuine communication of meaning. I think part of the lesson of ‘Go ye and make disciples of all nations’ is can we possibly approximate the Muslim understanding of itself to the understanding of the love of God we have in the church?”

How do you respond when some Christians or Muslims are unyielding that their God is the only God? Is there any way to move beyond such an impasse?

“I don't think they are right. The ultimate power is not in doubt. But both faiths have the clear concept, it is over to you, you humans to have dominion of the earth. It is very clear there humanity is set over the ‘middle state’ of nature. We control the plow, wheel, and what we do with what there is shows dominion. Nature is susceptible to our (p.177) intelligent control. This is the raw material of consecration. That is a Judeo‐Christian‐Islamic concept.”

Repeatedly Cragg stressed cherishing creation as a religious concept common to the three Abrahamic faiths, one that could give them grounds for closer cooperation. He said, “We speak of ‘The Holy Land’ but it is a usage I do not favor because no land can be holy unless all lands are holy.”

The bishop concluded, “I like to come around to it this way, you have to have an idea of divine power that is consistent with the givenness of creation. This is quite genuine. This is where environmental issues are so deep. If one accepts this argument, the handing over of relative control, of stewardship of the earth, leaves no question of the source of ultimate control.

“I sometimes use the analogy of education. In a descent school there is no doubt about who is presiding, but the subject matter is constantly adjusted to the ongoing business of education. A student has the possibility to err. That is a condition of education. Any teacher in a classroom is controlling, but in such a manner that students may make mistakes or come up with wrong answers.”

Does my God win over your God? both sides might ask.

“My concern is that Muslims should be ready to appreciate those dimensions of the nature of God that are distinctively present in God in Christ. Michael Ramsey's phrase was ‘the Christlikeness of God’ and that is a distinctive Christian offering.” Elsewhere the author wrote, “We have to surrender copyright ownership of that to which we witness. There is a sort of monolatry latent in aggressive witness or theology, if we are implying that we only possess God truly or that the truth of Him is copyright to us alone. … Monolatry, adopting one God, is distinguished sharply from monotheism or belief in the Oneness of God.2

“Some might conclude that witness is at an end. I don't think that would ever be true about the New Testament, but this witness should reflect that there are things we hold in trust for our tradition, so that the truth of them shall not perish from the earth. Yet, at the same time we should be happy to acknowledge that this to which they witness is in part a common territory. Other religions can come to a greater understanding of God through the Christian experience.”

In The Call of the Minaret he wrote, “Those who say that Allah is not ‘the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ are right if they mean that God is not so described by Muslims. They are wrong if they mean that Allah is other than the God of the Christian faith.”3

Could Christians say Allah is God's Prophet, Christ is the Son of God, and leave the final disposition to the “God of Gods, Light of Lights, Very God of Very God”?

Cragg drew on linguistic examples for several answers. God is the same in the nominative in Islam and Christianity, but not quite the same in the predicate, the verbal forms used to access the noun. “A simple grammatical illustration; in Arabic grammar (p.178) God is subject of all predication, yet different in different predicates, yet all predicates lead to same subject. In English we can say ‘Manchester is a city in Connecticut or a city in England.’ The two predicates can be the same, but are different, leading to the same subject, the same word.”

An important feature of both traditions is prophethood. “Prophethood is a tribute to the dignity of creaturehood. You would not send prophets to puppets. According to the Koran the human trustee is fickle, lacking in staying power, liable to forget. We are summoned to our vocation before God, but we forget or ignore our role. Creation, creaturehood, and prophecy are all related in the great religions.”

What about the “You only” passages in the Bible, such as John 13:4–11, those that say that Christ is the only way to God?

“Again the noun‐predicate illustration is helpful. In the Gospel of John he that has the son has the father. The father is fully and finally expressed in sending the son. When we appreciate the nature of Christhood we then see the nature of the God from whom that Christhood comes. No one comes unto this fatherhood except through the Son, just as no one comes to Shakespeare except through his plays, or no one comes to Beethoven except through his symphonies. That is the father‐son relationship.”

He switched the discussion's focus away from in‐and‐out scriptural barriers, observing, “The ultimate unbelief is ingratitude, never saying ‘Thank you.’ It is not the God we deny, it is the God we ignore.” Part of the understanding of God, he continued, comes from the nature of divine‐human interaction, “God, Allah, Deus, Yahweh, what sort of a word is it? It is a relational word, like friend. You can't be a friend unless you have someone to be friendly with. You can't be a host without guests. These are relational words. The heart of the Christian faith is that we are in a relationship with God. I'm not saying that the meaning of God is exhausted there. There are ninety‐nine names of Allah, just as Christ is seen as savior, liberator, the lamb of God, etc.”

How difficult is communication between religions?

“You can't be sure the other party has got what you said, but a misunderstanding can also be an occasion for learning for all people.” Cragg recalled the example of a Christian missionary who was shocked when a Turkish girl said, “How disgusting!” of the concept of the lord as a shepherd in Psalm 23. “They are illiterate, outcasts, very much on the margins of society. I would never marry one!” she stated emphatically. A central Christian concept meant nothing in a Muslim society, unless the missionary could explain that the relationship of the sheep to the shepherd was one of trust, dependence, guidance, and protection, like the relationship between people and their God.” Cragg was quick to tell audiences that a common vocabulary and metaphors are not shared by the worlds' religions, and that patient dialogue held in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect is a requisite of a meaningful interfaith encounter.

He acknowledged that such encounters take place in a highly charged world, one of political, military, economic, and cultural disruptions. “These immense changes (p.179) have occurred within two generations. We have absorbed these changes in the West since the Industrial Revolution, but in the Arab world people whose grandfathers were diving for pearls or driving camels are studying computers. But the twenty‐first century is not like the sixth, and the world community is not like early Arabian society. Islam is final; therefore it must be interpreted in a way that is abreast of the present time. Islamic political thought is yet to adjust fully to the idea of the modern secular state. Traditionally, Muslims would and should be ruled by Muslims. The political dimension is integral to the completeness of Islam.4 Thus, to live in the fullness of faith, Islamic peoples want to live in a state immersed with an Islamic worldview, sustained by Islamic law; living outside such a setting can leave a Muslim with strong feelings of being deeply uprooted.

How important are the Mecca‐Medina differences in Islam?

“I am working on a book on the tragic in Islam. Sunni Islam often extols the amazing spread and success of Islam. Suffering is a minority concept, left largely with the Shia, who recall the immolation of Hasan, victim of the massacre perpetrated against Muhammad's direct lineage and followers. Many people do not realize that during the Meccan period Muhammad was a genuine sufferer. During those thirteen years he was up against the vested interests of a pagan shrine, and the pride of the custodians from whose tribe he came as a junior member. The situation was not unlike Paul in Ephesus, where the people were making shrines to Diana, asking what would happen to their Goddess if this new message was accepted?

“He was completely powerless. He bore this situation with very few results. He was in a kind of potential Gethsemene, mutatis mutandis. The light at end of tunnel was not in Mecca but in Medina, the people invited him to take refuge there. He departed with his followers and gained a wide following. This was the pivotal event. Time in Islam dates from hijrah (622 CE), not his birth date.

“After eight years the Meccans succumbed to his superior power. What had become a transtribal message became an intertribal war. In some senses, the hijrah was a tragedy, because conflict came in its wake. In Mecca, the message was just a religion, the practice of prayer, the beginnings of a caring community, without benefit of power. It was analogous in some ways to the first three centuries of Christianity, the religion in the catacombs before Constantine the conqueror made it an established world religion. The priority of Mecca over Medina is not in doubt; witness the pilgrimage. Mecca is the place to which every mosque points.”

War, terrorism and globalization give unique coloration to the Islamic–Christian encounter. Hostility, misunderstanding, and arrogance on both sides historically characterize the exchange. At the same time, the number of those who seriously study the interaction of Islam and Christianity grows. Cragg's numerous works provide a point in medias res for such encounters, representing a half century's work of a conscious, faithful interlocutor between the two faith traditions. (p.180)


(1.)  Kenneth Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian: A Question of Response (Oxford: Oneworld, 1999), 136.

(2.)  Kenneth Cragg, Am I Not Your Lord? Human Meaning in Divine Question (London: Melisende, 2003), 231.

(3.)  Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000), 30.

(4.)  Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian, 31–52.