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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Islam & Christianity

The Templars and the Assassins: The Militia of Heaven by James Wasserman (Inner Traditions) An examination of the interactions of the Christian Knights Templar and their Muslim counterparts, the Assassins, and of the profound changes in Western society that resulted. * Restores the reputation of the secret Muslim order of the Assassins, disparaged as the world's first terrorist group. * Dispels many myths about the Knights Templar and provides the most incisive portrait of them to date.

A thousand years ago Christian battled Muslim for possession of a strip of land upon which both their religions were founded. These Crusades changed the course of Western history, but less known is the fact that they also were the meeting ground for two legendary secret societies: The Knights Templar and their Muslim counterparts, the Assassins.

A thousand years ago Christian battled Muslim for possession of a strip of land upon which both their religions were founded. These crusades changed the course of Western history, but less known is the fact that they also were the meeting ground for two legendary secret societies: the Knights Templar and their Muslim counterparts, the Assassins. Author James Wasserman examines the interactions and dispels many myths about both groups, providing a penetrating portrait of these holy warriors and the profound changes in Western society that resulted. "Wasserman adds profoundly to our understanding of the religious, ideological, and initiatory forces that shaped the development of Western civilization. [He] brings both impeccable scholarship and a rare gift for making even the most complex metaphysical concepts intelligible to his readers."

In The Templars and the Assassins, occult scholar and secret society member James Wasserman provides compelling evidence that the interaction of the Knights Templar and the Assassins in the Holy Land transformed the Templars from the Pope's private army into a true occult society, from which they would sow the seeds of the Renaissance and the Western Mystery Tradition. Both orders were destroyed as heretical some seven hundred years ago, but Templar survivors are believed to have carried the secret teachings of the East into an occult underground, from which sprang both Rosicrucianism and Masonry. Assassin survivors, known as Nizari Ismailis, flourish to this day under the spiritual leadership of the Aga Khan. Wasserman strips the myths from both groups and penetrates to the heart of their enlightened beliefs and rigorous practices, delivering the most probing picture yet of these holy warriors. 


The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature edited and translated by Tarif Khalidi (Convergences: Harvard University Press) It is a truism of Muslim polemics that Jesus is portrayed as a highly regarded prophet in the Qur’an and hadiths. It is also true that Islam’s gift to Christianity is to insist upon the humanity of Jesus and to disregard the Church’s claims to his divinity. No matter how one confessionally reads the Gospel, if one takes to heart the central portrayals of Jesus as historically recontextualized within first century Judaism and Hellenistic religiosity and cult, then a theologically informed reading should keep as open both the all-God and all-human character of Jesus in all interpretations of the Gospel accounts. Alongside the Qur’an and the hadiths , the stories of the Prophet's sayings and actions, appear stories of Jesus' sayings and actions, 303 of which Tarif Khalidi has collected and translated to produce, for the first time, a Muslim gospel. In this light the wonderful legendary portrayal of Jesus in Muslim literatures so adroitly arranged here provides us with a Jesus and a mission, though hardly “historic” or “canonical,” but is still inspiring, especially in regards to Jesus’ mission to teach us how to love God. Some of the aphorisms reflect certain of Jesus' sayings from the Christian gospels, while other mottos and stories in all probability draw from pre-Islamic legends. The extensive Islamic understanding of Jesus as a rather austere prophet made stories about him particularly popular with Sufism, but Khalidi labors to get a much wider assortment of Muslim characterizations about Jesus into this study. To each numbered entry, Khalidi attaches incisive notes, and an extensive wide-ranging introduction makes available a historical and useful summary of the Muslim appreciation of Jesus. This work provides a refreshing look at the Muslim use of the idea of Jesus.

Excerpt of selections by M. ibn ‘Arabi:

275 Jesus said, "Conduct yourselves with people in such a manner that while you live they long for you and after you die they weep for you."

Ibn 'Arabi was one of the most celebrated Sufi theorists of all time. Prolific author and controversial public figure, he developed Sufi doctrine in new directions and created a highly complex mystical‑philosophical system. In Ibn 'Arabi's ethical system, the concept of longing plays a central role in a human being's relationship to God as well as to other human beings.

276 Jesus said to the religious lawyers, "You sit on the road to the afterlife but you have neither walked this road to its end, nor allowed anyone else to pass by. Woe to him who is beguiled by you!"

The age of Ibn 'Arabi saw increasing tension between Sufis and legal scholars. Jesus was conveniently inducted into this struggle on the side of the Sufis because of his perceived disapproval of narrow‑minded legalism.

277 It is reported that Jesus passed by 400,000 women whose color had changed and who were wearing tunics of haircloth and wool. Jesus asked, "What is it that has changed your color, you crowds of women?"

They replied, "It is the remembrance of hell‑fire which has changed our color, son of Mary. He who enters hellfire tastes neither cold nor drink."

The encounter between Jesus and the women in penitential garb suggests that women, commonly viewed as temptresses, can indeed, and in their great majority (400,000 suggests their "astronomical" numbers), be induced to turn away from sin.

278 Satan appeared to Jesus in the visible form of an old man. "Spirit of God, say: `There is no god but God,"' he bade him hoping that he [would repeat this after him and thus] would have obeyed him to that extent. Jesus answered, "I say it‑but not because you said it: there is no god but God." Satan departed in disgrace.

Jesus outsmarts Satan in a theological exchange which illustrates a commonly cited maxim: "Man is judged by the truth and not the truth by man"‑a maxim often resorted to by, for instance, al-­Ghazali, who uses it in his polemics against the blind imitation of authority among various sectarian groups.

279 Jesus said to the Israelites, "Know that your present life is to your afterlife as your sunrise is to your sunset. The closer you approach to the east, the farther you are from the west, and the closer you approach to the west, the farther you are from the east." He exhorted them in this example to draw closer to the afterlife through good deeds.

The phrase "as far as the east is from the west" is at least as old as Psalms 103:12.

280 Jesus exhorted some of his companions as follows: "Fast from the world and break your fast with death. Be like him who treats his wound with medicine lest it oppress him. Remember death often‑for death comes to the man of faith bringing good with no evil to follow; but to the evil man, it brings evil with no good to follow."
The graceful phrasing of this saying, the exhortation to a totally ascetic life, and the admonition to remember death constantly are all typical of the Sufi spirit.

Islamic Interpretations of Christianity by Lloyd Ridgeon (St. Martin’s Press) Many books about Islam and Christianity are comparative but this is a work that gives the Islamic understanding of Christianity. Ten chapters focus on theological, philosophical, and mystical issues, which are as relevant today as they always have been in the Muslim-Christian dialogue. The book is divided into two sections: the classical and modern periods; thus the reader will benefit from a broad overview of the myriad Islamic interpretations of Christianity.


Islamic attitudes towards Christianity, like Western attitudes towards Islam, occupy a broad spectrum of positions, ranging from outright rejection to inclusivist accommodation. At the exclusivist end of this spectrum lies the Christianophobia of the Hanbali scholar and exegete Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328) whose attacks on Christian religious practices are enjoying a revival among Islamists opposed to Muslim governments they regard as too pro­-Western. Admirers of Ibn Taymiyya include, paradoxically, some Muslims living in the West who, like the Orthodox Jews belonging to the various Haredi sects, try to disassociate themselves as much as possible from the surrounding society. According to Ibn Taymiyya not even the most trifling resemblance must be allowed to exist between Muslims and non-Muslims, the starting point for all Muslim life being the point at which "a perfect dissimilarity with the non‑Muslims has been achieved."' In the detailed critique of popular religious practices, Ibn Taymiyya argues that practices such as the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday and the construction of mosques around the tombs of Sufi shaykhs are unacceptable borrowings from the Christians: "Many of them [i.e. the Muslims] do not even know of the Christian origin of these practices. Accursed be Christianity and its adherents."

At the opposite, inclusivist end of this spectrum lies the universalist outlook of the poet, philosopher and Isma'ili da`i (missionary) Nasir Khusraw (1004‑c1075), still a highly venerated figure in the highlands of the Western Pamirs in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. Nasir not only argues that the messages of the Torah, Inj11(Gospel) and Qur'an are essentially identical, but that even Hindus whose religious beliefs and practices lie outside the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are possessors of a Holy Book which they claim to be of divine origin. Nasir goes to the point of endorsing this claim: "I have heard many divine words from their learned men."
In chapter 1, "Christianity in the Qur'an" David Marshall addresses ambiguities he perceives in Qur'anic teachings about Christianity. While Christ is an honored figure Christians are criticized for deifying Jesus and for practices associated with idolatry and paganism. Christian monasticism is also subject to ambiguous comments, alternatively criticized and commended. While the Muslims are warned against taking Christians as friends, faithful Christians are promised their reward at the Day of Judgment. Marshall suggests that these apparent ambiguities may partly reflect Muhammad's unfolding relationship with actual Christian communities who failed to accept his mission. A distinction should be made between the ideal Christianity he conceived of and the actual practices of the Christians he encountered. In chapter 2 Marston Speight analyses some 500 hadith relating to Christianity and Christians which he regards as broadly representative of the entire corpus of Sunni hadith. While there are hadiths affirming the common spiritual kinship of the People of Scriptures, both Jews and Christians are criticized for altering their religious texts. Generally this literature that functioned as part of the Muslim expression of identity in the pluralist world of the 8th and 9th centuries, is more concerned with the Christians as people than matters of theology or faith. In the emerging Muslim empire, the Muslims found a place for Christians by assigning them dhimmi status ‑one that clearly emphasized their social and religious inferiority. In considering the legal status of Christians Jane McAuliffe in chapter 3 argues for the continuing relevance of classical theology in contemporary discussions. The legal commentaries she focuses on are still sources of guidance on the conduct of relations with Christians. Contrasting the comments of the eighth‑century legal exegete Muqatil b. Sulayman (d. 767) who includes Jewish and Christian prayer spaces within the prescriptive scope of Qur'anic injunctions concerning clothing, with those of other authorities such as Ahmad b. 'Ali al‑Jassas (d. 981) and Ilkiya al‑Harrasi (d.1110) and the fifteenth-­century Shi'i commentary of al‑Miqdad al‑Hilb, she suggests that while no comprehensive conclusion need be drawn from such individual case studies, the direction of legal exegesis in the formation of categories "pushes away from plurality towards binary opposition", with such status distinctions as Christians, Jews, dissolving into the undifferentiated classification of kuffar or mushrikun (unbelievers and polytheists).

The actual position of Christians under classical Islam is also considered by David Thomas in chapter 4 where the high social standing they enjoyed in early Abbasid times stands in marked contrast to the legal requirements of their subordinate dhimmi status. Turning to the thorniest of theological issues dividing Christians and Muslims, the doctrine of the Trinity, Thomas addresses the problem facing Christians under Muslim rule of explaining a doctrine originally formulated in Greek in the Arabic tongue. For example, the term hypostasis was consistently glossed as referring to separate entities rather than as attributes of God subsisting in his essence, confirming Muslim accusations of "tritheism". To Muslim minds the mention of three Persons meant three separate deities, as clearly stated in the Qur'an. Christian attempts, using concepts borrowed from Islamic theology, to explain that the doctrine did not entail plurality, failed completely ‑ a failure, Thomas suggests, both symptomatic of relations between Christian and Muslims during the early classical period and indicative of how one community would gradually be absorbed into the "thought world" of the other.

In chapter 5 Lloyd Ridgeon explores the figure of Jesus in the work of Jalal al‑Din Rumi, considered to be one of the greatest of Islamic and Persian poets, whose work in translation has reputedly made him the best‑selling poet in the United States. Some extra‑Qur'anic references to Jesus suggest a familiarity with the gospel accounts of Jesus. The focus of Ridgeon's chapter, however, is not the provenance of Rumi's references to Jesus but rather their significance in Rumi's "unceasing search for the realities behind forms", where Jesus comes to symbolize the Spirit of God with life giving powers applicable to each and every individual. The Jesus of Rumi belongs to the religious imagination as distinct from the phenomena of the material world. It is consistent with the docetic or gnostic Christology of the Qur'an where Jesus appears as a divine messenger or illuminator, as distinct from the Redeemer of Pauline Christianity: to speak of Jesus in terms of salvation is meaningless for orthodox Muslims because of the absence of the doctrine of the Fall. In arguing for the need to re‑assess Rumi's inclusivist interpretation of Islam, Ridgeon shares the perspective of Henry Corbin, who suggested that Docetism, unequivocally rejected at the Council of Nicea in 325, points to a more universal way of spiritual knowledge than Pauline Christology. The incarnation of St. Paul and the early Church Councils materialized the divine, in a manner of speaking, by endowing it with flesh and blood and putting it on the plane of human history, instead of perceiving Christ's image as purely spiritual and timeless. "Without theophany God is only a pure indetermination which cannot be worshipped at all. But if theophany is necessary, it must be accomplished as an anthropomorphosis perceived by mental vision ... not on the plane of material incarnation." The dominant intuition of gnosticism "is that the soul is not the witness of an external event but the medium in which the event takes place." Corbin likened this approach to that of modern phenomenology, the philosophical outlook that many people would argue offers the most fruitful approach for the study of comparative religion. "In our days phenomenology declares that knowledge does not bear upon Being, but it is Being, aware of itself. In this sense the Docetists may be regarded as the first phenomenologists."' A similar perspective, formulated somewhat differently, appears in Leonard Lewisohn's essay on the Esoteric Christianity of Islam: chapter 6. While the use of Christian imagery by medieval Persian Sufi poets clearly allowed for the possibility of religious dialogue Lewisohn explains that the subjectivity (or "subject-centrism") of this language is "a world apart from the categories of theologians and philosophers and the abstract moral hypotheses of priests and mullahs." Mystics in both religions share virtually the same esoteric hermeneutic, interpreting their respective scriptures to reveal a world of multiple dimensions; but the transcendent Truth thought to be underlying (or "overflowing") the mystic experience transcends, by definition as it were, its expression in words. The possibilities of dialogue on the basis of mutually consistent esoteric understandings of the scriptures of the two faith traditions are limited by the spiritual elitism according to which the interior meanings or allusions are only accessible to those whose hearts have been purified by the cultivation of mystical disciplines. Lewisohn finds parallels between the "religious promiscuity" of thirteenth‑century Persian society following the Mongol invasions and the multi‑religious culture of today's postmodern world. The vogue for Ibn Taymiyya's theology of transcendence (which finds its counterpart in parts of the evangelical Protestant spectrum, particularly in the United States) should not be allowed to obscure much more encouraging signals suggested by the popularity of Rumi in the West. Following Corbin's suggestion that the presence of Sufism could radically change the dialogue between Islam and Christianity provided the interlocutors were "Spirituals", it may be the immanentist theologies in all traditions, with their nuanced commitment to the subtleties of language, that point the way towards mutual accommodation and respect.

Sayyid Qutb's attitude towards Christianity as demonstrated by his extended commentary of the six verses of sura al‑Tawba (9:29‑35) in fi Zilal al‑Qur'dn, the subject of chapter 7, is firmly rooted in transcendental theology similar to that of Ibn Taymiyya, though as Neal Robinson reveals, there is unacknowledged input of a distinctly political character. Qutb follows the classical commentators in stating that co‑existence must be based on Muslim supremacy: the Muslims must fight the People of Scripture until they pay the religious tax, or convert to Islam. The majority of Jews and Christians have always been unbelievers, and uncompromising in their hostility to Islam. On the doctrine of the incarnation, Qutb states, in line with classical polemicists, that it originated with St. Paul, who falsified Christ's message ‑ Christ himself having taught the unity of God. Qutb's political radicalism reveals itself in his comments on 9: 31 when he "exposes" the label Islam attached by its enemies to man‑made statues and human institutions, a position which Robinson points out runs counter to the teachings of the four Sunni law‑schools, which recognized  or existing customary law as a valid source of law. The same goes for his innovative use of the idea: "time of ignorance" or paganism as applied to contemporary society, and the idea of the "open path" repeatedly used by Qutb to mean procedure, method or program. As Robinson sees it, Qutb imposes a "highly questionable interpretive grid on the text" of the Qur'an in line with the radical or even extremist political views he adopted as a leading Muslim Brotherhood intellectual. The international political context, Robinson suggests, helps to account for the continuing influence and popularity enjoyed by his writings more than thirty years after his execution by the Egyptian regime of President Nasser in 1966. Given the consistent support for Israel by the USA ‑ the world's most powerful "Christian" nation ‑ as well as the retaliatory attacks launched by the United States (in defiance of international law) against targets in the Sudan and Afghanistan following the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, it is hardly surprising that Qutb's polemical, an a‑historical attack on Christians and Jews still finds a ready audience in Muslim lands.

In her essay on Muslim Perceptions of Christianity and the West (chapter 8), Kate Zebiri draws on several contemporary Muslim Writers. Some of these exhibit what the American historian Richard Hofstader calls (in a different context) a "paranoid style" of discourse, seeing in the writings of such distinguished Christian writers on Islam as Kenneth Cragg or William Montgomery Watt attempts at "subversion" of Islam or tactical pauses in an ongoing war aimed ultimately at taking it over. Zebiri locates such literature in the context of past activities of Christian missionaries in Muslim lands, and anxieties about conversion away from Islam, which need to be "understood in the light of the fact that religious identity is differently constructed and perceived in Muslim societies than in the more secular West, where individual choice is now strongly emphasized." While the ascription to Christian missionaries of such infamous techniques as conversion by medical trickery belongs to a long‑established tradition of religious polemics, anxieties about the political effects of Christian evangelism are not necessarily out of place or overdrawn. As Zebiri points out, several writers including Safar al‑Hawali point to the phenomenon of Christian Zionism (widely neglected by political commentators on the Middle East) as an example of Christian activity explicitly aimed against Islam and Muslims. Christian Zionism is used to describe the doctrine (technically known as pre‑millennial dispensationalism) widely held in American evangelical circles and promoted by popular preachers including Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Hal Lindsay (author of The Late Great Planet Earth, which has sold more than 30 million copies to date) according to which the state of Israel is entitled to unconditional political support on theological grounds. Premillennialists believe that the foundation of Israel in 1948 and its occupation of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 are a necessary part of the Divine Plan preceding the return of Christ and the establishment of His Kingdom on earth.' In general, however, Zebiri concludes that the "Occidentalist" attitude exhibited in this literature are the mirror‑image of Orientalist attitudes still prevalent in the West. "The view of Christianity which is reflected in some of this discourse, as aggressive, power‑mongering, intolerant and fanatical, incompatible with democracy, backward, irrational and primitive is very similar to an image of Islam which has been and still is promoted in some Western sources." As Philip Lewis demonstrates in his account of depictions of Christianity within British Islamic Institutions (chapter 9), much of the discourse about Christianity reflects the same paranoid style noted by Zebiri. Lewis focuses on the figure of Ahmad Deedat, a feisty polemicist and prolific pamphleteer whose booklets are "crude but clever compilations of allegedly damning evidence to prove that the bible is incoherent, full of mistakes and contains sexually reprehensible material, unworthy of any serious publication." Deedat was the recipient of the 1986 King Feisal Award, a prestigious and lucrative prize given by Saudi Arabia for his services to Islam. Lewis is disturbed to find Saudi Arabia lending "lustre and economic support" to a polemicist who contributes nothing to serious Islamic engagement with non‑Islamic religious traditions." Turning to the more "significant and informed" voice of the late Dr. Syed Darsh, an Azhar‑trained scholar who prior to his death wrote a regular column in the Muslim magazine Q‑News, Lewis documents a much more sophisticated and better‑informed view of life in Britain and the potential benefits it offers for Muslims. Nevertheless he detects in Darsh's fatwas a lack of understanding of the role of Christianity in western society and its political influence. Lewis concludes by demonstrating that while it is radical groups such as Hizb‑at‑Tahrir (HUT) whose "coinage is political diatribes against the West and whose simplistic appeals to return to the sources of the Qur'an and the sunnah often discount fifteen hundred years of history and disciplined reflection", serious work of engagement is being undertaken by such institutions as the Center for the Study of Islam and Christian Muslim Relations in Birmingham and the Islamic Foundation in Leicester. The Presence of Muslim academics capable of addressing the wider issues of dialogue and engagement in a reasoned and practical way is also a cause for optimism. Finally in his chapter on Christian‑Muslim relations in Nigeria and Malaysia (chapter 10), Hugh Goddard provides a broader context in which future interaction between the two faith communities are discussed. He concludes that for the foreseeable future in matters religious one of the most important questions on a global level is going to be the relationship between Christianity and Islam, raising fundamental ethical questions for members of both communities. As this Introduction was being written the Serbian nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosovitch withdrew its troops from Kosovo following weeks of NATO bombardment backed by the threat of invasion from the ground. It is not entirely disheartening that the largest military engagement undertaken by nominally Christian powers in Europe since the Second World War was justified as being necessary in order to restore to their homes the Muslim victims of a nationalist regime that draws heavily on the symbols of a Christian Orthodox past. In this instance, at least, the NATO action, for all its destructiveness and waste of innocent lives, gave the lie to predictions about the forthcoming "Clash of Civilizations" between "Islam" and the "West".


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