A Rabbi, a Minister and an Imam meet in a church
in New York – sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But this was the
reality for many people several weekends ago who experienced a positive
and uplifting inter-faith conference. Forensic Scriptures: What the Qur’an
Reveals about the Bible is the title of a book by Brian Brown, a
United Church Minister, who is also the author of Noah’s Other Son:
Bridging the Gap between the Bible and the Qur’an. Both the
conference and the book, Forensic Scriptures, present the Qur’an
as a sacred resource increasingly accessible to Jewish and Christian
scholars and students. Islamic primary sources, under the rigorous
re-evaluation of Islamic scholars, have today the potential to stimulate
the development of new paradigms that can be applied to the sacred
scriptures of the three monotheistic religions. The historic conference at
Riverside Church in New York, supported by surrounding seminaries and
noted scholars, took the first positive step in realizing the potential of
shared scholarship in the monotheistic family.
The Forensic Scriptures conference was the
brain-child of Brian Brown, who met with me about a year and a half ago
searching for ideas and people for this conference. Off the top of my
head, I mentioned Laleh Bakhtiar because her translation of the Qur’an
(first by a woman) was just published under the title The Sublime Qur’an.
Brian asked me if I would consider leading the opening prayers for the
conference as many people, not being Muslim, would have neither the
ability nor understanding to perform prayers in the tradition of Islam.
Upon hearing that leading and respected scholars and academics from the
Muslim world were being invited (people like Mahmoud Ayoub, author of Redemptive
Suffering in Islam and The Qur’an and Its Interpreters,
Faculty Associate in Shi‘ite Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations,
Hartford Seminary; Amir Hussain, author of Oil and Water: Two
Faiths, One God, Associate professor in the Department of
Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University; Hussein Rashid,
Professor at Hofstra University and founder of Islamicate.com; and Dr.
Bakhtiar), I was hesitant to accept the responsibilities of an imam. I
suggested that he first call upon the leading Muslim scholars, but when
they offered their blessings I agreed. As a woman leading Muslim prayer, I
felt my leadership was not so much a feminist statement as it was an act
that upheld human rights and spiritual equality. When Brian started
planning how I would lead Asr salat (afternoon prayer) in New York, he had
little idea how the conference as a whole would eventually pan out.
Fortunately, during the course of events, we discovered that we are both
eternal optimists. And the conference turned out to be a wonderful
I arrived in New York with Dr. David Galston, a
founder of the Snowstar Institute of Religion and Brock University
Chaplain, who is a colleague in interfaith. We dutifully reached Riverside
Church, which is an imposing, beautiful building by the Hudson River just
behind Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. Dr. Brad Baxton,
author of No Longer Slaves: Galatians and African American
Experience, is the Senior Minister of Riverside Church. In his
opening comments, he relayed that Riverside has 2,400 members and
affiliates. Its members come from more than 40 different denominational,
national, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. They pride themselves on The
Three "I"s... being an Interdenominational,
Interracial, & International congregation. With our presence, they
added a fourth "I": Inter-faith.
The interfaith component was quickly obvious as
we gathered for the opening salat (prayer). Amir Hussain had already
explained to the congregation what we were doing. The church hall was
lined with red carpets and one section especially set aside, facing East,
held a single small prayer rug marking the spot where the conference would
open. Ruqaiyah Nabe who is studying at New York Theological Seminary
rendered a singularly resounding call to prayer and we lined up. Jewish,
Muslim and Christian – from many corners of North America—all brought
together by one call to acknowledge monotheism’s common and single
creator. It was profound. Following salat, Dr. Ayoub recited a Quranic
verse and the translation was rendered by Rabbi Justus Baird, Director of
The Multifaith Center at Auburn Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Rabbi
Baird said that mystics of all faiths have always borrowed ideas from
other traditions and that we cannot fully appreciate our own traditions
until we understand "the other". It was clarified that we were
there to examine each other’s scriptures with respect and in reverence
while at the same time standing in our own. Rabbi Baird added, "the
wise person is the one who learns from everyone."
This conference was not simply about dialogue
and mutual sharing. Of course, dialogue happens regardless, but the
conference uniquely opened permission for leading Jewish and Christian
scholars to pose searching questions about Islam to respected Muslim
colleagues. Equally, it tilled the soil for the shared, critical
examination of each monotheistic tradition within a community of students
and scholars from each tradition. Among the panelists for the opening
session were Max Stackhouse, author of God and Globalization; Phyllis
Trible, author of Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of
Biblical Narrative; Carol Meyers, author of Discovering Eve and
Women in Scripture; Ellen Frankel, author of The Five Books of
Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah; The Jewish Spirit;
and The Illustrated Hebrew Bible. Mahmoud Ayoub, Judith
Plaskow, and Laleh Bakhtiar were also among the first panelists.
The session used a roundtable format to discuss
Hans Küng’s belief that the nations cannot find peace until religions
achieve peace. Moderated by Dr. Brad Braxton, it became apparent that the
nature of God in each tradition was the most troubling aspect of the
discussion. Professor Trible in particular pointed out that the scriptures
do not present a monolithic understanding of God and that, at times, God
is rather like a problematic adolescent: punitive, emotional, biased, and
In another session, Islamic Texts were examined
with the employment of critical methods. The question here concerned the
role of women in the transmission of the Abrahamic scriptures. David
Galston questioned Brian Brown’s thesis that the Q Document was written
by the wife of the Apostle James but offered the theory, posed by Mary
Rose D’Angelo, that the gospel of Luke was written by a woman. There was
also discussion about the likelihood that the women associated with the
Prophet Mohammed were literate and, due to their daily interaction with
the Prophet, were best situated to record his sayings and recitations.
This might have been particularly true of Mohammed’s first wife,
Khadijah, who was a successful and very capable business woman.
Several other panel discussions followed. One in
particular that I sat on offered reflections from women on women’s
experiences in the monotheistic traditions. Despite the differences
between the traditions, the basic experiences within each tradition are
often remarkably similar. This is especially true in the case of woman.
The common challenge for women consistently involves the recognition of
women in the historic development of a religious tradition and the right
women have, by the witness of history, to hold an equal voice in the life,
articulation, and leadership of the faith.
I also sat attentively in many sessions and
noted what I believed to be thoughtful and inspiring comments
Another question that arose during the meeting
of the conference related to the global and postmodern nature of religion
today. Max Stackhouse said that sometimes converts to a new religion are
more pluralistic in their understanding because they continue to straddle
two traditions. He made the interesting point that if all the religions of
the world were to form one super-religion, the world would be poorer. It
is different faiths that make the world rich in colour and tapestry.
Sometimes the leading voices of diversity and mutual respect come from
those folks who have been able to leave one religion, embrace a second
one, but still understand the first religion as an insider. Perhaps he was
referring to Ann Holmes Redding, an Episcopalian Priest was recently
defrocked for embracing Islam. She said that Christianity has become a
religion of global privilege and there is a need to look at Jesus and his
message in non-Christian ways. She expressed how Islam had enabled her to
get beyond the Christian Jesus and experience his life in a fresh way.
Since the conference constantly involved
reflection on the history of each tradition, it was somewhat natural for
the conference to end with the question, what would need to be transformed
in your tradition for the sake of peace and harmony in the world? Phyllis
Trible said that Christianity needed to overcome the chauvinism of
supersession (the idea that it has replaced Judaism). Dr. Ayoub said that
Muslims have been worshipping Islam and not God. He contrasted the
arrogance of religion and the humility of faith.
I will draw my report on this conference to a
conclusion with some of the notes I took in the midst of presentations and
similarities, learn to appreciate the distinct features of an
individual religion. These are what make the religion what it is.
experience happens truly when it is not a dialogue but an encounter.
An encounter is possible when we learn to listen to the other without
Muslims can’t truly appreciate the Qur’an without hearing it being
recited, Muslims must also learn to listen to the beauty of chants in
the Torah and Bible.
and Bible hold several similar stories like Abraham and Noah. Amir
Hussain spoke of common phrases and words. However, in contrast,
Hussain Rashid commented on how different Moses appears when comparing
the Qur’an and Bible.
advice directed to Christians who read the Qur’an for the first
time. Dr. Ayoub said, "The Quran is like a richly decorated room.
You can’t jump into the interior but you have go through the
how often it was emphasized that women need to be an essential part of
concept of Loh Mahfooz (heavenly tablet), a key concept in
Islam, originates in Judaism in reference to the Torah. One presenter
suggested that all scriptures go back to a heavenly archetype that
comes to be articulated specifically in unique communities.
difference between Islam and Christianity consists of recognizing that
the Qur’an was recited first and it resulted in the following of the
Muslim community; in Christianity, there was first a following, then
the community produced the New Testament.
Bakhtiar was questioned about her translation of the term "daraba":
a verse from Islam that is traditionally used to justify husbands
beating their wives (4:34). Her translation is "walk away"
not "beat." As she explained, this word can be translated
more than 20 ways. She chose her translation against the background of
the compassion and justice that marked the life of the Prophet
Mohammad. He indeed did advocate "walking away" from
violence, so she chose this meaning. A few other translators have also
used this method.
Bakhtiar also pointed that in our discussions, people tended to say
"God" when talking about Judaism and Christianity but
"Allah" when talking about Islam. She said that it’s the
same God for all three religions and that as long as we are all
speaking English, we should use the same name, i.e., God.