St. Paul and Islam: A Contemporary Perspective

This is a review of the new commentary on Paul’s letter to the Galatians by Dr Shabbir Akhtar of Oxford University. As far as I am aware no Muslim has ever written a commentary on any of Paul’s letters. I recommend Akhtar’s book highly: it is rare for a Muslim to demonstrate a profound understanding of Paul’s occasionally opaque theology. Akhtar possesses this understanding coupled with a familiarity with current New Testament scholarship (see his incisive criticism of Richard Bauckham’s research on page 257) and only reveals his own perspective (that of an orthodox Sunni Muslim) at the very end of the book:

If Muhammad was the last prophet, Paul was the lost prophet. That is the most charitable Islamic verdict on the man Muslims see as the founder of Christianity. (p. 269)

Buy it here: The New Testament in Muslim Eyes (Routledge Reading the Bible in Islamic Context Series)

The following is reblogged from the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Matthew V. Novenson on Shabbir Akhtar

Shabbir Akhtar. The New Testament in Muslim Eyes: Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. London: Routledge. pp. 292. $46.95 (paperback).

In this remarkable new commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Galatians, Shabbir Akhtar says that no Muslim has ever written a commentary on any of Paul’s letters. As far as I know, this is true. That fact alone would make this book a landmark, even if it were not especially good. But in fact it is a very good book, a learned commentary on a difficult text that brings a wealth of comparative insight to the task. It deserves to be read widely and carefully. For New Testament scholars in particular, Akhtar’s book deserves a place on the shelf alongside the standard critical commentaries on this, Martin Luther’s own favorite book of the Bible.

To write a commentary is to pay a supreme compliment to the author of the base text, to imply that his or her words are worthy of such exceptionally close attention. Indeed, this is why commentaries are usually written by religious insiders—Jews on Jewish holy books, Christians on Christian holy books, Muslims on Muslim holy books—because in such cases, to write a commentary is an act of piety. With this book, however, like Ibn Rushd with Aristotle, Akhtar pays the apostle Paul the supreme compliment of taking his words with utmost seriousness, as an act not of piety but of empathy, of thinking alongside Paul about the philosophical and theological questions he raises, questions about God, God’s law, faith, ethnicity, and more.

There is a clever trick in the title of the book. The New Testament in Muslim Eyes is not about the New Testament, the canon of 27 Christian holy books. English “New Testament” renders Latin novum testamentum, which in turn renders Greek kaine diatheke, “new covenant,” which first occurs in the Old Greek version of the prophet Jeremiah (where it renders Hebrew berit hadashah), whence Paul takes it as a name for his own apostolic commission: “God empowered us as ministers of a new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6). And this is what Akhtar examines through his Muslim eyes: the apostle’s claim to mediate a new revelation from God. Putting it in this way underlines the analogy with the prophet Muhammad, whom Akhtar aptly calls, elsewhere in the book, “the Arabian apostle to the gentiles.”

This is what Akhtar means by The New Testament in Muslim Eyes. And yet, whilst reading the commentary, I was struck by the realization that Galatians itself contains no reference to a “new covenant.” Paul uses that phrase in 1 Corinthians citing the Eucharistic words of Jesus and in 2 Corinthians in the passage noted above. Not in Galatians, however, and this, I think, for an important reason. Whereas in 2 Corinthians Paul argues for the newness of his gospel vis-à-vis Moses (hence “new covenant”), in Galatians, by contrast, he argues for the oldness of his gospel vis-à-vis Moses. That is, Paul claims that his gospel corresponds to God’s much more ancient promise to father Abraham, and that the law of Moses was a latecomer and a parenthesis. This realization perhaps renders the phrase “new testament” less apt for Galatians, but on the other hand it also highlights the striking analogy with Islam. Like the prophet Muhammad, Paul, in Galatians as nowhere else, stakes an interpretive claim on God’s primeval revelation to Abraham. The phrase “Abrahamic religions” is not as in vogue now as it was even a few years ago, but one could be forgiven for using the phrase with reference to Galatians. Nowhere else in Christian scripture is the gospel as Abrahamic as it is in this letter.

I expected Akhtar, of course, to discuss with sophistication the radical idea at the heart of the letter—that the law of God had only a time-limited custodianship until the coming of the messiah—and the obvious problems with this idea from the perspective of Islamic theology. And he does not disappoint on this score. But I did not expect at all for Akhtar to appeal to Paul positively as a resource for thinking through another problem internal to Islam, namely, the question of the relation of the transcendent revelation of the Quran to the particular ethnicity of the prophet and his earliest followers. Akhtar writes, “Can Muslims learn anything from reading Paul’s letter?… It is instructive for Muslims, Arab and non-Arab, to consider how and why Paul elected to move the new Christian faith away from the rituals and beliefs of its parent faith. Understanding Paul’s concerns could help Muslims to make Islam a more self-consciously universal faith, finally removed from traces of its historically conditioned Arabolatry.”

Being neither Arab nor Muslim myself, I am in no position to comment on the question of whether there is a problem of Arabolatry in contemporary Islam. But I do think that Akhtar puts his finger on one of Paul’s foremost concerns in a way that he, Akhtar, as a Muslim of South Asian rather than Arab ancestry, is uniquely well positioned to do. Galatians is of course partly about the place of law in religion, but equally or more importantly, it is about the place of ethnicity in religion, the question how a religion born in one ethnic context (Judean, Arabian, or otherwise) can be, or become, a home to people of all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations. And this question is at least as pressing for Muslims as it is for Christians.

But there are also interesting differences between the two cases. Christianity, although it began as a Jewish sect, very rapidly became an almost entirely non-Jewish movement, whereas Islam always retained and still retains a substantial ethnic Arab following, even if Arab Muslims are matched or outnumbered by their South Asian, Southeast Asian, and African coreligionists. But even if the demographics were otherwise, language accounts for another crucial difference, as the late Lamin Sanneh famously argued. The earliest Christian scriptures (e.g., the Letter to the Galatians itself) were already written in a language not the ethnic mother tongue; that is, they were written in Greek rather than Hebrew. And from there, they were quickly rendered into Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Slavonic, Arabic, and numerous other regional languages. The Quran, by contrast, was given in Arabic, and it is still recited in Arabic. This feature of Islam, together with its ethnic demographics, yield a dynamic that simply does not obtain in Christianity, for better or worse.

One final word, corresponding to Akhtar’s final word in the book. In his preface and epilogue he theorizes, and in the balance of the book he demonstrates, an approach to inter-religious discourse that is empathetic as well as candid. About the project of comparative Christian and Muslim theology, he writes, “The best position is to take the rival seriously on its own terms but conclude that it is simply in error… My considered guiding view, colored by my own faith, is that Paul was a sincere preacher who got many things wrong. Sincerity is no bulwark against error… Christians and Jews must give the same verdict regarding Muhammad—indeed must say that much if they are to be charitable but truthful. For if they say less, they do not give the man his due” (269). Now, I am a historian and exegete, not a theologian, so my judgment on these things should be weighed proportionately. But this seems to me a very sane posture to take. And I can say, as someone who lives most every day with the letters of Paul, that Shabbir Akhtar genuinely understands Paul, even if he also judges him to be in error.

Matthew V. Novenson is Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Christ among the Messiahs (OUP, 2012) and The Grammar of Messianism (OUP, 2017), and he is presently writing a critical commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.



Categories: Bible, Books, Christianity, Islam, New Testament scholarship, Recommended reading, Scholars, St Paul, Theology

Tags: , , ,

9 replies

  1. Great find Paul.

    I think it is high time for Muslims to write on Paul’s Letters as Paul’s Letters are what essentially separates Christianity from Jewish ideas of admittance to paradise.

    On the different point of ARABOLATRY

    “Understanding Paul’s concerns could help Muslims to make Islam a more self-consciously universal faith, finally removed from traces of its historically conditioned Arabolatry.”

    Being neither Arab nor Muslim myself, I am in no position to comment on the question of whether there is a problem of Arabolatry in contemporary Islam. But I do think that Akhtar puts his finger on one of Paul’s foremost concerns in a way that he, Akhtar, as a Muslim of South Asian rather than Arab ancestry, is uniquely well positioned to do.”

    Arabolatry does exist in Muslim practice AND even doctrines to some level due to the body of hadith.

    The Prophet Muhammad was placed in an Arab environment. If this blessed soul was placed in a Eskimo environment or an English environment or a Vietnamese environment, etc., he would act very differently.

    This simple fact gets progressively lost in the mind of Muslim scholars and laypersons as they progressively travel through the labyrinth of hadith and thus their simultaneously travel through the labyrinth of Muslim history which is the history of how the Ahl al hadith but also how various tribes co-opted oral transmission in a
    selective way to legitimize their worldviews and their daily idiosyncracies away from the principled moral intellectual powerhouse of the Qur’an which overpowered the simpleton notions of much too many bedouins.

    “The bedouins are stronger in disbelief and hypocrisy and more likely not to know the limits of what [laws] Allah has revealed to His Messenger. And Allah is Knowing and Wise.” Surah Al -Taubah, verse 97

    The actual word is not bedouins but “Arabs” but the understanding of the term Arabs was bedouins.

    Of course, the import of this verse is NOT relating to hadith which is too a large degree an enterprise post-Prophet Muhammad.

    But this verse from Almighty God should still caution us of Arabolatry that can seep in from the limitations of the bedouins, who make up much of the Arabs….indeed the Salafiyyah movement found it’s most fertile ground among the bedouins.

    The universal profound philosophical and ethical teachings Qur’an is a threat to Arabolatry and the Ummayad Arabism movement consciously among the worldly and historical arch enemies of the Prophet of God Almighty and Abbassid Arab elites and Arab wannabes from the Persians were able to promote Arabolatry in the vehicle of hadith.

    Having said this, of course much of the hadith can be traced in someways to the blessed Prophet and thus the hadith are integral to Islam but in certain genres a profoundly fallible body that is anti-Qur’an and anti-Prophet Muhammad’s teachings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The actual word is not bedouins but “Arabs” but the understanding of the term Arabs was bedouins
      The actual word is (‘Arāb) not Arabs! Qur’an is Arabic whether heretic of Turks, Persians, and even Arabs like that or not!

      The universal profound philosophical and ethical teachings Qur’an is a threat to Arabolatry and the Ummayad Arabism movement consciously among the worldly and historical arch enemies of the Prophet of God Almighty and Abbassid Arab elites and Arab wannabes from the Persians were able to promote Arabolatry in the vehicle of hadith

      What a nonsense!
      This is just a flatulence!
      Yes many “Pauls” have tried to corrupt the message of Islam with these “profound philosophical and ethical teachings” they brought from outside Islam and its context, yet they ended up with a big fail. Thank Allah alone.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m not sure about Shabbir Akhtar! While I’ve not read his book yet, but it seems he and Mustafa Akyol have adopted a schizophrenic notion when they deal with Paul’s and his corruption to the message of Jesus.

    In one hand, they amazingly and scholarly prove that Paul deviated profoundly from the original message of Jesus and his disciples, but on the other hand, they praise Paul and his contribution!
    In fact, Mustafa Akyol has chosen the Paul’s way to preach Islam to the west exactly, which is all about abolishing God’s law, and how we should surrender towards the western liberal superiority and even adopt it!

    Likewise seemingly, Shabbir Akhtar promotes for Paul’s ideas.
    Understanding Paul’s concerns could help Muslims to make Islam a more self-consciously universal faith, finally removed from traces of its historically conditioned Arabolatry
    What does that mean exactly? If I cannot make Islam universal except by deislamizing Islam and corrupting its message, how then I would help the message of Islam to be universal? It’s better to not universalize Islam.

    This makes me appreciate Ibn Taymiyyah’s project more and more, which is to revive the origin context of Islam with its Arabic epistemological context because some Muslims -either with good intention or not- had adopted other aspects from Greek or Indian philosophies to explain Qur’an and the message of Islam, yet they ended up corrupting the original message of Islam. That’s why we see some similarity between Paul’s writings and some deviant beliefs in the Islamic world.
    https://bloggingtheology.com/2019/11/10/paul-altered-the-religion-of-jesus-part-1/

    Finally, yes the message of Islam is universal, but that message doesn’t need to be corrupted to fit some aspects Islam doesn’t approve. The Qur’anic emphasis on its Arabic not because it’s was only for Arabs, but to protect its message from being deformed by other language Arabic language doesn’t bear nor approve. Look what happened when the word (Lord) has been used outside the Hebraic context? It’s like as if Allah عز وجل wanted to protect the message of Qur’an by emphasizing on its language and its Arabic context.

    Liked by 2 people

    • @ Ihsan

      To piggyback off what Abdullah said, what is your intended meaning of “Arabolatry”? Even in using the Quran, there are times you need to understand Arabic culture to get the reference. Examples off the top of my head are:

      1. Majority of Surah Annam (6) (which is Allah pretty much dogging their culture)
      2. Aad and Thamud (This is something that they know)
      3. Many metaphors in the Quran (especially pertaining to rain/water, carpets, and nonmoving homes)

      I mean even if you listen to popular speakers who pretty much exclusively talk about the Quran such as Nouman Ali Khan or Abdul Nasir Jangdas the FIRST thing they usually have to do is set the stage of how Arabs “think” when they get into using poetic language. So the whole concept of divorcing the Quran from the Arab environment is strange. It’s simply VERY hard to separate the two. The Arabs did poetry, Allah did it better. That is fundamentally already one of the Qur’an’s big signs. Again non-Arabs who have not studied this will not appreciate it.

      Quite frankly, imo this extends to ANY text in general that in order to fully grasp it, one should study or listen to it in its language. Things are always vastly different from the translation and yes I extend this to Judeo/Christian and Dharmic text as well. If I am reading off of habit I go and have it read in the original language off YouTube or something.

      Closing notes majority of Salaffiyyah are not bedouins that is just untrue (not that it would be a solid argument anyways). Most Bedouins do not really follow Islam except culturally and do what they did previously like having 8 wives, drinking, etc. its basically the equivalent of Christian hillbillies living in the swamps. Again you are divorcing the Quran from its Arabian context. If you study the Seerah many Bedouins were opportunists hopping onto the Islamic bandwagon which is what the ayah is speaking about in regards to hypocrisy. One can also see this by reading the next ayah of what you quoted:

      Among the nomadic Arabs are some who think what they give to you for zakah is ‘tribute’. And they are waiting for a turn of events against you, but the turn of events will encircle them eventually because God is all Hearing and Knowing. (9:98)

      And we all know what happened in the Ridda wars. This is what is meant by hadith help in Quranic interpretation by understanding the Seerah and what the original audience would have understood it we stop forcing our own bias interpretations into ayat to make it say what we want it to.

      Like

Leave a Reply to Abdullah1234 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: