Interview with Dr Gabriel Said Reynolds on Allah: God in the Qur’an

This is an interview between the Christian-Muslim Studies Network and Dr Gabriel Said Reynolds, Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Dr Reynolds is the author of Allah: God in the Qur’an, which was published by Yale University Press on 3 March 2020. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Christian-Muslim Studies Network: With the book still fresh off the press, could you talk about your general hopes for it?

Dr Gabriel Said Reynolds: Principally, my hope is that this book advances the scholarly conversation on the Qur’an. I don’t pretend that this is the most eloquent contribution, but the beauty of academic enquiry is the ability to enter into dialogue with what has already been said.

I suppose that, deep down, I have the conviction that once you start this conversation, it tends to join people together, if you do it with charity. I don’t know if I subscribe to the idea that good scholarship can undermine fundamentalist discourses. I’m not sure about really engaged scholarship that seeks to undermine Islamophobia. If it does help people get a more sympathetic view, then that’s great, but that’s not a conscious goal.

A general hope for the book is that it will lead to a more robust engagement with the Qur’an for both Muslims and non-Muslims. It hopefully strikes a balance between engagement with the tradition of Islam and with the text itself.  

CMSN: Naturally, anyone can benefit from further reading in Christian-Muslim Studies, but could you talk about the audience you had in mind when writing Allah: God in the Qur’an?

Dr Reynolds: It’s pitched for a general readership. The tone is meant to make it a widely accessible work. I  use a simple transliteration system for Arabic terms, for example. It’s meant for the interested readership, as an entryway to readers who have questions surrounding God and the Qur’an.

At the same time I engage, at the scholarly level, with the work of the Japanese scholar, Toshihiko Izutzo, the French Dominican scholar of Islam Jacques Jomier, and Miroslav Volf at Yale. It contributes to the discussions they have already started.

CMSN: Many scholars within Christian-Muslim Studies have cited particular, very public events as inspiring their research or writing in this field. Was that also your experience?

Dr Reynolds: I have been inspired by certain current events which involved the Same God question. There was the incident in Malaysia in 2013, that led, within certain contexts in print, to the banning of Christian use of the word ‘Allah’, even though it had been the standard word for  ‘God’ for years.

The other event is the debate surrounding Dr Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College. The issue of whether Christianity and Islam follow the same God is an interesting question – or problem – for both Muslims and Christians.

CMSN: Those issues are explored in greater detail within the book, Allah: God in the Qur’an, along with other recent events related to the atrocities of ISIS/Daesh. Could you also speak to the forces that shaped your scholarly approach to the question?

Dr Reynolds: I had been reading the works of Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallah, who wrote a famous dissertation which could never be defended, ‘Narrative Art in the Qur’an’ or ‘The Art of Story-Telling in the Qur’an’. He suggests that the Qur’an is an exhortation shaped by the concerns of the author to prove the message of Islam, through Muhammad.

I’ve also engaged with the French Dominican scholar of Islam, Jacques Jomier. He wrote a book on God and man, as had Japanese scholar, Toshihiko Izutzo. I’ve been drawing as well from some other reading I had done while teaching at Notre Dame.

In terms of approach, it seemed to me to be especially the question of divine mercy and divine justice. It is a question that inspires a diverse range of responses, and people usually respond to either one or the other, but this book tries to take both into account.

CMSN: So your book offers a complicated picture of Allah in the Qur’an, as both a God of mercy and justice. Could you summarize some of your answer within the book – who is God in the Qur’an?

Dr Reynolds: There’s been a fair amount of attention within scholarship to the question of God in the Quran, including, in the English-speaking world, Miroslav Volf, and more recently Jack Miles.

So there’s been a respectable amount of attention to that question, but this book has a particular attention to the question of mercy and vengeance. It’s not a matter of the divine names, or an assessment of the divine relationship between God and humans. Instead the question is, ‘How does God manifest mercy and vengeance, and how does this relate to the salvation of sinners and non-believers?’

I hope there’s a vivid portrayal of the God of the Qur’an as a God of vivid personality, who is a friend to the believers and a nemesis to the unbelievers. I want to bring to life the colorfulness of the relationship with God.

I think that’s a bit different from some of the other works. Readers won’t find a systematic assessment. It’s more of a portrait or a biography.

CMSN: In previous writings, you have noted with appreciation that the University of Notre Dame, as a Catholic institution, can approach other religious traditions with an enthusiasm equal to or exceeding secular universities. I wonder if you might reflect on this approach in regards to this book, which addresses a topic – the nature of God – of such interest for all people of faith. 

Dr Reynolds: The book would be different if I were at a different institution, but principally because of the different types of conversations that would arise with students and colleagues. Many of these discussions arose in the undergraduate courses I teach, which are theologically focused. And that’s ‘faith seeking understanding’.

The question of revelation definitely is central. The question is shared with both traditions. Again, it’s faith seeking understanding, so it begins with a conviction that God speaks, and we are to respond in different ways.

CMSN: Can you speak to your method, in terms of the ways that ‘faith seeks understanding’ in a comparative, interfaith context?

Dr Reynolds: It begins with responding to the challenge of scripture in the different traditions. I have done a great deal of scriptural reasoning, and the question is, ‘How do you read scripture?’ There are so many options including fundamentalism and literary reading. While I don’t pretend to have invented this as a methodological concern, hopefully there is attention to that. And the book has some of my conversation with the classical exegetes of Islam to animate the project.

CMSN: How might these ideas apply more broadly to comparative and interfaith work?

Dr Reynolds: I think it’s a truism if not a fallacy that someone who has a religious conviction would necessarily be in an apologetic mode when studying another religion. Atheists can do great work, but so can members of different traditions. It’s a question of looking critically at one’s own work.

If one cultivates a disposition of generosity towards another religion, you begin to see analogy, and beauty, therein.