Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching Across the Christian-Muslim Divide

Lessons from the past and the power of hospitality: An introduction from the author

The Christian-Muslim Studies Network presents an interview with Dr Martin Accad, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon and Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, California). Dr Accad introduced us to what he calls the Kerygmatic approach to religious living, theological dialogue, and the power of hospitality.

Dr Accad’s recently published book, Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching Across the Christian-Muslim Divide (May 2019) offers a path to gracious and neighbourly interfaith dialogue through analysis of some of the most contentious issues that have plagued the relationship in both contemporary and historic times.

Christian-Muslim Studies Network: Can you tell us about your inspiration for this book?

Martin Accad: The key topics treated in the book have emerged out of my research into a large body of literature written by Muslims in the classical and most prolific era of Christian-Muslim interaction between the eighth and the fourteenth centuries. I have not imposed the topics on the literature but have allowed them to emerge from my research and analysis of the data. But what was immediately striking to me, and will be as well for those familiar with Christian-Muslim interaction today, is how relevant these topics still are today. Having said that, I have chosen to focus on the theological themes that have emerged, leaving aside those of a more sociological or political nature.

My decision was to make this book about ‘theological dialogue’ par excellence. I then wove in some personal contemporary stories to bring the conversation alive for Christians and Muslims today.

CMSN: How might the dialogue you describe be different between communities in Western countries and the Middle East?

MA: I am convinced that we are living through truly unique times, ones that our world has not known previously in history. Our world is interconnected as never before. Social media, despite all we might reproach them for in terms of fomenting tension and conflict between people with different opinions, have nevertheless also created the possibility for global communities to address issues together with unprecedented synergy. Transportation, immigration, and communication continue rapidly to change our societies everywhere and to transform them into uniquely blended, multifaith, multicultural, and multiethnic ones that increasingly seek new guidance for approaches that will lead to peaceful living and the common good.

As a result of these factors, I believe that there is more in common today between societies in the West and those in the East than there has ever been before. This means that there are more commonalities than differences today in the way that Christians and Muslims should interact with each other in the East and the West. Power dynamics is where the main difference lies. This has to do with demographics and majority-minority dynamics. Muslims are still largely guests in most cities in the West, whereas Christians have largely become guests as well in the Arab world as a result of historical developments, even though they had been there since the dawn of Christianity.

When we say ‘guests’ we need to understand the necessity of hospitality. Hospitality thus becomes a major component of interfaith interaction. As this book emerges from a region where hospitality is king, I hope that it brings to readers everywhere some unique insights into this interaction. The power of hospitality is that it levels the plain of power dynamics. When properly practiced, hospitality initiated even by the poor or weak can put a king to shame! The majority population in the East and the West has the responsibility to offer protection and respect to those who find themselves in numerical minority position. But the latter also have the power to practice hospitality and respect towards those in numerical majority position.

CMSN: Sacred Misinterpretation promotes and prepares a path toward fruitful interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims. But your other work often provides recommendations as well, for religious institutions as well as individuals (I think about your response to the A Common Word document, ‘Loving Neighbor in Word and Deed: What Jesus Meant’.) Could you share a few practical methods for this type of dialogue, either that you have seen in your work or would like to see?

MA: The practical implications of my book are integrated into the methodology advocated in the first 3 chapters. I recommend long-term or permanent multi-faith theological roundtables, where Christians and Muslims (and Jews and others where possible) would come together on a regular basis to address some of the more controversial and sensitive topics of interfaith dialogue. I am not advocating that such conversations should lead to an alignment of theological visions between various religions. True dialogue always assumes difference and theological dialogue happily works with theological tension and paradox. This is the responsibility of theologians and philosophers.

For activists and policy-makers, I suggest that we move beyond the twentieth-century drive to secularization. This post-colonial inclination has provoked reactions that have led to religious fanaticism as a defense mechanism to materialistic secularization. As a result, the twentieth century swung between secularization and religious radicalization, Islamism versus secular nationalism.

I would like to see activists and policy-makers educated into religious diversity and understanding that religions and spirituality will be the language of the heart for most people, and therefore the key to social and political change. We need to use these social forces for the better as we shape the public discourse globally, rather than allow them to overwhelm us and dominate the struggle for peace and the common good. This sort of ‘religious intelligence’ will emerge as we acquire more sophistication in our theological discourse that embraces the idea of complexity.

For theologians, activists, and policymakers, as well as for the common person of faith, my book advocates what I call the Kerygmatic approach. It is an approach that allows every religion to shine in its own right by transcending institutional religious boundaries. For followers of Christ, it is a Christ-centered rather than Christianity-centered approach that I advocate for; one that transcends religious boundaries through what I call the “supra-religious” approach. I seek to demonstrate that this was Jesus’ own approach as manifested in the Gospels.

The Kerygmatic approach, in addition to being supremely Christ-centered and supra-religious, is also scientifically honest, prophetic in its ability both to be self-critical and constantly energized through a new vision of future possibilities, intentional in its positive and constructive proclamation of the good news of God’s hospitality expressed in Christ. I believe this approach to be a viable solution to the often difficult and nebulous attempts to find common values in our increasingly and universally multi-faithed societies globally.

CMSN: Could you describe your approach to Sacred Misinterpretation?

MA: My approach in this book is strongly text-based and hermeneutical. I am seeking solutions to age-long conflicts through the promotion of a new public discourse that would emerge from our interaction with sacred texts. Through a ‘history of ideas’ approach, my methodology is based on the premise that we can trace the development of a concept—or idea—by following its story over several centuries. Once this ‘metadialogue’ is established, we can proceed to analyze its principle features, its more positive and creative as well as its darker moments, identifying major turning points and deadlocks. The more positive moments of that metadialogue can then serve as inspiration for the development of a new narrative and public discourse. As we grow in our understanding of this intellectual history that I describe primarily as ‘sacred misinterpretation’, I advocate the acquisition of a more legitimate hermeneutic that will lead to more legitimate mutual perception between peoples of various faiths.

CMSN: Sacred Misinterpretation is a book on Christian-Muslim relations, from an Evangelical theologian, with a detailed study of the Quran and Muslim theology as well. Do you see any parallel work from a Muslim scholar? 

MA: There are a few books written by Muslim scholars recently that have taken an approach comparable to the one I am advocating in my book. Prof. Mahmoud Ayoub’s Redemptive Suffering in Islam (1978) was a bit of a pioneer in the genre. His A Muslim View of Christianity: Essays on Dialogue (2007) is a more recent sympathetic treatment of Christianity by a Muslim. It is also worth mentioning Reza Aslan’s Zealot (2014) and Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus (2017) as two recent sympathetic studies of the historical Jesus that take historical-critical research seriously, even if their conclusions about Jesus differ from the more Orthodox Christian views.

Finally, though not exhaustively, I would like to mention Fadi Daou and Nayla Tabbara’s Divine Hospitality (2017). Though it is not strictly a Muslim book, since it is jointly written by a Christian and a Muslim, this is precisely what makes it unique in its exploration of a contemporary constructive approach to Christian-Muslim relations and theology.

  • “As this book emerges from a region where hospitality is king, I hope that it brings to readers everywhere some unique insights into this interaction.”