Relations with those of other faiths might once have seemed an unusual occupation. More recent times make interfaith engagement – both irenic and otherwise – a major factor in countries around the world. Far from diminishing the importance of place, the proliferation of interfaith engagements across borders means local history, politics, and expectations is as important as ever.

Thus, critical engagement with Christian-Muslim Studies still requires a keen awareness of context. With that in mind, this post reflects on both centuries-old and current developments within Christian-Muslim relations in Scotland, where the Christian-Muslim Studies Network is based.

A statue of John Knox overlooks the courtyard at New College, Edinburgh. Photo by Lucy Schouten.

Such engagement has a long history, even in Scotland. Recent scholarship on this blog introduced a historical study of Christian-Muslim relations in Scotland as far back as the sixteenth century. Such engagements were text-based, as Christians and Muslims would not coexist in the British Isles for many centuries. In fact, Nathan Hood contends that these interfaith engagements functioned exclusively as polemics within Europe’s intra-Christian debates:

‘[John] Knox and [George] Gillespie both used “the Turk” to tarnish their opponent’s position. Both assume that Islam is heretical. They then identified their opponents, whether Roman Catholicism or liturgical ceremonialism, with the positions of Muslims, thus showing their absurdity. Islam was not the main target of critique: it was a vehicle for intra-Christian polemic’.

Nonetheless, the Scottish scholar Alexander Ross produced the first-ever translation of the Qur’an into English. Again, its function was inward-facing, as Mr Hood argues:

‘Ross’s diatribe against Islam was also a vehicle for a polemical attack upon the Cromwellian regime of his day. Prior to the publication of the text, the Council of State issued a warrant, at the behest of Colonel Anthony Weldon, to search the press to seize the publication. Later, they apprehended the printer and Ross was summoned to “give an account for the printing of the Alcoran.” Nevertheless, the document eventually went to publication. Ross’s preface and an additional supplement added to his translation responded virulently to the Cromwellian regime’s fears concerning the Qur’an’s publication. In his preface, Ross responds to those who were “unwilling this should see the press,” suggesting that they were afraid that the publication of the Qur’an would lead many of its readers to convert to Islam. Pointedly, Ross argued that those of this persuasion had already “abandoned the Sun of the Gospel” and might indeed “wander as far into utter darkness”‘.

Dr Fiona McCallum reminds us, however, that even in those early centuries, Christian-Muslim engagement was not always theoretical. Eastern Christians were worthy dialogue partners with Muslim scholars in the Middle East, and many have since brought this complex heritage to Scotland and Britain more broadly. This can create its own complications within Christian-Muslim understanding in Britain, as Dr McCallum explained:

‘[Middle East Christians are] having to constantly explain who they are, that there are Christians in the Middle East, and it usually ends with [their British neighbours saying], “But I’m sure you’ll still fast at Ramadan”‘.

Academic staff and students in the University of Edinburgh gather at the School of Divinity for the launch of a taught masters in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations. Photo by Omar Anchassi.

As first an undergraduate student and now a doctoral graduate of Islamic studies in Scotland, Dr Josef Linnhoff reflected on the field’s evolution at the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. The journey that began in 2011 with the appointment of Prof Mona Siddiqui, as the first Muslim Chair in Islamic and Interreligious Studies, has continued to expand with other appointments.

While Dr Linnhoff’s own research focuses on the intra-Islamic polemic surrounding shirk, postgraduate students have since come from many other countries, including Tanzania and Ghana, to engage with scholarship in Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and return to continue the engagement in other contexts. As Dr Linnhoff noted:

”This has been another reason why I’ve wanted to stay at Edinburgh. We’re building something right now, and it would be ridiculous to leave now’.

As a result, the complex story of Christian-Muslim relations continues to unfold. This has included both ongoing scholarship between Islam and Scotland’s native, Reformed Christian tradition and more global initiatives such as ‘A Common Word’ from Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan. In response to the prince’s paper and work, Dr Joshua Ralston noted the importance of an evolved, contextually aware approach to Christian-Muslim Studies, both in Scotland and elsewhere:

‘If we’re going to have a deeper understanding between Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, secularists, and atheists, it isn’t going to come from papering over our differences or pretending they don’t matter, but in finding ways to go deeper into our particularity, but also allowing that particularity to crack open to our neighbour and to others in acts of religious learning’.