Report on Forensic Scriptures Conference

Riverside Church, New York
May 15 -7, 2009

What the Qur’an reveals about the Bible or How we can know each other.

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 GodAssociate professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University; Hussein Rashid, Professor at Hofstra University and founder of; 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 experience.

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 relatively selfish.

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. In talking with David, though, I discovered that he always had a different take on things. Below, I offer a few notes that struck me in particular. I will offer a comment on them, and then David will offer his contrasting view.
The first comment I offer comes from Dr. Ayoub, who is one of the foremost scholars on Islam. Some of his statements really touched me. Among the many things he said, his comment that “Scriptures are more than documents” I thought profound. “They are sacred grounds and sacred sounds and we would do well to take off our shoes and respect that hallowed ground. Today it seems we have lost that humility and respect for the sound of the sacred word.”

Raheel: Given that our 2009 SnowStar Conference concerned sound mapping and scripture, this comment struck me because each tradition tends to be ‘text’ centred. But sound is just as important and it gets us beyond ‘text’ into the realm of mystery and holiness. Sometimes what the text actually says is irrelevant to the experience of hearing its poetry and its sound.

David: While I appreciate Raheel’s reminder of the SnowStar Conference and the important new study of “sound mapping,” I still had some difficulties with Dr. Ayoub’s uncritical assumptions. What makes religion dangerous is precisely the idea that it comes from God and, therefore, is beyond human hands. In fact, human beings create religion; religion comes from us, even when we claim it is “revealed.” Religion to be sure is an art form and a way to represent and celebrate the mystery of life. But I get worried when we make it “sacred” and set it outside basic human experience. I think the division between the sacred and the profane needs to be re-thought and perhaps even cancelled.

Another comment that seemed significant was “Ahsan is to worship God as though you see Him for if you do not see Him, He sees you.”

Raheel: I felt touched by this comment because I understand my life to be unfolding in the ‘vision’ of God. That is, God to me is the inter-connection of all things as well as the One who beholds all things as the creation. Since I am part of the creation and part of the beloved of God, it feels significant to me to be held in God’s vision.

David: Raheel has such a great way to put things that I hate disagreeing with her. I can understand the idea of God as inter-connection and even as the energy or inspiration (breath) of all things. However, the comment above reminded me how we make God compatible with Santa Claus (he sees you when you’re sleeping…). I think that the monotheistic traditions tend to make God into a “somebody” who does things that human beings can do, only writ large. I can look at a piece of pottery, for example, and think, “What a wonderful creation.” The pottery becomes in my vision a value. This is basically what monotheism does with the idea of God: it projects the divine into the sky as an imaginary eye that pronounces “value” upon (that is, ‘evaluates’) world events. The trouble is values clash, justify intolerance, and erase from vision our responsibility for the world.

A third comment that rang true for me was “Justice means the middle way – a balance even in worship”

Raheel: This comment was especially significant for me as a woman who has struggled to raise women’s voices in Islam and the right of women to lead Islamic prayers. Justice is often talked about as if it was only relevant to the world outside the Mosque, Synagogue, or Church. But justice is even more important inside religion, for no tradition can speak out for justice if, inside the institution, justice is not practiced. All three monotheistic traditions have shared in a poverty of justice in the history of events inside their walls.

David: On this comment I find it easy to agree with Raheel. Even though I am “post-theistic” (more or less and whatever that means) I still feel religion can play an important role in human life and society. One thing religion is able to do is provide a critical point of reference to human affairs. Even though I say that religion is a human creation, the ideals associated with religion (perfect justice, love, acceptance, peace, etc.) can be used in dialectical relation to what people or governments or religious institutions actually do. When a religious tradition denies leadership roles to women, the religious ideal of justice can work in powerful ways to critique the prejudicial nature of that judgement. In other words, religion can have an authoritative prophetic or critical presence in society due to the history of religion in human affairs. The trouble is that religions more often prefer the apologetic function (defending their beliefs and prejudices) to the prophetic function (demanding justice in the world).

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 discussions:

  • Despite similarities, learn to appreciate the distinct features of an individual religion. These are what make the religion what it is.
  • Inter-faith 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 judgement.
  • Just as 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.
  • The Qur’an 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.
  • I heard 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 door.”
  • I noted how often it was emphasized that women need to be an essential part of all dialogue.
  • The 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.
  • A key 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.
  • Dr. 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.
  • Dr. 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.

There were students, scholars and skeptics present at this conference and the end result was a networking of different traditions that will keep the momentum of mutual encounter going. For me personally, this conference opened the doors to many thoughts and ideas, which will be studied further. I understood even more profoundly that we are created from the same essence and are all an extension of the same light.