SASKATOON — The relationship between the Qur’an and the Bible was explored in the third session of a Christian Study of Islam series underway in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.
Scholar, author and Lutheran minister Dr. Roland E. Miller was guest speaker at the public lecture Nov. 3 at the Cathedral of the Holy Family, offering an overview of the function of each holy book.
Summarizing his topic, Miller said: “Two books, two different primary purposes, different perceptions, yet many points of contact, much to talk about, much to bring us together — for who in the world does not need guidance, and who in the world does not need salvation?”
In addition to presenting passages to show the primary purpose of the Qur’an (to offer God’s guidance) and the primary purpose of the Bible (to reveal God’s plan of salvation), Miller’s presentation also examined the Qur’anic understanding of Jesus. Imam Sheikh Ilyas Sidyot of the Islamic Association of Saskatchewan provided a response to the lecture to conclude the evening.
Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina introduced Miller as “one of the great teachers of my life” to some 500 assembled for the lecture. Another of Miller’s former students — Sister Phyllis Kapucinski, NDS — is a member of the organizing committee of the diocesan Foundations series, along with Rev. Bernard de Margerie and Rev. Colin Clay.
Born in Saskatchewan, Miller served for years as a missionary among Mappila Muslims in India. In 1976 he moved to Regina as professor of Islam and World Religions at Luther College, working with the late Rev. Isidore Gorski of Campion College to establish the Religious Studies Department at the University of Regina.
“To bring Muslims and Christians together to discuss fundamental issues is a very good idea indeed,” said Miller, pointing out that together the two faiths make up some 55 per cent of the world’s population.
“Surely it is plain that if Christian and Muslims are friends and mutually co-operative, the world would be a better place. In fact it might be said they have the fate of the world in their hands.”
For Muslims, he said, the Qur’an “is the guiding star for life in this world and it is the compass for the Muslim’s journey to the next world. The Qur’an is the tangible symbol of God’s reality, the exposition of his eternal will. . . . Because of its divine place in Muslim belief, it is unhesitatingly referred to as the ultimate and infallible authority in all of human affairs. It can safely be said that nothing is more important to Islam and to Muslims than the Qur’an.”
Christians have similar feelings about the Bible, Miller added, applauding the idea of a dialogical approach. “You know in this field almost everything depends on mutual trust,” he said, sharing stories about how he came to love his Muslim neighbours when serving in India.
It is not easy to compare any two books, Miller pointed out, questioning by what criteria the Qur’an and the Bible might be compared.
“The Qur’an is a monograph — that is, a single text given through a single person, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, over a period of only 22 years, coming from one cultural context. The Bible is made up of 66 booklets, given to a variety of authors over a period of 1,500 years, living in several different regions and cultural contexts.”
From a historic point of view, since the Bible is some 600 years older than the Qur’an, it might seem possible to examine how the Bible influenced the Qur’an, but this is a very limited approach, said Miller, as the first Arabic translation of the Bible did not appear until 200 years after the death of the Prophet.
“From a purely historic point of view, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had to receive his information orally from the few Jews and Christians who happened to be resident in Arabia, or from traders passing through Mecca and Medina, or through semi-Christianized tribes. It would be hard for a clear picture to emerge from that kind of source.”
Instead, Miller proposed examining what each sacred book says about its own primary function. “I call it Function Analysis. What is the Qur’an intended for? What is its purpose? What is the Bible intended for? What is its purpose?”
To answer those questions, Miller cited texts from the two books. “When it speaks about itself, there is no mystery in regard to the primary purpose of the Qur’an. Its self-description includes such phrases as sure knowledge, a reminder and a warning, a plain sign, and true guidance,” he said.
“Among its topics is a great double theme. On the one hand, the Qur’an emphasizes God’s unity and power, and on the other hand it emphasizes human surrender and obedience to the will of God. What links the two is divine guidance. From the Muslim point of view it is God’s infallible word. Its overriding function is to teach one how to surrender to Almighty God and how to lead a God-pleasing life of piety.”
As for the Bible, its overall theme is that human beings consistently fail to obey God, and that God in his mercy continually goes beyond guidance to save them. “Salvation is the Bible’s central theme, the golden thread that holds it together,” Miller asserted.
“The Bible is also the story of God’s Word at work, for God carries out his renewal plan and acts of salvation through his Word, his self-expression,” added Miller, pointing to the first words of John’s Gospel, which describes Jesus as the Word incarnate: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
The Bible’s testimony about God’s salvation began with the promises of the Old Testament about a saviour Messiah, and their fulfilment in the New Testament in the life of Jesus.
Miller also described the Qur’anic understanding of Jesus. “The Qur’an does not report the activity of Jesus as the saving Word of God. Rather, it looks at him through the lens of guidance.” He stressed the Muslim admiration of Jesus, who is esteemed as one of a small group of revered prophets: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Jesus is mentioned in 93 verses of the Qur’an.
“For many Muslims, Jesus is not only a humble prophet and teacher of love, but he is also a saint and a symbol of true piety.”
Qur’anic verses about Jesus centre on his birth and childhood, without much reference to his later ministry, said Miller, recounting the Qur’anic verses about the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary (Miryam), and the birth of Jesus.
According to the Qur’an, the message Jesus proclaimed was plain and simple: “Lo Allah! He is my Lord and your Lord, so worship him. This is the straight path.” Although his enemies put Jesus on a cross, God did not allow Jesus to die there, “but took him to himself.”
In responding to Miller’s lecture, the Saskatoon imam described Miller’s lecture as “very heart-touching and thought-provoking.”
Imam Sheikh Ilyas Sidyot shared stories from the life of the Prophet Muhammad that show peaceful co-operation and care between Christian and Muslim communities, and quoted a verse from Chapter 5 of the Qur’an about the closeness of Christians to Muslims. The imam noted that Muslims hold that all of the previous books and previous prophets (including those in the Bible) were sent by God for the guidance of humanity.
“We should always try to understand, read, dialogue, (have) questions and answers, further our education. Education is always power and will always bring us together,” said the imam. “I do not want you to become Muslim, or to make me Christian. Let us sit together, be strong in your faith, but at the same time let us try to understand.”