Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, Chryssides, George, & Hasan, Usama, People of the Book: An Interfaith Dialogue About How Jews, Christians and Muslims Understand Their Sacred Scriptures, London | Philadelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019. ISBN 978–1–78592–104–9.
Interfaith dialogue is a platform for the promotion of mutual respect, understanding, and friendship among people who hold different, at times starkly divergent, views and beliefs. People of the Book documents a refreshingly frank and absorbing trialogue between three learned clergymen-academics from the Abrahamic faiths, which seamlessly links scriptures, religio-political history and the contemporary world.
Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok is a fully trained Jewish rabbi (Reform Judaism) who, after several years of practical experience as a serving rabbi in different parts of the world, turned to the academic life; he is now Emeritus Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales. Dr. Chryssides likewise moved from pursuing a career in the Church to the academic world, teaching at different tertiary institutions, where he nonetheless continued in the field of religious studies, as a practising Christian. He moved also from being a member of the Church of Scotland to joining the Church of England. Shaykh Dr Usama Hasan trained as an imam, studying in the Salafi tradition, and continues to practise as an imam. He too has a distinguished academic career, in the sciences. His journey has led him into working to interpret Islam in a progressive mode which embraces positive reform without compromising the faith.
The twenty-four chapters of the book are divided into five broad categories which tackle questions about scriptural history and questions about what scriptures say regarding: God; guidance for life; social and political issues; and hope. In the course of their conversations, the authors offer their scholarly and personal views on a broad range of subjects ranging from interpretation, creation, God’s presence in the world, law, authority, sin, social mores and religious rites, social justice, war and persecution, suffering, prophecy, and land, to life-after-death. In each chapter, each author contributes two sections of 500–600 words, thus providing six inter-woven and reactive pieces per chapter.
As believing scholars and practitioners, the authors engage with the subjects and each other with erudition and sincerity. They have not shied away from thorny issues but addressed them boldly and honestly, for which they are to be thanked. In their discussions, the authors bring the critical thinking and debates of historical and contemporary scholars and clerics to the non-specialist in an accessible manner. There are numerous quotations from, and references to, the scriptures, scholarly texts, and traditions of learning in each religion. The personal views provided by the authors, as well as the diverse interpretations and opinions cited from the heritage of each faith, are so many windows into the lived traditions of our religions. Readers from each faith group will learn new things, not just about the other religions but also about their own religious heritage. Just as surely, those outside of the interfaith arena, who are seeking to understand religious worldviews among their constituencies or in the wider global environment, will benefit from the detailed and thought-provoking content of this work.
The conversational format of the book is one of its strengths. This personal style allows the reader — be they from within the three faiths or from outside of religion — to connect with each of the authors on different points that might particularly resonate with the reader. Often enough, the reader will be nodding in agreement with points of view expressed from another faith and may be surprised at just how exceedingly familiar we are despite our differences. But by no means is this a ‘we-all-agree-on-everything’ conversation. The individual authors respond at times with a sharp cut and thrust, at other times with delightful dry humour. Disagreeing not infrequently, they point out highly controversial issues and challenge each other and the cited views among the different faith groups. But they do so with palpable mutual respect.
There are numerous interfaith conversations taking place across the country, indeed across the globe, among scholars, religious ministers, and people of all walks. As the authors point out in their Introduction, initially interfaith engagement tended to focus on similarities ‘however, harmonious co-existence does not consist of finding similarities … it involves locating differences, but nonetheless discovering that our differences are not barriers to living and working together’ (p.18).
Currently, there is a noticeable trend in interfaith for a staunch airing and declaring of contrasts, aiming for a recognition of the other based on accepting clear differences. Indeed, there is no need to water down our self-evident distinctions — positive pluralism must recognise variances, including those within our own faith communities. At the same time, there is every need not to neglect (again) what we do share, not least our belief in divinity (however we conceive of it) and our common humanity. We share the hope of living a life that conforms to our image of the divine, and consequently also respects the human being and all creation; a life of positive participation in our communities and countries; of being informed, understanding and thoughtful neighbours and sound citizens; of helping to promote social and economic justice; of behaving humanely and responsibly towards all creatures of our world and towards the earth itself. The rich and fascinating People of the Book is an excellent contribution towards such candid and hope-filled interfaith discussions.
This book review was originally published in The Pen on Medium. Farhana Mayer is a former lecturer at SOAS University of London (in Sufism), and at the London Institute of Ismaili Studies (in Qur’anic Studies, Sufism and the Shari`ah) where she also headed the Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities. She has been involved in interfaith and Muslim interdenominational engagement for several years. Farhana is currently engaged in doctoral research on Muslim scriptural hermeneutics at the University of Oxford. It is anticipated this research, which is focussed on the Qur’anic concept of the nature of God and humans, could contribute positively to concepts of Muslim civics, as well as to the relationship between shari`ah-based laws and practices, on the one hand, and universal human rights, on the other. Her publications include: Spiritual Gems: The Mystical Qur’an Commentary Ascribed to Ja`far al-Sadiq (Fons Vitae); Anthology of Qur’anic Commentaries: On the Nature of the Divine (OUP).