The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam
by Sidney H. Griffith
(Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2008), 236 pp.

Reviewed by Colin D. Pearce, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of South Carolina Beaufort

Sidney H. Griffith describes this book as “a general introduction” to the study of “Christian intellectual life in the caliphate.” Griffith’s treatment of the Christian apologetic literature of this period seeks to be the comprehensive product of twenty-five years of research and is a testament to his scholarly industry. He explains that “[t]he title of the work, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque, is meant to evoke both the overshadowing effects, as well as the protective shade, afforded by the shadow cast by the mosque over all other institutions in the Islamic world.”

According to Griffith we live in “the multicultural world of the twenty-first century” and in a time “when Muslim/Christian relations are becoming daily more important worldwide.” Thus “the experience of the Christians of the Orient who have lived with Muslims for centuries” has become “immediately relevant for those of us in the West who would be in dialogue with Muslims today.” What is at stake here is “the general recognition of the fact there is indeed an ‘Islamo-Christian heritage.'”

Griffith explains that under early Islam Christians and Jews could be “victims of violence and massacre” and at various times found themselves “publicly marked off from Muslims by a number of social disabilities, sometimes including even a distinctive attire and distinguishing badges they were required to wear.” According to Griffith the long term effect of the earlier phase of Islamic-Christian relations has been that “for a millennium and more” Muslims and Christians have been embittered “against each other.” Indeed “efforts at religious rapprochement (have been) almost unthinkable for most of this period” while the “combination of religious animosity, cultural disdain, and military hostility…produced on both sides a large literature of mutual rejection.” Closer to our time Griffith notes that one need only mention “recent flash points” such as Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, Nigeria, Algeria, East Timor, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan to make the case that “wherever Christians have lived in close association with a Muslim majority …inter-communal hostilities have abounded, often with attendant violence.”

But for all this Griffith thinks that with contributions from Christians who have had missionary experience in the Muslim world and with an ecumenical spirit abroad in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities now could be the “time for Westerners to…learn from the experience of the Christians who have lived in the world of Islam for centuries.” Nevertheless, Griffith admits that the thinkers he discusses such as Theodore Abu Qurrah (ca.755-ca.830), Ammar al Basri ( Hunayn ibn Ishaq (808-973), and Yahya ibn Adi (893-974) might be “too polemical” for “today’s scholars” to “master them.”

The Arabic-speaking Christian apologists are at a distance from “modern theologians who search the Qu’ran for mutually agreeable points of common faith from which to promote inter-religious dialogue with Muslims.” We are prompted to wonder whether the early Christianity of the Islamic world would not be just as much a threat to modern “liberalized” Christianity as Islam either then or now.

Given the history recounted by Griffith it is obvious that if the two faiths wish to approach one another in a spirit of tolerance they both need to be “watered down.” But the question in the West has for some time been whether Christianity has not in fact already been so “watered down” that as a practical matter it has ceased to exist. We need only think of the names of Cardinal Newman, Karl Barth and Friedrich “God is dead” Nietzsche to be reminded of this question. One might say that Griffith’s book itself provides evidence of Christianity’s undergoing a “watering down” in that it seeks to be scrupulously “non-judgmental” on Islam’s fundamental differences with Christianity and never to give the slightest hint that Islam’s tenets could be offensive to contemporary Christians. Griffith simply explains that the issues which divided Christianity and Islam in the past included the Incarnation [the Qu’ran denies the divinity of Christ in l’Imran 3:59-61)], the Abrahamic legacy, the doctrine of the Trinity, the non-prophetic status of Muhammud, and the non-standing of the Qu’ran as a revelatory scripture. Griffith notes, “[v]irtually every Christian theological or apologetic work written in Syriac or Arabic in the early Islamic period include a defense of these doctrines.”

But whatever their doctrinal opposition Griffith talks in terms of an “underlying sibling relationship” existing between Christianity and Islam. What this must mean is that because of their mutual commitment to monotheistic revelation the two faiths have more in common with each other than either of them could have with say Hinduism or Buddhism which are not revealed religions at all. Griffith makes no mention of Sigmund Freud’s notion of “the narcissism of minor difference” for its relevance to such an inter-religious situation.

But whatever the case here Griffith shows no interest in the “sibling relationship” between Christianity and liberalism. He is not interested in the historical process by which the kind Christianity which existed in both the Islamic and Western worlds in the Middle Ages has for the most part disappeared in the modern West. Griffith gives no time to “secularization” or liberal rationalism as an independent and self-subsisting and tradition. This is because the place occupied by the phrase “civil and religious liberty” in the work of thinkers like Locke, Hume, Smith, Jefferson, Mill and the founders of the United States Constitution is taken by the term “comparative theology” in Griffith’s thought.

Echoing the language of Samuel P. Huntington, Griffith entertains the hope that today “the historical clash of theologies between Islam, Christianity and Judaism (might turn) into an exercise in comparative theology which will hopefully be more successful in promoting a mutually tolerant inter-religious dialogue than has proved possible heretofore.” Griffith understands that such a recognition will for the most part be impossible in the Muslim world because “unfortunately” religious freedom is now “widely unavailable in Islamic countries.” But it is potentially possible in the West at least because “the right to religious freedom for all” has long been recognized in regions where Christianity once reigned supreme. In fact, we today in the West have become used to talk of “a post-Christian society” at least since Nietzsche’s comment that “There was only one Christian and he died on the cross” if not before. But when speaking of Muslim society either in its historical sphere from Mauritania to the Philippines or in reference to the Muslim communities in the West do we ever talk in terms of a “post-Muslim” future? Would movement in the direction of a “post-post-Christian society,” which is to say a society less concerned with emancipating itself from its traditional Christian legacy, be helpful for such talk to emerge?