Among the Believers. Insights for dialogue

It is generally held that the Qur'an teaches that Judaism and Christianity must submit to Islam. Here a Christian scholar, Michel Cuypers, tells James Roberts of an alternative reading which could bring new mutual respect between the three Abrahamic faiths.

Having difficulty finding words for certain atrocities, we resort to numbers: 9/11,3/11,7/7, for the terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid and London, for instance. The fact that those responsible quote from the Qur'an when explaining their actions and talk as if the crimes they commit are somehow pleasing to God, means that the Islamic religion is associated with horrific and irrational violence in the popular, non-Muslim imagination.

It also means that while the murderers themselves might have placed themselves beyond the reach of words and reason - with only numbers describing what they have done - dialogue with the non-fundamentalist Islamic world has taken on a new urgency.

At Heythrop College in London last week, Michel Cuypers, a Catholic scholar originally from Belgium but now based at the prestigious Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies (Ideo) in Cairo offered a way of interpreting the Qur'an that is not only convincing and entirely respectable in terms of Islamic scholarship, but also pulls the rug from under those who have used and continue to use a rhetoric of violent martyrdom, extracted from the Qur'an, to commit mass murder.

At Regensburg in 2006, the Pope argued that religion was a comfortable bedmate of reason, but not of violence, and quoted from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II who in 1391 suggested that Islam and violence were inseparable. Some Catholics took the Pope to task and Muslims protested - sometimes violently - but a more vigorous Catholic-Muslim dialogue was set in train. So how should a Catholic engage with Muslims? Guided by our gospel faith, we should love Muslims as our neighbours, but what does this mean in practice?

The life of Michel Cuypers, who has spent most of his adult years in the Muslim world, offers an answer to this question on both a personal and an intellectual level. With regard to the latter, he has through his scholarly work - first in Iran, then in Egypt - found

a way of reading the Qur'an that could change the way Islam views Judaism and Christianity. The fact that contemporary Muslim scholars have found his ideas persuasive means that his work could shift the foundations of inter-religious dialogue, and provide intellectual ammunition for those who wish to undermine the advocates of violence.

I talked to Br Michel while he was in London to attend an international conference of bishops, academics and scholars on the forthcoming Middle East Synod, to be held at the Vatican in October. He is gentle, with no discernible self-importance, but with a quiet, passionate awareness of the importance of his work I wondered whether he would have made such groundbreaking discoveries about the Qur'an if he had not been blessed with, or learned, a humility that is liberating for the imagination as well as the personality.

Born in Ghent to a French Algerian mother, he learned from her an enthusiasm for Charles de Foucauld, the priest and teacher beatified in 2005, who lived among the Tuareg in the Algerian Sahara until he was murdered in 1916. Cuypers joined the Foucauld-inspired Little Brothers of Jesus at the age of 17, and the broad path of his life was decided. The specific details, however, could hardly have been imagined.

The charism of the order includes living among the poor and, given the countries where the order is most active, these people are usually non-Christian. At the age of 23, in the mid-1960s, Br Michel was invited by the order to go to care for Iranian lepers in Tabriz. He had the option of refusing, but did not.

"I just thought, 'why not? I am ready'," he told me. He worked as a nurse, dressing and cleaning skin lesions and diseased hands and feet. In this new culture and "in the special milieu of poor and ill people", he was "happy from the very beginning". Iranian culture is "very different from what we see in the media today", he said, "rich and dedicated".

After two years he moved back to Europe, to pursue academic work in Paris, where he became familiar with structuralist literary theories. But by 1977 Iran had "called him back" and he took up Persian literary studies at the University of Tehran. If. however, he had been expecting a life among dreaming minarets, the tide of history had other ideas. "I was in the heart of the [Islamic] revolution at the university," he said. He somehow managed to continue his studies, in the middle of what was a "catastrophe" for his university, and was awarded a doctorate in Persian literature in 1983. He survived for a time working for the university press, but before the decade was out he had been expelled in a diplomatic tit-for-tat between Iran and Belgium.

Cuypers then moved to Cairo, from the Persian world to the Arab one. and joined Ideo. He has devoted the major part of the intervening years to studying the Qur'an. His latest book, The Banquet: a reading of the fifth sura of the Qur'an published in French in 2007 and by Convivium Press in English in 2009, was given the "World Prize for the Book of the Year" by the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in 2009, which described it as "one of the best new works in the field of Islamic studies".

Clearly under the influence of his earlier encounters with structuralism, he points out that a "verse-by-verse reading of the Qur'an, that is linear and atomistic without considering the context", is a flawed reading. This approach has been embraced by Islam's jurists and according to Cuypers allows for interpretation "any which way". And when verses are found that contradict one another, the principle of abrogation is introduced. According to this idea, later verses abrogate earlier ones that they contradict. This also means in practice that harsher verses tend to abrogate the earlier, more tolerant ones.

Cuypers rejects the principle of abrogation outright, arguing instead that the weightier verses are discovered through structural analysis, not through their sequential position. Symmetrical structures can be discovered in the Qur'an - he mentions parallel and mirror structures - that help interpretation through looking at verses in context rather than in isolation. But the most important structural context for his purposes is the typically Semitic one of the concentric ring.

In the definitive sura five, the subject of his recent book, Cuypers finds verses that give guidance on relations with Jews and Christians. There is both an explanation of the existence of other religions; and there is a pronouncement on the status, in terms of salvation, of adherents of the Jewish and Christian faiths. And the story is very different from the commonly held notion that these people should simply be made to "submit" to Islam.

In verse 48. we read "For each of you [the different religions], we have decreed laws and different rites. Had God willed, he could have made you one congregation. But he thus puts you to the test through the revelations he has given each of you. You shall surpass yourselves in good works. To God is your final destiny, all of you, then he will inform you of everything you had disputed."

So, the fact of different religions is God's will; they exist for him to test us; and he expects us all to compete in good works.

A little later, in verse 69, we are told: "Surely, those who believe, those who are Jewish ... and the Christians; any of them who believe in God and believe in the Last Day, and lead a righteous life, have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve." So Christians and Jews are not damned but saved. And there is no obligation to force them into "submission".

"I propose this can give the basis for a kind of Qur'anic theology of religions," Cuypers told me. "The text may not be about love per se, but it is about having respect for the other, and says that these people are saved, and there is an insistence on competing in good deeds."

Other parts of the Qur'an contradict this tolerant view, but Cuypers' response is clear: these particular verses are positioned in the narrative, at the centre of a "ring", with historical passages before and after. These central passages have a different literary quality, exhibiting moral and wise pronouncements, distinct from the passages of the outer "circle", for which they are a guide to interpretation.

But a central position in a "ring" structure also means that a verse located here carries a universal weight that does not pertain to all the verses in the Qur'an. "I believe that the more violent, intolerant, polemical verses are circumstantial verses," Cuypers told me, "and probably not central but peripheral."

"So is the Christian God, the God of love, compatible with the Qur'an?" I asked."! do not pretend that the rule of love is as clear in the Qur'an as in the Gospel," Cuypers replied. "But even if there are a few verses which open such a way, we must exploit these verses."

The proceedings of "Synod for the Middle East: Catholic Theological and Ecclesial Perspectives" at the Centre for Eastern Christianity, Heythrop College, University of London, will be published in September.

With the kind permission of THE TABLET 19 June 2010