I have been prevailed upon to contribute a blog during my year as President of IQSA. Never having written one before, and being innocent of things like Twitter and Facebook, I have agreed to do so uneasily. I don’t know how regularly I’ll be able to keep it up, but here goes:
Last Sunday the BBC ran a story about a controversy centring on the reading of verses from Surat Maryam during an Epiphany service at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-38591559). Apparently the verses were read in Arabic by a student who had been invited to do so in the interests of inter-faith relations.
According to the BBC report, this caused criticism of the Cathedral authorities, and the Primus of the Church, David Chillingworth, Bishop of St. Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane, issued a statement in which he said, “… the Scottish Episcopal Church is deeply distressed at the widespread offence which has been caused. We also deeply regret the widespread abuse which has been received by the Cathedral community”.
According to the BBC report, “St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral has been criticised because the verses contradict Christian teaching about Jesus.” Helpfully, it also informs readers that “The chapter tells the story of the birth of Christ to the virgin Mary, and includes the Islamic teaching that Jesus is not the son of God and should not be worshipped, which has provoked criticism from some Anglicans”.
It is difficult to know what happened. One assumes the verses were translated. Presumably they began at Q 19: 16, and I would have thought that from there until verse 34 (where it could have ended neatly) there was little or nothing to offend average Christian sensibilities, although the hearers would have found some details strange. Only at verse 35 is it stated that “it is not for God to take on/adopt a son”. If that was included, then it might be thought discourteous and inappropriate for the Christian setting.
Without knowing more about the precise circumstances, though, I wonder if the offence was simply the reading of the Qur’an in a church. Does anyone know more?
-Gerald Hawting, IQSA President 2017 (SOAS University of London)
© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.
The report in ChristianToday (http://www.christiantoday.com/article/archbishop.of.canterbury.urged.to.discipline.cathedral.over.koran.reading/103816.htm) said that the recitation included verse 35, which happened to go beyond the passage translated in the order of service. Apparently the reciter went beyond the agreed brief. It does seem rather peculiar to be reciting verse 35 on the Feast of the Epiphany, a festival which celebrates the adoration (i.e. physical worship) of the infant Jesus by the Magi reported in Matthew’s gospel. Even the preceding verses, although not so ‘in-your-face’ in opposition to Christian doctrine as verse 35, present what is essentially a competing version of the birth of Jesus to that of the gospels: Mary, the sister of Aaron, gives birth alone, in a desolate place, to Jesus, the human prophet and servant of God. In any case the rejection of the deity of Christ in the Qur’an is not simply the message of a few isolated verses — it is surely apiece with the Qur’an’s overall message about the nature of God and of messengers or prophets. On these grounds alone, even without verse 35, there might have been cause for the cathedral authorities to think twice before seeking to incorporate Qur’anic recitation in a Christian service, let alone a celebration of the manifestation of Jesus as God to the gentiles, symbolized by the bowing down of the Magi before the one whom Matthew presents to his readers as the Son of God. This was a case theological naivety.