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The Tablet Interview

Among
the believers
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

H
aving difficulty finding words for a way of reading the Qur’an that could to pursue academic work in Paris, where he
certain atrocities, we resort to change the way Islam views Judaism and became familiar with structuralist literary
numbers: 9/11, 3/11, 7/7, for the ter- Christianity. The fact that contemporary theories. But by 1977 Iran had “called him back”
rorist attacks in New York, Madrid Muslim scholars have found his ideas per- and he took up Persian literary studies at the
and London, for instance. The fact that those suasive means that his work could shift the University of Tehran. If, however, he had been
responsible quote from the Qur’an when foundations of inter-religious dialogue, and expecting a life among dreaming minarets, the
explaining their actions and talk as if the crimes provide intellectual ammunition for those who tide of history had other ideas. “I was in the
they commit are somehow pleasing to God, wish to undermine the advocates of violence. heart of the [Islamic] revolution at the uni-
means that the Islamic religion is associated I talked to Br Michel while he was in London versity,” he said. He somehow managed to
with horrific and irrational violence in the to attend an international conference of continue his studies, in the middle of what was
popular, non-Muslim imagination. bishops, academics and scholars on the forth- a “catastrophe” for his university, and was
It also means that while the murderers them- coming Middle East Synod, to be held at the awarded a doctorate in Persian literature in
selves might have placed themselves beyond Vatican in October. He is gentle, with no dis- 1983. He survived for a time working for the
the reach of words and reason – with only num- cernible self-importance, but with a quiet, university press, but before the decade was out
bers describing what they have done – passionate awareness of the importance of his he had been expelled in a diplomatic tit-for-
dialogue with the non-fundamentalist Islamic work. I wondered whether he would have made tat between Iran and Belgium.
world has taken on a new urgency. such groundbreaking discoveries about the Cuypers then moved to Cairo, from the
At Heythrop College in London last week, Qur’an if he had not been blessed with, or Persian world to the Arab one, and joined Ideo.
Michel Cuypers, a Catholic scholar originally learned, a humility that is liberating for the He has devoted the major part of the inter-
from Belgium but now based at the prestigious imagination as well as the personality. vening years to studying the Qur’an. His latest
Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies Born in Ghent to a French Algerian mother, book, The Banquet: a reading of the fifth sura
(Ideo) in Cairo offered a way of interpreting he learned from her an enthusiasm for of the Qur’an published in French in 2007 and
the Qur’an that is not only convincing and Charles de Foucauld, the priest and teacher by Convivium Press in English in 2009, was
entirely respectable in terms of Islamic schol- beatified in 2005, who lived among the given the “World Prize for the Book of the Year”
arship, but also pulls the rug from under those Tuareg in the Algerian Sahara until he was by the Iranian Ministry of Culture and
who have used and continue to use a rheto- murdered in 1916. Cuypers joined the Islamic Guidance in 2009, which described
ric of violent martyrdom, extracted from the Foucauld-inspired Little Brothers of Jesus at it as “one of the best new works in the field
Qur’an, to commit mass murder. the age of 17, and the broad path of his life of Islamic studies”.
At Regensburg in 2006, the Pope argued was decided. The specific details, however, Clearly under the influence of his earlier
that religion was a comfortable bedmate of could hardly have been imagined. encounters with structuralism, he points out
reason, but not of violence, and quoted from The charism of the order includes living that a “verse-by-verse reading of the Qur’an,
the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II who in 1391 among the poor and, given the countries where that is linear and atomistic without consid-
suggested that Islam and violence were insep- the order is most active, these people are usu- ering the context”, is a flawed reading. This
arable. Some Catholics took the Pope to task ally non-Christian. At the age of 23, in the approach has been embraced by Islam’s
and Muslims protested – sometimes violently mid-1960s, Br Michel was invited by the order jurists and according to Cuypers allows for
– but a more vigorous Catholic-Muslim dia- to go to care for Iranian lepers in Tabriz. He interpretation “any which way”. And when
logue was set in train. So how should a Catholic had the option of refusing, but did not. verses are found that contradict one another,
engage with Muslims? Guided by our gospel “I just thought, ‘why not? I am ready’,” he the principle of abrogation is introduced.
faith, we should love Muslims as our neigh- told me. He worked as a nurse, dressing and According to this idea, later verses abrogate
bours, but what does this mean in practice? cleaning skin lesions and diseased hands and earlier ones that they contradict. This also
The life of Michel Cuypers, who has spent feet. In this new culture and “in the special means in practice that harsher verses tend to
most of his adult years in the Muslim world, milieu of poor and ill people”, he was “happy abrogate the earlier, more tolerant ones.
offers an answer to this question on both a from the very beginning”. Iranian culture is Cuypers rejects the principle of abrogation
personal and an intellectual level. With “very different from what we see in the outright, arguing instead that the weightier
regard to the latter, he has through his schol- media today”, he said, “rich and dedicated”. verses are discovered through structural
arly work – first in Iran, then in Egypt – found After two years he moved back to Europe, analysis, not through their sequential position.

10 | THE TABLET | 19 June 2010


Symmetrical structures can be discovered in
the Qur’an – he mentions parallel and mir- cafod.org.uk/connect2
ror 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 Ever wondered how people
cope with severe drought?
Semitic one of the concentric ring.
In the definitive sura five, the subject of his
recent book, Cuypers finds verses that give guid-
ance on relations with Jews and Christians. Or the constant threat of losing
There is both an explanation of the existence
of other religions; and there is a pronounce- their homes?
ment on the status, in terms of salvation, of
adherents of the Jewish and Christian faiths.
And the story is very different from the com- WWe’ve all seen the television
monly held notion that these people should nnews stories – technology is
simply be made to “submit” to Islam.
bbringing the world closer. But

I
n verse 48, we read “For each of you [the wwhat happens when the cameras
different religions], we have decreed laws lleave? Find out how Savoeun
and different rites. Had God willed, he
could have made you one congregation. ffrom Cambodia, who lost her
But he thus puts you to the test through the hhome, is now setting up her own
th
Annie Bungero

revelations he has given each of you. You shall bbusiness. Or meet Ato Alemayo,
surpass yourselves in good works. To God is
your final destiny, all of you, then he will inform nd her fam
ily, ffrom Ethiopia, who is striving to
Saveoun a
you of everything you had disputed.” Ca m bo di a mmake sure that severe drought
So, the fact of different religions is God’s will;
doesn’t destroy his way of life.
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 Connect2 is your chance to get
in God and believe in the Last Day, and lead behind the headlines and hear
a righteous life, have nothing to fear, nor will from ordinary people across the e
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“I propose this can give the basis for a kind
can help them change their
Mulu

of Qur’anic theology of religions,” Cuypers told


Atakliti

me. “The text may not be about love per se, lives for the better.
but it is about having respect for the other, Woize
and says that these people are saved, and there ro Ma
Alema nn
yo, Et a and Ato
is an insistence on competing in good deeds.” hiopia

connect2:
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 his- El Salvador
torical passages before and after. These central Ethiopia
passages have a different literary quality,
Bangladesh
exhibiting moral and wise pronouncements, Brazil
distinct from the passages of the outer “cir- Cambodia
cle”, for which they are a guide to interpretation. Rwanda
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.“I do not Join the journey. Be inspired…
pretend that the rule of love is as clear in the

Join connect2
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.”
To sign up visit cafod.org.uk/connect2 and contact
■ The proceedings of “Synod for the Middle your local CAFOD diocesan office for more information.
East: Catholic Theological and Ecclesial Connect2. Join the journey. Be inspired.
R28766
Perspectives” at the Centre for Eastern
Christianity, Heythrop College, University of Registered charity no. 285776
London, will be published in September.

19 June 2010 | THE TABLET | 11