Book Review: ‘Allah’ by Miroslav Volf
A Christian Response
HarperOne: 336 pp., $25.99
“Allah” means “God.” Literally.
For some, this Arabic-to-English translation is where the comparison ends. For Miroslav Volf, an Episcopalian professor of theology at Yale’s Divinity School, it is a direct route over the “chasm of misunderstanding” and hatred that has separated Christians and Muslims for centuries. In other words, then, the word “Allah” also means peace. In his thought-provoking new book, “Allah: A Christian Response,” Volf attempts to explain how the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are, essentially, one and the same.
Volf’s book is a work of political theology, an inquiry into “the identity and character of God.” In Volf’s view, recognizing a deity in common “puts pressure on those who pray” to stop fighting and finally agree. Though he argues that implicit in both religions is the edict to love one’s neighbor, the author must first tackle knottier problems — the Trinity, for instance, and how to square it with the indivisibility of Allah. Also what “neighbor” means, what dignity is, when to be a witness for one’s faith and when not to cross sacred lines. (For the last one, he cites a 2006 controversy over inflammatory Danish cartoons that depicted the prophet Muhammad lighting a bomb.)
Volf makes clear that, to him, violent extremists count neither as truly Christian nor truly Muslim. He defines the faiths as believing chiefly “that God is one, creator, and different from the world,” and contends that his book’s topic is not souls but rather politics — as in the Greek “politika” for “public matters.” While many self-identified Christians and Muslims would perhaps take issue with Volf’s argument, his project is not unprecedented.
Meticulously researched, Volf’s book revisits such historical moments as the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the hope of Pope Pius II for a crusade, and the 1458 letter in which Pius requests, instead, a dialogue with the Ottoman sultan. Volf’s work is in a conversation with early peace talkers such as Nicholas of Cusa, who, disagreeing with the pope’s estimation of Islam as a “falsehood maintained by the sword,” penned a treatise called “On the Harmonious Peace of Religions” (in Latin, “De pace fidei”). Leafing through documents from the Protestant Reformation, Volf finds in Martin Luther a shared core belief about Muslims — but also an “uncharitable tone”; he saw them, Volf writes, in the same way that he saw the Greeks, as “enlightened heathens.” Volf gently chides Luther for his “rhetorical bluster” and offers, as a better attempt at bridge-building, Lincoln’s second inaugural address during the Civil War in which he quoted the New Testament, imploring the nation, “let us not judge, that we not be judged.”
In the end, Volf’s excavations reveal a kind of political-theological game of Jenga that has yet to be solved. And that is precisely why his work is so important.
But who is Volf’s audience?
If there is an overarching problem with “Allah: A Christian Response,” this is it. Volf openly admits that he is not writing for Muslims, though “they are welcome,” he says, to “look over his shoulder.” And neither to Jews, whose set of concerns, he knows, could fill another book. Nor to Buddhists, nihilists or agnostics. He is talking, he says, “to Christians” from “the proper Christian stance.”
But the author isn’t preaching to the choir exactly. Whatever love and goodwill he extends to Muslims or models he provides for Christendom, Volf writes from the fixed perspective of a “representative” Christian. From this perch he is addressing not politika then, but the “divine commander” in whom he trusts, the “Master of the Universe,” a sovereign God.
Or — in layman’s terms — an audience of one.
Cline is a senior editor at the forthcoming Los Angeles Review of Books.
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