RELIGION is a tricky subject for scholarship. Even the most professional academic is bound to have personal feelings about the faith under scrutiny. Some see this as cause for concern. Indeed Reza Aslan, one of America’s best-known writers on religion, recently came under fire for his new book about Jesus (“Zealot”, reviewed in the July 27th issue of The Economist). Because he is a Muslim who once embraced Christianity and then dropped it, Lauren Green of Fox News accused him of writing with a “clear bias”. No, Mr Aslan replied, he was writing as a scholar. His response was articulate and dignified, and the interview has helped sell quite a few books, but it will hardly sway those who believe Mr Aslan is writing with a Muslim agenda.
Mona Siddiqui, a professor at Edinburgh University’s school of divinity, makes no secret of the various strains of thought that inform her study of Christians, Muslims and Jesus. Parts of her book are rigorously academic and arcane, other parts are very personal. Unlike Mr Aslan, she does not confine her meditations on her own faith to an introduction. Rather, she ambitiously weaves her personal and scholarly views throughout.
She presents certain basic facts: Muslims revere Jesus as a uniquely inspired prophet who was born of the Virgin Mary, ascended to heaven and will come again. Yet Muslims cannot accept that Jesus was the son of God. This, they believe, reflects a flawed view of both Jesus and God. As Ms Siddiqui shows, Christians and Muslims sparred with one another intensely during the early centuries after Islam’s rise, with each side vying to be the ultimate revelation of God. But the two faiths did at least grudgingly acknowledge one another as monotheistic, despite Islam’s firm rejection of the Christian view of God as a trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.