Matthew V. Novenson on Shabbir Akhtar
In this remarkable new commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Galatians, Shabbir Akhtar says that no Muslim has ever written a commentary on any of Paul’s letters. As far as I know, this is true. That fact alone would make this book a landmark, even if it were not especially good. But in fact it is a very good book, a learned commentary on a difficult text that brings a wealth of comparative insight to the task. It deserves to be read widely and carefully. For New Testament scholars in particular, Akhtar’s book deserves a place on the shelf alongside the standard critical commentaries on this, Martin Luther’s own favorite book of the Bible.
To write a commentary is to pay a supreme compliment to the author of the base text, to imply that his or her words are worthy of such exceptionally close attention. Indeed, this is why commentaries are usually written by religious insiders—Jews on Jewish holy books, Christians on Christian holy books, Muslims on Muslim holy books—because in such cases, to write a commentary is an act of piety. With this book, however, like Ibn Rushd with Aristotle, Akhtar pays the apostle Paul the supreme compliment of taking his words with utmost seriousness, as an act not of piety but of empathy, of thinking alongside Paul about the philosophical and theological questions he raises, questions about God, God’s law, faith, ethnicity, and more.
There is a clever trick in the title of the book. The New Testament in Muslim Eyes is not about the New Testament, the canon of 27 Christian holy books. English “New Testament” renders Latin novum testamentum, which in turn renders Greek kaine diatheke, “new covenant,” which first occurs in the Old Greek version of the prophet Jeremiah (where it renders Hebrew berit hadashah), whence Paul takes it as a name for his own apostolic commission: “God empowered us as ministers of a new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6). And this is what Akhtar examines through his Muslim eyes: the apostle’s claim to mediate a new revelation from God. Putting it in this way underlines the analogy with the prophet Muhammad, whom Akhtar aptly calls, elsewhere in the book, “the Arabian apostle to the gentiles.”
This is what Akhtar means by The New Testament in Muslim Eyes. And yet, whilst reading the commentary, I was struck by the realization that Galatians itself contains no reference to a “new covenant.” Paul uses that phrase in 1 Corinthians citing the Eucharistic words of Jesus and in 2 Corinthians in the passage noted above. Not in Galatians, however, and this, I think, for an important reason. Whereas in 2 Corinthians Paul argues for the newness of his gospel vis-à-vis Moses (hence “new covenant”), in Galatians, by contrast, he argues for the oldness of his gospel vis-à-vis Moses. That is, Paul claims that his gospel corresponds to God’s much more ancient promise to father Abraham, and that the law of Moses was a latecomer and a parenthesis. This realization perhaps renders the phrase “new testament” less apt for Galatians, but on the other hand it also highlights the striking analogy with Islam. Like the prophet Muhammad, Paul, in Galatians as nowhere else, stakes an interpretive claim on God’s primeval revelation to Abraham. The phrase “Abrahamic religions” is not as in vogue now as it was even a few years ago, but one could be forgiven for using the phrase with reference to Galatians. Nowhere else in Christian scripture is the gospel as Abrahamic as it is in this letter.
I expected Akhtar, of course, to discuss with sophistication the radical idea at the heart of the letter—that the law of God had only a time-limited custodianship until the coming of the messiah—and the obvious problems with this idea from the perspective of Islamic theology. And he does not disappoint on this score. But I did not expect at all for Akhtar to appeal to Paul positively as a resource for thinking through another problem internal to Islam, namely, the question of the relation of the transcendent revelation of the Quran to the particular ethnicity of the prophet and his earliest followers. Akhtar writes, “Can Muslims learn anything from reading Paul’s letter?… It is instructive for Muslims, Arab and non-Arab, to consider how and why Paul elected to move the new Christian faith away from the rituals and beliefs of its parent faith. Understanding Paul’s concerns could help Muslims to make Islam a more self-consciously universal faith, finally removed from traces of its historically conditioned Arabolatry.”
Being neither Arab nor Muslim myself, I am in no position to comment on the question of whether there is a problem of Arabolatry in contemporary Islam. But I do think that Akhtar puts his finger on one of Paul’s foremost concerns in a way that he, Akhtar, as a Muslim of South Asian rather than Arab ancestry, is uniquely well positioned to do. Galatians is of course partly about the place of law in religion, but equally or more importantly, it is about the place of ethnicity in religion, the question how a religion born in one ethnic context (Judean, Arabian, or otherwise) can be, or become, a home to people of all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations. And this question is at least as pressing for Muslims as it is for Christians.
But there are also interesting differences between the two cases. Christianity, although it began as a Jewish sect, very rapidly became an almost entirely non-Jewish movement, whereas Islam always retained and still retains a substantial ethnic Arab following, even if Arab Muslims are matched or outnumbered by their South Asian, Southeast Asian, and African coreligionists. But even if the demographics were otherwise, language accounts for another crucial difference, as the late Lamin Sanneh famously argued. The earliest Christian scriptures (e.g., the Letter to the Galatians itself) were already written in a language not the ethnic mother tongue; that is, they were written in Greek rather than Hebrew. And from there, they were quickly rendered into Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Slavonic, Arabic, and numerous other regional languages. The Quran, by contrast, was given in Arabic, and it is still recited in Arabic. This feature of Islam, together with its ethnic demographics, yield a dynamic that simply does not obtain in Christianity, for better or worse.
One final word, corresponding to Akhtar’s final word in the book. In his preface and epilogue he theorizes, and in the balance of the book he demonstrates, an approach to inter-religious discourse that is empathetic as well as candid. About the project of comparative Christian and Muslim theology, he writes, “The best position is to take the rival seriously on its own terms but conclude that it is simply in error… My considered guiding view, colored by my own faith, is that Paul was a sincere preacher who got many things wrong. Sincerity is no bulwark against error… Christians and Jews must give the same verdict regarding Muhammad—indeed must say that much if they are to be charitable but truthful. For if they say less, they do not give the man his due” (269). Now, I am a historian and exegete, not a theologian, so my judgment on these things should be weighed proportionately. But this seems to me a very sane posture to take. And I can say, as someone who lives most every day with the letters of Paul, that Shabbir Akhtar genuinely understands Paul, even if he also judges him to be in error.
Matthew V. Novenson is Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Christ among the Messiahs (OUP, 2012) and The Grammar of Messianism (OUP, 2017), and he is presently writing a critical commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.