Anton Wessels is an ordained Presbyterian minister, professor emeritus of religion at the Free University of Amsterdam, and author of the new book The Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an: Three Books, Two Cities, One Tale.
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Just as Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities provided insight into two important yet opposing cities — Paris and London — in the time of the French Revolution, so also can the Bible and the Qur’an be read together as a kind of Tale of Two Cities for the “revolutionary” world of today, torn apart by religious terrorism and sectarian violence.
These three books (the Old and New Testament and the Qur’an) also tell us a single tale of two cities: the city of justice and peace on the one hand and the city of wrong on the other. In the Old Testament, the two cities of good and evil are represented by Jerusalem and Babel, respectively. In the Qur’an, Mecca stands as the city of injustice over against Medina, the city of light.
Many today claim that religion — Christianity and Islam most especially, thanks to their painful histories of crusade and jihad — is to blame for all most (if not all) wars throughout the history of humankind. They say that the Holy Books of these faiths — particularly the Qur’an — should be forbidden. After all, they claim, haven’t Jews, Christians and Muslims used their Scriptures as weapons against each other in both heated polemics and open warfare?
Perhaps this has at times been so. I hold to my deep conviction, however, that these three books can and should be read and understood together by Jews, Christians, and Muslims as one tale.
After all, the major prophetic figures in both the Bible and the Qur’an — Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad — were each commanded to speak out against unjust leaders and break with the injustice in their respective “cities.”
Abraham had to break with Nimrod, king of the oppressive empires of Assur and Babel in Mesopotamia, take his family, and go.
Moses was called to stand up to Pharaoh, break with his injustice, and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt.
Jesus opposed the unjust spiritual and political leaders in Jerusalem, connected as they were with the imperial power of Rome, and inspired his followers to “shake the dust off their sandals,” leave their homeland, and “make disciples of all nations.”
Muhammad, too, preached against the wicked and egotistic leaders of Mecca and eventually had to flee that city.
The expression that is used for that “breaking with” and “leaving and liberating from” in the Bible is “exodus.” In the Qur’an the word translated as “emigration” (hijra) means much the same.
Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad all had to leave the corrupt cities in which they were born and go to the land God would show them: the promised land, the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, the city of light, the city of the future that surely will come on earth.
For me the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), who was born in Moorish Spain and died in Cairo, is a source of inspiration. He lived and worked in a world dominated by Muslims, and he thought deeply about the meanings of the two other traditions (Christianity and Islam) that had grown out of his own Jewish religion. He became a guide for the Jews of his time (and after!), showing how adherents of all three faiths could understand and respect each other’s distinct contributions.
Maimonides declared in his Guide for the Perplexed: “As a whole, Muslims are not idol worshipers, and they proclaim the complete unity of God in the proper way.” Reflecting on the relationship to the Christians and Muslims, he wrote:
“It is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of the Creator; for our ways are not his ways, neither are our thoughts His thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite (Mohammed) who came after him, served to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord, as it is written, For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord to serve Him shoulder to shoulder (Zephaniah 3:9).”
It is of great importance, I believe, for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to read the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an together and attempt to understand them as much as possible in association with one another. These three books demand answers from one another. They must be allowed to interrogate one another. They should constantly be brought into conversation with one another.
Only then will we begin to understand fully God’s great “tale of two cities” for humankind.