Reading scripture as an Interfaith Activity

Interfaith dialogue is tricky. How is someone committed to his or her own tradition to constructively and sympathetically engage with another, especially one with radically different premises from your own faith tradition? How do you, in the true spirit of dialogue, avoid defensive apologetics while at the same time delve deep and get to the heart of the various beliefs under discussion? These are certainly difficult questions, and I will not try to offer a solution here. What I wish instead to draw attention to is that interfaith dialogue can be unexpectedly fruitful and may indeed illuminate one’s own faith. As such, it is worth pursuing, despite its challenges.

The first record we have of Muslims and Christians coming together to constructively discuss scripture is surprisingly early. Following the very first revelation to the Prophet in the Cave of Hira, he and Khadija met with Waraqa b. Nawfal, a local Christian scholar, to discuss the experience. After listening to the Prophet, Waraqa assured him, “This is the nāmūs whom God sent to Moses. I wish I were young and could live to the time when your people would turn you out.” When the Prophet expressed shock that his own tribe might expel him, Waraqa was insistent: “Anyone who came with something similar to what you have brought was treated with hostility.”[1]

The nuances of this conversation remain to be fully explored. I will consider one question here: what does Waraqa mean by nāmūs? The root n-m-s is attested in Arabic, meaning “to conceal”. As such, nāmūs is often glossed as ṣāḥib al-sirr, “the keeper of secrets”, which is then understood to be Gabriel.[2] This may well be so, but Waraqa’s choice of words is still intriguing. Why not simply say, “This is Gabriel”, or “This is the Holy Spirit”, both common ways of referring to the angel of revelation?

Waraqa is described in the same report as someone who had learned Hebrew and used to “write from the Gospel in Hebrew”. As the Gospels would not be translated into Hebrew until the 16th Century, it in fact seems probable that Waraqa had learned Syriac, and was a scholar of the Peshitta, the Syriac translation of the Bible was in widespread use in the Near East at the time of the Prophet. Now, the Syriac word nomūsā is commonly used in the Peshitta (taken from the Septuagint) for Law or the Torah. For instance: “And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes (nomūsē, pl. of nomūsā) and the rules that I speak in your hearing today,” (Deut. 5:1), and Jesus’ preface to his Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law (nomūsā) or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them,” (Mat. 5:17).

Waraqa’s phrase, “the nāmūs whom (or which) God sent to Moses”, seems therefore to imply that the Prophet is to be given a revelation equal to the Law which was given to Moses. The Prophet’s status as the new Moses is confirmed in the Qur’an, e.g., “We have indeed sent you a messenger as a witness over you, just as We sent to Pharaoh a messenger,” (Q 73:15); and “Who sent down the scripture (kitāb) that Moses brought as a light and a guidance for mankind? … And this is a blessed scripture (kitāb) that We have sent down, confirming that which came before it,” (Q 6:91–92). Waraqa’s insight here requires careful examination. Why did he effectively equate the Prophet to Moses? Scripturally, this would by no means have been intuitive; none of the Israelite prophets after Moses were considered equal to him: “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses,” (Deut. 34:10).

There are a few possibilities. Firstly, the expectations of a messianic figure in the early 7th Century had reached fever pitch, both among Jews and Christians. Waraqa’s enthusiastic reaction may simply reflect the expectations of his era.[3] Secondly, although as Muslims we take it for granted, the idea of an Abrahamic prophet through his Ishmaelite lineage would have struck the Arab Biblical scholar as both revolutionary and, surely, irresistible. Ishmael’s position in the Hebrew Scriptures is ambiguous. On the one hand, he is clearly part of the covenant of circumcision God establishes with Abraham (Gen. 17:25), but on the other, he is the son who was cast out upon the birth of Isaac (Gen. 21:9–21). Several indications in the Bible have been taken by Muslim exegetes to suggest that this same son would one day inherit Abraham’s and Moses’ legacy. For instance, “The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his,” (Gen. 49:10; see also Deut. 18:18). This is brought out most strikingly in Jesus’ parable of the tenants (Mat 21:33–42):

“There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally, he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’?”

The purpose of the parable is clear: the Israelites, God’s chosen “tenants” of His covenant, have been sent prophet after prophet, all of whom they’ve rejected. Now God has sent them His son, Jesus Christ, and he too is being rejected. The consequence is that new tenants, “the stone that the builders rejected”, i.e. the progeny of the cast-out Ishmael, shall soon supplant the old tenants bearers of God’s message.

If these were indeed the considerations which led to Waraqa’s claim, then it would seem that the first Christian-Muslim dialogue was a superlatively insightful reading of scripture. Waraqa realised immediately the paradigm-shifting implications of the Prophet’s vision, in a way which Muslims accustomed to the premises of our faith might not fully appreciate. Messianic expectations were high in the early seventh century, but an Ishmaelite messenger? Now there was something truly revolutionary, something which could only be described as a second coming of Moses.

Needless to say, it is understanding, and not conversion, which is the primary purpose of interfaith dialogue. Maimonides, for instance, the celebrated 12th Century Jewish scholar, lists the requirements for recognising the Messiah in his Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars, Ch 11, and explicitly deals with how Jesus and “the Ishmaelite” (i.e., the Prophet Muhammad — note how Maimonides refers to him, implicitly recognising, as did Waraqa, how revolutionary the idea of a gentile prophet would be) did not fulfil the Biblical messianic prophecies. How are we to understand Biblical messianic prophecies which do not seem to have been fulfilled? Can we dismiss them as scriptural corruption, or taḥrīf? Does this run the risk of scriptural cherry picking? Are more nuanced readings of those prophecies possible? Interfaith dialogue can, then, take many avenues. It can produce incredible insights into our own scripture, or at least educate us as to the where our differences lie. Projects such as Scriptural Reasoning ( are long overdue efforts to begin considering such questions in an honest, open, and co-operative setting.

[1] Muḥammad b. Ismaʿīl al-Bukhārī, Al-Jamiʿ al-Ṣaḥīḥ al-Mukhtaṣar min Umūr Rasūl Allāh wa-Sunanihi wa-Ayyāmihi, ed. Muḥammad Zuhayr b. Nāṣir al-Nāṣir, 2nd ed., 9 vols (Beirut: Dār al-Minhāj, 2009), kitāb badʾ al-waḥy, ḥadīth 3.

[2] See, for example, Aḥmad b. Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Fatḥ al-Bārī Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (Beirut: Dār al-Maʿrifah, 1959), 1:26.

[3] Stephen J. Shoemaker, ‘“The Reign of God Has Come”: Eschatology and Empire in Late Antiquity and Early Islam’, Arabica 61, no. 5 (22 July 2014): 514–58.