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Reconciling Holy Books as Christian Muslim Inter-Religious Literacy

  July 14th 2021

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Written by: Eric David Coblentz

With the growth of democracy, liberalization, globalization, and other significant reforms around the world Inter-religious literacy has become an important developmental discussion within Indonesia’s rich religious diversity. The most populated Muslim country in the world is known for its religious and cultural diversity, but how does it allow diversity to flourish so that all groups, majority and minority, can be heard and respected? Dicky Sofjan, a professor at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS), says in an article entitled Learning about Religions: An Indonesian Religious Literacy Program as a Multifaith Site for Mutual Learning, “While religion is embedded in the national curriculum (of Indonesia) and is compulsory to be taught at all schools, the content of the subject is far from suitable for a multicultural country such as Indonesia, which prides itself on being a plural society. The subject of religion thus merely allows for learning about one’s own religious traditions, but hardly touches on other religions (Sofjan, p.1-2).”

A recent forum put on in honor of the 15th anniversary of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies entitled Reconciling Holy Books as Christian Muslim Inter-Religious Literacy aimed at building a bridge between the two largest religious groups in Indonesia. This forum was put on by the new incoming students at ICRS including Yohana Sri Winarsih, Selfitriani Kulla, Nabiollah Masoumi, Jesada Buabon, Eric Coblentz, and Danial Sutami, who initiated and organized the forum.

The forum included a Lebanese American Muslim, Dr. Safi Kaskas, who’s life work includes this idea of reconciling the Qur’an and the Bible for Muslim and Christian communities. He is the co-founder of East-West University in Chicago Illinois. Dr. Safi Kaskas is Senior Researcher in Islam and Multi faith Reconciliation with George Mason University, Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. He translated and published the Qur’an into simple easy to understand English in January 2015 and published the Qur’an with references to the Bible in January 2016. This book has over 3000 references to the Old and New Testaments and is a milestone for future work on building bridges between Muslim and Christian communities. This is the book Dr. Safi Kaskas expounded on in this particular forum. He is also a member of the board of the Vatican Foundation International Center Family of Nazareth and presented his Italian translation of the Qur’an with references to the Bible to Pope Francis in 2016.

The forum also included speakers, Danial Sutami, whose fascinating journey of faith as a Muslim who loves Jesus, sheds light on the history and current discussions on inter-religious literacy in Indonesia. He is also a PhD candidate at ICRS and is the Associate Researcher at Abdurrahman Wahid Centre for Peace and Humanities University of Indonesia and Adventist Muslim Relations Instructor. Finally, Dr. Robert Setio, who is the Associate professor of Biblical Studies at UKDW in Yogyakarta Indonesia and has been a lecturer there since 1999. Dr. Robert Setio concludes the discussion by pointing out further questions that need to be discussed based on Dr. Safi Kaskas’ presentation.  His focus research areas of Old Testament, Inter-religious Dialogue, Philosophical Hermeneutics, Apocalypticism, Postcolonial Readings, and Postmodernism led him to write an article relevant to this topic entitled, Bringing Together the Bible and the Qur’an from a Christian Point of View (Mempertemukan Alkitab dan al-Qur’an, dari Sudut Pandang Kristen).

Dr. Safi Kaskas’ translation of the Qur’an with references to the Bible has five main goals in mind. One key goal was the difference between “wall building and bridge building.” Wall building is emphasizing the differences between Islam and other Abrahamic religions and bridge building is highlighting the commonalities. This comes from Qur’an 5:44 where the Qur’an itself confirms both the Torah and the Gospel by saying, “We revealed the Torah with guidance and enlightenment. The prophets, who had submitted themselves to God, as well as the rabbis and the scholars, all judged according to that part of God’s Book they entrusted to preserve and to which they were witnesses (The Qur’an with References to the Bible).” Therefore, Dr. Safi Kaskas views the Qur’an as somewhat of an ecumenical book bridging the gap between the Holy Books of Christian and Jewish traditions. Therefore, the problem in inter-faith dialogue usually is not with the texts themselves, but rather with the interpretations of the texts.

Dr. Safi gives two main criteria that he believes will bring about further reconciliation between the Holy Books of both religions. The first is expounded upon above, the Qur’an; because the Qur’an is an ecumenical book bringing together the Torah and the Gospels, it is uniquely placed to push towards reconciliation and forces both Christians and Muslims to deal with all three holy books. Second, it is the person of Jesus. While Christian ignorance of the deep importance Jesus has in the Qur’an and within Islamic tradition itself has led to fear in attempting to engage with the person of Jesus in the Qur’an, Muslim misunderstanding of Christian views of Jesus as well has led to fear in engaging with Jesus’ life and teaching.

Some will argue that this is unrealistic and will only divide further, but Dr. Safi is not suggesting that we will all agree on these two important matters: the Qur’an and Jesus, but where there is better understanding of each other, there will be less fear of “the other.” He concludes his discussion by saying:

"Many interfaith meetings are full of people discussing theological issues that are based on faith, and this is the main reason they make some progress but not much. In my opinion, issues of faith are not necessarily logical. They shouldn’t be debated. I propose a different approach: Let me accept you with your faith, the way you are, and I’ll pray that God will guide your every step towards Him. Let me accept that you will worship God the best way you know how, while I’m worshipping God the best way I know how."

Jesus commands us to love God and love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). “We are neighbors.” He says, “and we need to learn that our diversity is a source of our strength, and it is intentional by our Creator.”

In conclusion, Dr. Robert Setio challenged us with important questions of practicality that one must begin to interact with if we want to see progress in this area. He points out the importance of a message that brings about commonalities amongst religions as opposed to saying, “This is my religion and that is your religion,” a common Indonesian phrase in dealing with other religions. Dr. Robert also points out that he sees Dr. Safi’s understanding of the Holy Books as a form of Midrashic study whereby we are always growing and learning from the Scriptures and our communities are not stagnant. Finally, Dr. Robert Setio concludes by saying that it is important to have love at the center of all our attempts at reconciling our Holy Books. Certainly this posture of love was present in this lively discussion on Reconciling Holy Books. We are thankful for the presentation of Dr. Safi Kaskas, Danial Sutami and Dr. Robert Setio. This is the beginning of important discussions of inter-religious literacy in Indonesia.