The recent acts of mass murder in New Zealand and Sri Lanka have all too potently shown the grave threat of religious extremism in today’s world as well as highlighting the troubled relationship between Islam and Christianity.
The publication therefore of Richard Kimball’s scholarly work, The People of the Book, with its nuanced examination of inter-faith dialogue and possibilities is both timely and welcome. Kimball offers a comparative theological exploration of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Qur’ãnic representation of Christianity as the People of the Book. The research is divided into three parts. The first part explores the Qur’ãnic understanding of the ‘People of the Book’ through traditional Islamic exegesis, known as tafsir, of four Islamic scholars whose work spans more than a thousand years. Part two takes a closer look at the pre-Islamic period, the occasion of revelation of the Qur’ãn as well as the Arabic speaking Christian response to Islam in the post-conquest period. Part Three explores the modern use of the term People of the Book by several scholars in the context of our increasingly interconnected and pluralist societies.
Originally from Maine in the USA, Kimball has lived in Galway since 1988. He is the managing director of Aria Stained Glass Studio and Bayt al-Hikma: House of Wisdom, translation services. He also has the kind of multi-race, multi-faith, background that well qualifies him for being able to appreciate disparate cultures. “I come from a very mixed package,” he tells me over a lunchtime chat. “My mother’s side of the family is Irish, some Church of Ireland and some Catholic, and my father’s side is English and Lithuanian. His first language was Lithuanian; he went to school in America but his mother was from Lithuania. My father was Lutheran and in my family we have Presbyterians, Catholics, atheists and Congregationalists. I took from all of them. When I was a child my mother used to send myself and my brother off to church on Sunday and I would enjoy going to different churches just to see what they were like and over time I decided to be a Quaker.”
Quakers believe that there is something of God in everybody and that each human being is of unique worth. Quakers therefore value all people equally, and oppose anything that may harm or threaten them. They seek religious truth in inner experience, and rely on conscience as the basis of morality. They emphasise direct experience of God rather than ritual and ceremony. They believe that priests and rituals are an unnecessary obstruction between the believer and God.
“The first thing that drew me to Quakerism was its peace testimony,” Kimball explains. “When I was growing up in America the country was at war in Vietnam yet in Church on Sunday you would hear the commandments and ‘thou shalt not kill’ so I used to puzzle over that. Then I heard Joan Baez, who is a Quaker, and she was telling boys that they did not have to go to war, countering the message of the US military who were saying it was their duty to go and serve their country. I was very impressed by her because that stance hurt her career and yet she stayed with it and kept her integrity. The other thing that drew me is Quakers don’t have a creed; we search and follow for the truth within our conscience. There are some 1,500 Quakers in Ireland and globally there are 350,000.”
When he was 23, Kimball went to Tunisia as a member of the US Peace Corps and his time living in a largely Muslim country had a profound effect on his world view. “I was suddenly part of a minority religion; less than one per cent of the population was Christian,” he recalls. “There I met a wonderful person, a Franco-Tunisian White Father of Africa Fr Dominique Tommy-Martin who encouraged people to live their faith by befriending Muslims, not to convert them but just to get to know Islam. I began to learn a lot about Islam just from talking to Muslims while I was there and had many long conversations about Christianity and Islam. At that time the PLO had an embassy then outside Tunis, and I visited it one day and I told them I wanted to hear their side of the story because the US media only told things from the Israeli viewpoint. So they gave me a box of books and made one request, that I stop learning Tunisian Arabic because they could scarcely understand a word I was saying due to the dialect so I promised I would learn classical Arabic. I left the place feeling wonderful and that I had just opened a door to learning something different. Soon afterwards, in September, 1985, the Israelis sent two F-16s bomber jets and blew up the Embassy. Maybe 60 people died including everyone I had met. I found it outrageous; the US 6th Fleet was stationed offshore at the time and yet permitted the Israeli jets to fly over them and make the attack. I found that to be totally outrageous. From that point on, I decided I would not return to the US but it also woke me up to the reality of superpower politics. Because Ireland is a neutral country I decided to relocate here after my time in the Peace Corps.”
While relations between Islam and Christianity have often being marked by strife rather than harmony, Kimball believes that there is scope for peaceful co-existence. “I think religion needs to be taught differently and it will take generations for the scholars to come together with an agreed plan on what to say about things,” he states. “In multi-cultural societies we are going to grow up side by side with people of other faiths. One of the people I quote in the book is Sidney H Griffith who teaches theology in Washington and he says there is nothing in the Qur’ãn that a worshipping Christian should worry about because what we believe is in there and what we don’t believe, they don’t believe either. Muslims believe Jesus is the Messiah for instance. Prejudices are generally groundless and there needs to be more education. Some people argue that all religion is bad and the world would be a better place without it but I would say the opposite; all religion is good but we need to be able to discuss things together and appreciate the voice of God in other faiths than our own and what it means to them and could mean to us.”
The People of the Book is published by Peter Lang and it will be officially launched at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop tomorrow at 6.30pm.