Wisdom and Foolishness in Abrahamic Faith

Wisdom Abraham

“Knowledge is power,” is an oft-repeated saying. In an information economy this makes perfect sense, and our educational system is geared to develop know-how.

Wisdom, on the other hand, sometimes seems a neglected virtue. It is the realm of philosophers, maybe, who have little to do with practical life. Or religion, often considered a private domain.

The Abrahamic religions, however, esteem the cultivation of wisdom over and above simple knowledge. Baghdad built the famed “House of Wisdom” when Islam represented the pinnacle of human civilization, translating classical texts that eventually reached the West.

Jewish writings nearly deified “Sophia” as a personification of wisdom. Along with Christianity, these traditions have produced philosophical minds among the greatest the world has ever known.

Which may make it surprising to hear St. Paul esteem being a fool for Christ. In view of the Greek tradition of his day, he said, Christianity is foolishness.

Paul is not subverting this tradition by any means, only highlighting how the wisdom of God in Christ is nonsense in the estimation of the world. Not non-rational, it simply reflects how God’s thoughts are higher than man’s.

Nonetheless, one of the tasks of faith is demonstrating its plausibility to the world. The effort is nobly undertaken by Richard Shumack, in one of the most contested of fields. His book, The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, was shortlisted as the Australian Christian book of the year in 2014.

A philosopher by training, Shumack is a professor at Melbourne School of Theology and part of the Ravi Zacharias International Ministry team. It can be said at the outset: he finds Christianity superior to Islam. Not surprising – he is a Christian.

Two things are noteworthy about his book, however. First, the absolute respect his gives the Islamic tradition, interacting in friendship with men he considers to be among the Muslim world’s top philosophical minds. There is great wisdom in their faith, he agrees.

And second, the difference in paradigm that makes all the difference. Islam conceives a legislative model between God and man; Christianity, a relational. Wisdom follows from both, he says, but the latter is preferable and better accords with the world.

Shumack does not presume to prove the truth of Christianity’s claims. Similar to Islam, the challenge of monotheism is dealt with elsewhere. But finding his Muslim scholar friends assert the philosophical superiority of Islam over an incoherent Christianity, Shumack was compelled to pick up the gauntlet. He fully admits, of course, that key Christian concepts appear to place Muslims at an advantage.

But in each chapter he builds his case sequentially. Certainty. God’s Hiddenness. Sin. Trinity. Incarnation. Cross. Revelation. Divine Ethics. Politics. Each is a problem to tackle in the Muslim-Christian conversation. On some points monotheists share similar challenges. On others, the Christian is on the defensive.

With deference and respect, at times Shumack tries to turn the tables. But for the most part he simply returns to his central thesis:

Islam makes sense if one sees God as creator, legislator, and master. But Christianity makes sense if God is in addition, father.

To many Muslims this is foolishness. God has no son; he is utterly different from his creation. But it is the central point of Christianity: God’s word made flesh, crucified, and resurrected.

Perhaps both are fools to the atheist or modern secularist, so let Muslims and Christians be friends. Shumack’s book is polemical but warm, inviting response from his Muslim philosopher-friend.

There is no reason religious debate cannot be so. The world is much in need of wisdom, and the Abrahamic faiths possess it in abundance.

Unfortunately, their mutual conversation often demonstrates the opposite, showing that living out wisdom is another question entirely.

If we be fools, let it be for the right reason, in the right spirit. Abraham left the security of his land and family, and nearly sacrificed his son. Today he is honored by over half of humanity, a blessing to the whole world.

May this be true of his descendants, Muslims, Christians, and Jews altogether.

Wisdom of Islam Foolishness of Christianity

Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Five Year Freeze in Vatican-Azhar Relations Could Soon Be Over

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

Amr Saleh
Amr Saleh

Amr Saleh, a 33-year-old lecturer in Islam in English had never met a Christian until he moved to Cairo. He believed monasteries were places of torture and black magic.

Now the respected scholar who is based at al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s most prestigious seat of learning, enthusiastically studies liberation theology.

He also wants to transform the traditional approach to comparative religion.

Saleh’s change of heart was sparked by an unlikely friendship with a French priest. It prepared him for a groundbreaking decision by al-Azhar to allow its students to learn about Christianity in Rome.

‘We should understand people as they want to be understood,’ he told Lapido. ‘To teach Christianity you should start with Christians and learn from their perspective.’

Saleh was the first al-Azhar lecturer to go to Rome for the inaugural Summer School for Christian Sciences at Urbaniana Pontifical University.

Now, after five long years, full-fledged relations between the Vatican and al-Azhar are set to resume ‘very soon.’

Dr Kamal Boraiqa of al-Azhar’s Centre for Interfaith Dialogue (formed in February 2015) told Lapido new efforts are underway to rebuild ties between the leading institutions of the Christian and Muslim world.

He praised the groundbreaking educational partnership, which graduated the first ever Azhar scholar with a Vatican-certified diploma in Christianity.

Boraiqa described it as a step to ‘pave the way’ to restoring cooperation that had ground to a halt.

In 1998 Pope John Paul II and Grand Imam Mohamed Tantawi created the Joint Committee for Dialogue. In 2000 he became the first ever pontiff to visit al-Azhar.

But relations soured in 2006 when his successor, Pope Benedict, quoted a Byzantine emperor who criticized Islam.

And in January 2011 al-Azhar astounded the world by officially suspending dialogue following the Pope’s call for protection of Middle East Christians after the New Year’s Eve bombing of a church in Alexandria.


A thaw came in 2013 as Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb sent a message of congratulations to newly elected Pope Francis.

Six months later the pope sent a letter expressing his respect for Islam and a desire to build ‘mutual understanding.’

A further boost came in November 2014, when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the Vatican and agreed with the Pope to renew dialogue.

It has been mostly quiet since. Boraiqa met with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran of the Joint Committee at high level interfaith meetings in Jordan in 2015, and conveyed to Tayyeb his wish to resume dialogue.

‘It proves we don’t mind our sons studying at the Vatican,’ Boraiqa said. ‘It is a message that we trust you.’

Saleh was the only Egyptian in the group of three Turks and two Chinese in the inaugural class. He said academics were eager to build good relations.

Originally from Fayoum, 100 kilometers south of Cairo, Saleh first came to al-Azhar as a student.

Dominican priest Fr John Jacques Perenes, from France, who was director of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo (IDEO), stumbled upon him struggling through a book on Christianity, and their eventual friendship ‘completely altered’ his outlook.

Now he is the one altering others. Most of his students at al-Azhar are from Indonesia and Malaysia, and never even heard of the Vatican.

The month-long intensive Urbaniana programme includes courses in theology, Old and New Testament, ethics, and church history.

But it also provides students an opportunity to witness the darker side of interfaith relations.

In the northern city of Padua, the authorities passed a law requiring immigrant kebab shops to close earlier than other restaurants, Saleh said. In Rome, he visited a Bangladeshi mosque marked by stark poverty.

But it was his visit to the Jewish ghetto and the stories of Jewish eviction to death camps in Germany that left the strongest impression.

‘I was deeply moved. Look what we can do to each other,’ he said. ‘And this was only a hundred years ago.’


The programme director is one Fr Roberto Cherubini. He told Lapido the school is meant to create a network of relations in the non-Christian world.

‘Often their perceptions are not correct,’ he said. ‘It is important to help them get information from the source.’

Cherubini blamed the media, and described the school as an effort to help Christian minorities by helping the majority religion better understand the Catholic faith.

To do so he interacts with reputed academic institutions. Saleh’s participation had been secured via direct conversation with al-Azhar’s Grand Imam.

Cherubini has requested five Egyptian scholars for next year, with plans to draw also from India and Indonesia.

Boraiqa also blamed the media for misrepresenting Muslims. He has travelled in the West, describing first-hand experience of Muslim stereotyping as potential terrorists.

But in the UK his experiences were better, owing, he said, to its multiculturalism. Once a visiting scholar at Birmingham University, he now joins al-Azhar’s Centre for Interfaith Dialogue in official discussions with the Anglican Communion.

Al-Azhar hosted the Bishops of Bradford, Southampton, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s secretary of interreligious affairs, arranged through Archbishop Mouneer Hanna Anis of Egypt. Together they examined how religious texts could be used to justify violence.

‘Extremists take a verse out of context, and use it as a pretext,’ he said. ‘If you clarify issues for religious leaders, they will foster better understanding, promoting respect and cooperation.’

Anglican dialogue will with al-Azhar will resume in the UK in autumn 2016, mirroring a pattern that used to exist with the Vatican.

Meanwhile, all the signs for imminent resumption of relations with the Roman Catholic Church are there, aided by a joint effort to transcend religion with the most basic of human interactions.

‘We are warming the relations that have recently cooled,’ said Saleh. ‘What al-Azhar and the Vatican need is mutual friendship.’

STOP PRESS:  We have just learned today that al-Azhar has approved a scholarship from Urbaniana for Amr Saleh to read for a PhD in Christianity and Comparative Religions.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Egyptian Education and the Journey to Islam

Christiane Paulus
Christiane Paulus

From my new article on Arab West Report:

When it comes to Egyptian education and Islam, Christiane Paulus is both a critic and supporter. So much so, she adopted both.

Paulus is a German national, resident in Egypt since 1998. She is currently a professor of Islamic studies and Protestant theology at the Azhar University, through the medium of the German language. Her journey here is a story all its own.

Paulus studied Protestant theology and postmodern philosophy in Marburg, Germany, with the intention of becoming a Lutheran minister. But in 1988, before her final tests, she married her husband, an Egyptian Muslim. Unless he converted to Christianity, the church ruled she could not receive her preaching license, as both spouses needed to be of the faith.

Years thereafter Paulus remained in her Christian faith, even after moving to Egypt with her family.

Paulus does describe what she finds are the culturally derived faults of the Egyptian education system, with consequences falling directly on religious and political relations:

Dialogue, Paulus believes, is a subject of the social sciences – a discipline largely ignored in Egyptian education. Curriculum, methodology, and pedagogy have remained stagnant since the Nasser era, when a resistance to new ideas was the norm. Since then, however, both students and teachers have sought to escape the system. At the basic level this involves the reliance on private tutors; for those able it means enrollment in private or foreign schools.

Women, she noted, are in general educated relationally. This equips them for dialogue more readily than men. But in addition to educational lacking, the Egyptian culture is bound by concepts of honor and shame. Together with pride, this produces an atmosphere of ‘not talking’. An Upper Egyptian husband, for example, will ignore his wife and stay silent with her when upset. Outside the family, discord produces the same result. The first casualty of Egypt’s political division is a lack of communication between liberals and Islamists.

But her focus in presentation was on what drew her to Islam as a religion. Much of this was due to the influence of her husband and his family, but it was also from historical study:

In 2005 Paulus read a book by the Egyptian Muslim theologian Amin al-Kholy, an active intellectual in the early 20th Century. ‘Islam and the Connection to Christian Reform’ summarized his presentation on the Protestant Reformation, representing the Azhar at the 1935 Brussels conference on the religious sciences.

Kholy noted that the early Protestant reformers – prior to Luther – emerged from areas long occupied by Muslims. From Spain under the Reconquista, Lyon, and Monaco, figures such as Peter Waldus and William of Ockham adopted ideas originating in Islam, translated them into Latin, and began applying them to criticize European Catholic Christianity. The Muslim populations of these areas had been forcibly converted into Christianity but retained their Islamic beliefs in secret. A few centuries later, Islamic-cum-Protestant ideas such as no mediation between man and God, private reading of the Scriptures, and clerical marriage began to take hold.

But she remains critical of prevalent Islamic thinking as well, which generally leaves their received religious heritage unquestioned:

Of course, a great deal of irrationality has entered the Muslim world, too. Where education is lacking the religious discourse takes over everything. Contrary to the prevailing religious spirit, Paulus says each individual Muslim has the right to read and evaluate Islam’s religious sources – the Qur’an and Hadith – weighing their value. The condition is to keep the Islamic culture of discussion respectful, objective, and academic.

This individuality also comes out in Paulus’ decision not to wear a headscarf.

Paulus is a charming person who is clearly a deep and sensitive thinker. Her testimony was given in a presentation with brief time for questions and answers; otherwise, it would have been useful to probe many of her arguments further. Please click here to discover them by reading the whole article on Arab West Report, and here for an Arabic language article on Paulus.

But less interesting than arguments is the story of an individual human being, seeking to make sense of the world. Tomorrow I hope to post a link to another recent article I have written, this time in the other direction.


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Religious Dialogue and Civil Society

Representatives of the major Egyptian religious communities

Under the slogan, ‘We live together, think together, work together’, The Egyptian Evangelical Synod of the Nile opened the Religious Dialogue and Civil Society Conference September 20-22, sponsored by the Konrad Adenuer Foundation. The conference featured an impressive array of participants among Egyptian religious and civil society leaders.

Opening remarks were moderated by Dr. Imad Abul Ghazi, the Egyptian Minister of Culture. He introduced each of the many religious representatives to follow.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald is the Papal Ambassador to Egypt. He described the living together of Muslims and Christians in Egypt to be natural, but fragile. He lauded the efforts of the Azhar to create a ‘Family House’ in which religious leaders meet to discuss issues affecting Egypt and their communities. He urged, however, this effort to seep down to the grassroots – its imitation represented in each local community. He also described the necessity for religious communities to have a share in civil society to raise concerns against government policies. For this to be effective, he declared, religion must maintain some distance from the state.

Dr. Safwat al-Baiady is the President of the Egyptian Protestant Council of Churches. Following on the imitation of God who dialogues with man, he urged dialogue between men to transcend baser stages to the more effective. From Shared Monologue to Skillful Discussion to Reflective dialogue to, finally, Creative Dialogue, he declared that partners must enter dialogue as freemen, not slaves to their constituencies. The goal of this effort is not to defend yourself or to convince the other, but to reach common ground on the basis of friendship and love. This requires, he believed, not only self-confidence, but also confidence in the other.

Rev. Albert Ruiess is the President of the Synod of the Nile. He noted that the valuable process of reform often results in the emergence of different groups. This was noticeable in the Protestant Reformation, as it is noticeable in Egypt today. What is necessary is to find the elixir that can make Egypt one again. The Bible, he declares, teaches that humanity is one body with many different parts, and that the elixir needed to unify them is love.

Dr. Mahmoud Azab is the Azhar Advisor for Dialogue and Deputy to the Grand Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib. He stated that as the Azhar views Islam as a religion of mercy, so it also sees Christianity as a religion of love. He noted the historic cooperation between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, seen in their opposition to the British occupation, and more recently in the January 25 Revolution. He praised the efforts of the Azhar to guide discussion of the future Egyptian state between liberals and Islamists, declaring the Azhar document demanding Egypt to be a civil state was recognized by almost all parties. He also commended the ‘Family House’ initiative, in which Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, and Anglican leaders join with the Azhar to promote dialogue, discuss interreligious issues, and confront extremist religious discourse, whether in churches, mosques, or on satellite television channels.

Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church

Dr. Mouneer Hanna is the Anglican Bishop for Egypt, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. He provided examples of the commitment of Anglicans in Egypt to serve their communities, as well as of Anglicans worldwide and locally to engage in Muslim-Christian dialogue. He praised especially the agreement between the Azhar and the Archbishop of Canterbury, crafted after September 11, 2001, to conduct yearly sessions to better know one another. Finally, he urged application in Egypt of wisdom he learned from political leaders during a recent trip to China: I don’t care the color of the cat, as long as it catches the mouse. So in Egypt, religious affiliation should be unimportant in the civil state, as long as citizens contribute to the good of the nation.

The conference was held at the Movenpick Hotel in Media Production City, near 6 October City on the western outskirts of Cairo. Panel sessions included other well known Egyptian figures from the churches of Egypt, civil society, and the Muslim Brotherhood.