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Fall 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 2 · pp. 233–239 

Book Review

On Being Human: Essays from the Fifth Shi’i Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue

ed. Harry J. Huebner and Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen. Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2013. 263 pages.

Reviewed by Gil Dueck

Questions of human identity and purpose are perhaps so basic that we rarely get around to asking them. Yet when we start mining the depths of these questions we frequently find ourselves confronted with {237} complexity. What makes us unique? What is a self? What is the basis for human rights? And what, at the end of it all, does a good life look like?

These mysteries and others are under consideration in On Being Human, a publication of papers delivered at the fifth Shi’i Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue, held at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, June 1–4, 2011. These dialogues are the fruit of relationships that developed through MCC’s work with the Iranian Red Crescent following a devastating earthquake in 1990. The goal for each of the presenters was not to debate or persuade but rather to represent a consensus from within their tradition for the purpose of mutual understanding.

The essays in this volume are often characterized by considerable agreement on the fundamental connections between theology and anthropology. Both groups, for example, found substantial theological agreement around God’s unique creation of human as “vice-regent” or “co-ruler” of creation, though the Shi’i scholars generally seemed less embarrassed about asserting human uniqueness in a strong ontological or “essentialist” sense than did their Mennonite counterparts.

The essays toward the end of this volume will likely generate the most interest given that they touch on topics where the divide between Muslim and Christian (not to mention secular, Western) perspectives might be perceived as sharpest. With that in mind, I’ll deal briefly with the essays on human rights and gender.

The comparison of Mennonite and Shi’i human rights cases is fascinating, not least because of the way this concept functions as a nearly unchallenged cornerstone for contemporary social ethics. The Shi’i scholars tend to root their understanding of human rights in the Islamic notion of brotherhood and the Qur’anic insistence that the only viable distinctions between peoples came at the level of virtue and piety (as opposed to ethnicity). Moreover, the Islamic understanding of God as al-Rahman (“the beneficent”) emphasizes God’s general blessing to all humanity and this attribute is meant to be emulated in the lives of pious Muslims. This can only lead to kindness expressed toward all, since all are the beneficiaries of God’s blessing.

The Mennonite contribution focuses more on the category of the neighbor and offers a gentle challenge to the category of human rights, describing it as being somewhat alien to the biblical texts. Rights language is an abstracted “meta-level” discourse that can focus on the autonomous rights-bearing individual rather than the specific claims to justice that our neighbor may have against us. Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan is offered as evidence of this distinction. The lawyer in Luke 15 asks a “rights question” (Who has rights against me?) but {238} Jesus points instead to the radical obligation toward the neighbor that is evident in the response of the despised Samaritan.

Both Muslims and Christians tend to be viewed with suspicion when it comes to their understandings of gender. In both cases the assumption is often that religious conviction is a regressive force that reinforces patriarchy.

The Shi’i perspective, articulated by Abbas Al Shameli, bears a strong resemblance to what Christians may know as a complementarian understanding of gender. Motherhood is understood to be the most important (indeed sacred) role that women can take and fatherhood is at least partially about relieving the economic burden in order to enable the mother to perform this role. There is a strong emphasis on the woman as the primary educator of children and this is offered as the case for higher educational attainment for women. But the cornerstone for gender remains the fact that biological differences between men and women are indicative of distinct roles—not as a sign of discrimination but as complementary contributions to the fundamental structure of the family.

The Mennonite contribution, articulated by W. Derek Suderman, focuses on the origin of patriarchy through a close reading of Genesis 3 and the divine curse that women will be ruled by men. Suderman concludes that this aspect of human relationships is not part of the divine plan but a “tendency arising from human disobedience,” that is, it has descriptive, not prescriptive, value for a Christian understanding of gender.

The contrast between these two readings of gender is striking mainly because of the implied objections that lie behind the offered answers. Al Shameli writes with a strong interest in representing Islamic thought as a total system that encompasses the family and all of social life. This is the ecosystem in which questions of gender distinctions and individual rights must grow (if they are to grow). So there is definite sensitivity to the kinds of concerns that may occur instinctively to Western Christian readers. But these concerns do appear somewhat at arm’s length from the wider concern for the development of a family and social structure characterized by piety and devotion to God.

Suderman writes to address common critiques of the Bible as an instrument of patriarchy. His hermeneutics are solid and the case for male-female equality grounded in the divine image is generally persuasive. But I can easily imagine a Muslim reader wondering what this non-patriarchal reading of Genesis would mean for a Christian understanding of the family, not to mention its wider social implications. Suderman’s argument is quite at home within a context where the autonomy of the individual is taken for granted and the experience of patriarchy {239} has already been judged and condemned. And while this is a healthy development, the absence of a wider framework of concern for family and social life was conspicuous in contrast to Al Shameli.

This volume is a welcome contribution for the simple reason that it offers these two communities an opportunity to hear from one another within a context of mutual respect and appreciation. This is no doubt owing to the fact that real relationships and a history of mutual care exist behind the essays. Some may wish there was more interchange between the various perspectives but given the widespread misunderstanding that exists between these communities, a wiser first step is undoubtedly to listen.

In his opening remarks for the event, former CMU president Gerald Gerbrandt notes the following: “The goal in genuine dialogue is not consensus or full agreement, but genuine understanding and learning.” Based on the evidence of these essays, and the enduring relationships that have formed between Mennonite and Shi’a scholars, this goal seems to have been met.

Gil Dueck, PhD (cand.)
Program Director
MCC Saskatchewan

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