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Review of "Islam – Past Present and Future" by


1 May 2014

Hans Kung is one of the world's most famous Roman Catholic theologians. He has written a trilogy of books covering the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At present his book on Islam is the only one I have read.

It was published in 2004 in German and translated into English in 2007. The book is on a monumental scale with over 760 pages. I read it several years ago but it has taken me some time to grapple with the task of reviewing it.

The table of contents

Perhaps the simplest way of getting a snapshot of the book as a whole is to summarise the table of contents. The table of contents descends to four levels but for brevity I have given only the first three levels below.

The aim of this Book

  1. Origin
    1. A Controversial Religion
      1. The hostile image of Islam
      2. The idealized image of Islam
      3. The real image of Islam
    2. Problems of the Beginning
      1. Five thousand years of Near Eastern high religions
      2. Jews, Christians and Jewish Christians in Arabia
      3. Abraham – the common ancestor of the 'people of the book'
  2. Centre
    1. God's Word Has Become a Book
      1. The Qur’an – the specific feature of Islam
      2. The Qur’an – a book fallen from heaven?
    2. The Central Message
      1. There is no God but God
      2. Muhammad is his Prophet
      3. The Prophet as a leading figure
    3. The Central Structural Elements
      1. Mandatory prayer
      2. Almsgiving, fasting, pilgrimage
  3. History
    1. The Original Paradigm of the Islamic Community
      1. Abiding substance of faith – changing paradigms
      2. A religious vision realized
      3. The religious and social transformation
      4. From the Prophet to the Prophet’s representative
      5. The original community expands
      6. The beginnings of Islamic theology and law
      7. The great crisis in the original community: the split into parties
    2. The Paradigm of the Arab Empire
      1. From Medina to Damascus: the new centre of power
      2. The Shiite opposition
      3. Imperial religious politics under the aegis of Islam
      4. The origin of Islamic law
      5. A new community of many peoples
      6. A world empire comes into being
      7. A theological controversy with political consequences
      8. The crisis of the empire
    3. The Classical Paradigm of Islam As a World Religion
      1. A new era begins
      2. Classical Islam: a world culture
      3. The formation of the 'traditions of the Prophet', the Sunnah
      4. The four great law schools
      5. The second theological dispute: revelation and reason
      6. The state and theology
      7. The disintegration of the empire
    4. The Paradigm of the Ulama and Sufis
      1. After one empire, many states
      2. The Ulama: legal schools become popular movements
      3. The Sufis: mystics form themselves into brotherhoods
      4. Sufism as a mass movement
      5. Normative theology
      6. Theological Summas
      7. The rise and fall of Arabic philosophy
      8. The crisis of mediaeval Islam
    5. The Paradigm of Islamic Modernization
      1. Confrontation with European modernity
      2. The great Islamic empires: Mughals, Safavids, Ottomans
      3. How Europe challenged the world of Islam
      4. Between reform and reaction
  4. Challenges of the present
    1. Competition between Paradigms
      1. The secularist way
      2. The Islamist way
      3. The socialist way
    2. What Kind of Islam do Muslims Want?
      1. The contemporaneity of competing paradigms
      2. Islam in a constant state of change
    3. The Middle East Conflict and a New Paradigm
      1. Causes of conflict
      2. No end to the tragedy?
    4. New Approaches to Theological Conversation
      1. Yesterday's methods
      2. Dialogue about Jesus
    5. Speculative Questions
      1. Monotheism and Trinity
      2. Reflection on the Bible
    6. From Biblical Criticism to Qur’anic Criticism?
      1. Literal revelation?
      2. Critical exegesis
      3. A time-sensitive understanding of the Qur’an
  5. Possibilities for the future
    1. Islamic Renewal
      1. The programme
      2. Approaches towards realization
    2. The Future of the Islamic Legal Order
      1. The challenge to traditional legal systems
      2. The challenge of modern legal systems
      3. Religions and women – a relationship of tension
      4. Reforms are indispensable
    3. The Future of Islamic State Order and Politics
      1. State and religion – united or separated?
      2. Secularity without secularism
      3. Religion, violence and 'holy wars'
      4. War or peace?
    4. The Future of the Islamic Economic Order
      1. Is Islam the solution?
      2. Islamic traditions rediscovered
      3. Commerce and ethics
    5. The Future of the Islamic Way of Life
      1. Do clothes make people?
      2. Walking the tightrope between Islamism and secularism
      3. Dialogue rather than clash
      4. Controversies centred on the mosque

Epilogue: Islam, an Image of Hope

  1. From a hostile image to an image of hope
  2. An enlightened sense of religion
  3. The Muslim contribution to dialogue among civilizations


Why the book matters

Perspectives on religion are often very polarised. That is particularly the case with Christian and Muslim perspectives on Islam and Christianity respectively, given over 1000 years of military conflicts between empires and states that were primarily Muslim or Christian.

Furthermore, adherents of a religion often have difficulty writing about their own religion in a way that makes it accessible to those who do not practice it. Conversely accounts about a religion written by outsiders often degenerate into shallow polemic.

Against that background, several features make this book remarkable and special.

Kung is a deeply believing Roman Catholic theologian who never deviates from his belief in the fundamentals of Christianity. Despite that he has clearly undertaken immensely detailed study of the history and theology of Islam. It is impossible for any Muslim to dismiss what he has to say on the grounds that Kung has insufficient knowledge.

Muslims who write about the positive features of Islam are often dismissed by non-Muslims as presenting a selective vision of Islam in order to propagate it. Nobody can accuse Kung of wanting to spread Islam.

Kung provides a way of thinking about the history of Islam by dividing the past into a number of paradigms, each of which encapsulated in different ways the abiding substance of Islamic faith. They are listed in the above table of contents. He adopts Thomas S Kuhn’s definition of a paradigm: "An entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by the members of a given community."

A closer look at some sections

It is not practical to summarise the entire book. Instead I have taken a closer look at some of the specific sections that I found particularly noteworthy.

The aim of this Book

Kung sets out the global change of consciousness which he regards as vital for human survival:

"No peace among the nations
without peace among the religions.
No peace among the religions
without dialogue between the religions.
No dialogue between the religions
without investigation of the foundations of the religions."

Kung goes on to discuss Samuel Huntington's paradigm of foreign politics: "A clash of civilisations" and briefly reviews history since Huntington's article was first published.

A.I.2. The idealized image of Islam

Many Muslims are often dismissive of non-Muslims who write about Islam without appreciating the depth of their interest and fascination with Islam. I was struck by Kung’ specific illustration below:

"Jews and Christians can also be fascinated with Islam. A witness who is above suspicion is Ignaz Goldziher, one of the founders of modern Islamic studies. Goldziher, a Jewish scholar of Hungarian descent, lived in Damascus, and Cairo in 1873–4. In just a few pages, his diary shows impressively how one becomes a real Middle East expert. The spontaneous friendliness and welcome which anyone can experience even today in Middle Eastern countries quickly made the twenty-three-year-old from a strange country and religion familiar with the 'powerful world religion of Islam.' 'Moreover during these weeks I lived so much in the Mohammedan spirit that ultimately I became inwardly convinced that I myself was a Mohammedan, and shrewdly discovered that this is the only religion which can satisfy philosophical minds even in its official doctrinal form and formulation. My ideal was to raise Judaism to a similar rational level. My experience taught me that Islam is the only religion in which superstition and pagan rudiments are made taboo not by rationalism, but by orthodox doctrine.' He goes on: 'My way of thinking was utterly sympathetic to Islam; my sympathy also pulled me towards it subjectively. I called my monotheism Islam, and I was not lying if I said that I believed in the prophecies of Mohammed. My copy of the Qur’an can attest how I was inwardly drawn to Islam. My teachers earnestly longed for the moment of my open declaration.'

However, Goldziher remained a Jew and became a great scholar in Jewish studies."

A.II.1 Five thousand years of Near Eastern high religions

In a subsection "Arabia on the periphery of the great empires" Kung provides a fascinating overview of the geography and history of the Arabian Peninsula, and its location on the periphery of the fertile crescent constituted by the valley of the Nile, the Levant and Mesopotamia.

He points out the favourable climatic conditions of the south-west corner of the peninsula (now Yemen) which allowed agriculture and was also ideally located for trade between India and the Mediterranean countries, and how different it was from northern Arabia. He also points out how the Arab tribes spread from the peninsula north into Syria and the Mediterranean regions. "The Arabs were not remote from the great cultures, but on their doorstep." He draws a fascinating map of the area showing the racial and religious divisions in the period just before the birth of Islam.

A.II.2 Jews, Christians and Jewish Christians in Arabia

Kung writes "In Arabia in 600 CE there were Jews and Christians who believed in one God, but also Arabs who were neither Jews nor Christians."

In the subsection "The Jews in the competition over Arabia" Kung points out how long Jews had been present on the Arabian Peninsula. He also explains that Christianity was associated with Byzantium and Ethiopia, both of which were traditional enemies of South Arabia where Judaism was widely disseminated.

"The competition between Jews and Christians intensified in an ugly way in the first quarter of the sixth century: there was more than one Jewish persecution of Christians in southern Arabia. Clearly, no religion which has come to power is inoculated against the abuse of power. In particular King Yusuf (Dhu Nawas), who had converted to Judaism, attempted to disseminate Judaism systematically; he persecuted Christians, provoking a military intervention from Aksum, Christian Ethiopia. Numerous forcible conversions and destructions of churches and villages culminated in the massacre of Christians in Najran, today a city on the frontier between Saudi Arabia and the Yemen. Surah 85.1-9 of the Qur’an is said to refer to this event but the reference is disputed. At any rate this was the turning point: around a thousand years of dominance in southern Arabia was ended when in about 520 and Ethiopian expedition with Byzantine support crossed the strait of Bab al-Mandab, defeated the last Judaizing king of Himyar and for fifty years made southern Arabia an Ethiopian protectorate."

In the following subsection "Six centuries of Arab Christianity" Kung discusses the penetration of Christian influence on pre-Islamic Arabia, especially amongst the tribes of the north. There is a fascinating discussion of the differing receptivity of the Arabs to Hellenised Christianity and the original Jewish Christianity which he goes on to discuss in the following subsections, in particular the subsection "Jewish Christianity on the Arabian Peninsula?"

A.II.3 Abraham – the common ancestor of the 'people of the book'

Kung begins "The fundamental importance of Abraham for the history, piety and theology of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is obvious." After covering the Bible, Kung looks at the Islamic perspective in the subsection "Dispute over the Abrahamic Heritage: Qur’anic perspectives":

"In the Qur’an Abraham (Ibrahim) is the most frequently mentioned biblical figure after Moses. Around 245 versus in 25 surahs refer to him. There are striking parallels not only to biblical descriptions of Abraham but also to rabbinic descriptions outside the Bible. Historically, it is important that even before Muhammad's emergence as Prophet there was a monotheistic reform movement among Arabs that appealed to the 'religion of Abraham'. It adherents were called hanif, meaning something like 'God-seeker' or 'devoted to God'. Reports about the hanif, which appear at an early stage in Islamic historiography, are also accepted by critical historical research today: 'Here and there in ancient Arabia even before Muhammad there must have been reflective people, prone to brooding, who no longer found any satisfaction in the indigenous religious tradition and took up all the more readily ideas which were currently offered by Christians and Jews – if we may put it this way –, making them their own. It can be indirectly inferred from the language of the Qur’an that in particular they confessed monotheism. Here the term hanif has the meaning of something like "Muslim monotheist"'.

Kung goes on to cover the Islamic view of Abraham in detail.

B.I.1 The Qur’an – the specific feature of Islam

Many non-Muslims failed to understand the centrality of the Qur’an to Islam. Accordingly Kung explains this in great detail. He begins section B.I. "God’s Word has Become a Book" by pointing out "It was always a fundamental Christian misunderstanding of Islam to think that the Prophet occupied the same position in Islam as Jesus Christ in Christianity." He points out that whereas in Christianity one can say, to quote the Gospel of John "The Word has been made flesh" in Islam rather "God's Word has become a book."

Kung quotes the full English translation of the first surah in the Qur’an, "The opening" (al-fatihah), and asks "But cannot this fatihah, the foundation, sum and quintessence of Islam, also be prayed by a Jew or a Christian? I have done so, with conviction, in a Muslim context, and such prayer is reported from trialogue meetings all over the world."

In the subsection "The Qur’an – an Arabic, living, holy book" Kung explains:

"The Qur’an (al-Qur’an) is the centre of Islam. Over fourteen hundred years Islam has time and again fundamentally changed its social order; one political ideology has given away to another and cultural systems have undergone epoch-making paradigms changes. What remained in all the changes of persons, structures, institutions and interpretations? The Qur’an is the origin, source and norm of all that is Islamic, all Islamic faith, action and life. It is given the highest, absolute, authority. Western sociologists, political theorists, philologists and historians must take seriously what the Qur’an means in the lives of believing Muslims."

Kung goes on to explain:

"For Muslims the Qur’an is not a relic of the past. It is a living, holy book in Arabic. Every word in this description is important.

– It is a book. That has the advantage that every believer knows where he is. Here is everything that God has revealed directly. Here one can unequivocally hold on to what God wills. So nothing can be changed here. On the contrary, the Muslim is to stamp everything on his memory as early as possible, as a school child. This book proclaims 'Islam', 'submission to God'; it regulates the life of Muslims and teaches them their obligations.

– It is one book. Unlike the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an is not a collection of very different writings which to the outsider initially seem to have no common denominator. Nor is it like the New Testament, which offers its message in four very different Gospels that contradict one another in many details and are therefore the occasion for some confusion. The Qur’an is a single book, handed down by one and the same prophet within twenty-two years, and therefore is a coherent unity, despite differences in period and style. It was put in order later (by and large according to length) in 114 sections denoted by the Arabic term surah, plural suwar, these in turn consist of verses, the smallest textual units ('signs': ayah, plural ayat). There is mention of a book (kitab) in the Qur’an itself.

– It is an Arabic book. Its 6666 verses form the oldest Arabic prose work: more than anything else it promoted the dissemination of the Arabic language and script; to the present day it has a normative function in syntax and morphology. But the Qur’an is above all the book of revelation given to the Arabs, so that now they too, like Jews and Christians, are possessors of Scripture, 'people of the book' (ahl al-kitab).…

– It is a living book. The Qur’an is not a book which sits on the bookshelf like a rarely used household Bible or is mainly read silently. It is a book which is recited aloud in public time and again: qur’an comes from the word qara’a, 'read aloud, recite', and means 'reading' or 'lecture' in all (fundamentally four) senses of the word: first the act of presenting the revealed text (revelation to Muhammad, then handing down by Muhammad), then the presented text itself, and finally the book of reading and lecture. The Prophet handed down precisely what he heard.

It is a book which, made to resound with the rhyming prose of its surahs and verses, can and should be recited rhythmically. It words and sentences accompany Muslims from the hour of their birth, when the Qur’anic confession of faith is spoken in their ear, to their last hour, when the words of the Qur’an accompany them into eternity."

I confess that as I dictated the preceding paragraph into my computer, I broke down and cried because it brought back memories of my father reading the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) into the ears of each of my first three children after their births, and the memory of my father’s ghusl, which was the first time I participated in the religious washing of a deceased Muslim’s body before burial.

“– It is a holy book. The Qur’an is not a book like any other, that one can also touch with dirty hands and read in an unclean spirit. Before reading it, one is to cleanse one’s hands with water or sand and open one’s heart by a humble prayer. It is… omnipresent: artistically chiselled in stone, embroidered or painted on tiles, its verses adorn Islamic buildings and works of metal and wood, ceramics, miniature paintings and tapestry.… The Muslim house of God, the mosque, has no pictures – the calligraphy of the Qur’an is enough. Muslim worship has neither instrument nor choral singing – the recitation of the Qur’an is music enough. For Muslims the Qur’an is, in Christian terms, word and sacrament in one,… in an incomparable way, because it comes directly from God. It is not only ‘inspired’ by God but ‘revealed’ by God and therefore directly ‘the word of God’ (kalimat Allah).

C.I.2 A religious vision realized

Kung poses an interesting question about the nature of the original Islamic community in the subsection “A religion of law?” He concludes that it was not.

“Muhammad, who had been brought to Medina as an arbitrator (hakam), soon rose, on the basis of his political and military might, to be a legislator. However, he did not exercise his power within the existing legal system but without a system. His authority was not legal; for believers it was religious and for sceptics political. Muhammad changed and expanded the Arab system of arbitration and the old Arab customary law.… The Qur’an is silent on many legal questions, leaving them to Arab customary law. Joseph Schacht, author of the fundamental history of Islamic law, remarks: ‘Generally speaking, Muhammad had little reason to change the existing customary law. His aim as a Prophet was not to create a new system of law; it was to teach men how to act, what to do, and what to avoid in order to pass the reckoning on the Day of Judgement and enter Paradise’

So is Islam a religion of the law? Originally it was not a religion of the law but the religion of an ethic. The Qur’an is concerned with ethical imperatives for human society, not all of which were new. However, on the new basis of faith these norms worked in favour of more justice, fairness, restraint, moderation, mediation, compassion and forgiveness, though this was not transposed into a legal structure of rights and responsibilities. As Schacht remarks: ‘Had religious and ethical standards been comprehensively applied to all aspects of human behaviour, and had they been consistently followed in practice, there would have been no room and no need for a legal system in the narrow meaning of the term.”

It is striking that only around six hundred of the 6666 verses of the Qur’an are concerned with legal questions and most of these with religious obligations and practices (such as ritual prayer, fasting and pilgrimage); only around 80 verses contain directly legal material.”

C.I.5 The original community expands

Given the speed of expansion, Kung asks in a subsection “How was Arab-Islamic expansion possible?” He points out that “One answer lies with their opponents. Byzantium and Persia, the great powers of the region, had been fatally weakened by a policy of revenge which lasted for decades and were also internally unstable.”

He refers to the book “Early Islamic Conquests” by Fred McGraw Donner of Chicago who concluded that environmental factors such as hunger, overpopulation or drying out of Arab pasture land (none of which have been verified) could not explain the organised military expansion of the Arabs. Instead Donner concluded that there was a deliberate policy of conquest and settlement on the part of the Islamic elites which served to turn outward warlike energy that might otherwise have led to internal conflicts within Arabia.

Kung quotes Donner “The Muslims succeeded, then, primarily because they were able to organise an effective conquest movement, and in this context the impact of the new religion of Islam, which provided the ideological underpinnings for this remarkable breakthrough in social organisation, can be more fully appreciated. In this sense, the conquests were truly an Islamic movement. For it was Islam – the set of religious beliefs preached by Muhammad, with its social and political ramifications – that ultimately sparked the whole integration process and hence was the ultimate cause of the conquests’ success.”

One of the most important subsections of the book is “Neither assimilation of the Muslims nor conversion of the Christians”. Kung tackles directly the myth that Islam was spread by the sword.

“The Christian caricature of Islam, still widespread to the present day, includes the idea that Islam spread with nothing but ‘fire and sword’. Historically, Arab power certainly spread, with warlike violence, over vast areas that had formerly been Christian (or Zoroastrian). But what about the Islamic religion? Were whole villages, cities, regions and provinces forcibly converted to Islam? Muslim historiography knows nothing of this and would have had no reason to keep quiet about it. Western historical research, too, has understandably not been able to shed any light here either. In reality, everything happened quite differently – at any rate in this first paradigm of Islam. We can start from the fact that the territorial extension of the Islamic state did not mean the spiritual extension of the Islamic religion.”

Kung goes on to explain that as early as 637 (after the conquest of Syria) Caliph Umar set out the principles regarding how the conquered territories should be administered.

“Non-Muslims were not to convert to Islam but, in the first instance, to pay taxes (jizyah) to the conquerors. Islam was understood primarily as an Arab religion, a religion for Arabs, and so it was to remain. Economic exploitation was another matter: the Muslims had few scruples here, and acted shrewdly. They had learned from the Prophet that they had to negotiate at the right moment. If people were politically submissive to them, they showed an amazing readiness to enter into treaties that often let the inhabitants (who previously had been heavily burdened with taxes by the Byzantines) live better than before.”

What about the missionary religious zeal for conversion? The Arabs did not develop such zeal. Nowhere are there reports of the conversion of whole towns, villages or regions, far less of forcible conversions. There are reports that the Arabs, who levied only moderate taxes, were hailed in many places as liberators; by contrast the Orthodox Christians were extraordinarily unpopular amongst the Monophysite and Nestorian peoples in Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia.

The Arabs practised segregation everywhere in this first phase of the conquests. Conversions were not wanted; Christian children were not to read the Qur’an. Conversions meant a loss of taxation and led to unnecessary problems of status among the Muslim elite and demands for the same financial privileges. At most the conversion of some Christian Arab Bedouin tribes in the marginal zones was accepted (others remained Christian) or the conversion of important individuals, for example officials, scribes or soldiers in the service of the new power. This rapidly growing number of new Muslims who were not of Arab origin (mawali) made an essential contribution to the gradual Islamisation of the traditional institutions, though they by no means enjoyed equal rights. Conversely, conversions from Islam to another religion were strictly forbidden, later on pain of death.”

D.VI.2 Critical exegesis

Kung is of course familiar with the work of John Wansbrough and his book “Qur’anic studies” which he discusses in the subsection “Insights  and hypotheses of Western exegesis of the Qur’an”. He points out that in the same year that “Qur’anic studies” was published, the British Arabist John Burton in “The Collection of the Qur’an” concluded that the present-day text of the Qur’an derives from the Prophet himself. Kung also briefly discusses the theories of Gunter Luling and Christoph Luxenberg who each consider there are Christian sources incorporated within the Qur’an.

Kung sets out his own view:

“There is hypothesis upon hypothesis in a discussion that seems to move in extremes, as the investigation of the Bible sometimes does. As a Christian theologian who is not an Arabist, I am cautious about passing judgement but sometimes I am reminded of the early days of historical-biblical criticism, between 1840 and 1880, when radical critics such as Bruno Baur wrote big books to prove that the whole of the New Testament was a second-century forgery, that the picture of Jesus in the Gospels was the product of the creative idea of an ‘Ur-evangelist’ and that Christianity was a product of the Greek spirit, born not in Palestine but in Alexandria and Rome. This was a challenge to New Testament research but not an answer that finally gained scholarly assent.

As for the Qur’an, I go along with Angelika Neuwirth’s precise ‘Studies On the Composition of the Meccans Surahs’. Trained in the form criticism of the Old Testament, she demonstrates that at least the Meccan surahs were put together for liturgical recitation by the Prophet himself and that behind the present text a single will is engaged in the shaping. It is not enough to think of a mere adapter who has cobbled together variants with ‘scissors and paste’.”

In the following subsection “New insights of Muslim exegesis of the Qur’an” Kung writes:

“Given time, will yet more Islamic scholars allow themselves to be convinced of the value of such solid and cautious historical-critical research? If there is biblical criticism (in favour of a contemporary biblical faith), why not a historical criticism of the Qur’an with a thoroughly constructive, not destructive intent (in favour of a contemporary Muslim faith)? Christians and Muslims need to continue to keep talking about this difficult but fundamental point of the understanding of revelation. To make progress we need not only Christian scholars of Islam but also Muslim scholars of Christianity – and, so far, these hardly exist. We shall not make any real advances in Christian-Islamic dialogue if we do not give an account of the understanding of truth that is necessary for the application of the tools of historical criticism. In the longer term, the possibility cannot be excluded that in the more self-confident Islam which is also disseminated in the West, and which in many respects seeks to assimilate Western science and culture, historical criticism of the holy book will also be allowed and put into practice.”

Kung goes on to illustrate how dangerous such perspectives “can still be dangerous for a Muslim today, just as a heterodox view was for a Catholic at the height of the Inquisition or for a liberal Protestant in Calvin’s Geneva.”

Concluding comments

Kung’s book is on a truly massive scale. However, despite the length, it is very easy to read.

The brief extracts above give a flavour of Kung’s discussion of a few issues that I found particularly interesting. However his coverage of the rest of the table of contents is every bit as illuminating.

It is of course not necessary to agree with everything an author writes in order to benefit from reading their book. In my opinion all Muslims who take a serious interest in Islam will benefit from reading this book by a great Christian thinker.

Non-Muslims who have a serious interest in learning about Islam, its origins, theology and history, along with the challenges facing Muslims today, will find this book invaluable. The fact that it is written by a leading Christian should give them confidence that the coverage of Islam has not been distorted to make it look more favourable.


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