by Rana Asfour
Published by Motivate
To purchase: go to booksarabia.com
Reverend Canon Andrew Thompson has lived in the Middle East for many years. Currently the Senior Chaplain of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi, his book ‘Jesus of Arabia’ published by Motivate proved to be a most interesting read over the weekend.
My use of the word ‘interesting’ is deliberate. Contrary to previous book purchases, I had no expectations whatsoever regarding the content of the book and knew nothing about its author. No one I knew had read it. And since I’m doing honesty, I admit that it was the title that sold it for me. Since moving back to the Middle East, it seems that all it takes is for someone to stick the word ‘Arabia’ before or after a title and my attention is piqued. I am not sure what this says about me at the moment, yet as this is neither place nor article for self-examination, I will hurriedly dismiss it as an over-eagerness to learn all about a region I currently call home.
The idea for the book according to its author began as a series of conversations for a video project on interfaith dialogue with filmmaker Ray Haddad (you can watch one Vimeo HERE). With a forward note penned by His Excellency Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development in the UAE, Thompson’s work is seen as a projection of the underlying principles that are at the core of everyday life in the UAE. In complete support of the book, H.E. writes:
‘Uniting people of differing faiths, finding common ground among those who come from different cultural traditions, harnessing the core values that are common to all religions – these principles are consistent with the aims of the United Arab Emirates … the UAE has committed itself to bridging the gaps that separate people of different cultures, discovering and celebrating the bonds that unite them’.
The structure of the book adopts the ‘jizz’ categories (jizz is actually a term related to birds) or essential components of the Arab spirit as outlined by former British diplomat Mark Allen in his book ‘Arabs’. Now, here’s where the book gets its ‘interesting’ factor: Thompson does two things simultaneously; he informs the reader of the essential components of Arabian Gulf culture and then relates the teachings of Jesus to them. These components include the themes of blood (the importance of tribe and family), religion (how it shapes communities and serves as law), the role of women, and language (Arabic is the vehicle of God’s speech).
As he describes it, the Reverend writes as a ‘Western expatriate Christian, seeking to engage with the culture of the Arabian Gulf through the stories and teachings of Jesus Christ’. According to Thompson the book is about exploring the common ground between the faiths using Arabian Gulf culture as a mediator. It is not, he writes, ‘a narrative or a reconstruction of the Jesus of orthodox Christian faith or history’ nor is it a manual aiming to ‘convert’ people to his way of thinking.
In the process, the reader is offered a rare education into the daily life of the UAE’s locals that is insightful and fascinating; The Gulf Arabs’ (Khaleejis) wedding and banquet protocols, pearls (mentioned in both the Qur’an and Bible as a symbol of eternal life), fasting, camel beauty contests, where to sit in a ‘majlis’ and even a section on how Abu Dhabi got its name. There are chapters on scent (indicator of wealth in the same way a car is), bread (a staple diet in the Gulf) and even running (why Arabs don’t run). And did you know that a monastery in Sir Bani Yas Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi provides the first real evidence of the pre-Islamic Christian presence in the region? And did you know that other churches were found on Failaka island in Kuwait and in Jubail on the Eastern coast of Saudi Arabia and that some of the most important theologians and liturgists emerged from monastic communities based in Bahrain, Oman, Abu Dhabi and Qatar? Well, neither did I.
It is historically well known that storytelling and poetry are highly treasured by Gulf Arabs. In general, the people of the Middle East have a longstanding oral tradition and, according to Thompson, Jesus was not only a part of this but employed it in his teachings as well. In the same manner, the Holy Qur’an provides the lectionary ‘which peppers daily dialogue of the Gulf Arab and the ability to compose and recite poetry is seen as the epitome of learning’. Meaning? The two religions share very much in common when compared in this manner by Reverend Thompson.
However, there are differences that Thompson cannot, does not ignore in the text. Least of all is that the eternal word of God in Islam was revealed as a book, but for Christians it was a person. Others include the subjects of the Trinity, the integrity of the Bible, the identity of Jesus and the events of his death. He addresses them in a chapter entitled ‘The Elephant in the Room’.
The author’s reasoning throughout the book relies on exegesis; the discipline of ‘reading out’ of the sacred text the behaviour, culture, religion and meanings of the world that Jesus inhabited at the time’. He believes that it is in this area of exegesis that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims might yield fruitful insights. But Thompson is also aware of the criticisms that may be levelled at his book and he mentions those in detail in his conclusion. He also suggests a vey important point regarding the possibility of conducting research and interviews that could provide fresh perspective on what the stories of Jesus mean to the culture of the contemporary Gulf Arab.
Reverend Thompson believes that the Bible is a Middle Eastern book that has a lot to say that is relevant not only to Middle Easterners but to the world. Islam, a religion that has defined the Arab World since the seventh century, is entwined in every aspect of Arab culture making it ‘thoroughly difficult to separate Islamic culture from the religion’, and it too carries a message to the world. Regardless of their apparent differences, both religions agree that we can encounter God anywhere ‘as long as our hearts are turned in prayer’ and that a religion, any religion, devoid of compassion ‘is a religion that becomes estranged from God’.
‘Jesus of Arabia’ is a pioneering, intelligent, brief (194 pages) easy-to-read approach to tackling the thorny subject of interfaith dialogue particularly in a region that is undergoing modernization at incredible speed; A region that still ‘pockets traditional communities who boast of following a way of life, which has not changed for centuries’. The Reverend, an expert on interfaith dialogue, concedes to many hurdles along the path but none that cannot be overcome by Muslims and Christians simply listening to one another, setting up communal practices of reading sacred scriptures, and engaging in those conversations that such a respectful interaction creates; an interaction that can ultimately lead to a deepening knowledge of one’s own traditions as well as that of others.
Inside Leaf of hardcover:
Jesus was a man raised by Joseph and Mary, a preacher with followers, who questioned religious establishments and was sentenced to death. His legacy has endured for more than 2,000 years and has proved to be a divisive one. Today, he is simultaneously recognized as a historical figure, a prophet and as the Messiah. But on this last point Islam and Christianity are divided.
Jesus is often viewed as an abstract figure, one who stood apart from society. Andrew Thompson explores the role of Jesus as a man particularly as a Middle Easterner, considering the social obligations placed on Him an the impact of His teachings in a Middle Eastern community, both then and now.
‘Jesus of Arabia’ looks at the bridges between Islam and Christianity and how the two communities often mirror one another despite their differences. Andrew Thompson uses his experience as a priest in the Church of England and his many years living in the Middle East to analyse the often-conflicting roles and loyalties concerning family, culture and God.
A timely and incisive work, ‘Jesus of Arabia’ invites us to consider the contemporary views held of the Middle East and how a figure like Jesus might be received today.
The Reverend Canon Andrew Thompson MBE is Senior Chaplain of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Abu Dhabi. He holds degrees in Behavioural Sciences and Islamic studies, and trained to be a priest for the Church of England at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He was ordained in Derby Cathedral. He is currently writing his PhD thesis on Christian-Muslim Relations in the Gulf.
Over the years he has served the Church in the UK and in several countries in the Middle East and the Gulf. His previous publications include 'The Christian Church in Kuwait: Religious Freedom in the Gulf' and ‘Christianity in the United Arab Emirates: Culture and Heritage’.
He was earlier a newspaper columnist and featured recently in a documentary on Christian-Muslim dialogue shown at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
In 2011 he was awarded an MBE by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for services to Human Rights and Interfaith Dialogue. He is a canon of Bahrain Cathedral in the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. He is married with three children.