Recently I was in Oxford for a week, teaching at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (the OCCA), on their one-year training programme. It was set up and is run by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). I worked for them for six years – and am still an adjunct speaker for them today. I worked in partnership with an academic colleague from Australia called Richard Shumack, and together we taught the students about Islam. We looked at the origins of Islam, Islamic history, the Koran, Muslim beliefs and theology – examining what our Muslim friends think about a whole range of things. Much of the teaching was orientated around the ways in which as Christians we can share our faith with our Muslim friends, neighbours and colleagues. Specifically, how we can answer the kinds of questions that Muslims typically have about the Christian faith.
It was a brilliant week. One of the highlights was that on the Tuesday, Richard Shumack did a debate with an Muslim scholar from Oxford. Richard and I both did our doctorates in Islamic studies, and while mine was in the Qur’ān, his was in philosophy and doctrine. Shabbir Akhtar, who is one of the most influential Muslim scholars working in the West, represented Islam. It’s always great to interact with Shabbir, because he is such a lovely, likeable chap, who we get on really well with. He’s very unusual in that, while he is a Muslim scholar he has written a commentary on the New Testament book of Galatians, and he really understands Christian faith. Most Muslim scholars, at least the ones I’ve spoken to at length, haven’t really spent much time reading and understanding the Christian faith. Shabbir is rare in that he has, and according to Richard Shumack – Shabbir really understands Paul. He doesn’t agree with Paul, but has really grasped Paul’s message.
In Richard and Shabbir’s dialogue (it’s probably fairer to call it a dialogue than a debate), the big issue for Shabbir is the Incarnation of Christ. For him it is impossible to imagine God coming into space, time and history which he describes as ‘incoherent’. Richard questioned Shabbir on that assertion, and explained why he found the belief credible and coherent.
After the dialogue, the students were given the opportunity to ask both speakers questions, and to drill down into both their arguments. It’s the second of these dialogues that Richard and Shabbir have done, and because they are both very well informed and great guys – these sessions are both informative and friendly. I think that kind of dialogue with speakers of this quality will be really helpful for the OCCA students.