Thomas F. Michel has spent 40 years engaging Islam and Islamic thought from a Christian perspective. Orbis here presents a collection of his essays addressing Christian-Muslim relations through historical, cultural, and theological lenses. As the introduction by editor Irfan A. Omar points out of Michel, “what the reader experiences through his writings are the effects of faith in action on both sides,” and this is certainly a consistent theme throughout the collection (4).
The first section of the collection deals with interreligious dialogue, or the encounter with “the other.” Michel’s essays in this section concern themselves with the basic requirements for dialogue, particularly from the perspective of Christian theology. Especially valuable here is Michel’s essay “Creating a Culture of Dialogue” and its reflection on the relationship of dialogue and proclamation: “dialogue and proclamation can never be neatly detached from each other in actual life. It is all part of one thing, a life lived together” (25).
The second set of essays concerns Christian-Muslim dialogue more specifically. These are some of the most interesting essays in the book, and each addresses an important aspect of the relationship between Christianity and Islam. “Social and Religious Factors Affecting Christian-Muslim Relations” gives an excellent historical and contemporary overview of how these two religious groups relate to one another. “Towards a Dialogue of Liberation with Muslims” and “Christian and Muslim Fundamentalism” both deal, in different ways, with the need for Christianity and Islam to have a common dialogue with modernity. In the former Michel notes well that interreligious dialogue needs to be in touch both with cultural dialogue and “the centrality of ongoing dialogue with the poor” (70), to avoid it becoming a province of elites that neglects many if not most actual believers in both traditions.
The third and final section of the book deals with the title issue of “A Christian view of Islam.” This section is by far the most eclectic, including material about seventeenth-century Jesuits and Islam, terrorism, Islamic nonviolence, ecology, holiness and ethics. The varied nature of the essays in some ways makes this the least internally cohesive part of the volume, but it still contains valuable insights. The essay on terrorism is particularly useful for those beginning to learn about Islam or teaching those in such a position, as it delineates clearly the actual belief of most Muslims on this issue and thus helps to break down stereotypes. As Michel puts it in a quote that could well summarize his whole project, “Christian-Muslim dialogue is not something that can wait until easy relationships characterize the two communities around the world, but a need that must be pursued in the midst of and despite the tensions and conflicts of our time” (155).
Michel’s essays provide important insights into issues surrounding Christian-Muslim dialogue for those who are already familiar with the basic issues and vocabulary of both traditions. Read as a whole or in large sections, the book could be a useful resource for an upper-level undergraduate class on Islam or inter-religious dialogue. Individual essays, especially the essay concerning terrorism and Islam, might also prove helpful for entry-level courses.