Journal of Comparative Theology » Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism – BOOK REVIEW

Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism – BOOK REVIEW

Lamptey, Jerusha Tanner. Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism. New York : Oxford University Press, 2014 (xiv, 333 pages)

Review by James Shelton Nalley, Harvard Divinity School

            Jerusha Tanner Lamptey’s first book, Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism, is not only well written, but also an insightful text for all wishing to approach the question of religious pluralism from a Qur’anic perspective.  The title of the book details the two-pronged approach to her study.  She draws the first part of her title from the work of J.Z. Smith, who, in his work on religious difference, coins the phrase “proximate other.” That is, “the other who claims to be you. It is the Other-who-can-never-be-wholly-other”.[i]  Part two of her title, muslima, details her approach to theology of religious pluralism.  The Arabic term muslima, meaning a female who submits and is devoted to God, indicates her position as a “believing and practicing muslim” as well as her status as a woman.[ii]

Her book is divided into three sections.  Part one is both an historical and contemporary approach to the question of religious difference from within the Islamic tradition.  She describes both the historical and contemporary approach to the question of pluralism from within the Islamic tradition to have overemphasized either sameness or difference to the exclusion of the other, a tendency she hopes to avoid in her own muslima theology. The second part of the book provides an overview of the sources that she uses as the foundation for muslima theology.  She begins by looking at Muslim women interpreters of the Qur’an.  The first key point of method that Lamptey takes from Barlas, Wadud, and Hassan is her approach to religious pluralism and the Qur’an, viz., she employs the method of tafsīr al-Qur’ān bil-Qur’ān (interpretation of the Qur’an through the Qur’an).  She also builds upon the distinction between lateral difference and hierarchical difference, originally utilized to disentangle biological sex from evaluative judgment. Lamptey uses this insight to examine religious difference, claiming that various religious communities constitute lateral difference, whereas hierarchical difference is based on individual expression of taqwā or, as Lamptey translates, God consciousness or piety.[iii]  An expression of taqwā consists of belief, gratitude, humility, response to divine guidance and fear of God.  Taqwā consists of a combination of how one relates to both God and community.

In addition to drawing upon the insights from female commentators on the Qur’an and feminist theologians in other traditions, Lamptey also utilizes the methodology of Toshihiko Izutsu, who developed his own understanding of the Qur’anic weltanschauung through semantic analysis, which is demonstrating the interrelationship of various key terms in the text.  This method fits in well with the tafsīr al-Qur’ān bil-Qur’ān.  She is able to connect various terms related to Taqwā by using Izutsu’s method.

Part three of the book is where Lamptey’s genius comes through.  She maps out the complex and dynamic semantic field of taqwā in relation to hanīf (which she translates as “nondenominational monotheist”), islām (as submission to God and not the community of Muḥammad), īmān (faith or belief), nifāq (hypocrisy), shirk (ascribing partners to God), and kufr (rejection, concealment, ingratitude, or disbelief).  She demonstrates that the Qur’anic discourse concerning these terms reveals a dynamism and gradation in all of the various ways humanity manifests these qualities.  As a result, one can simultaneously posses īmān and nifāq or shirk, and that even the kufr can be found within Islam (as the community of Muhammad).

In the final chapter she asks a series of provocative questions on how the muslim community can rethink its relationship with other traditions, as well as the relationship of the Qur’an to other revelation.  Since she argues that lateral religious difference, i.e., belonging to a particular religious community, is not a source of evaluation, the source of evaluation is to be found in the degree to which one manifests taqwā.  As a result, she argues that all revelation, both natural (signs in nature) and gratuitous (supernatural revelation), is intended to call people to manifest taqwā, and that the Qur’an does not endorse the position that one revelation can replace or add to another; rather, the variety of revelation itself is a sign or ayā from God, and the one who manifests taqwā will affirm all revelation as being from God despite the various laws, rites, and rituals that a particular revelation gives to a community, since laws, rites, and rituals are a source of lateral difference, and not hierarchical difference.

Not only does this work contribute to the muslim discourse concerning religious pluralism, it offers a way of thinking about difference and sameness that the Christian community can use to reflect on the same issues.  A possible analogous approach from within the Catholic tradition could look at the manifestation of spiritual gifts, fruits, and vices as a source for evaluating hierarchical difference between individuals across religious boundaries rather than evaluating the lateral difference of belonging to various communities.  The approach that Lamptey puts forth in this book also forces people to engage others as individuals first and foremost, and not as microcosms of a particular religion.  Since the manifestation, or lack thereof, of taqwā is not automatically associated with a particular religious community, one cannot assume any kind of religious privilege based on a religious affiliation.

While her work is admittedly focused on the Qur’an and the Qur’an only, does this work provide a viable means to approaching the question of religious pluralism and diversity after an encounter with the religious other?  For example, if lateral difference is divinely intended, but all revelation is sent for the manifestation of taqwā, how do we account for the religious traditions, i.e., lateral differences, that emphasize devotion to a variety of deities in order to realize true human potentiality and purpose?  In this case, it would therefore require shirk in order to actualize taqwā (at least according to the tradition in question).

Despite the aforementioned question, this book will be useful to anyone studying the Qur’an, feminism, or questions of religious pluralism, and as a scholarly community, it is my belief that we can expect great work from Lamptey in the years to come.


[i] Lamptey, Jerusha Tanner. Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism. 2014. p 73

[ii] ibid p 7

[iii] ibid p 92



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