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Seminary Community Mourns the Passing of Bishop Kenneth Cragg
Bishop Kenneth Cragg, Professor of Arabic and Islamics at Hartford Seminary from 1951 to 1958 and co-editor of The Muslim World journal, has passed away. Cragg had a special commitment to Christian-Muslim dialogue that influenced generations of religious leaders and academic scholars.
Lucinda Mosher, Faculty Associate for Interfaith Studies, wrote on learning of his passing:
"Today, from various colleagues in the Network of Inter Faith Concerns of the Anglican Communion, I received word of the death this morning of the Right Reverend Dr Kenneth Cragg. He would have turned 100 years old on March 8, 2013. Best known for his very first book, The Call of the Minaret, he published many, many more books and articles, continuing to write until quite recently. His colleague in the Church of England, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, says of him: "Kenneth Cragg was one of the most distinguished Christian scholars of Islam in the hundred years that have spanned his life….His passing creates a gap in scholarship which needs to be filled by those committed to a rigorous study of languages, sources and the history of the world of Islam and of Muslim-Christian Encounter.”
The Anglican Communion News Service posted the following commentary:
The death of Bishop Kenneth Cragg at the age of 99 on 13 November 2012 brings to a close an earthly life as priest, bishop and missionary scholar, through which his unique commitment to engagement between Christians and Muslims ran as a powerful thread. He has had a immense influence on following generations – many of whom became his personal friends as well as his intellectual admirers, loving him for his unostentatious humility, for his play on words and the special twinkle in his eye, as well as the rich insights which he offered. He was seen by peers and pupils as a – perhaps the – leading Protestant Islamicist – and his book The Call of the Minaret, first published in the 1950s, pioneered a new approach to Islam, based on understanding, appreciation and seeking resonances with the Christian Gospel. He was the last of that great era epitomised by Max Warren and John V Taylor who found their roots in an 'evangelicalism without the hyphen' as Max Warren put it and sought to engage with sensitivity and Christian commitment to those of other faiths and none.
Going to Lebanon in 1939, Kenneth Cragg became Chaplain of All Saints Church, Beirut and Adjunct Professor at the American University there. His posts then included the Professorship of Arabic and Islamics at Hartford Seminary, Connecticut (during which time he was Co-editor of The Muslim World Journal) and afterwards he became a Canon of St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem and Travelling Secretary of the Near East Council of Churches. He became Sub-Warden and then Warden of the Central College of the Anglican Communion in Canterbury and then an Assistant Bishop, based in Cairo. Subsequently he was a professor at the University of Sussex and then Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Wakefield where there was opportunity to meet with British Muslims. After retiring in 1981 he continued to write, teach and travel until recent years. Even into his mid-nineties, Kenneth Cragg continued to think deeply, speak fluently without notes and to produce about a book a year. Deeply steeped in English Literature, he wrote a significant number of poems, each distinguished, like his books and learned articles, by originality of thought and language.
Kenneth Cragg stood out among scholars and theologians as one of very few who had the inner conviction to seek the truth in so deep an engagement with a faith other than his own. As a pen name that he used on a number of occasions emphasized, he sought above all to be a servant of mutual understanding. His desire was not to suggest that he is right but to find what is right and true, what truly expresses our best understanding about God and where Christians and Muslims are on common ground in this.
In seeking to ponder the depths of another faith, there was no suspension or dissolution of his own. At the core of his being was the conviction and experience of the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. So there can be no dodging the hard questions, no intellectual bargaining or good-natured compromise. His wrestling with understanding Islam has never been a merely academic exercise. Personal relations have always been at its heart. One of his favourite concepts was that of hospitality, not merely in the meeting, listening and conversing but in the mind’s seeking the depth of Muslim intentions.
While Bishop Cragg’s main work was in the field of Christian-Muslim relations, he also explored the other Abrahamic Faith, Judaism, not least in his pondering on the meaning of Jerusalem. From the outset of his time in the Middle East he felt keenly part of the Arab Christian Community. This was embodied in his book The Arab Christian, which examines the history and place of this Arab minority in the context of the wider Middle East World and not least its Muslim majority.
On Kenneth Cragg’s ninetieth birthday in 2003, a number of his colleagues and friends offered him a Festschrift A Faithful Presence to mark the occasion. This was presented to him at Lambeth Palace by Archbishop Rowan Williams, who commented in his own introduction to the volume: ‘Bishop Kenneth Cragg’s uniquely rich contribution to the life and mission of the Anglican Communion has been treasured in the many parts of the world where he has lived and worked. As parish priest, teacher and bishop, his ministry has been characterized by a self-effacing humility which has in itself eloquently commended the Christ of Christ. The depth of his theological engagement with other faiths, and notably Islam, continues to be a tremendous asset at a time when, in the Communion as in the whole of our world, wisdom in this sensitive field is so urgently needed.’ On hearing of Bishop Cragg’s death, Archbishop Rowan reiterated these sentiments in a tribute which appeared on the Archbishop’s website.
Tribute has also been paid to Kenneth Cragg by Most Revd Mouneer Anis, Anglican Bishop in Egypt and President Bishop of the Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Bishop Mouneer writes:
“Those who heard Kenneth Cragg talking about Jesus Christ could tell how much he loved the Lord. It is difficult for me to forget his tears every time he talked about the sacrificial love of Jesus.
Bishop Kenneth Cragg was very well-known here in the Arab World for his scholarly writings on Islam. He lived for many years here in the Middle East and developed friendships with many Muslims whom he sincerely loved. Many Muslim scholars loved and respected him too! He wrote and spoke about the major differences between Christianity and Islam, but the love that filled his heart towards Muslims embraced these differences. He also made a great contribution in revealing the common grounds between Islam and Christian-ity. I had the privilege of joining him in several seminars about Islam and Christianity here in Cairo and in the UK. His contribution to our Diocese and the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East will never be forgotten. We remember with great affection his time as an Assistant Bishop for the Diocese of Egypt and North Africa from 1970-1974. Until recently, he continued to be a faithful and active member of the Egypt Diocesan Association. He was the one who chose the current site of All Saints Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt. We shall remember him as we celebrate the Silver Jubilee of All Saints Cathedral in November 2013.”
Internationally renowned scholar of Christian-Muslim relations, Professor Yvonne Haddad of Georgetown University, who had known Kenneth Cragg personally since her own student days in the Middle East, commented: ‘Cragg’s passing away is a major loss of a steadfast voice who pioneered and set the terms for a positive engagement between Christians and Muslim in interfaith dialogue. In a long and amazing career, he remained at the forefront of scholarly reflections providing important and fresh insights on the topic.’
In his latter years Kenneth Cragg had much to wrestle with: the death of his beloved wife Melita more than 20 years ago, the burden of increasing physical (though not mental) fraility, and the rising level of tension between Christianity and Islam which has dominated the first decade of the twenty-first century which seemed to challenge much of his life’s work. Kenneth’s reflections on the difference between the Medina and Meccan strands of Islam offered a perceptive insight into the nature of power, and perhaps open up new avenues for discussion.
Sad though they are at his passing, Kenneth’s many friends, both within the Anglican Communion and more widely, rejoice that finally his praying of the ‘Nunc Dimittis’ over the last few years has been answered. In the words of one of the essays offered to Kenneth Cragg in A Faithful Presence, we ‘trust that he will rejoice to see that “the travail of his soul” has helped many Christians and Muslims to reach out to each other in respect and love, and to understand each other better in their common desire to “let God be God”.’