See the original of this post in chapter 5 of Dr. Samir’s book, 111 Questions on Islam: Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. on Islam and the West, at Amazon.com at this link.
Thanks very much,
A. Islam and Other Religions
92. How does Islam relate to other world religions, especially the monotheistic ones?
Humanity, in the classic Muslim understanding, is divided into three categories.
- The first category is the believers (mu’minun), that is, Muslims.
- The second category is the protected peoples (dhimmi). These are Christians, Jews, and Sabaeans, who are considered monotheists but imperfect believers. They can preserve their faith without being obliged to convert to Islam. However, they must be subjugated, as it is recommended by some verses of the Qur’an that warn believers to guard against becoming friends with them or giving them power over Muslims.
- The third category is that of polytheists, the unbelievers (kafirun or kuffar). These people must be fought, and the only alternative to death for them is the conversion to Islam.
Therefore, the Muslim jurists divide the world into three parts that correspond to these categories:
- dar al-silm (the House of Peace),
- dar al-sulh (the House of Protection), and
- dar al-harb (the House of War).
Historically, Muslims were obliged to make some adjustments in their principles to make them compatible with the rapid expansion of Islamic domination. After conquering India, they could not convert all the inhabitants, nor could they kill all those who did not convert.’ Therefore, they were obliged to perform juridical acrobatics in order to let other religions enter the category of protected peoples. Some jurists noticed that some of the other religions were not mentioned in the Qur’an and so decided to evaluate each case separately.
Muhammad had contact with the Jews, especially after his 622 migration to Medina, where rich and powerful Jewish tribes lived. At the beginning, the relations were good: he even chose Jerusalem, like the Jews, as the qibla (the orientation point for his followers’ prayer) and Yom Kip-mar as a fasting day. But around the end of the year 2 of Hegira (623 of the Christian era), he changed strategy and broke relations with the Jews. The qibla was established in the direction of Mecca, and the fasting was extended to the month of Ramadan. It was a tactical move to conquer the Arabs: in fact, he intended to underline the fact that he was not against the role of Mecca as a religious center but was rather against the polytheism of its inhabitants.
Muhammad succeeded in his intention “to retrieve” polytheism from the religious point of view. He preserved almost all the pagan rites of the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca: the running from one hill to another one, the walking around the Ka’ba seven times, the launching of stones in the valley, the drinking of the water of the Zamzam fountain, and so on. He preserved these rites but gave them a new meaning, connecting them to rituals practiced by Abraham and Ishmael.’ It was a fantastic enculturation of Islam in pagan Arab society. The rites of the pilgrimage to Mecca are all of pagan origin but are Islamized, to the point that the famous theologian al-Ghazali, in “The Proof of Islam”, wrote: “The pilgrimage is the most irrational thing in Islam.
There we perform gestures and rites that are absolutely irrational. For this reason, the pilgrimage is the place where we can, better than in any other place, demonstrate our faith because reason does not understand anything at all of it and only faith makes us do those actions. Blind obedience to God is the best evidence of our Islam.” aA really interesting passage.
There is no break, from the theological point of view, because there was never a unity. Neither the Jews nor the Christians accredited Muhammad as a prophet. They believe that “there is no other god but God”, equal to the first part of the Islamic profession of faith. However, neither Jews nor Christians acknowledged Muhammad as a prophet. Unlike Christians, the Jews were a political and economic power in Medina. In al-Medina, the Jews were organized into three main tribes together with other smaller groups, all rich. In order to increase his power, Muhammad needed to change the situation so that if the Jews refused to recognize his prophecy, they would be chased away. This demonstrates the extent to which the problem was political.
At the beginning, Muhammad kept these Jewish tribes at a distance, but later he attacked the most powerful of them, obliging the survivors to escape to Syria. After a few years, he expelled in succession the other two tribes from the city, preventing them from taking their possessions.
Muhammad’s reason for slaughtering the first tribe was their failure to respect the solidarity agreement with him, but this sounds more like an excuse. The final defeat of the Jews took place during the expedition against the rich Khaybar oasis, in the year 7 of Hegira (A.D. 628). In that period, Muhammad was at his full military ascent and was preparing to enter Mecca.
Verse 110 of the Imrans, sura 3, addresses Muslims, saying: “You are the noblest community ever raised up for mankind. You enjoin justice and forbid evil. You believe in God. Had the People of the Book accepted the Faith, it would surely have been better for them. Some are true believers, but most of them are evil-doers.” The famous verse 29 of Repentance, sura 9, invites Muslims to fight “against such of those to whom the Scriptures were given” and establishes the payment of the tribute on the part of Christians and Jews, specifying that it must be done “out of hand” and that the people must be “utterly subdued”, which means that a master could not, for example, send his servant with the money and that a gesture demonstrating submission was required.
From the start, the relation between Islam and the other two monotheistic religions is ambiguous. In fact, while the enmity between Muslims and Jews was evident, the relation with Christians fluctuated between friendship and hostility, depending on the sociopolitical situation. The Qur’an often adopts contradictory positions according to the circumstances: sometimes Christians are considered friends; sometimes they must be fought. But since the conquered population was, in the majority of cases, Christian, Islam was obliged to be more tolerant with Christianity on the political plain. On the theological plain, however, Islam and Judaism are relatively similar in the “absolute” conception of monotheism, while Islam and Christianity diverge above all with regard to the trinitarian conception of God and Christ’s divinity.
94. The Qur’an uses the word “Nazarenes” to speak of Christians. Many scholars identify the Nazarenes as a Jewish-Christian sect of the time. Is the negative theological judgment on Christianity perhaps connected to this? From which sources did Muhammad derive his biblical knowledge?
Indeed, the Qur’an does not know a category of Christians different from that of the “Nazarenes”. In Arabic, al-Nasara is a word that very likely derives from al-Nasira (Nazareth). Certainly the beliefs of Christians, as they are mentioned by the Qur’an, do not correspond with any of the great Christian communities of the time, that is, the Nestorians, Monophysites, or Chalcedonians. There are two possible interpretations: the first one consists in the fact that the Arab-Christians lived on the fringes of the Christian world, being dispersed in the vast Arabic peninsula, without ecclesiastical organization; the second one lies in a certain difficulty on Muhammad’s part in understanding the nature and the content of the main Christian dogmas.
Islamic understanding of Christianity does not follow the theology of any of the three Christian denominations mentioned above. It seems closer to the Arian position, which denies the full divinity of Christ. This may be the reason the great theologian Saint John Damascene, who in the eighth century lived among Muslims first in Damascus and then in Jerusalem, mistook Islam for a new Christian sect. This mistake was not committed by any Eastern theologian, either Syriac or Arab, but only by some Greek and Latin theologians.
The biblical accounts contained in the Qur’an are almost all drawn from the canonical and apocryphal books of the Old Testament and the Gospels. The account of the Annunciation in the Qur’an, for example, resembles the one quoted in the Gospel, while the miracles performed by Jesus as a young boy or even the account of Mary’s nativity are drawn from the apocryphal “infancy gospels”, which seem to have been widespread among the Christian pre-Islamic Arabs.
The Islamic interpretation of the dogmatic aspects of Christianity cannot be found in any of the Christian traditions, not even in the heretical ones. For example, when the Qur’an says that the Christian Trinity is formed by God, Jesus, and Mary,9 it is impossible to find a sect ever stating this. The only hypothesis that I can formulate is that we are faced with a distorted interpretation of the Christian theological statements about Mary as the Mother of God and about Jesus the Son of God. It was quite logical for Muslims to conceive these dogmas according to a story line from Arab mythology: a god takes a wife, and they conceive another god.
A confirmation of this hypothesis is the criticism addressed in the Qur’an to Christians for maintaining that God had a concubine (Sahiba, that is, a mate): “He (exalted be the glory of our Lord!) has taken no consort, nor has He begotten any children”;” “Creator of the heavens and the earth. How should He have a son when He had no consort? He created all things, and He has knowledge of all things.”” Or the famous verses of sura 19, Mary, that condemn the idea of God begetting a son. “God forbid that He Himself should beget a son! When He decrees a thing He need only say: ‘Be,’ and it is”; “Those who say: ‘The Lord of Mercy has begotten a son,’ preach a monstrous falsehood…. That they should ascribe a son to the Merciful, when it does not become the Lord of Mercy to beget one!”
Moreover, the small chapter of the pure faith, or of the sincere worship (Oneness, sura 112), states, “Say: ‘God is One, the Eternal God. He begot none, nor was He begotten. None is equal to Him’.” This sura is the traditional answer to the Christian Creed, which says, “begotten, not made”, even if we know that those verses were pronounced in Mecca against the pagans and not against Christians.
95. Because Christians are believed to ascribe partners to God in the Trinity, Muslims do not consider Christians monotheists. Is that correct?
Christians are considered believers, even if imperfect ones. The verses that are an invitation to fight them are the product of historical-political circumstances. Unfortunately, this is the ambiguity of the Qur’an and of Islam, which mixes principles with concrete situations. One can quote many hadith ascribed to Muhammad that are very benign toward Jews and Christians, while others are less so. One of them tells that Muhammad stood up as a sign of respect when a funeral procession passed in front of him, and when someone pointed out that the dead was Jewish, he replied: “So what? Does he not have a soul?” A recommendation contained in another hadith says, “Whoever wrongs a dhimmi, I will be his accuser in the Day of Judgment.” Still another says, “Whoever kills a dhimmi will never smell the perfume of Paradise.”14 Christians are, in fact, “under the protection of God and of his messenger”, and Muhammad recommended that his generals respect all the agreements made with them and not impose burdens that exceed their capacity for endurance.
However, there are other hadith hostile to Christians, such as that in which Muhammad claimed he received the order to fight people until they profess that there is no other divinity but God and (in another version of the same saying) that “Muhammad is God’s Messenger.” 16 Apart from the controversial saying that announces the expulsion of Jews and Christians from the Arabic peninsula, we find a hadith that declares “there is no Church in Islam” or even that “there is no monastic life in Islam.” Another one states that no church should be erected in Muslim lands and that no damaged or ruined one should be restored.
B. Jesus and Muhammad: Two Prophets?
96. Islam considers Jesus among the most important prophets in the history of humanity. How is his life presented in the Qur’an?
Muhammad elaborated an image of Jesus coherent with the way the Qur’an presents the biblical prophets but different from the one presented by the evangelists in the Gospels in many important aspects.
The Qur’an recognizes that Jesus is conceived by a virgin “exalted … above womankind”” without the intervention of a man. God, through an angel who appeared in the form of a perfect man, announces to Mary “a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary”;18 that is, God announces the birth of a “noble child” who will be instructed “in the Scriptures and in wisdom, in the Torah and in the Gospel”.
The Qur’an asserts that Mary gives birth to her child near a palm tree. Then, carrying him in her arms, she takes him to her people, who accuse her of a “strange thing” since she is not married.’ At this point, miraculously, the child starts speaking to defend his mother and says: “I am the servant of God. He has given me the Book and ordained me a prophet.” This and other miracles of Baby Jesus are derived from the apocryphal gospels, from which Muhammad drew inspiration for his presentation of Christ.
Jesus works many miracles, more than any other prophet: he heals the man born blind and the leper, and he raises the dead; but after each miracle, the Qur’an underlines that he does it “with God’s permission”.
Jesus is introduced as a man sent to the sons of Israel to remind them of God’s message. Around him, we find some disciples that the Qur’an sometimes refers to as Ansar, or auxiliaries, the same term used by Muhammad to define his followers in Medina. Moreover, as it happens for other prophets, including Moses and Muhammad himself, the majority of Jesus’ people do not acknowledge him and reject his teachings, accusing him of sorcery.’
97. One can therefore speak of a real qur’anic Christology. What are its main aspects?
The qur’anic theology of Christ is based on a fundamental statement: he is the greatest and the holiest prophet sent by God before Muhammad, but he is just a prophet. Many are the attributes that define him—the Christ, one of the nearest to God, eminent, Word of truth, servant of God, a Sign of the Hour, God’s spirit, spirit of sanctity yet none of these titles acknowledges Christ’s divine origin.
When Christians say that Jesus is the Word of God, they mean that he is the eternal Word, coexisting with God, “eternally begotten of the Father”, since the Word of God is inseparable from the Father’s substance. For Muslims, on the other hand, “Word of God” means that Jesus is the concrete fruit of God’s Word; that is, God said, “Be”, and Jesus was. Consequently, Jesus is a man who was born by God’s command. To say that Jesus is “God’s spirit”, ruh min Allah, simply means for Muslim commentators, from Tabari to Zamakhshari to Razi, that he is pure because he was born without human intervention through the annunciation of God’s angel (ruh).
The same reduction of meaning can be noticed in the word “sign”. In fact, the qur’anic Jesus not only carries a sign to men, but he himself is a sign for men, as affirmed in verse 91 of the Prophets, sura 21: “And of the woman who kept her chastity. We breathed into her of Our spirit, and made her and her son a sign to all mankind.” The virginal conception of Christ, however, is not a proof of Jesus’ divinity but only a sign of God’s might, which makes of his prophet, in this aspect, a noble creature similar to Adam.
Also, miracles are considered the demonstration of God’s might and of the divine goodness toward man but not an evidence of the divinity of their performer. Jesus does not work any miracles of himself, but it is God who allows him to perform them or who uses him to perform them. This reasoning can be applied to all the other qur’anic verses presenting Jesus as someone who declares lawful what was unlawful, or affirming that he was “lifted up to him”, although in the Qur’an this last expression refers uniquely to Jesus.
In the Qur’an, we find some of the healings and resurrections quoted in the canonical Gospels but also other miracles quoted only in the apocryphal gospels, such as the episode in which Baby Jesus makes a clay bird fly. In fact, Jesus says in the Qur’an: “From clay I will make for you the likeness of a bird. I shall breathe into it and, by God’s leave, it shall become a living bird.”‘ The interesting thing is the double action of creating and breathing, which in the Qur’an is typically divine.” The verb “to create” is quoted 177 times, always as a specific act of God, apart from the 2 times it is used in reference to Jesus. In this, we can perhaps detect a trace of the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, despite the contrary affirmation of Islam. It is probably with the intention of eluding this idea that some translate the Arabic verb khalaqa (to create) with “mold”.
Christ is presented as an authentic Muslim: he teaches absolute monotheism and, consequently, total submission to God, the only Lord. In other words, he teaches Islam and its precepts: almsgiving, prayer, and piety toward parents. Furthermore, Jesus strongly rejects the idea of being God. Verse 116 of the Table, sura 5, is emblematic: “Then God will say: Jesus son of Mary, did you ever say to mankind: `Worship me and my mother as gods besides God?'” And Jesus answered: “Glory be to You…. I could never have claimed what I have no right to.” Christ asks his disciples to obey him but only as a leader, not as the Lord, because “God is my Lord and your Lord: therefore serve Him. That is a straight path.”
In the Qur’an, the prophet Jesus announces the coming of Muhammad. In fact, he says to the sons of Israel, “I am sent forth to you from God to confirm the Torah already revealed, and to give news of an apostle that will come after me whose name is Ahmad.” In Arabic, the word “Ahmad” is another form of “Muhammad”; both mean “the praised”. In the announcement made by Jesus to the apostles regarding the future corning of the “Consoler” (the Holy Spirit), Muslims read a prophecy about Muhammad. The origin of this interpretation can be traced back to the Syriac translation of the term “consoler” (menahhemana), which can be found in the Syrian-Palestinian version of the Gospel of Saint John, and not to the corruption of the Greek parakletos (which means “consoler”) to periklytos (which means “praised”, that is, Muhammad), as is commonly believed. In Muslim theology, probably influenced by Christian theology, there is the idea that the authentic prophet is always announced by those who came before, and this is why Muslim theologians try to find in the Old and in the New Testaments some indications of Muhammad’s coming. In reality, however, this is an artificial operation, for they make arbitrary applications of some verses as referring to Muhammad.
98. How are the Gospels presented in the Qur’an?
The Qur’an uses a single word, Injil, always singular, which is the contraction of “Evangel”, and it is not used in the plural form Anajil, the Gospels. The Qur’an does not cite the other books of the New Testament—not even minimal allusion is made to the Acts of the Apostles, the Letters of Paul, or the Apocalypse. When the Qur’an talks of Injil, it does not refer to a specific book but to Jesus’ teaching. I personally believe that in Muhammad’s time, there was no complete Arab version of the Gospels available. Muhammad knew only that Christians and Jews had a holy book, and he probably saw a Syriac-language copy of the Gospels.
Hence, it is difficult for Muslims to accept the Christian Bible as authentic. However, the verses of the Gospels that are in agreement with the Qur’an are accepted by the Muslim tradition. Those verses that disagree with qur’anic teachings are interpreted allegorically or in a reductive way by excluding a transcendental dimension, or they are simply rejected as the fruit of falsifications. As far as the other books of the New Testament are concerned, they are not only unknown in the Qur’an but are often ignored or opposed by Muslim scholars and authors. Paul, in particular, is treated as a “black sheep” among Muslims, as one who falsified Christ’s message.
99. What are the fundamental aspects of Christianity that are denied by Islam?
The Qur’an denies the doctrinal foundations of the Christian religion: Christ’s divinity, the Incarnation, the crucifixion, the redemption, and the Trinity. If it had ignored them, we could say that silence does not mean a denial, but it explicitly denies them.
By denying Christ’s divinity, the Qur’an meant to save God’s honor and Jesus’ reputation. Therefore, in different places, the Qur’an asserts that it is inconceivable that God has children. Some examples are: “Creator of the heavens and the earth. How should He have a son when He had no consort? He created all things, and He has knowledge of all things.” “Say: ‘Praise be to God who has never begotten a son; who has no partner in His Kingdom; who needs none to defend Him from humiliation. Proclaim His greatness.” “Never has God begotten a son, nor is there any other god besides Him.” “Sovereign of the heavens and the earth, who has begotten no children and has no partner in His sovereignty.”
For a similar reason, the Qur’an denies the crucifixion. The scandal of the Cross is unacceptable; so God exalted his prophet by raising him to heaven before the crucifixion.
However, it is the concept of the Trinity that constitutes the greatest scandal. In the Qur’an, there are many polemical verses aimed at Christians about this issue. “Unbelievers are those that say: ‘God is one of three’. There is but one God. If they do not desist from so saying, those of them that disbelieve shall be sternly punished.” Or again: “People of the Book, do not transgress the bounds of your religion. Speak nothing but the truth about God. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was no more than God’s apostle and His Word which He cast to Mary: a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His apostles and do not say: ‘Three’. Forbear, and it shall be better for you. God is but one God. God forbid that He should have a son!”
The same appeal addressed by the Qur’an to Christians rests on the implicit exclusion of the trinitarian notion of God: “People of the Book, let us come to an agreement: that we will worship none but God, that we will associate none with Him, and that none of us shall set up mortals as deities besides God.” It would be unacceptable to take the Muslim pretension of teaching Christians their own faith’ or the qur’anic image of Jesus as a point of departure for a sincere Muslim-Christian dialogue. In fact, instead of being a point of encounter between the two religions, the qur’anic Christology becomes a stumbling block, because Islam thinks it knows who Christ is, starting from the Qur’an.
The Muslim often thinks of himself as being subject to an injustice and asks the Christian, “Why do I recognize Christ as a prophet while you do not recognize Muhammad as a prophet?” It is difficult to explain that recognizing Jesus as a prophet is reductive for Christians, since for Christians Jesus is the Son of God made man. And this cannot be stated by a Muslim because he would no longer be coherent or true to his faith.
In fact, saying that Jesus is a prophet is not a major revelation for a Muslim since God sent prophets to all the peoples of the earth. The Qur’an names only twenty-eight prophets, but the Muslim tradition claims that there are hundreds, the last one being Muhammad, the “Seal of the Prophets”, as the Qur’an solemnly declares.’ This is unacceptable for Christians because it means that Muhammad came to complete and correct what was revealed by Jesus: a statement contrary to the teachings of Jesus himself, who in the Gospels presents himself as the fulfillment of revelation. Indeed, Jesus announces that after him there will be many false prophets. For Christians the “Seal of the Prophets” is John the Baptist, because he not only announced the coming of Christ, as other prophets did before him, but also indicated to his contemporaries, “He is the Messiah.”
100. How can the figure of Muhammad be considered from a Christian point of view?
From the reading both of the Qur’an and of the hadith, Muhammad appears as a man who, at the age of forty, had an extraordinary experience in his relationship with God that deeply changed his life and compelled him to devote himself to making his experience known. First, he did this in Mecca, but there were problems that obliged him to move to Medina, where he began to organize the life of the city. He needed to solve problems regarding property, family relations, economics, wars, and ethical prescriptions. Each time he thought he received from God the solution to these problems, he transmitted it under the form of qur’anic verses. At the same time, he became increasingly affirmed as a political leader.
Needing money and wanting to expand his power, he organized raids against other Arab tribes. He reached agreements with different tribes and became stronger and richer. In the end, he challenged Mecca and conquered the entire Arabic peninsula for himself, imposing his vision of life, of God, and of relationships with others, which he named Islam. In my opinion, all this does not make him a prophet.
In some respects, he reminds us of biblical figures such as Moses or Joshua; in some aspects of the first period in Mecca, he reminds us of the prophet Amos in his plea for social justice. But this does not make him a figure worthy of being considered a prophet, especially if I consider the moral and spiritual level of his teaching as compared to that of Christianity. I wonder how God, after sending Christ to preach the beatitudes and call for love of neighbor, could send someone with whom mankind basically takes a step backward by reintroducing the ancient lex talionis (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth).
And to those who answer that Muhammad was a prophet specifically sent to Arabs, that statement is contradicted by Muslims themselves, who say that Muhammad is the prophet for all the peoples. It is true that, in his time, Muhammad made the polytheist Arabs (that is, those who were neither Jews nor Christians) advance as far as some pre-Islamic habits are concerned. But it is also true that, in some respects, he made them take a step backward by promoting the idea of religion linked with war and the idea of women’s subservience to males in marriage. In general, Muhammad’s divine revelations were contingent with the Arab society in which he lived.
From a Christian point of view, there is neither prophecy after John the Baptist nor revelation after Christ. I know that some Christian theologians propose that Muhammad be considered a prophet because, thanks to his preaching, more than one billion people profess monotheism. In my opinion, this proposal is not very convincing: having many followers can be meritorious for a person, but this does not make him a prophet. With this I have no intention of offending Muslims but only of making a reasonable observation. I also point to the fact that no official text of the Catholic Church ever recognized Muhammad as a prophet.
C. No to a Masquerade, Yes to the Search for Truth
101. What do you consider the value and the limits of dialogue between Christians and Muslims? It is a disputed and a controversial matter that is interpreted very differently by each group? What is the most authentic and realistic Christian position for an encounter with Muslims?
Dialogue is far more than a specific activity reserved to theologians, or a luxury for a few intellectuals. It is a challenge that millions of Christians and Muslims confront daily in Europe. These meetings, whether in schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, or apartment buildings, present the ground for authentic communication, for identifying differences as well as for exchanging a reciprocal heritage, and for learning what each group considers important for itself and others.
The preliminary condition for a dialogue is the presence of two distinct voices. Each expression of a subject draws from a well-defined face and identity. Today, especially on the Christian side, it is a time of masking one’s face and cultural heritage in order to engage the other person. This is dialogue of the lowest common denominator, of so-called common values searched for at all costs as a starting point instead of being arrived at as the possible result of a common journey.
This position is often motivated by good intentions and by an authentic desire for encounter, but it does not lead anyone very far. It neither helps us understand each other more nor forms the conditions for a better coexistence. Saying what the other likes to hear belongs more to diplomacy If I were to look only at what is held in common, I risk thinking that my interlocutor and I share similar ideas with only the smallest and most insignificant differences. However, the day in which one of the two discovers that this is not the case, they could both lose trust in what they had already said and accomplished up to that moment: it would be like waking up from a beautiful dream and suddenly discovering that reality is completely different. Authentic dialogue requires love for the truth at all costs and respect for the other in his integrity. It is not minimalist but rigorous.
If the first required condition of both the interlocutors is self-awareness, that is, the knowledge of one’s own identity, the second condition must be the desire to inform the other person about one’s position in its entirety (not avoiding the parts that will disturb the other or that generate questions) and to learn the position of the other one in its complexity, in order to discern and understand who is actually in front of him.
Christians must never forget that presenting only a part of our faith or diminishing it for fear of offending, disappointing, or causing scandal does nothing more than confirm the Muslim interlocutors in their conviction (very widespread in Muslim countries and also present in the immigrant communities) that the Christian is a believer who has not reached the fullness of the truth, revealed in the Qur’an. When I go to England, I am always struck by the large inscription on the wall of the Birmingham mosque that is visible from the highway to the airport: “Read the Qur’an, the Last Testament.”
Similarly ambiguous, and often detrimental for reciprocal understanding, are some practical behaviors adopted in the past years, almost always in good faith but with a great naiveté or with little knowledge of what was being done. In the name of solidarity, of brotherhood, or of “faith in the only God”, parish buildings and even churches have been granted to the Muslim communities for their prayer, forgetting that for the followers of Muhammad this can mean not so much a favor but a capitulation, a sort of abdication of one’s own faith and an implicit acknowledgment of the superiority of Islam. Nor ought we forget that, according to Muslim thought, a place that has been made holy to Islam can no longer be deconsecrated, and it is considered, even if in an implicit way and without any juridical formalization, as an Islamic property.
102. It is often stated that Christians and Muslims can collaborate in many fields, as in the promotion of peace and the defense of life (abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation), and in general on issues related to the so-called common values. But what is the authentic foundation for the dialogue? Is it an ethical foundation, or is there anything more radical on which it can be based at the anthropological level?
For the Christian, reason is a given belonging to human nature that urges man to wonder about the meaning and the ultimate implications of his existence and that of the whole universe, which makes him realize the existence of the Mystery of God, who manifests himself in revelation. In this perspective, opened by Christianity, there is a starting point that is common for each person, a datum of nature that is developed and brought to fulfillment by the encounter with the ultimate meaning of reality, which is possible for everyone. In this sense, the notion of natural law represents a common ground between the believer and the secular, and it allows the acknowledgment of universal rights.
In the biblical vision, every person, not just the “believer”, is created in God’s image.’ Consequently, every human being can find this divine “image”, which can be a common value for each person, if he tries to deepen his consciousness of the meaning of life.
The Muslim, however, considers it inconceivable to speak of natural law apart from the religious law (shari’a) given by God to man, being persuaded that there is no universal given that is not already included in the Islamic conception of life. While in Christianity one starts from reason and arrives at revelation, in the classic Islamic conception revelation comes before reason and prevails upon it, engulfs it. In Arabic, Islam is defined as din al-fitra, the natural religion of man.
It is interesting to observe that, for a long time, many Muslims attached to natural law a dignity of its own and autonomy from the religious law, even if this does not belong to the classic tradition. This fact is very important because it can both contribute to the evolution of Islamic thought and allow the acknowledgment of fundamental rights to those who are not Muslims.
The role of Christians here is fundamental because they can help further this discernment, perhaps by finding inspiration in those values that are defined and practiced as “common values”. To be sure, these values are not the foundation of the dialogue, but they represent the historical opportunity for Christians and Muslims to meet and to find a common ground that the faithful of the two religions can share, for which they can fight, even if they have taken different logical and anthropological paths.
The basis for the dialogue is not a set of theoretical statements or a series of values but the common human condition that implies openness to the Mystery, to the religious dimension of life. It would be wrong, in the name of the existing unshakable differences, to deny the possibility of common ground and of agreements on some specific issues, even if we must be aware that we may arrive at some crucial point where, after walking a part of the road together, the two paths separate again. For example, regarding the problem of equality between men and women, Christians acknowledge equality between men and women based on the validity of the natural law, while Muslims state the supremacy of the religious law, which denies this equality.
The road of authentic dialogue is a path made of level plains and very rough climbs, and we need good training for navigating it. For example, even behind identical or similar expressions, there can be totally different meanings that are important to learn in order to deepen one’s knowledge of the truth, not for any desire to emphasize the distinctions. The sentence “God is merciful” for a Muslim means that God, the All Powerful, the transcendent, can bend down to man with mercy or deny his mercy to whomever he wishes. This is very different from the idea of the merciful God that we find in the Old and New Testaments. There God’s mercy is like that of a parent for his child. For the Christian, in fact, God is the most authentic expression of love and the source of mercy that a father and a mother have toward their children. This conception is at the basis of all of the New Testament; it belongs to the essence of faith and is the beginning of the most common Christian prayer, the Our Father. And it is not by chance that among the ninety-nine names of God that the Muslim tradition draws from the Qur’an, there is not the appellation “Father”, being an attribute incompatible with the qur’anic God and denied by the Qur’an itself.
However, the word rahm, meaning “the womb”, derives from the same Arabic root as the words “clement” and “merciful” (rahman and rahim). This means that the Arabic language could have suggested the “motherly” notion of God. However, this tradition was not developed by classic Islam, even though some mystics considered it. This point could represent an open door for the deepening of the concept of God common to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
104. Another example of analogies between Islam and Christianity is that both are considered “religions of the Book”. Can this idea be used to further interreligious dialogue?
The expression “people of the Book” is typically qur’anic. With it, the Qur’an defines Jews and Christians. The reason is that, in the Arab environment known by Muhammad, the only peoples who had a revealed book were Jews and Christians. Muslims did not have a holy book until two decades after Muhammad’s death. Therefore, from the Muslim perspective, at the time Muhammad’s third successor, khalif `Uthman, issued the Qur’an is the first moment the three monotheistic religions can be called “religions of the Book”.
This expression is ambiguous, even from a Christian perspective, for two reasons.
First, it means implicitly acknowledging the Qur’an as a book revealed by God to Muhammad, and this has never been acknowledged in Christianity and cannot be theologically justified.’ Second, while for Muslims the divine revelation was announced once and for all time and in an accomplished way to humanity through the book of the Qur’an, whose content directly descended from heaven, Christianity cannot be defined as being founded on a book, even if this book is revealed, and it cannot be “reduced” to the Holy Scriptures. In fact, the foundation of Christianity is not a book but an event: the Incarnation of God, who became man in the Person of Jesus Christ. The sign par excellence of the Christian faith is the Cross, on which Jesus sacrificed himself for love of man and for the salvation of all mankind.
It is not by chance that, from the beginning, the Eastern Christian communities venerated icons representing the Virgin Mary with Jesus, and not an icon of the Gospel or the Bible. And when in the liturgy the Gospel is taken in procession and incensed, it is because the Gospel revealed Christ to us. At the beginning of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch, in his Letter to the Philadelphians, is unequivocal: “My treasure is Jesus Christ, my irremovable archives are his cross, his death and resurrection and the faith that comes from him.”
105. One last element of similarity that is often mentioned is that Muslims and Christians (as well as Jews) belong to the common Abrahamitic tradition. Is this possibly a starting point from where advancements in religious dialogue can be made?
The Old Testament already speaks of Abraham as the father of a multitude of peoples:
Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.
The theme is expressed by different authors in the New Testament, especially by Paul, particularly in the Letters to the Romans and to the Galatians.
The Qur’an takes the image of Abraham as the spiritual guide of humanity: “When his Lord put Abraham to the proof by enjoining on him certain commandments and Abraham fulfilled them, He said: ‘I have appointed you a leader of mankind.'” The Qur’an, however, contests the Jewish and Christian claim of the figure of Abraham and reverses the claim in favor of Islam. The Qur’an tells both Jews and Christians that Abraham is neither a Christian nor a Jew but a Muslim. It states, “They [Jews and Christians] say: `Accept the Jewish or the Christian faith and you shall be rightly guided’. [And God answers to Muhammad] Say: ‘By no means! We believe in the faith of Abraham, the upright one. He was no idolater.’ “51 And in another passage: “People of the Book, why do you argue about Abraham when both the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Have you no sense? … Abraham was neither Jew nor Christian. He was an upright man, one who submitted to God. He was no idolater. Surely the men who are nearest to Abraham are those who follow him, this Prophet, and the true believers. God is the guardian of the faithful.”
Christianity and Islam view Abraham from two very different perspectives. In Islam, Abraham is the witness of the most radical monotheism, and like the other biblical figures, he is the model of perfect submission to God. The notion of the promise or covenant with Abraham, like that of the “history of salvation”, which is common to Judaism and Christianity, is practically absent in Islam.’
Therefore, the Second Vatican Council, in the dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium states: “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place, amongst whom are the Moslems, these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us, they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge in the last day.”‘ The first drafting of this text said: “The sons of Ishmael who, professing Abraham as a father, also believe in the God of Abraham.” The final version does not say anything about the relation between Muslims and Abraham, but it states only that Muslims profess “to hold the faith of Abraham.”
106. For years, representatives of the Catholic hierarchy have tried to revive dialogue with their Muslim peers. Pope John Paul II led the way in this difficult task, and he was criticized by those who feared a watering down of the Church teaching. What was the position of John Paul II on interreligious dialogue?
I am convinced that Pope John Paul II was the most significant expression of the Christian attempt to realize an authentic dialogue. He supported the building of bridges and of opportunities for encounters between Christians and Muslims. After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center “Twin Towers” in New York City and during the war in Afghanistan, he strongly opposed the idea of a clash of civilizations or religions. A significant testimony of this attitude was the invitation addressed to Catholics for a day of fasting on December 14, 2001 (which coincided with the last day of Ramadan), and the meeting between the representatives of religions in Assisi on January 24, 2002.
While he spoke about the need for a dialogue between different religions, John Paul II never failed to emphasize the necessity of promoting respect for human rights, among which he put in first place that of religious freedom, which by implication includes the freedom to profess one’s own faith or to convert to another one: freedoms that are still to be recognized in many Islamic countries.
John Paul II’s position revealed itself to be an admirable synthesis between the reaffirmation of the Christian faith and the concern that it be allowed to be practiced everywhere. At the meeting with religious leaders of all faiths in Assisi, he said of religious dialogue that “it does not push for opposition and even less the contempt for the other; rather, it allows for a constructive dialogue where each person, without indulging in relativism or syncretism, acquires a deeper conscience about the duty of witnessing and announcing.”
107. Through the many initiatives of voluntary service groups, thousands of Catholics have been working for years on the front line in the reception of immigrants, many of whom are Muslim. What are the conditions that allow these daily meetings also to become opportunities for dialogue?
What Catholic volunteers do in Italy from the point of view of giving assistance to immigrants deserves respect and admiration for their generosity and dedication provided. On many occasions, however, I have noticed the volunteers exhibit a certain difficulty in expressing the motives for such generosity or in explaining their actions as an expression of their Christian love and faith. At the same time, they seem embarrassed, or reserved, when caring for the Muslim immigrants. I have met Christian volunteers in the shelters and soup kitchens who forwent making the sign of the cross before meals as a “sign of respect” for the religious feelings of the Muslims hosted there. It seems to me that their sign of respect is a mistake because it renounces the true reasons for their activity and for the work accomplished. Why would a Christian organize a dining room for the poor and for immigrants, whatever their faith, if not to fulfill the duty of Christian charity? Christians never need to be ashamed of witnessing their faith to all the people they encounter. If this were not so, the shelters and pantries supported by the Church would run the risk of becoming “solidarity supermarkets”, carrying out a certainly praiseworthy activity but betraying their true motive of giving visible Christian testimony.
It is not a matter of proselytism but of authenticity, of the ability to express the truth about ourselves in what we do. It would certainly be wrong to condition the bread that we offer to Muslim immigrants with conversion to Christianity; this would be an unacceptable act of proselytism. What is needed is authenticity, the simple witnessing of the Christian faith that moves the volunteers and educates them to help everybody without any religious, ideological, or political position, to share with those in need in order to share the sense of life. We need to examine seriously the ways in which these activities are organized and proposed, so that they may become pedagogical actions both for those Christians who accomplish them and for those members of other faiths who benefit from them.
108. Can the migratory experience contribute to modifying the traditional vision and prejudices of Muslims toward Christianity and Christians?
A widespread misconception in Islamic countries is that the Christian is a believer who did not reach the fullness of faith, which can be achieved only through adherence to qur’anic teachings. Christians have to overcome stereotypic identification of Muslims that developed over centuries. Muslim immigration to Europe is a great chance to help demystify some commonplace fears and prejudices and foster better understanding of Christianity and of Christians.
In Europe, the Muslim immigrant can realize that there are other religious experiences, apart from that of Islam, with which it is possible to coexist in a milieu of freedom and pluralism. A maturation of different potentials can take place, including living as believers even without the “guarantees” offered by a confessional state. Muslims can learn that politics can be separated from religion, that the secular can serve the common good, that reason is not the enemy but a friend of faith, and that modernity is a historical opportunity to measure the truth of one’s faith in the world. It is wrong to identify Christianity with the West, even if the Christian faith is one of the most important foundational elements of the West.
In this context, the testimony Christians are required to give is decisive. Some aspects of modern-day Western life, such as widespread ethical relativism, a mistaken conception of freedom that is confused with the possibility of doing whatever one wants without any moral reference, and the commercialization of the human body, confirm Muslims in their judgment of Western society as corrupt and decadent.
I believe that these aspects of Western culture must be addressed with far more criticism on the part of Christians because they are significant indicators of a society that removed God from its reference points and that considers religion as an ornament to be displayed in a sort of “parlor room of values”: something interesting—perhaps also original but irrelevant to one’s life. When Muslims criticize Western society for its dissolute habits and consider it a society that renounced God, they indirectly urge Christians to question themselves on the meaning of their own presence in this society, on the worth of their testimony, and on the weight of faith in the environment in which they live.
Immigration can represent for Christians a challenge to overcome centuries of non-action. In past centuries, many European Christian missionaries went to Muslim countries. Their preaching, however, was forbidden or substantially neutralized by the strong cultural and social pressure of Islam, and this prevented millions of Muslims from ever knowing of Christianity, and I mean knowing of it, not converting to it. Today, in an opposite demographic movement, millions of Muslims come to the Europe from which the Christian missionaries left. Yet Muslims find a society where Christianity is absent or approaching extinction. Many Muslim friends who came to Europe express their disappointment at the fact that they thought they would find Christianity firmly established in the West and the society permeated by Christian values and ideals, but they found only light traces of it.
Perhaps the presence of so many Muslims can act as a stimulus to reawaken Christians from their dormant faith practices. The Muslim presence in Europe, like that of the Christian immigrants coming from the Third World (who often give a more dynamic witness to their faith), can encourage Western Christians to spiritual renewal. 109. Is the idea of dialogue foreign to the Muslim mentality? It seems that efforts at dialogue always start on the Christian side, and the result is a conversation with deaf people. What would you answer to those who consider the efforts accomplished in these past years as naive and useless? The efforts connected to the culture of dialogue were almost always begun by Christians, even though in the last decades there have been some initial openings by the Muslim world. The Muslim-Christian encounter promoted by CERES (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Economiques et Sociales) and by the Al al-Bayt Foundation (funded by Prince Hassan, the brother of the late King Hussein of Jordan) was a series of bilateral meetings with the participation of representatives of the Islamic al-Azhar University, both in the Vatican and in Cairo. There is also the activity of small but meaningful groups in Lebanon. Some Muslim intellectuals publicly acknowledged that in their world there is a slowness to engage the West in dialogue that must be overcome, and while there is a sizable group of Christian experts on Islam, there are very few Muslim experts on Christianity. Moreover, the Islamic editorial treatment of Christianity is normally polemic in form and quite aggressive or apologetic, with the declared or implicit goal of defending Islam from “Western accusations”. Some Muslim intellectuals started a careful consideration of Christianity with a dialogical attitude, but they could not continue for lack of any real current dialogue with the West at the moment. Muslims believe that Islam is the ultimate and definitive revealed religion. They believe that the Qur’an includes true Judaism and authentic Christianity. Muslims are convinced that Jews and Christians falsified their own Scriptures. For Muslim believers who believe that they already have the full truth, there is very little to gain or to learn through inter-religious dialogue. It is obvious that this attitude creates a blockade to any possibility of developing a real dialogue with Western Christians. However, the reasons for a truthful encounter remain valid. We must pray that reason will prevail in this matter. As John Paul II said in Assisi, to pray “does not mean to escape from history and from the problems that it brings along. On the contrary, it means to choose to face reality not by ourselves but with the strength that comes from on high, the strength of Truth and Love whose ultimate source is God.” 1
10. The Christian Arabs have a thirteen-century history of co-existence with Islam. What are the insights that can be derived from their experience?
First, contrary to what many people think, both in the West and in the East, “Arab” is not synonymous with “Muslim”. The second chapter of Saint Luke’s Acts of the Apostles reminds us that, on the day of Pentecost, among the neophytes converted to Christianity, there were also some Arabs. Today there are more than twelve million Christian Arabs. The Arabs were not born with Muhammad. Before the birth of Islam, in the Arabic peninsula, there lived tribes of Arab-Jews, Arab-Christians, and Arab-pagans. After Muhammad’s preaching and the Muslim expansion in the Middle East (A.D. 636-642), the non-Arab Christians of that area were gradually Arabized and forced to live with Muslims under the jurisdiction of Islam as protected people. Over the centuries, there were many positive experiences of encounter and exchange between Muslims and Christians at a personal level, based on the fact that both sides consider fundamental the transcendental dimension of life and the absoluteness of certain values. Real problems were raised by the Christian encounter with Islam as a sociopolitical system, which followed the politicization of religion. Since then there has been a tendency in the Muslim tradition of imposing its domination. This tendency derives from the Muslim conviction that they have a monopoly on the truth and that the Qur’an is the perfect and ultimate revelation.
For centuries, Christian Arabs have been constantly reminded by Muslims of the absolute priority to acknowledge God in every aspect and moment of daily life. I have a personal experience of the Muslim sense of responsibility to acknowledge God that affected me very deeply. While I was in Cairo, on a Friday, I entered a barbershop shortly before noon. The owner politely told me, “In a few minutes, there is the ritual prayer, and I shall stop my work; I would advise you to go to the Christian hairdresser, a few meters away.” His sincerity and honesty persuaded me to remain in his shop waiting until the end of the ritual prayer. He was a true believer. He was ready to lose a customer in order not to avoid an act of faith. Unfortunately, this priority for Muslims to acknowledge God can easily degenerate both into fanaticism and into neglecting one’s responsibilities toward society. Christian Arabs have learned to appreciate both the positive and the negative aspects of coexistence, avoiding both the temptation of naive unreserved acceptance and that of prejudicial opposition and systematic rejection of the other tradition.
111. Can one then speak of a sort of historical vocation of the Christian Arabs to act as the bridge between two civilizations that are, simultaneously, both far and near from the other?
As a matter of fact, Christian Arabs can help Western Christians both to understand Islam in all its dimensions and how to coexist with it. They need only communicate the fruits of their millenary experience. Indeed, Christian Arabs can be a bridge because they are different from Westerners insofar as they are Arab. They are different from Muslims because they are Christians. They are considered foreigners by both worlds, even though they deeply belong to each of them. This has been at times a very uncomfortable and problematic position. Yet it is the sine qua non condition actually to serve as an interreligious and intercultural bridge between East and West. Historically, it is a true vocation by virtue of their Christian baptism to be ministers of reconciliation in the world. This means to be united to Jesus on the Cross, horizontally reconciling humanity with itself and vertically reconciling humanity with God.