Understanding Catholic-Islamic dialogue
By Christine Valentine-Owsik - The Catholic Answer, 9/1/2011
|Prince Ghazi Muhammed bin Talal walking with the Pope during his visit to Amman, Jordan. CNS photo by Tony Gentile, Reuters|
The challenge of Catholics and Muslims understanding each other goes back to the earliest days of Islam in the seventh century, with dialogue challenged by many stark differences, but there are also some areas of agreement, especially in family life and morality.
Given the reality that recent years have witnessed numerous controversies in Western countries over the impact of increasing Muslim populations, multiculturalism and assimilation, and the fact that Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the world, the need to understand the Islamic faith assumes an even greater urgency for Catholics.
One of the foremost experts in the Church today on Catholic-Islamic dialogue is Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir. Born in 1938 and a native of Egypt, Father Samir holds doctorates in Eastern Ecclesiastical Studies from the Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies, as well as in Arabic and Islamic literature. He teaches theology, Islamic studies and Oriental studies at the same pontifical institute and across the world. He is also the author of more than 50 books and 1,300 articles.
The Catholic Answer: Where do things stand in current Catholic-Islamic dialogue?
Father Samir Khalil Samir: It’s not bad, but not good enough. Why? When speaking with a Muslim in dialogue, one doesn’t know what group or movement this person represents. In addition, the Muslim partner at the follow-up dialogue may have changed and so one does not have a continuous constructive dialogue. Finally, with Muslims, there’s not necessarily a permanent agreement about what is initially agreed upon. It keeps changing, and it’s a difficult situation. There is progress, though, and usually the initiative is taken by the Catholic Church. But at times Iran does take steps. Because of their Shiite tradition in philosophy, it’s easier to make progress with Iran. With each country, we make small steps forward. Right now, our progress with Egypt is blocked, but may resume after the new government is in place there. The Muslim world really needs support from Christianity, and feels isolated from most of the world. They usually find this support in the Catholic Church, because the Church never says no to dialogue.
|Vatican II and Muslims|
“The Church regards with esteem also the [Muslims]. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscru-table decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.”
— Second Vatican Council's "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions," Nostra Aetate, No. 3; see also Lumen Gentium, No. 16
TCA: What are some key principles in current Catholic-Islamic dialogue?
Father Samir: The first principle is openness and willingness to listen. We often think we know another person, but instead project onto them our impression. In that case, we are no longer “dialoguing.” For example, I think I know Muslims and what they think. And the Muslim says, “We already know about Jesus from the Qur’an.” It’s totally useless to try to get a dialogue going in this case, because we must first recognize here that we’re really ignoring the other person.
The second principle is truth and sincerity. If I reveal one aspect and hide another, either to be nice, or for any reason, then everything is wrong from the outset. We must present the truth about ourselves, in its totality and by giving facts clearly.
The third principle is respect and love. For example: A Muslim asks me my opinion on the Qur’an … do I believe it is divine revelation, and do I think Mohammed is a prophet? For me, as a Christian, the Qur’an cannot be God’s revelation and certainly not His last revelation to humanity — we believe Christ and the Gospels were. So I would say, “I’m sorry, this contradicts my own faith.” And I would explain the reason why in such a way that he would not be offended (and not because I want to be aggressive or disagreeable). But the Qur’an denies essential Christian dogmas: the Trinity, the divinity of Christ and even His crucifixion, which means redemption through Christ. How can I believe that the Qur’an and New Testament are both revealed by God? I might then ask, “Can you recognize that Christ is the Son of God?” He would say, “No, for us he is a great prophet, but not the son of God.” I might then say, “I am not happy when I hear this, but you are sincere by telling me the truth as you believe it, so I respect you for that reason.”
But if from the very beginning of the dialogue we assume that Muslims are violent or this or that, then it is useless.
TCA: What can we hope to accomplish with this process?
Father Samir: Two things: First, more knowledge of the other — to know what they think about any aspect of life and religion. And, second, more comprehension. I might say to a Muslim whom I don’t entirely agree with, “I would use another approach, but I understand your approach.” Comprehension allows more openness. When I understand why [those I talk to] react the way they do, I can more readily understand their approach. It leads to an appreciation of the other and the other’s differences.
TCA: How important is the principle of reciprocity?
Father Samir: Reciprocity can only be between two persons or groups or states at similar levels. I cannot say to an American Muslim, “I will not let you build a mosque here in the United States until Saudi Arabia allows us to build churches there.” Why? Because the Muslim here in the States who is an American citizen would say: “What do I have to do with what goes on in Saudi Arabia? Deal with Saudi Arabia for this question. I am not representing Saudi Arabia.”
On the other side, the United States can pretend there is a principle of reciprocity with Saudi Arabia. How? We’ll take this example. A few months ago, the Norwegian minister of foreign affairs refused money coming from Saudi Arabia to build two large mosques in Norway. The Saudis offered tens of millions of dollars for this purpose, but the Norwegian government said to the Saudi government, “We are sorry, unless you let Hindus, Jews and Christians build places of worship in your country, you will not be allowed to build those types of things here.”
The importance of this concept is that maybe Saudi Arabians don’t understand the problem. They might say, “We cannot allow other religions to build churches here because this is sacred ground.” So, by Norway clearly showing this form of reciprocity, it helps the Saudis appreciate the feelings of those whose rights are deprived in Saudi Arabia. In many cases the other side is not conscious of the damage they are doing. The principle of reciprocity can be a means to awaken their consciousness to this damage. However, it should not be used as a form of vindication or aggression.
|Pope Benedict XVI and Islam|
“Christians and Muslims belong to the family of those who believe in the one God and who, according to their respective traditions, trace their ancestry to Abraham (cf. Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, 1, 3). This human and spiritual unity in our origins and our destiny impels us to seek a common path as we play our part in the quest for fundamental values so characteristic of the people of our time. As men and women of religion, we are challenged by the wide-spread longing for justice, development, solidarity, freedom, security, peace, defence of life, protection of the environ-ment and of the resources of the earth. This is because we too, while respecting the legitimate autonomy of temporal affairs, have a specific contribution to offer in the search for proper solutions to these pressing questions.
“Above all, we can offer a credible response to the question which emerges clearly from today’s society, even if it is often brushed aside, the question about the meaning and purpose of life, for each in-dividual and for humanity as a whole. We are called to work together, so as to help society to open itself to the transcendent, giving Almighty God his rightful place. The best way forward is via authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better, respecting differences and recognizing what we have in common. This will lead to an authentic respect for the responsible choices that each person makes, especially those pertaining to fundamental values and to personal reli-gious convictions. . . . May his blessing be ever upon us!”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Nov. 28, 2006, Ankara, Turkey
TCA: What is Pope Benedict XVI’s vision for dialogue?
Father Samir: I think it is well articulated in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”). The aim of dialogue is truth, for both sides to come to the truth, but through respect and love.
Here’s an example: One of the Pope’s first actions was to baptize a Muslim man on Easter night publicly before all the world. Millions of people saw this on TV. This was a shock for Muslims — a provocation, I think, but a good one. The Pope was demonstrating that it is our right as Christians to baptize, to preach the Gospel to everybody, as it is their right to announce the Qur’an to every person on earth. This is part of the reciprocity both sides share. The Pope was in essence saying, “We’re not doing this to be aggressive to Islam, but to answer the demand of someone who wants to be baptized.” This was very important, to show that we as Catholics will never renounce our right to baptize just to be nice to Islam, but that our response to an individual’s desire for baptism is not directed against Islam. This is an absolute principle: the liberty of conscience. Nobody can say no to that. The public baptism of a Muslim was a very clear signal from the Pope.
Father Samir: The concept of alliance of civilizations is a response to an idea developed by Samuel Huntington in his famous book, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” [Simon & Schuster, reissued 2011]. There is, in fact, a conflict of civilizations … this is a reality. But the question is to move beyond a natural conflict of civilizations to a natural alliance of civilizations. This means that every civilization is different from another, and each is proud of its own civilization and tradition. If then, two civilizations meet, for example the Muslim one and Christian one, or the Western culture and the Eastern culture, each will sometimes pretend to have a better civilization than the other. In these cases, we will always have conflict.
But we can admit where we are different: “You have your civilization with some beautiful aspects, and some others which are, to me, less beautiful … in my civilization there are good points and some others that you don’t like.” For example, in the Arab world, the fundamental equality of all humans — a basic principle of human rights — is often not recognized. Muslims generally consider believers to be better than nonbelievers (atheists); men to be better than women; and Muslims to be better than Christians.
As Western Christians, we should take from Muslim civilization what we see as positive, and then perhaps tell Muslims where they could learn from the West to incorporate human rights or solidarity.
This liberty of thinking in Muslim culture is almost unfathomable. Difference can often lead to conflict, but it could also lead to an exchange of civilizations — taking the best of two different civilizations so there is no conflict, but alliance.
TCA: What can the average Catholic do to learn more about this issue?
Father Samir: The best first step is to make friendships with Muslims … neighbors, colleagues, those we interact with. It enables us to see the different aspects of their lives, and it enables them to see that in us.
The second step is to learn more about the other by reading their holy text, the Quran. This helps one to understand the positive and the negative aspects of another culture. Obviously, the reciprocal attitude is right: Muslims have to read the New Testament to understand Christians. TCA
Christine Valentine-Owsik is President of Valentine Communications, in Doylestown, Pa., dedicated to communications work for Catholic entities, including serving as a publicist for Our Sunday Visitor and contributing author to several major Catholic magazines.