Dialogue with Islam

As was mentioned in a previous post, one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council was a concerted effort on the Church’s part to enter into dialogue with non-Christian religions.  While this always has the aim of evangelizing, it assumes that dialogue is possible.  What I mean by this is that, first, the other group is interested in dialogue and, second, that they are capable of it.  Nowhere are these assumptions challenged more than when it comes to the religion of Islam.  The Church has expended considerable resources on this effort and has had little fruit to show for it.  Could it be that dialogue is simply impossible with Islam?

When his brother Dominicans approached him to ask St. Thomas Aquinas about dialogue with Muslims, he said that they ought to approach them as if they were “natural” men.  What he meant by this is that unlike the Jews, Muslims fully reject Biblical Revelation.  Likewise because of the many contradictions regarding Christian doctrine (most notably the divinity of Christ) found in the Koran, Christians cannot accept theirs.  Therefore, the only approach is through human reason alone.

So even though Islam professes to worship the God of Abraham, the approach is the same as with any other non-Christian religion, through human reason.  What has to be understood however is that Islam rejects the whole notion of human reason.  In the Eleventh Century, there was an intellectual revolution led by perhaps the most influential Muslim next to Mohammed named Al-Ghazali.  As founder of the Ash’arite theology he affirmed that man can only know that which Allah tells him.  This makes entering into dialogue practically impossible.  If man can only know what God tells him, then any search for the truth (the literal meaning of the word dialogue) outside of the definitive revelation of the Koran is fruitless.

In his now infamous Regensburg Lecture, Pope Benedict was addressing this very same issue.  He was calling for an intellectual awakening both in the West and in Islam itself.  The violent response of Islam to Benedict XVI’s lecture showed that there is little room for reasonable discourse about Islam.  But what many Catholics are not aware of is that it actually did result in a gesture toward dialogue when 138 Islamic scholars penned a letter to Pope Benedict called A Common Word between Us and You.  Many within the Church took this as a great sign, but for those who are familiar with the teachings of Islam, it perhaps represents a subterfuge more than a real attempt at peace and understanding between the adherents of the world’s two largest religions.

The Islamic scholars insist that the “basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbor. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbor is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.”  One has to ask whether this is true.

The title of the letter comes from Sura 3:64, “Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him).” The scholars connect this verse with the First and Greatest Commandment given by Jesus—“The words: we shall ascribe no partner unto Him relate to the Unity of God, and the words: worship none but God, relate to being totally devoted to God. Hence they all relate to the First and Greatest Commandment.”Church of Holy Sepulchre and Dome of the Rock

The problem with this is that it attempts to gloss over a very real and potentially insurmountable difference.  No Muslim actually believes that to say “we shall ascribe no partner unto Him” simply refers to the Unity of God in the sense that a Christian would understand the unity of God.  For to “ascribe a partner unto Him” is the unforgivable sin in Islam, namely shirk.  Christians, who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, commit this sin with impunity.  The Koran is very clear as to what Muslims are to do to those who obstinately commit this sin,

“Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture and believe not in God nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which God has forbidden by His Messenger, and follow not the religion of truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low…and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of God. That is their saying with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved of old. God (himself) fights against them. How perverse are they! They have taken as lords beside God their rabbis and their monks and the Messiah son of Mary, when they were bidden to worship only One God. None should be worshipped but God alone. Be He glorified from all that they ascribe as partner (to Him)!” (Sura 9:29-31)

A difference this large cannot be a foundation for peace and understanding.  For faithful adherents of Islam, this difference is a foundation for war and dhimmitude (“pay the tribute, being brought low”).  To pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best.

The second commandment as a basis for peace and understanding, namely the love of neighbor also forms a shaky foundation.  After issuing the twofold commandment of love of God and love of neighbor, Jesus is asked by the scholar of the law “who is my neighbor?”.  He goes on to tell him the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate that Christianity believes in the brotherhood of all mankind (Luke 10:25-37).  The Christian sees in all men, his neighbor.  For the Muslim who is faithful to the Koran and Hadith, his neighbor is only other Muslims.

One of the five pillars of Islam is Zakat, or almsgiving.  All Muslims are obligated to give alms only to “the poor and the needy, and those who collect them, and those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free the captives and the debtors, and for the cause of God, and (for) the wayfarers; a duty imposed by God. God is Knower, Wise” (Sura 9:60).  But these alms can only be given to other Muslims because Allah commands that Muslims “[N]ever be a helper to the unbelievers” (Sura 28:86).  In other words, if the victim was not a Muslim in Jesus’ parable, then Muslims are commanded to pass him by.

It is this foundational truth about Islam that makes dialogue extremely difficult.  Dialogue always assumes an equality between the two parties insofar as their dignity is concerned.  Their ideas may not be equal, but without seeing the other as your equal then honest dialogue can never happen.  Muslims are taught not to see “People of the Book” as their equals.  Only their fellow Muslims can be their equal.  This distinction between believers and unbelievers is made in everything.  It even plays out in Sharia Law with respect to punishments for crimes.  Punishments change based on whether the perpetrator/victim is a Muslim or not because a Muslim is considered to be on a higher level of faith and thus to do him harm is not just breaking some moral code, but also constitutes an act of sacrilege.  The robbers in the parable may even have been faithful Muslims who justified it by saying they were collecting the jizya.

Above I appeared to be overly harsh in response to what appears to be a good will gesture by calling it potentially an act of subterfuge.  This is because Islam is one of the only religions that has a developed doctrine of deception called Taqiyya.  Sura 3:28 commands Islamic adherents to practice deception if it benefits the spread of Islam. Al-Tabari (an early Islamic scholar) explains “If you are under their authority, fearing for yourselves, behave loyally to them with your tongue, while harboring inner animosity for them…”  Because dialogue depends upon both parties being truthful, there can be no movement toward the truth when either party is convinced that they can lie anytime it helps them.  Knowing this, we naturally have to ask whether the scholars are trying to disarm Christians.  Beware of the man offering peace with one hand behind his back.

All of this shows the near impossibility of dialoguing with Muslims.  They can only do so on the basis of the Koran, which is the very text that is in question.  Ultimately in any investigation of the truth, it comes down to “because the Koran says so.”  This was also a point the Benedict XVI stressed as well when he quoted Ibn Hazim “[W]ere it God’s will, we would even practice idolatry.”  The Pope Emeritus was stressing that the Muslim conception of God puts Him  somehow beyond good and evil and that those categories are simply a matter of His capricious will at any given time.

Despite appearing to be a prophet of gloom, I believe there is a path forward in which fruitful dialogue might take place.  Certainly an awareness of what Islam teaches is very important for Catholics.  I am often struck by the level of ignorance of members of the Church.  The reasonable person when confronted with a threatening ideology will learn about it in order to defend themselves against it.  Can you imagine the Church trying to fight Communism without reading Marx and learning how Lenin interpreted him?  Or how about Fascism without reading Nietzsche and seeing how Hitler interpreted him in Mein Kempf?  Regardless of how we divide up Islam into moderate and radical, there is some percentage of Muslims who have become sworn enemies of the Church.  We may choose to fight armed with love and the sword of the Spirit, but not attempt to understand your enemy will not lead to a single conversion.  Perhaps this is why the Church has seen so little fruit in converting Muslims.

Personally I loathe the designation between “moderate Muslims” and “radical Muslims” almost as much “cafeteria Catholics” and “orthodox Catholics.”  In both cases both groups must be prepared to make an explanation for difficult teachings.  The cafeteria Catholic must be prepared to say what the Church teaches about a given issue and why it is wrong or being misinterpreted.  So too the moderate Muslim needs to be prepared to explain the difficult passages in the Koran just as much as the radical Muslim does.  The moderate Muslim needs to be ready to explain why Osama Bin Laden was wrong when he thought “terror in Islam is an obligation” was true based on Sura 9:41 (“Go forth, light armed and heavy armed, and strive hard with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah! That is best for you if you but knew”).  All too often I have found the Church kowtowing to political correctness by staying away from the controversial issues.  The responses to the letter from those inside the Church were no exception.  I recognize there is a certain amount of decorum necessary, but eventually you have to confront the real differences.  Personally had I received the letter, my first question would have been “how can we have peace and understanding between Christians and Muslims when it appears to the average reader of the Koran that you are commanded to kill me?”  Regardless of whether the person is “moderate” or “radical” the movement toward the truth can never be accomplished without asking these types of uncomfortable questions.





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