In his Life of St. Francis of Assisi St. Bonaventure tells of his spiritual father’s “glowing charity” toward the Muslims that “urged his spirit unto martyrdom.” He gained entrance into the presence of the Sultan of Babylon. “When the Sultan inquired by whom, why and how they had been sent, Francis replied with an intrepid heart that the Most High God had sent him to point out to the Sultan and his people the way of salvation and to announce the Gospel of truth. Inspired from heaven, Francis continued: ‘If you wish to be converted to Christ along with your people, I will most gladly stay with you for love of him. But if you hesitate. . .then command that an enormous fire be lit and I will walk into the fire along with your priests so that you will recognize which faith deserves to be held as holier and more certain.’” While the Sultan never took Francis up on his offer for conversion or martyrdom, the saint did earn his admiration and was eventually released The frustration that Francis experienced in preaching the Gospel and leading Muslims to conversion is something that the Church as a whole has long struggled with. It seems that, with very few exceptions, Muslims as a whole are unconvertable.
Certainly there are within the Islam corpus of teachings that help to explain this. First of all, the death penalty for apostasy is deeply ingrained in Islamic culture to the point that it is often the family of the convert who turns them over to the authorities. This practice has its root in both the Qur’an and the Hadith of Muhammad. In Surah 9:11-12, the author of the Qur’an declares that “But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then are they your brethren in religion. We detail our revelations for a people who have knowledge. And if they break their pledges after their treaty (hath been made with you) and assail your religion, then fight the heads of disbelief — Lo! they have no binding oaths in order that they may desist.” While there is some difference in opinions as to whether this particular verse applies to apostates particularly, it is the Hadith (the sayings and teachings of Muhammad) that make this particular teaching binding. “Abdullah reported Allah’s Messenger as saying: It is not permissible to take the life of a Muslim who bears testimony (to the fact that there is no god but Allah, and I am the Messenger of Allah, but in one of the three cases: the married adulterer, a life for life, and the deserter of his Din [Islam], abandoning the community” (Chapter 6, Bk.16, no. 4152).
Fear is not the only reason why conversion has been slow. More fundamentally, conversion is blocked for the same reason that few Christians convert to Judaism—Islam is believed to be the fullness of God’s revelation and to convert to Christianity (or even Judaism) would be a step backwards. Muslims believe that the history of the world is divided into periods of different prophets. First there was Moses and Torah (Tawrat), then Jesus and the Gospel (Injil) and then definitively, Muhammad and the Qur’an. A core Islamic belief regarding the “People of the Book”, that is Jews and Christians, is that they corrupted God’s Revelation. The Old and New Testaments contain fragments of what used to be a legitimate form of revelation but has been tampered with.
Despite these difficulties, conversion is still a possibility. When the Church in Mexico could make no evangelical inroads with the natives to the point that he feared armed resistance, Bishop Zumarraga called on Our Lady’s help In short order, Our Lady of Guadalupe intervened and there were 9 million converts in less than a decade. So too does she desire to bring Muslims to her Son and home to the Father.
In setting aside some of the apocalyptic interpretations, the number of Marian apparitions in the Middle East has taken a decidedly steep uptick in recent decades. What makes these particular apparitions so powerful is that they are fully visible to all present, and can even be captured on camera. While the Church has yet to authenticate them, it might serve as a sign that Our Lady is ready to act in a miraculous way.
Why might we be looking at a situation similar to what was witnessed on this Continent in the 16th Century? Because of the Muslim regard for Mary. Just as she served as the bridge between God and Man by lending her humanity to God’s own Son, she may serve as a bridge between Christians and Muslims.
In his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton said that what made St. Thomas such a great evangelist and defender of the faith was the principle “that we must either not argue with a man at all or we must argue on his grounds and not ours.” So if we are to win Muslims to the Faith we must find bridges between their beliefs and ours. Realistically, Jesus is not that bridge. Their beliefs regarding Isa render the true Jesus practically unrecognizable. But when it comes to the Mother of God, they are surprisingly close to the Christian belief.
Surah 19 bears the name “Mary” and in it we find a narrative of the Annunciation and the Islamic defense of the Virgin Birth. Clearly drawing from apocryphal sources like the Protoevangelium of James, the Qur’an also says much with regard to Mary’s childhood. She is portrayed as constantly under direct divine protection, nourished by angels and blessed with heavenly visions regularly (Surah 3:32). All of this detail serves as confirmation of Mary’s greatness.
The Muslims even believe in a reduced form of the Immaculate Conception. In Islamic theology, man is incapable of entering into a relationship with Allah and therefore there is nothing like the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. However they do believe that mankind has a natural defectibility which makes each member impure from birth. In Hadith 4506 it is said that ” “When any human being is born, Satan touches him at both sides of the body with his two fingers, except Jesus, the son of Mary, whom Satan tried to touch but failed, for he touched the placenta-cover instead.” From this Hadith and from Surah 3:35-37 Islamic commentators have put forth the principle of Mary’s original purity.
While there are some inconsistencies related to the fact that Mary is portrayed as unwed at the time of the Annunciation and a confusing narrative which seems to suggest that she is Moses’ sister (Surah 19:28), these differences are far outweighed by the similarities. Why is this? Because one of Mary’s titles in the Old Roman Missal was the “Destoyer of Heresies.” Wherever she is honored, heresies are destroyed. All Mary does is lead people to her Son. When we honor her, she responds by leading us more fully to her Son. Venerable Fulton Sheen in The World’s First Love says
“Mary is the advent of Christ, bringing Christ to the people before Christ Himself is born. In an apologetic endeavor, it is always best to start with that which people already accept. Because the Moslems have a devotion to Mary, our missionaries should be satisfied merely to expand and to develop that devotion, with the full realization that Our Blessed Lady will carry the Moslems the rest of the way to her divine Son. She is forever a traitor, in the sense that she will not accept any devotion for herself, but will always bring anyone who is devoted to her to her divine Son. As those who lose devotion to her lose belief in the divinity of Christ, so those who intensify devotion to her gradually acquire that belief.”
To the extent that we are faithful to Jesus’ command to take His Mother into our homes and consecrate ourselves to her and her evangelical mission of converting Muslims then we will begin to see waves of Islamic conversions. For Muslims too have a devotion to Our Lady. After the Virgin Mary, Muhammad’s daughter Fatima is held in the highest regard among women. Let us then follow Our Lady of Fatima’s command to pray the Rosary daily and offer it for the conversion of Muslims.