On November 28, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Ankara for a state visit to the Republic of Turkey. The pontiff’s visit, already a source of controversy owing to the media driven uproar over his remarks in Regensburg in September 2006, was the occasion of protests in the streets of Turkey by tens of thousands of Muslims and rampant media speculation as to the viability of the papal trip. The angry crowds paid little attention to the actual words of the Pope, ignoring for example, his plea upon his arrival in Turkey:
Christians and Muslims, following their respective religions, point to the truth of the sacred character and dignity of the person. This is the basis of our mutual respect and esteem; this is the basis for cooperation in the service of peace between nations and peoples, the dearest wish of all believers and all people of good will.
The trip ultimately proved a surprising success, and by its end the pontiff had won the admiration of the Turkish people and had made progress in Catholic-Muslim dialogue.
The journey of Pope Benedict to Turkey highlighted the complex and often profoundly challenging task for Catholics everywhere in dialoguing with Muslims. Catholic apologists the world over are now often more likely to confront questions about the relationship between the Church and Islam than the long history of Catholic-Jewish dialogue or ecumenical progress with the Orthodox churches. And this state of affairs is likely to continue as Islam is the fastest growing faith on the planet and is the world’s second largest religion, with more than 1.3 billion adherents. By comparison, there are 2.1 billion Christians; 1.1 billion are Catholic.
A History of Conflict . . .
The history of the Church’s relations with the Islamic world has also been problematic. War, misunderstanding, and controversy have long been the hallmarks of interaction. Indeed, conflict marked some of the earliest encounters between Muslims and Christians. In the century after the founding of Islam, Muslim armies swept out of Arabia and across the Holy Land and northern Africa and into Spain. The venerable Christian sees of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria were overrun and countless dioceses ceased to exist, withering in the face of the new Islamic governments.
Muslim forces continued to drive north into Europe until 732, when a Christian army defeated them at Poitiers, France, halting their advance in the West. Nevertheless, Islamic hosts assailed the lands of the Byzantine Empire, laying siege on several occasions to the great city of Constantinople. It was in part the threat posed to the Byzantine Empire by the fanatical Muslim forces of the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor (who also threatened the pilgrim trails to the Holy Land) that helped spark the launching of the Crusades in 1095 at the Council of Clermont by Bl. Pope Urban II.
Centuries of war ensued as Christians attempted to free Jerusalem from Muslim control—the eight major Crusades between 1095 and 1270—and to expel the Moors from Spain through the Reconquista in the fifteenth century. These battles left deep scars. Any modern controversy that flares up soon includes reference to the Crusades. When, for example, Pope Benedict was criticized for his trip to Turkey, some Muslims, including al-Qaeda, cited the Crusades. The historical awareness of the events of centuries past and the sensitivity of Muslims to those events is something Catholic apologists must be aware of and able discuss intelligently.
. . . and Dialogue
One overlooked.aspect of this long history is that dialogue is not some new phenomenon. It has taken place from virtually the time that Islam emerged as a major religious force. Around 781, the Nestorian patriarch Timothy I conducted a lively debate with the Caliph Muhammad al-Mahdi in Baghdad. Pope Gregory VII in 1076 wrote a letter to a Muslim prince in northern Africa who had displayed great charity toward the Christians under his authority. The Pope spoke specifically of the charity that Christians and Muslims owe to one another “because we believe in one God, albeit in a different manner, and because we praise him and worship him every day as the Creator and Ruler of the world.”
In his Regensburg lecture, Pope Benedict cited the peaceful dialogue between the learned Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus and a Sufi theologian in Persia. While the quote regarding Islam as a religion of violence was taken out of context, the discussion between the emperor and the Sufi theologian revealed the common ground that can be found. The great Dominican apologist Raymond of Peñafort in the thirteenth century encouraged Christians to pursue peaceful discussions with Muslims and encouraged St. Thomas Aquinas to write his Summa contra Gentiles (“On the Truth of the Catholic Faith against the Errors of the Unbelievers”), intended for outreach to Muslims and those of other faiths.
Still, for centuries after the Crusades, contact between Catholics and Muslims was limited and again characterized by war. Muslim armies under the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 and brought an end to a Christian empire that had existed since the fourth century. Ottoman armies and fleets then threatened Europe for the next three hundred years. The Turkish advance into the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century was halted at the famous battle of Lepanto in 1571, an event commemorated by the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7. Further wars were fought to stem the Ottoman conquest of southern Europe, including the siege of Vienna in 1683 and Belgrade in 1718 and 1788.
The tone of Catholic-Islamic encounters changed dramatically with the Second Vatican Council and its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. The watershed document, themagna carta of Catholic inter-religious dialogue, declares:
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 inscrutable 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. (Nostra Aetate 3; cf. Lumen Gentium16)
The document also touched on the sad history of Christian-Muslim relations: “Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”
A Common Enemy: Modernity
A new era in Catholic-Muslim dialogue began that found concentrated effort especially in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. The Pope met with Muslims both in Rome and during his trips abroad, and on May 6, 2001, he became the first pontiff to visit a mosque, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. John Paul developed a theme for that dialogue that has been taken up also by his successor, Benedict XVI: the common ground of human dignity and basic rights that are the privilege of every human being.
Pope Benedict declared in Turkey:
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 widespread longing for justice, development, solidarity, freedom, security, peace, defense of life, protection of the environment 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 that emerges clearly from today’s society, even if it is often brushed aside, the question about the meaning and purpose of life, for each individual 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 religious convictions.
Pope Benedict is profoundly aware of the challenge of Islam for the modern world and for the Church. But he also sees Islam within the wider context of that same crisis of modernity. Islam, like authentic Catholicism, looks with growing horror at the secularization of culture, the reduction of religion’s crucial influence on the lives of people everywhere, and the very real dangers posed by the ascendancy of what then-Cardinal Ratzinger termed “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Catholics and Muslims share similar religious values with respect to the challenges of modernity. We agree on opposition to abortion and euthanasia. We share a commitment to family life. We recognize the dangers of relativism and materialism. It is the crisis of culture that faces the West that Pope Benedict sees as the great challenge of our time, and his speech in Regensburg spoke to that concern. He is calling on Islam to play its part, but his words are aimed chiefly at the West, which has abandoned its authentic Hellenistic heritage and with it the tradition of rationality.
Return to Reason
“The essential idea is that dialogue with Islam and with other religions cannot be essentially a theological or religious dialogue, except in the broad terms of moral values; it must instead be a dialogue of cultures and civilizations,” noted Jesuit priest and Islamic expert Fr. Samir Khalil Samir in his insightful article for Asia News on Pope Benedict’s lecture in Regensburg. Common approaches to key cultural issues—to the universally threatening.aspects of the culture of death—still do not disguise the serious challenges in the area of Catholic-Muslim dialogue.
Fr. Samir writes that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger could see clearly the central difficulty in fostering socio-political relations with the Islamic world, namely “the totalizing conception of Islamic religion, which is profoundly different from Christianity.” Samir argues that, given the fundamental differences between Islamic and Christian society, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was opposed to the notion of projecting onto Islam the Christian vision of the relationship between politics and religion. As a result, co-existence is not easy. He writes:
In a closed-door seminar held at Castelgandolfo (September 1–2, 2005), the Pope insisted on and stressed this same idea: the profound diversity between Islam and Christianity. On this occasion, he started from a theological point of view, taking into account the Islamic conception of revelation: the Qu’ran "descended" upon Mohammad; it is not "inspired" to Mohammad. For this reason, a Muslim does not think himself authorized to interpret the Qu’ran but is tied to this text, which emerged in Arabia in the seventh century. This brings to the same conclusions as before: The absolute nature of the Qu’ran makes dialogue all the more difficult, because there is very little room for interpretation, if at all.
Compounding the problem of the absolute nature of the Qu’ran are the absence of any doctrinal authority in Islam (such as is found in the Catholic Church) and the existence of Islamic law, Sharia. In Islam, there is no magisterium. As a consequence, dialogue with Islam per se is not possible in the sense that dialogue is feasible with the Catholic Church. There is no one voice in Islam; rather, dialogue is conducted with groups and representatives of the differing sects of Islam and with imams and mullahs who often disagree with each other on interpretations of Islamic teaching.
The Total Islamization of Society
A second issue of concern in the differences between Islam and Christianity is the presence of Sharia, the body of Islamic law that governs many.aspects of both public and private life, including business and contract law, economics, and also sexuality and social life. The future Benedict XVI’s thinking on this issue was expressed in some detail in the 1996 book Salt of the Earth (with Peter Seewald). Cardinal Ratzinger declared:
The Qu’ran is a total religious law, which regulates the whole of political and social life and insists that the whole order of life be Islamic. Sharia shapes society from beginning to end. In this sense, it can exploit such freedoms as our constitutions give, but it cannot be its final goal to say: Yes, now we too are a body with rights, now we are present [in society] just like the Catholics and the Protestants. In such a situation, [Islam] would not achieve a status consistent with its inner nature; it would be in alienation from itself, which could be resolved only through the total Islamization of society. When for example an Islamic finds himself in a Western society, he can benefit from or exploit certain elements, but he can never identify himself with the non-Muslim citizen, because he does not find himself in a Muslim society.
Jews and Christians have lived for many centuries under Muslim rulers and Islamic law. Historically, such non-Muslims were designateddhimmis (meaning essentially “free” or “non-slaves”). They were not full citizens, but they were permitted to practice their faith privately so long as they paid a special tax called the jizya. The social conditions under which the dhimmis lived varied considerably in the past, and history witnessed periods of severe oppression and also enforced conversions. Today, some 40 million Christians reside under Islamic governments, and many face legal disabilities, social and economic discrimination, and even the chronic threat of violence and martyrdom. Such countries as Algeria, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Pakistan have imposed severe restrictions on Christians. In Saudi Arabia, all other religions are banned, and the only Christians in the area are workers from other countries. The result of this deteriorating situation is that the ancient Christian populations in Muslim lands are shrinking rapidly as Christians flee to the safety of Western countries.
The plight of Christians in Muslim lands stands in sharp contrast to the legal protections and safeguarded rights enjoyed by Muslims in the West and causes even greater urgency to the appeal for reciprocity. This important principle demands that Muslim countries should safeguard the basic rights and freedoms of Christian minorities in the same way that those freedoms are enjoyed by Muslims in Christian countries. Pope Benedict spoke to all Islamic countries when he defined reciprocity to the Moroccan ambassador to the Holy See in February 2006 as “respect for the convictions and religious practices of others so that, in a reciprocal manner, the exercise of freely chosen religion is truly assured to all in all societies.”
A Perverse and Cruel Choice
Reflecting Islam’s own difficulty in confronting modernity is the rise of militant Islamic movements and the growth of terrorism. Pope Benedict sees this problem as an opportunity for peaceful dialogue. He said in Cologne to Muslim representatives:
Thanks be to God, we agree on the fact that terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel choice that shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil coexistence. If together we can succeed in eliminating from hearts any trace of rancor, in resisting every form of intolerance and in opposing every manifestation of violence, we will turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders progress toward world peace. The task is difficult but not impossible. The believer—and all of us, as Christians and Muslims, are believers—knows that, despite his weakness, he can count on the spiritual power of prayer. Dear friends, I am profoundly convinced that we must not yield to the negative pressures in our midst but must affirm the values of mutual respect, solidarity, and peace. The life of every human being is sacred, both for Christians and for Muslims. There is plenty of scope for us to act together in the service of fundamental moral values.
Pope Benedict’s trip to Turkey is evidence that Catholic-Islamic dialogue is not a lost cause or a fruitless enterprise. Quoted out of context, burned in effigy, vilified falsely, and slandered across the world, Pope Benedict remained true to the call of the gospel and traveled to Turkey with faith, hope, and charity. What began as a seemingly hopeless journey, certain to be marred by protests and hostility, ended positively, eliciting encouraging words from Turkey’s religious and political leaders.
As the Holy Father said in Cologne in 2005:
We must not yield to fear or pessimism. Rather, we must cultivate optimism and hope. Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity on which in large measure our future depends.
Islam in a Nutshell
The word Islam means “grateful surrender” (or submission) to God. The religion was established in the early seventh century by Mohammed, a one-time merchant from Arabia who claimed to have received a revelation near the city of Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia. Islam is considered one of the three great monotheistic religions in the world (Judaism and Christianity being the other two) and its tenets are centered in Mohammed’s proclaimed revelation, recorded in the Qu’ran. For Muslims, the Qu’ran is the literal word of God revealed directly to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel. The Qu’ran was written originally in Arabic, and only the Arabic text is considered valid for official religious use—an obstacle for non-Muslims who do not read Arabic. It is not uncommon for Muslims to tell Catholics who have read the Qu’ran in English (or any other language) that their points are invalid because they have read an unofficial translation.
Muslims accept the final judgment, the resurrection of the body, heaven, and hell. They also follow divinely revealed moral norms and dietary regulations (e.g., avoiding alcoholic beverages and pork). On Fridays, noon prayers are said in a mosque and an imam gives a sermon. Muslims do not have an ordained ministry, although religious leaders, such imams and mullahs, can wield considerable influence.
Muslims do not recognize Christ as the Son of God but do acknowledge him as a prophet. The Qu’ran records his miraculous birth, teachings, and miracles performed with God’s permission, but it stresses that he was only human, not divine. Muslims reject Christian Trinitarian theology (God who is one and unique in his nature as three distinct Persons) and believe instead in what they see as the one God, Allah in Arabic. According to the Qu’ran, God is one and transcendent, Creator and Sustainer of the universe, all-merciful and all-compassionate Ruler and Judge. God possesses numerous other titles, known collectively as the ninety-nine names of God. The profession of faith states: “There is no god but the God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God.”
Of special note in the Qu’ran is the veneration given to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the only woman named in the Qu’ran. Called “Maryam” in Arabic, Mary is honored significantly in the Qu’ran—the nineteenth chapter is named after her and is devoted to her life. She is one of only eight people who have a chapter named after them.
The Five Pillars
There are five essentials duties every Muslim must perform. They are called the Five Pillars:
- The daily recitation of the profession of the Muslim faith
- Ritual worship five times a day facing in the direction of the holy city of Mecca, the cradle of Islam
- Fasting from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan, the time when the revelation of the Qur’an to Mohammed is said to have begun
- Making at least one pilgrimage (called the hajj) to Mecca
Pope Benedict XVI on Nostra Aetate and Islam
For more than forty years, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council has inspired and guided the approach taken by the Holy See and by local churches throughout the world to relations with the followers of other religions. Following the biblical tradition, the Council teaches that the entire human race shares a common origin and a common destiny: God, our Creator and the goal of our earthly pilgrimage. 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, Nostra Aetate1, 3)
Matthew E. Bunson