Islam and Christianity: Where Dialogue Stumbles
ROME, December 30, 2013 – In the Christmas message "urbi et orbi," Pope Francis lifted up this prayer:
"Lord of life, protect all who are persecuted for your name."
And at the Angelus for the feast of Saint Stephen, the first of the martyrs, he again prayed “for the Christians who undergo discrimination because of witness rendered to Christ and to the Gospel.”
Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio has repeatedly manifested his sorrow for the fate of Christians in Syria, in the Middle East, in Africa, and in other places of the world, wherever they are persecuted and killed, not rarely "in hatred for the faith" and at the hands of Muslims.
To all of this the pope responds by incessantly invoking "dialogue as a contribution to peace."
In the apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium" of November 24, the most important of the documents he has published so far, Francis dedicated to dialogue with Muslims the following two paragraphs:
252. Our relationship with the followers of Islam has taken on great importance, since they are now significantly present in many traditionally Christian countries, where they can freely worship and become fully a part of society. We must never forget that they “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day”. The sacred writings of Islam have retained some Christian teachings; Jesus and Mary receive profound veneration and it is admirable to see how Muslims both young and old, men and women, make time for daily prayer and faithfully take part in religious services. Many of them also have a deep conviction that their life, in its entirety, is from God and for God. They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need.
253. In order to sustain dialogue with Islam, suitable training is essential for all involved, not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs. We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries! Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.
The commentaries on "Evangelii Gaudium" have paid scarce attention to these two paragraphs.
Few, for example, have noted the unusual vigor with which Pope Francis demands in Muslim countries as well that freedom of worship which the faithful of Islam enjoy in Western countries.
Those who have highlighted this "courage" of the pope - like the Egyptian Jesuit and Islamologist Samir Khalil Samir - have also emphasized, however, that he has limited himself to asking only for freedom of worship, remaining silent about the denial of freedom of conversion from one religion to another that is the real sore spot of the Muslim world.
Fr. Samir teaches in Beirut, Rome, and Paris. He is the author of books and essays on Islam and on its relationship with Christianity and with the West, the latest published this year by EMI with the title: "Those tenacious Arab springs." During the pontificate of Benedict XVI he was one of the experts most closely listened to by the Vatican authorities and by the pope himself.
On December 19, 2013, he published on the important agency "Asia News" of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions an extensive commentary on the passages of "Evangelii Gaudium" dedicated to Islam.
A commentary with two faces. In the first part, Fr. Samir brings to light the "many positive things" said by the pope on this issue.
But in the second part, he surveys their limitations. With rare frankness.
The following is the second part of his commentary.
Points of "Evangelii Gaudium" that Require Clarification
by Samir Khalil Samir
1. Muslims "together with us adore the One, merciful God" (No. 252)
I would advise caution here. It is true Muslims worship one and merciful God. However, this sentence suggests that the two conceptions of God are equal. Yet in Christianity God is the Trinity in its essence, plurality united by love: He is a bit more than just clemency and mercy. We have two quite different conceptions of the Divine One. Muslims characterize God as inaccessible. The Christian vision of the Oneness of the Trinity emphasizes that God is Love which is communicated: Father-Son-Spirit, or Lover-Beloved-Love, as St. Augustine suggested.
Moreover, what does the mercy of the God of Islam mean? He has mercy for whom he wants and not on those whom displease him. "Allah might admit to His mercy whom He willed" (Koran 48:25). These expressions are, almost literally, in the Old Testament (Exodus 33:19). But never arrive at saying that "God is love" (1 John 4:16), like St John.
Mercy in the case of Islam is that of the rich man who stoops over the poor and gives him something. But the Christian God is the one who lowers Himself to the level of the poor man in order to raise him up; He does not show his wealth to be respected (or feared) by the poor: he gives Himself in order the poor should live.
2. "The sacred writings of Islam have retained some Christian teachings" (No. 252)
This is true in a sense, but it is somewhat ambiguous. It is true that Muslims retain words or facts from the canonical gospels, such as the story of the Annunciation which is found almost literally in chapters 3 (The Family of Imr?n) and 19 (Mariam).
But more frequently the Koran is inspired by the pious tales of the apocryphal Gospels, and do not draw from them the theological sense they contain, and do not give these facts or words the meaning that they actually have, not out of malice, but because they do not contain the overall vision of the Christian message.
3. The figure of Christ in the Koran and the Gospel (No. 252)
The Koran refers to "Jesus and Mary [who] are the object of profound veneration". To tell the truth, Jesus is not an object of veneration in the Muslim tradition. Instead, Mary is venerated, especially by Muslim women, who willingly go to the places of pilgrimage.
The lack of veneration for Jesus Christ is probably explained by the fact that, in the Koran, Jesus is a great prophet, famous for his miracles on behalf of a poor and sick humanity, but he is not the equal of Muhammad. Only mystics have a certain devotion to him, as the sol-called "Spirit of God".
In fact, all that is said of Jesus in the Koran is the exact opposite of Christian teachings. He is not the Son of God, but a prophet and that's it. He is not even the last of the prophets, because instead the "seal of the prophets" is Muhammad (Koran 33:40). Christian revelation is only seen as a step towards the ultimate revelation brought by Muhammad, i.e. Islam.
4. The Koran is opposed to all the fundamental Christian dogmas
The figure of Christ as the second person of the Trinity is condemned. In the Koran it says explicitly to Christians: " O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning Allah save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not 'Three' - Cease! (it is) better for you! - Allah is only One God. Far is it removed from His Transcendent Majesty that "(Koran 4:171). These verses against the Trinity are very clear and need no interpretation.
The Koran denies the divinity of Christ: "O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, 'Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?'” (Koran 5:116). And Jesus denies it!
Finally, the Koran negates Redemption. It even says that Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross, but it was a look-alike: "And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them" (Koran 4:157). In this way God saved Jesus from the wickedness of the Jews. But then Christ did not save the world!
In short, the Koran and Muslims deny the essential dogmas of Christianity: the Trinity, the Incarnation and Redemption. It should be added that this is their most absolute right! But you can not then say that "The sacred writings of Islam retain part of Christian teachings". You simply must speak of the "Jesus of the Koran" which has nothing to do with the Jesus of the Gospels.
The Koran mentions Jesus because it aims to complete the revelation of Christ to exalt Muhammad. Besides, seeing what Jesus and Mary do in the Koran, we notice that it is no more than apply the prayers and fasting according to the Koran. Mary is certainly the most beautiful figure among all those presented in the Koran: she is the Virgin Mother, whom no man has ever touched. But she can not be the Theotokos; instead she is a good Muslim.
More Delicate Points
1. Ethics in Islam and in Christianity (252)
The last sentence of this point of "Evangelii gaudium" states with regard to Muslims: "They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need". This is true and compassion toward the poor is a requirement of Islam.
There is, in my opinion however, a double difference between the Muslim and Christian ethics.
The first is that the Muslim ethic is not always universal. It is often a question of solidarity within the Islamic community, while according to Christian tradition, solidarity is universal. We note, for example, when natural disaster strikes a given region of the world, countries of Christian tradition help regardless of the religious convictions of those who are in need of help, while rich Muslim countries (those of the Arabian Peninsula, for example) do not.
The second is that Islam links ethics to legality. Those who do not fast during the month of Ramadan are guilty of having committed a crime and go to jail (in many countries). If you observe the fast, from dawn to dusk, you are perfect, even if you eat from sunset until dawn the next day, more and better than usual: "the best things to eat and plenty of it," as some Egyptian Muslim friends told me. The Ramandan fast seems to lose all meaning if it becomes the period in which Muslims eat more, and eat the most delicious things. The next day, given that no-one has sept because they were up all night eating, no-one works. However, from the formal point of view, all have fasted for several hours. It is a legalistic ethics: if you do this, you are right. It is an exterior ethics.
Instead Christian fasting is something that aims to bring us closer to Christ's sacrifice, in solidarity with the poor and does not allow for a period during the day or night when we can make up for the food we have not eaten.
As long as believers observe Islamic law, everything is in order. The believer never seeks to go beyond the law. Justice is required by law, but it is not exceeded. This is also why there is no obligation to forgive in the Koran, whereas, in the Gospel, Jesus asks us to forgive an infinite number of times (seventy times seven; cf. Mt 18, 21-22). In the Koran mercy never reaches the point of being love.
The same goes for polygamy: you can have up to four wives. If I want to have a fifth wife, then all I have to do is repudiate one of those that I have already, maybe the oldest, and take a younger bride. And thus because I only ever have four wives at any one given time, everything is perfectly legal.
There is also the opposite effect, for example for homosexuality. All religions consider it a sin. But for Muslims, it is also a crime that should be punished with death. In Christianity it is a sin but not a crime. The reason is obvious: Islam is a religion, culture, social and political system, it is an integral reality. And it clearly states as much in the Koran. The Gospel instead clearly distinguishes the spiritual and ethical dimension of socio-cultural and political life.
The same applies to purity, as Christ clearly explains to the Pharisees: "What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them" (Mt 15, 11).
2. "The fundamentalists on both sides" (no. 250 and 253)
Finally, there are two points that I would like to criticize. The first is where the Pope groups together all fundamentalisms. In No. 250 he says: "An attitude of openness in truth and in love must characterize the dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions, in spite of various obstacles and difficulties, especially forms of fundamentalism on both sides".
The other is the conclusion of the section on relations with Islam that ends with this sentence: "Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence"(n. 253).
Personally, I would not put the two fundamentalisms on the same level: Christian fundamentalists do not carry weapons; Islamic fundamentalism is criticized, first of all by Muslims themselves precisely because this armed fundamentalism seeks to replicate the Mohammedan model. In his life, Muhammad waged more than 60 wars, and now if Muhammad is the super model (as the Koran claims 33:21), it is not surprising that some Muslims also use their violence in imitation of the founder of Islam.
3. Violence in the Koran and the life of Muhammad (No. 253)
Finally, the Pope mentions the violence in Islam. In No. 253 he writes: "True Islam and the proper interpretation of the Koran oppose all violence".
This phrase is beautiful and expresses a very benevolent attitude on the Pope's part towards Islam. However, in my humble opinion, it expresses more a wish than a reality. The fact that the majority of Muslims are opposed to violence, may well be true. But to say that " the true Islam is against any violence," does not seem true: there is violence in the Koran. To say then that "for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence" needs a lot of explaining. It is enough to cite Chapters 2, 9 of the Koran.
What the Pope says about Islam needing a "proper interpretation" is true. Some scholars have chosen this path but not enough to counter the power of the majority. This minority of scholars is trying to reinterpret Koranic texts that speak of violence, showing that they are related to the context of Arabia at the time and were in the context of the political-religious vision of Muhammad.
If Islam wants to remain within this vision still linked to the time of Muhammad, then there will always be violence. But if Islam - and there are quite a few mystics who have done it - wants to find a deep spirituality, then violence is not acceptable.
Islam is at a crossroads: either religion is a way towards politics and towards a politically organized society, or religion is an inspiration to live and love more fully.
Those who criticize Islam with regard to the violence are not making an unjust and odious generalization: as evidenced by the present bloody and ongoing issues in the Muslim world.
Here in the East we understand very well that Islamic terrorism is religiously motivated, with quotes, prayers and fatwas from imams who encourage violence. The fact is that there is no central authority to counter this manipulation in Islam. This means that every imam is considered a mufti, a national authority, who can make judgments inspired by the Koran and even give orders to kill.
Conclusion: A "Proper Reading of the Koran"
Finally, the really important point is "a proper reading." In the Muslim world, the most heated debate - indeed most forbidden - is precisely about the interpretation of the holy book. Muslims believe that the Koran descended upon Muhammad, complete, in the form we know. There is the concept of inspiration of the sacred text, which leaves room for interpretation of the human element present in the word of God.
Let's take an example. At the time of Muhammad, with tribes that lived in the desert, the punishment for a thief was the cutting off of hands. What purpose did this serve? To stop the thief from stealing again. So we must ask: how can we preserve this purpose today, that the thief will no longer steal? Can we use other methods instead of cutting off the hand?
Today all religions have this problem: how to re-interpret the sacred texts, which have an eternal value, but goes back centuries or even millennia.
When meeting Muslim friends, I always point out that today we must ask what "purpose" (maqased), the indications in the Koran had. The Muslim jurists and theologians say that you should search for the "purposes of the law of God" (maq?sid al-shar?'a). This expression corresponds to what the Gospel calls "the spirit " of the text, as opposed to the "letter". We must seek the intent of the sacred text of Islam.
Several Muslim scholars talk about the importance of discovering "the purpose" of Koranic texts to adjust the Koranic text to the modern world. And this, it seems to me, is very close to what the Holy Father meant to suggest when he writes of "a proper reading of the Koran."
The complete text by Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, on Asia News of December 19:
And the November 24 apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis:
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.