The Quran Is a ‘Sacrament’?

It seems that the more you understand it, the more troubled you will be.

Eleventh-century North African Quran in the British Museum.
Eleventh-century North African Quran in the British Museum. (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Lord Harris)

“The more you understand something, the less you fear it.” Well, that’s not exactly what the archbishop said, but the sentiment seems to be the same.

What Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald actually said in an interview on Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN) was, “The more you understand a religion, the better it is.”

The archbishop, who is billed as one of the Church’s top authorities on Islam, served as the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue from 2002 to 2006. Now retired, he is teaching a class on the Quran at John Carroll University, a Jesuit college in Ohio.

According to the MPBN report, “For years, Fitzgerald has been urging his fellow Christians to acquaint themselves with Islam and its holy book, the Quran.” What’s more, “in teaching Catholic students about Islam, he suggests they look for commonalities with their own religion.”

For example, after noting the great respect shown for the Quran by Muslims, Archbishop Fitzgerald asks his class if there is “anything comparable in Catholic Christianity.” And, sure enough, there is. One student mentions the Eucharist. Clearly pleased, Fitzgerald responds: “Yes. In a way the Quran is a sacrament, isn’t it? It’s a sign of the presence of God.”

Very reassuring — as long as you keep your eyes firmly fixed on the commonalities. That the Quran is also a manual for putting non-Muslims in their place is probably not on the archbishop’s agenda. I’m all for a better understanding of the Quran, but it seems to me that the more you understand it, the more troubled you will be.

For an analogy, consider that the Jews who understood what Mein Kampf was all about left Germany while the going was good. Those with a fuzzier understanding of Nazism stayed on, looking for commonalities and hoping for the best. Nazis no longer threaten Jews, but it’s not entirely a historical coincidence that Jews are again fleeing Europe. Muslims in Europe outnumber Jews by at least 10 to 1.

As attacks against them increase, Jews are beginning to realize that Muslim anti-Semitism rivals that of the Nazis. They may also remember that prominent Muslims, such as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, worked closely with Hitler and Adolf Eichmann to expedite the Holocaust.

I’m not saying that European Jews know something about Islam that Archbishop Fitzgerald doesn’t know. He speaks Arabic and has studied Islam all his life, and undoubtedly he has a vast knowledge of the subject. But knowledge alone isn’t sufficient for a thorough understanding of a subject. What counts is not simply what you know, but also your ability to make sense of what you know.

For example, other Church specialists on Islam with even more credentials than Archbishop Fitzgerald (Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir comes to mind) are far less sanguine about what the Quran teaches.

The applicable maxim is the old one about not being able to see the forest for the trees. Many scholars become so focused on the details of their discipline that they’re unable to step back and look at the larger picture. The larger point about Islam is not that it bears some similarities to Catholicism, but that it has historically been an enemy to Christians and other non-Muslims.

The Jews who are now fleeing Europe in droves, may lack Archbishop Fitzgerald’s academic background, but they seem possessed of a quality he lacks — namely, the ability to put two and two together.

There are a couple of other things about Archbishop Fitzgerald’s approach that don’t add up. In urging Christians to acquaint themselves with the Koran, he seems to assume that it’s self-explanatory. But it’s not.

In the words of English historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle (who was a fan of Muhammad), the Quran is “a wearisome confused jumble.” Even Islamic scholars admit that it can’t be understood apart from the various supplementary texts that fill in the gaps — the Sira, the numerous hadith volumes, and the equally voluminous commentaries and law books.

Westerners who read it typically find it confusing. People I’ve talked with describe it as “tough sledding,” “difficult” and “muddled.” Some things do come through, however. Perhaps the three clearest messages in the Quran are that God is sovereign, Muhammad is the prophet of God, and unbelievers will roast in hell. Those who are looking for something deeper will be disappointed.

The kind of penetrating insights that can be found in the New Testament are few and far between in the Quran (and are mostly borrowed). Instead, it is largely a book of imprecations against unbelievers. Test this for yourself by opening a few pages at random.

One of the main takeaways from the Quran is that unbelievers are contemptible and therefore deserving of an awful fate. Thus, if you are an unbeliever (i.e., a non-Muslim), you might be reasonably worried about those who take the Quran to be the literal word of God.

One suspects, however, that the archbishop’s pupils are unlikely to bother themselves with such thoughts. Their focus will be on the commonalities. What’s worrisome is that Archbishop Fitzgerald’s approach to teaching about Islam is essentially the same as that taken in most Catholic schools, colleges and seminaries. And so it’s likely that another generation of Catholics who can’t see the forest for the trees will take the reins of the Church. Insofar as they address the topic of Islam, they will be taken up with noting the vague similarities (“in a way, the Quran is a sacrament, isn’t it?”) and will miss the main message to non-Muslims (convert, pay the jizya, or die).

While closely examining this or that tree in the wood (“look, here’s one that’s just like the birch in our backyard”), they will fail to notice that the trees are part of a large and dangerous forest. They will also fail to notice that, like Birnam Wood, the forest is on the move.