Islam & Christianity: Past Complicates Modern Attempts at Bridge-Building

From the very beginning, Mohammed acknowledged that Christians, along with Jews, were the “People of the Book,” and therefore, as partisans of a true (if incomplete) faith, entitled to official toleration. Nevertheless, as early texts show, many central orthodox Christian beliefs—the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Trinity—were virtually anathema to Islam's founder and his followers.

Not that Christians haven't returned the compliment-with interest. St. John of Damascus (A.D. 675-750?), one of the first major theologians to live under Islamic rule, had the right idea. Islam, he wrote, was a Christian heresy. While the revelation may be of dubious origin, it had resulted in a whole people abandoning idolatry. Engage Muslim leaders, he advised, in firm but prudent dialogue.

Last in a III part series on ISLAM

It was a road not taken. Almost from the very beginning, the Christian polemic against Islam was very personal, much of it focused, unhelpfully, on Mohammed himself.

The “prophet” of Islam, so the polemic ran, was a low-born pagan upstart, who schemed himself into power and maintained it by pretended revelations, and who spread his religion by fire and sword. The Koran is a hodgepodge of biblical and heretical Christian allusions, ultimately inspired by the devil. Christianity, in this long-held view, is essentially a spiritual religion whereas Islam is centered on worldly gains and carnal delights.

Add to that the very real military threat Islam posed to Christendom-a threat that, in part, inspired the Crusades, the Reconquista of Spain and Portugal, and the Turkish wars of the 18th and 19th centuries—and the Damascene's counsel of patient dialogue, understandably, was an early casualty of the struggle. With a few exceptions on both sides, there things stood until modern times.

The exceptions, however, are significant. After two abortive attempts to reach Muslim territory, St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) reached Egypt with the Crusaders in 1219. There he impressed the Sultan Malek el-Kamil who allowed him to preach the Gospel in his presence. Though the sultan refused to indulge in religious controversy, he protected the saint and showered him with gifts. The saint's reputation in Islamic lands disposed later Muslim rulers to permit Franciscans to care for hard-pressed Christian minorities in the Near East.

About the same time, in Islamic Persia, the Afghan-born Muslim mystic Jalal al-Din or “Rumi” (1207-1273) wrote poetry warmly celebrating Jesus as the ascetic ideal and taught his followers that love is monotheism's supreme value. In his poem, The Sultan of Lovers, Rumi embraces Jews and Christians with the bold line, “In mosques, synagogues and churches, I find one shrine.”

St. Thomas Aquinas' “second” Summa, the unfinished Summa contra Gentiles, in part addressed to Catholic missionaries in Muslim lands, shows a deep and respectful familiarity with the ideas of contemporary Muslim thinkers such as Ibn-Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn-Rushd (Averroes).

Paradoxically, these remarkable careers took place during the signature episode in Muslim-Catholic relations: the two hundred years of the Crusades (1099-1299).

Launched by Pope Urban II in 1095 and preached by the likes of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the goal of the Crusades ostensibly was to wrest control of the Christian shrines in the Holy Land from Muslim control and protect the pilgrimage routes from Europe to the Near East. Sparked by the Fatimid caliph Hakim's destruction of Jerusalem's Church of the Anastasis (today's Church of the Holy Sepulcher), traditional site of Calvary and the Tomb, and many other Christian shrines earlier that century, the movement quickly fell prey to the lust for gain and the competing ambitions of the powers—Franks, Venetians, Byzantines—that bankrolled it.

Suspicion in Modern Times

Mutual suspicions born during that largely destructive encounter between Catholic West and Muslim East continue to reverberate today. Nowhere does that fact show up more sharply than in stilltense relations between Middle Eastern Christians and their Muslim neighbors. Muslims often harbor suspicions, largely based on the past, that Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communities side secretly with the “colonial” aims of Christian powers in the Muslim world.

But if the Crusades mark the historical low point in Muslim-Catholic relations, few would dispute that, more than any other single event, the Second Vatican Council opened a whole new chapter in the Church's approach to the world's second largest faith.

In Lumen Gentium, the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Council Fathers note, after a passage on God's love for the Jewish people, that “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place among these are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind” (LG 16).

A fuller passage in the trail-blazing Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non—Christian Religions, states that the Church “looks with esteem upon the Muslims. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, maker of heaven and earth, and speaker to men. They [Muslims] strive to submit wholeheartedly even to his inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham, with whom the Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, his virgin mother; at times they call on her, too, with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will give each one his due after raising him up. Consequently, they prize the moral life, and give worship to God especially through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.”

The Declaration goes on to recognize that “in the course of centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims. This sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them [Muslims] make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace, and freedom” (NA, 3).

After more than thirty years, some of the remarkable elements in these texts—still the Church's blueprint for Islamic—Catholic relations-are easily missed.

Theological Comparisons

For one thing, they reflect the wise, pastoral tenor of one of the Church's first official reactions to the phenomenon of Islam.

In 1076, Pope Gregory VII wrote a famous letter to Anzir, the Muslim king of Mauritania, in which he acknowledged that Christians and Muslims worship the same God: “[F]or we believe and confess one God, although in different ways, and praise and worship God daily as the creator of all ages and the ruler of this world.”

The acknowledgment is significant because some Christians, even today, question whether Islam's God, Allah, an Arabic contraction for “the divinity,” is the same as the one true God Christians and Jews worship. Some American evangelicals, for example, believe that Muslims adore, not God, but a demon under this name.

On the other hand, it's worth noting that while Vatican II's approach to Islamic religious values is generous, there is also an undercurrent of respectful uncertainty in the texts about some of Islam's claims.

Muslims, according to the Council, “profess to hold the faith of Abraham (LG, 16), and “Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself” with Abraham's humble submission to God (NA, 3).

Nevertheless, the Council underlines those common elements that Muslims and Catholics share-among them, one that many Catholics aren't even aware of: Muslim devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Sayyidattuna Maryam, Our Lady Mary, is the subject of a whole chapter (surah) of the Koran and many other verses besides. Citations from her surah adorn prayer niches to inspire and guide Muslims in their daily submission to God. The Koran calls her “the woman most favored.”

But despite convergences, few expect theological breakthroughs between the two faiths anytime soon.

In fact, as scholar Georg Evers remarked a decade ago, a certain disillusionment has set in among many professional Muslim-Christian scholars in recent years. “The differences are so great,” he lamented, “that one may well wonder whether there's any hope of Christian—Muslim dialogue progressing beyond the stage of registering the differences.”

Allies & Opponents

Joint political action, however, appears to be a different story. Only a generation ago, the idea that quiet collaboration between the Vatican and delegates from Catholic countries and Islamic states would help defeat a U.S.—backed plan to get the developing world to sign on to Western-style abortion and contraceptive measures would have been unthinkable.

But that's exactly what happened at the 1994 U.N. International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo.

Not only did some of the Muslim world's most authoritative voices speak publicly in favor of the Vatican's efforts to rework the U.N. draft but even press spokesmen for the Iranian government joined in.

“The future war is between the religious and the materialists,” one Teheran newspaper editorialized. “Collaboration between religious governments in support of outlawing abortion is a fine beginning for the conception of collaboration in other fields.”

However, even in the field of social concern, complications between Catholics and Muslims can arise.

Take the issue of female circumcision, for example.

No sooner had Muslim and Catholic allies taken credit for revisions in the U.N. resolution on population and development than the debate on the ancient African practice of female circumcision arose in Egypt. The procedure, which usually involves removal of all or part of a young girl's genitalia, is widespread in Africa and the Middle East. Opponents claim that more than 85 million women have endured some form of it. A practice dating back to Pharaonic times, female circumcision is intended to ensure virginity and curb sexual pleasure and is typically administered by a non-surgeon, often without anesthetic.

When Egypt's health minister banned the procedure outside hospitals three years ago, there was a storm of protest from prominent Muslim scholars defending the pre-Islamic custom.

Vatican spokesmen led the way in condemning the mutilations and vowed to work for a universal ban on female circumcision. Later on, pressure from a variety of groups, including western feminists, persuaded Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to reverse the decree which permitted hospitals and health clinics to perform the surgery and bills were introduced in the Congress to ban the practice among mainly African immigrants to the U.S. Some Islamic reformers, it must be noted, also oppose the practice.

The Road Ahead

Writing a new chapter in Catholic—Muslims relations will not be easy, nor will it pay quick, easy dividends. As Catholic ecumenist Georges Anawati has written, it will require a sober patience and a willingness to “hope for what one does not yet see.”

And perhaps something still more mysterious and costly.

Two years ago, in May 1996, seven French monks were killed by an Islamic rebel group in strife-torn Algeria. One of the Trappists, Father Christian-Marie de Cherge, prior of the Monastery of Notre Dame de l' Atlas, left behind a letter anticipating his assassination.

The letter begins by reminding his readers that his “life had been given to God,” and urges them to reject “the caricatures of Islam that are fostered by a certain Islamism.

“It is all too easy to appease one's conscience,” he writes, “by simply identifying this religious tradition with the allor—nothingness of the extremists.”

De Cherge concluded: “My death would seem to vindicate those who dismiss me as naive, an idealist, (saying): ‘Let him say how he sees things now! ’ For then I shall be able, if it pleases God, to submerge my gaze in the Father's, to see his Islamic children, illuminated by the glory of Christ, by the fruits of his passion, endowed with the gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy is always to establish communion and to restore likeness, by acting among differences.”

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.