Engaging with Muslims
For the majority of people living in Western Europe until thirty or forty years ago Islam was still seen as an exotic and largely foreign religion. Few would have had clear knowledge of the tenets of Islam or much social interaction with its adherents. But across the whole of Europe followers of various forms of Islam are now a significant and growing minority, many as second and third generation citizens. So questions about how Western culture should relate to Islam have inevitably become much more sharply focused.
This is not just due to high profile terrorist attacks by those branded as ‘Islamist’. Fears and concerns over the threat of attacks from such extremists tend to overshadow the wider and deeper questions about how Christians, and Catholics in particular, should relate to Islam as a religion and to Muslim neighbours and acquaintances on a personal and practical level.
Areas of overlap?
Religious commentators often observe that there are large areas of overlap between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is not surprising since Islam began within a Jewish and Christian milieu in the Middle East of the seventh century AD, consciously adopting beliefs and practices from the Judeo–Christian tradition.
The Quran contains frequent references to Old Testament prophets and also to John the Baptist, Jesus and Mary. However, the biblical material is heavily reworked to suit the Islamic message. More than that, Islam is founded on the explicit rejection of all the central Christian mysteries: the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation and the Redemption. The Quran contains repeated and categorical denials of these doctrines. For this reason theologians have often regarded Islam as a kind of heresy.
Although Mohammed was never a baptised Christian, he probably knew and was influenced by many Jewish and Christian groups, especially heretical movements like the Nestorians and others who effectively denied the divinity of Christ. Muslims will point out that Jesus is mentioned more often than Mohammed in the Quran – Mary is honoured too (even the virgin birth is accepted) – but he is only a human prophet.
Islam claims to be a new and final revelation that modifies (they would say it corrects) the Jewish and Christian religions and demands recognition of Mohammed as the last and most perfect of the prophets and the greatest human being. Islamic claims therefore directly challenge the identity and authority of the Church. So while there are some values and convictions Christians and Muslims will find in common, Islam does not simply stand within the lineage of ‘Abrahamic’ faiths. It is more of a pagan re-interpretation and deviation from that tradition. It also retains strong elements of pre-Islamic Arabic paganism, such as worship at the Ka’ba or holy house of Allah at Mecca and many superstitious, even magical practices.
It is true that Islam believes in a single and eternal creator God who has revealed his will and his law to men through prophets, but the understanding of God and of his revelation is markedly different from Christianity. Allah does not disclose his own nature, nor grant grace that engenders eternal life within us. He is not our Father. We are his slaves, not his children made to his own image and likeness. He does not invite us into communion with himself, nor is there any possibility of seeing him as he really is in the Beatific Vision.
In Allah there is no Divine Logos who is infinite Wisdom and Reason. In fact there is no ‘reason’ or possible rationality when it comes to Allah and his edicts. Muslim theology is really a matter of jurisprudence, debating what is allowed and what is forbidden. And he rewards those who obey with a paradise of frankly sensual pleasures and punishes those who do not with sadistic tortures that are graphically described on page after page of the Quran. Allah is an absolute and arbitrary law-giver, ‘merciful’ only in the sense that he has reiterated his commandments through one last prophet. But there is no redemption, no cross, no atonement, no saving grace. Islamic propaganda contains a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about Christianity. So Muslims are often surprised when these spiritually superior dimensions of Catholicism are patiently explained.
Objections and scholars
A common objection is that the Bible is unreliable because it has been altered from (a now unavailable) original which would have been identical in teaching to the Quran, and this is evidenced by variant readings in the biblical text. The Quran, on the other hand, is often held to be an unchanging copy of what was dictated to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel.
In fact this is not even claimed by their own scholars at the time of Mohammed’s death. There were at least seven traditions of recitation and various written versions in circulation when the Caliph Uthman (576 – 656 AD) issued a definitive text and had all others destroyed. One problem for the earliest texts was that written Arabic had no vowel markings, making many letter combinations ambiguous in their meaning. Also there has been considerable revision over time with whole passages being abrogated or excised. There are currently two received versions (the Hafs and Warsh) in circulation among Muslims worldwide, although Muslim scholars insist that there is no difference of inner meaning with regard to what is permitted and what is forbidden.
A key problem for Muslim thinking about their own scripture is that the text is full of references to itself as “The Quran” even while it was purportedly being revealed. This may well be because it was actually written and promulgated (and Islam created as a pan-Arabic religion) in its present form some time after the man Mohammed lived and died, but Muslims get round the issue by saying that the real Quran is eternal. The earthly book is a physical translation and embodiment of the heavenly original.
Yet one of the strictest teachings of Islam is that nothing eternal can exist beside Allah. To suggest otherwise is the sin of “shirk” or polygamy; the very accusation they throw at belief in the Trinity. So the question arises whether the “Word of God” (i.e. the eternal Quran) is Divine or not? The historical answer given by Muslim scholars, who recognised the contradiction and the potential Trinitarian trap, is that it is and it isn’t!
It was finding the perfect answer to this conundrum in the prologue of St. John’s Gospel that brought Mario Joseph (born Suleiman ibn Ahmed) to accept Jesus as Lord and God. Understanding then that the Eternal Word is not a book but a Person, and that all things are made in Christ and for Christ, and that it is through him that we are reconciled to the Father, being granted “grace upon grace” through membership of his Body, the true ‘umma’ (divinely constituted community) of salvation, he soon became a convinced and courageous Catholic.
Another Catholic convert from Islam offers more very useful insights and advice about relationships with Muslims in an EWTN video also available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty4hP8rthOY). Among other things, he makes the point
the Eternal Word is not a book but a Person... all things are made in Christ and for Christ
that we need to be aware of what sort of Muslim we are dealing with. Many people know that Muslims are broadly divided into Sunni and Shia adherents. The principal dispute is about who should exercise authority over the Muslim community: the Sunni believe that a leader or caliph should be selected by the community, while the Shia hold that caliphs can only come from the descendents of the Mohammed’s chosen successor, his cousin Ali. Other legal and moral issues divide them too.
There are many complex subdivisions within these main branches, but it would be a mistake to think of these as analogous to Christian denominations. Some, like the highly puritanical Sunni ‘Salafist’ movement and its Saudi Arabian theocratic expression ‘Wahabbism’, which claim to be revivals of an original and pure application of the religion, reject all other forms of Islam as inauthentic and heretical. However, most groups, while accepting that there are differing schools of interpretation of Shariah law, see all Muslims as closely bound together in a single umma, united in basic belief and practice. They have a common aim too, to convert the West and the whole world ultimately to Islam.
In a recent BBC documentary, the political commentator Trevor Philips said he used to think Muslims would quietly integrate into UK culture, but he is now sadly disappointed by a recent survey of Muslim opinions. Clearly he had judged Islam though eyes of liberal Christianity – a common mistake.
His secular liberal peers are even more blind. They have cynically used the cloak of ‘multiculturalism’ to hasten the de-Christianisation of society, but it is slowly dawning on them that Islam will gladly sweep aside their liberal secularism and implement Shariah law when the time is right.
This does not mean that all Muslims are violent extremists. Muslims traditionally distinguish between the ‘House of Islam’, where Muslims form the majority and Shariah law is in force, and ‘The House of War’ where Islam is not accepted. Sometimes that is literally a theatre of war, but some also speak of more nuanced divisions: such as ‘The House of Truce’, ‘House of Calm’ – non-Muslim territories where Muslims are free to practice – and ‘The House of Invitation’ where Islam is not yet fully accepted but is in the process of being introduced – ie. Western Europe in some estimations.
While there can be as many variations of views and levels of practice among Muslims as there are among Christians, many young Muslims are actually well instructed . Their image of Christianity is largely taken from our decidedly post-Christian and deeply corrupt culture. They see Christianity as a weak and spent force, and they have little clear understanding of its real teachings. Most Muslims in the West are not used to meeting truly convinced and well-formed Catholics. It is often enlightening for them to realise that we Catholics also reject secularism and its hedonistic values.
They can often have a pride and enthusiasm for their own religion and degree of faithfulness to its personal demands that puts many Catholics to shame. How many lay Catholics stop whatever they’re doing and pray five times a day no matter what? Of course, that is a habit that Islam originally copied from the recitation of the Divine Office by priests and monks. They can be surprised to learn that we fast too. Only we don’t do it to demonstrate our strength of will but as a humble remedy for sin and as a sacrifice of love in union with Christ. These are things we should remind them about and reclaim by example as well as word. Fas est ab hoste doceri (You are allowed to learn even from your opponent).
We should remember the traditional Catholic distinction between a formal heretic – someone who initiates a heresy and consciously rejects Catholic teaching – and a material heretic – someone brought up in a culture and tradition separated from or outside the Church. So we should distinguish between Islam as a religion and individual Muslims. Those who have been brought up in a religion may indeed be implicitly seeking to know and love God in so far as they know him. It may be our job to lead them to that true divine faith for which they implicitly yearn, and which Our Lord desires them to reach.
For that to happen we need all our young Catholics to be at least as well instructed in their faith as their typical Muslim counterparts. We need to be living our faith to the full, with a personal life of prayer, a committed love for Christ and a deep devotion to Our Lady. We need to be ready to bear cheerful, charitable and robust witness to the Truth in words and in deeds. We may not be asked just now to bear the ultimate witness and how the true meaning of martyrdom, but if that day does come, we must be ready for that too!
Edouard Harmouche, who is of French/Lebanese family background, has recently retired from working for the United Nations.