Is Dialogue with Islam Possible?
By Thomas Reese
March 13, 2015 for the National Catholic Reporter
“It is dialogue and cooperation on the local level that makes a difference.”
Granted the Islamic State group and the multiple conflicts occurring in the Middle East, is dialogue with Islam possible? This was the question asked by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, nuncio emeritus to Egypt and former president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
As a member of the Society of Missionaries of Africa and an Arabic and Islamic scholar, Fitzgerald is especially qualified to discuss this topic, as he did in a March 6 lecture at The Catholic University of America sponsored by the Institute of Policy Research and Catholic Studies and the Africa Faith and Justice Network.
Despite having spent most of his life in dialogue with Islam, Fitzgerald is not blind to the difficulties of dialogue. He began by examining three elements that make dialogue difficult with certain categories of Muslims.
First, “there is a great difference in the experience of Jesus and Muhammad, and thus in the foundational experience of these two religions,” he said. Both were prophets with a message of conversion to the world. Both gathered around them disciples.
“Yet Jesus preached the kingdom of God, a kingdom which was not of this world,” Fitzgerald explained. “His was an essentially religious message which, although it was designed to have an effect on people’s behavior in this world, could be lived out within any political setting.”
“[Muhammad’s] message too was essentially religious, the acknowledgement of the one God as against the prevalent polytheism, but it had a social dimension to it, which was to bring about the formation of a new community bound not by blood ties or tribal loyalty, but by religion: the Umma.” The Umma was both a religious and a political community, and it took up arms to survive. Muhammad was both a prophet and a statesman.
Pre-Constantine Christianity, on the other hand, was a purely religious movement that did not take up arms to survive.
“So although Christianity was, as it were, taken over and used by political entities, in the first place by the Byzantines and then afterward by various monarchs and rulers, in essence, it remains independent of any political power,” Fitzgerald said. “Whereas Islam, from its very beginning as a separate community, has been both religious and political, and one would be tempted to say that striving to defend the community, if necessary by force of arms, is a natural component of the religion.”
There is a tendency among Muslims to look back to its first period, that of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, as the time of glory and true Islam. This has inspired numerous revivalist movements throughout history. Jihads against Muslims who did not practice a pure version of Islam became common. Most of these movements were local and short-lived, but the Wahhabi movement, which started in the 18th century, is still with us and finds sponsorship in Saudi Arabia.
The attraction of the caliphate is the second issue examined by Fitzgerald. He notes that Islam split into Sunni and Shiite factions after the death of Muhammad because of disagreements over succession.
The Shiite believe that Muhammad appointed Ali, his cousin, as his successor. For the Shiite, each imam designates his successor, who must belong to the family of the prophet. The Shiite believe that there were 12 imams following Muhammad and that the 12th imam went into occultation and will return at the end of time to bring about a reign of justice.
Sunnis believe Muhammad made no provision for succession and therefore succession would be determined through election by prominent members of the community.
Yet despite these divisions, the caliphate during its period of Islamic expansion and prosperity acted as a focal point of unity for Muslims. This lasted until the mid-10th century, when the caliphate began to lose its importance until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk finally abolished it in 1924.
Although an attractive ideal, the caliphate has not always been a dominant factor in the life of Islam and certainly for centuries has not functioned as a unifying political power. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s pronouncement that he is the caliph has been condemned by Muslim authorities. A leading scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, has said that the title of caliph can “only be given by the entire Muslim nation.”
The last point Fitzgerald examines is Shariah by which the Umma is to be regulated. He notes that there are four sources for Shariah: the Quran; the Sunnah, or tradition of the prophet; qiyas, or analogy; and ijma, or consensus among scholars. The multiple sources and textual ambiguity lead to debate and disagreements over Shariah so that there are at least four different schools of interpretation.
So when it is proclaimed that Shariah law is going to be applied, the question will arise as to which Shariah. Who is going to decide which type of Shariah law is to be applied, and who is to control its application, seeing that all the conditions are fulfilled before a judgment is given?
Fitzgerald concluded: “The takfiri jihadists who have proclaimed an Islamic State where Shariah law will be observed under the guidance of a self-designated caliph are not upholding Islamic tradition, whatever they may say.” He said he believes that dialogue is impossible with such people “who are convinced they hold the truth and therefore have no need of listening to others.”
But dialogue with other Muslims is possible, he argued. He pointed to four types of dialogue that are possible and encouraged by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue: the dialogue of life, the dialogue of action, the dialogue of discourse, and the dialogue of spiritual experience.
The dialogue of life, or what Fitzgerald calls harmonious living, takes place “where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations,” in the words of the pontifical council.
Christians and Muslims have been living side by side for centuries in Africa and Asia, and now Muslims are present in increasing number in Europe and North America.
“Steps have to be taken in order to allow people to get to know one another and to create harmony,” Fitzgerald said. Increased violence has made this more difficult, but also more necessary.
Second, there is the dialogue of action where Christians and Muslims work together to face up to problems of society. Christians and Muslims have found common cause in the pro-life movement as well as in advocating human rights, social reforms, and care of the environment. Working together creates understanding and trust.
The third is the dialogue of discourse where, according to the pontifical council, “specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values.” Themes such as justice in international trade relations, business ethics, problems of migration, media and religion, respect for the environment, and questions of bioethics have all been taken up in these dialogues. Some dialogues have also discussed purely theological topics like the foundations for holiness and reason, faith and the human person.
Finally, there is the dialogue of religious experience, where, according to the pontifical council, “persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God.” Religious communities like the Benedictines and Trappists have been involved in such dialogues.
Fitzgerald concluded “that Christian-Muslim dialogue exists, and therefore it is possible.” But the situation is uneven. “There are places where there is very little or no interest at all in such dialogue, yet there are other places where relations with Muslim neighbors have become a normal concern for Christian communities.”
But at the same time that cooperation is growing, so too is mutual suspicion, which renders dialogue more difficult.
Fitzgerald puts little faith in international meetings of religious leaders and scholars. It is dialogue and cooperation on the local level that makes a difference. He said local dialogue should not be seen as a fire brigade for responding to a crisis, but as a preventive strategy that builds relationships that inoculate communities from being drawn into violence by suspicions and misunderstandings.
“It entails increasing mutual knowledge, overcoming prejudices, creating trust,” he explained. “It means strengthening bonds of friendship and collaboration to such an extent that detrimental influences coming from outside can be resisted.”
“Its aim is to build up good relations among people of different religions, helping them to live in peace and harmony,” Fitzgerald said. He noted that where Muslim and Christian leaders and communities have a history of cooperation, conflict is less likely to escalate into violence.
“It is the conflict that makes the news, not the absence of conflict,” he noted. “And yet this absence of conflict is really the good news.”
Where conflict has occurred, there will be a need for a purification of memories, which “means listening to the differing accounts of the same events, paying attention to both facts and perceptions, and trying to come to a common understanding,” he explained. “When the past is examined with honesty, it will usually be seen that all is not black and white. There can be wrongs on both sides. In any case, the acknowledgement of wrongs done, of injustices, of atrocities is an important step in any process of reconciliation.”
“Interreligious dialogue should lead to a common search for understanding, to a shared sympathy for those who are suffering and in need, to a thirst for justice for all, to forgiveness for wrong done, together with a readiness to acknowledge one’s own wrong-doings, whether individual or collective,” Fitzgerald concluded. “This would seem to be the true way forward for Christian-Muslim dialogue.”
***Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ