Developments in Interreligious Dialogue with Muslims

  Thomas Michel, S.J.

We can approach this topic in various ways:
1) by studying the teaching of the Church, especially that of the Second Vatican Council and that of the present Holy Father for guidance regarding the goals and methods of dialogue with Muslims,
2) by sharing our experiences, positive and negative, of dialogue with Muslims in order to see the promise and problems of Christian-Muslim encounter,
3) by analyzing the present geopolitical situation and reflecting on its impact on Christian-Muslim relations.

1. Church teaching on dialogue with Muslims

In the paper I presented earlier today, I tried to cover the essentials of the first approach, that of examining the basic texts of the magisterium that offer guidelines for dialogue. All that remains here is for us to apply these teachings specifically to our relations with Muslims.

In the course of his pontificate, the Pope has met with Muslims over 50 times, much more often than all the previous Popes in history. In his speeches, he repeatedly underlines several important themes. The deepest bond that should unite Christians and Muslims is the fact that we both worship the One and Same God and that both communities seek to do God’s will in all things. Although we may disagree on many points, the fact that we and Muslims come before the same God gives a depth of importance to the effort to live well together on this planet.

The Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate presents key points of contact which ought to be the basis for mutual trust and respect. The document notes the importance that Muslims give to prayer, concern for the poor, and fasting as a spiritual discipline, and he refers to the great respect that Muslims have for Jesus and Mary as elements of Islamic faith that should form a sense of fellow-feeling between Christians and Muslims. Probably no other religion in the world regards Jesus so highly, as the only person since Adam to be born of a virgin, the greatest prophet before Muhammad, a model of holiness, a man taken up into heaven where he remains alive until his second coming to earth before the Final Judgment. In Islam, Mary is considered the holiest and greatest of all women who ever lived, a sinless virgin who gave birth to Jesus Christ.

Obviously, what Christians believe about Jesus goes far beyond this. For us, he not simply a great prophet, but the Son of God, the one in whom we encounter God, the source of our salvation and reconciliation with the Father, the one whose Spirit lives on not only in our community, but in the whole human family. Nevertheless, does not the obvious reverence shown by the Qur’an for Jesus and Mary form a basis for closeness and friendship between Christians and Muslims? The Qur’an itself recognizes this bond when it says, “You will find the nearest in affection to those who believe [the Muslims] are those who say, ‘We are Christians.’ This is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.”

Finally, in his many discourses, the Pope elaborates on the “common mission” given by Nostra Aetate to Christians and Muslims that I mentioned in my earlier talk. We should work together, for the benefit of all, in the four key areas of social justice, moral values, peace and freedom.

2. Personal experience of dialogue with Muslims

If there are such strong grounds, from both the part of Muslims and Christians, for a special relationship of friendship and cooperation, why are relations often so tense to the point where violence seems endemic and dialogue seems out of the question. Often Christians ask me, “Is dialogue with Muslims really possible?” My answer is that dialogue is not easy, because we lack a basis of trust. In general, we don’t trust Muslims and they don’t trust us. The reason for this mistrust is obviously the burden of history that all of us bear. We all have too many memories of wars, conflicts, misdeeds, discrimination, prejudices, and betrayals of trust to open ourselves easily or quickly to a vision of a life together and a mission in common to the modern world.

As I said earlier today, trust is not an easy thing to build, especially when the events of our world seem to be providing us all with new reason for mistrust. Christians are rightly concerned about terrorist attacks, suicide bombs, discrimination against Christian minorities, and the apparent readiness of Muslims to take the law into their own hands. Muslims are rightly concerned about Christian governments that seem all too ready to engage in military actions against civilian Muslim populations, about the habit of the Christian media of branding all Muslims as “dangerous” and “terrorists” because of the actions of a few, and about the effort of the “movers and shakers” of the economic world to impose alien cultural norms and values on Muslim peoples in the name of globalizing market interests.

All these factors make trust difficult to achieve. However, such divisive issues render dialogue a necessity if we are not to live in a polarized, inimical world. In the Catholic Church, we can learn much from the approach of Pope John Paul II. In the course of 25 years, he has preached and practiced a consistent message to Muslims. In the early years, there was not much response. Muslims seem to have been suspicious that the Pope was engaging in public relations or had ulterior motives or a hidden agenda beyond his pleas for dialogue and cooperation. As the years have gone by, however, and the Pope’s message has not changed, more and more Muslims are ready to accept the Pope’s words and deeds at face value. For example, at the 1986 Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, there were very few Muslims, and those who attended were not very representative of the Muslim community. At the second Day of Prayer for Peace in Bosnia in 1993, the response was much better, not only in terms of numbers but also in that of heartfelt participation. In last year’s third Day of Prayer, there were so many Muslims desirous of participating that their numbers had to be severely limited. There was not room on the podium in Assisi for all the important, representative Muslim leaders who took part.

My own experience is that once trust is established, dialogue with Muslims is not only possible, but is very rewarding. In Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Iran and the Philippines, I have had occasion to live among Muslims, to teach in their universities, to stay in their homes and to welcome them to mine, to share meals together, and to discuss at length what is deepest in my life and in theirs, that is, our personal experience of God in our lives, how we pray, what it means to do God’s will, and our response to God’s loving and forgiving grace-filed deeds.

I wish that time would permit me to recount all these experiences, for I have found in them a source of grace that has helped me to become a better Christian. Let me only say that over and over Muslims have told me how much the experience of coming together in faith with a Christian has meant to them.

3. The geopolitical situation and its influence on Christian-Muslim relations

Our encounters with Muslims do not occur in a vacuum. We live in an age of conflict and repeated violence. Everyone is uneasy and many - Italians, Iraqis, Americans, Turks, British, Afghans and others - are mourning innocent people killed in conflicts beyond their making. One could say that we are living in a situation of war, a worldwide power-struggle between two intransigent forces, and most of us, ordinary Christians and Muslims, are caught in the middle.

Many Muslims admit that theirs are societies in crisis. The political leadership is often seen as self-serving, corrupt, and unwilling or unable to meet the basic needs of the great masses of their people. Ideological conflicts, hypocrisy, and manipulation of religious identity abound in the modern Muslim world, although one might well ask whether such human vices and weaknesses are more prevalent among Muslims than in European and North American societies. Issues of justice and good governance are central today in Muslim nations. The cry for effective, representative, democratic government is felt everywhere. There are too many corrupt regimes that appear to serve mainly the interests of the ruling elite, who too often have attained power through dynastic succession or military coup d’états and who remain in power by sophisticated security systems and alliances with the Great Powers. All this has created a lack of confidence in political systems and leadership.

The economic effects on ordinary citizens of neo-liberal market policies, the globalization that we often talk about, are a cause of anger and unrest. Unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity have produced angry and frustrated masses who see no hope of betterment in structures of the status quo. There is a broadly-based perception that at the root of these societal ills lies a neo-colonial American hegemony in which small groups of money-managers in New York or London make, on the sole basis of profit, financial decisions which affect adversely the lives of millions of people elsewhere. There is a belief that Western governments support monarchies and dictatorships so long as they allow market freedom to foreign businesses and vote correctly in the United Nations, but is ready to wage war to destroy those who stand in the way of America’s economic and military aims. While the media and politicians accuse Muslims of being violence-prone, Muslims often see themselves mainly as victims rather than perpetrators of violence, whether the oppressors be the local Muslim elites or, as in the case of Palestine, Chechnia, Kashmir, Kosovo, and the Philippines, non-Muslim governments and armies.

Many Muslims, including the great majority who do not approve of violence and terrorism, have religiously-based objections to the dominant ideology promoted by the West. They regard modernist ideology as materialist, relegating God and God’s will to the margins - at best - of social, economic, and political life. They see modernism as profit-oriented and consumerist, implying that a person’s worth is measured by one’s economic status, social prestige, and power to achieve one’s goals. They see the dominant ideology as dividing the world into winners and losers. The winners drive good cars, have Gold Credit Cards, eat well, and vacation in exotic places, while the losers, in order to survive, must work hard at unrewarding and unstable jobs, and are expected to accept their lot peacefully. Their views are discounted or ignored and their voices are not heard in the councils of the mighty.

To Muslims, these are not the values by which God intends that people live. Islam, like Christian faith, teaches that the purpose of human life is to know, worship, and obey God, to love and serve others, and to hope for the day when those who remain faithful to God will be rewarded with eternal life in God’s presence. Thus, the values which should characterize human societies are solidarity, mutual assistance, concern for the poor, and constant recollection of God’s greatness, gentleness and compassion. The God-centered society they seek to build should be one of peace: peace with God by living in accord with God’s will, peace in fellowship among the various sectors of society, and peace among nations.

In articles, speeches, and the private discussions I have had with Muslims since the tragic events of 11 September 2001, I see a great emphasis placed on Islam as a religion of peace and the duty of Muslims to work with others to build world peace. How is this to be explained? I think that many Muslims had previously regarded the nature of Islam as a religion of peace as a fact so evident that it did not require explanation or defense. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the subsequent war on terrorism convinced many Muslims of two things: that Islam’s reputation among non-Muslims was not that of a religion of peace but rather one of violence, and that Muslims need to work together with like-thinking believers of other religions if they were to counter the generally negative impression others have of Islam and to actually build peace in this world. In short, Muslims could no longer assume Islam’s peace-oriented nature as self-evident, and Muslims could no longer try to “go it alone” in today’s world.

When Muslims look around to identify their natural allies in affirming divine values in the modern world, it is often sincere, believing Christians who come to the fore. What can be said today is that many Muslims and Christians throughout the world have become involved in working together “for the benefit of all.” This cooperation takes many forms. To take one region, the southern Philippines, as an example, we could mention the human development and anti-poverty work of MUCARD (Muslim-Christian Agency of Rural Development), an umbrella group of people’s organizations in 120 villages; the work for justice of Zamboanga’s Islamic-Christian Urban Poor Association; the work for peace of PAZ (Peace Associates of Zamboanga); that of reconciliation carried out by the Muslim-Christian Interfaith Conference and the Moro-Christian People’s Alliance; and the efforts of the Silsilah group at mutual understanding and education for dialogue.

In the U.S.A., the American Society of Muslims and the Catholic Focolare Movement cooperate in organizing seminars on “the art of loving,” seeking together to instill spiritual values in a modern, secularized society. In Washington, D.C., the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of the Jesuits’ Georgetown University has a first-class faculty composed of Muslim and Christian scholars that offers exemplary academic training in the issues that have long divided the Christian and Muslim worlds.

In the Middle East, two of Lebanon’s Christian universities train both Muslims and Christians in an understanding of each other’s faiths. The University of Balamand, established by the Orthodox Church, at its Center for Christian-Muslim Studies, and the Jesuits’ University of St. Joseph, at its Institute of Islamic-Christian Studies, offer academic preparation for those who seek to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue and understanding. In the Gulf region, Bahrain’s Tenth Islamic-Christian Dialogue Conference, which brings together Muslim and Christian scholars from many Arab-speaking nations, was held in October, 2002, to explore ways that Christian-Muslim cooperation might be fostered in the region.

In Asia, the Asian Muslim Action Network, a progressive Muslim movement in more than twelve Asian countries, is jointly organizing peace seminars and workshops together with the offices of the Catholic Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences and the Christian Conference of Asia. They are working together to build a common “peace curriculum” that can be offered to imams, religion teachers, seminarians and catechists.

I could give many more examples, but these few will have to suffice to show that throughout the world many Christians and Muslims are refusing to accept that history’s sad record of conflict between the two communities is what God desires. They are putting their convictions into concrete programs and reaching broad constituencies. One might say that Muslim-Christian dialogue is both the need of our day and an idea whose time has come.

This shared vision is not utopian. Christians and Muslims in dialogue must recognize that the problems of our world are of such complexity that the two communities are often pitted one against the other and, moreover, that many of the troubles arise not from external factors but rather from those who identify themselves as Muslims or Christians. What has become clear is that Christian-Muslim dialogue is not something that can wait until easy relationships characterize the two communities around the world, but a need which must be pursued in the midst of and despite the tensions and conflicts of our time.



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