Catholic Attitudes towards Islam
We can summarize Christian or Catholic attitudes towards Islam into 5 attitudes. Before we discover them, let us say something about religions in general. Most of us today live in a world where people belong to different religions. Some religious movements are born everyday but the world religions with more than thousands members were all founded years before we were born. If your neighbor today comes to invite you to join him in his or her newly founded religion you can easily reject that religion because you know your neighbor. You can reject what you see being created. But you cannot easily reject what has been there for years. You need to know it better, to reflect, and to understand. What are all those religions about? Religions essentially give us knowledge and experience. The knowledge is about identity and destiny. Let us start with the human person. You stand on a material world, surrounded by nature, and by other people. Then beyond that material world there is an invisible world we call it a spiritual world. Religions give you knowledge about who or what are all those elements of your universe: the material and the spiritual world (identity). Religions tell you who is a human person, who is the divine supreme reality, what is the created world… Religions give you also some knowledge about the destiny of those realities: what’s the meaning and destiny of the human person? Of a plant? Of a planet? Of the spiritual being? Religions are also about experience because the human person is essentially in relation with what is surrounding him. He feels the earth. He feels nature. He feels the other human beings. He feels the spiritual world. Religions are about putting the human persons in a relation that is life-giving. Relation is a dynamic thing that is why Religions are seen as ways or paths. So Christianity and Islam give us some knowledge (about identity and destiny) and experience (salvific relations, relations that save, that give life). What do Christians, Catholic Christians think about the knowledge and experience brought by Islam in the History of Religions?
First attitude: Islam is a human invention; we have to convert Muslims to the true religion, Christianity. Christianity is The only Religion valid, and desired by God. It is the only Religion coming from God himself. All the other religions are temporal human inventions called to disappear. Islam is a religion invented by an Arab man. The followers of Islam are human beings worthy of love and respect but their religion, Islam, is a false religion since many things they say contradict the teachings of Jesus as preserved by Christianity. Their convictions exclude Christian truths. They have included in their holy book some elements of Christian faith. But they twisted those truths. They understand them in their own ways. Moreover they claim that their understanding is the right and true way. This is theological dishonesty. They hold that Christian understandings are false. How can such a religion be from God? If we believe that Christianity is from God then Islam is not a religion from God. It is a human falsification of God’s revelation as known by Jews and Christians. It was initiated for political reasons to unite the Arab tribes and to dominate the world. Islam is first of all about power, domination, and social organization. There is no divine inspiration. There is no spiritual life. It is about the power to dominate human beings by manipulation of divine realities. Christian mission is to teach them the Truth about God, Religion, the human person as God taught us. Moreover Christians have to free human beings, children of God who are Muslims, that is to say, truly submitted, slaves of a tyrannical political ideology called Islam.
This attitude has been called “exclusivism”, because it excludes the possibility of recognizing something true in other religions.
Second attitude: Islam is a religion as valid as Christianity, we can learn from one another. There are many religions. It is a fact. It is also the will of God that people belong to many different religions. All religions are fruit of human genius and can be also of divine inspiration. All the religions have something they hold to be true. It is their right to do so. Islam, like Christianity, is one religion among others. It is as valid as Christianity. Even if some of the things Muslims say contradict what Christians hold as true, it does not make Islam a false religion. Truth is relative. It is not absolute. What is true for you may not be true for me! It does not mean that you are wrong. It means that you see things differently, from a different point of view, from different criteria, from a different system of thinking. Religions are ultimately dependant on people and their cultures. There is not such a thing that is universally true for everybody at all times. We are all after the absolute, the Supreme Being. Nobody possesses the Supreme Divine Reality. The divine Reality will always remain a mystery for human minds as bright as they could be. We do not create God in our own image. Religions are all limited in their understanding of the divine reality. There may exist something we could call The Truth. But people will always have a limited, imperfect understanding of that Truth. Christianity and Islam convey different, particular images of the divine reality. They transmit particular understandings of the divine revelation. Even if the content of the Islamic faith is different from mine, it does not change the fact that Muslims have faith, they respond to God who reveals himself to any human person and invite him/her to enter in a relation of communion with him. They respond to God in their own ways, depending on their intellectual, cultural, and historical limited background. Respect what is true for others. Do not impose your truth on others. Listen to what the others have to say, reflect, understand but do not condemn as false and do not condemn people to hell simply because what they say contradict yours. Christians can learn from Muslims. There is no need of converting Muslims to Christianity. Islam is as a valid religion as Christianity. Christianity has nothing more or less than Islam. It is simply different. There is no religion better, or more perfect than the other. Muslims and Christians can help one another to become better children of God. We need to dialogue, converse, enter in the other worldview, system of thinking to understand one another. Christianity and Islam have to learn from one another and grow in their understanding of the Supreme Divine Reality. We need then to work together to better our world, putting our riches, and truths together.
This has been called a pluralistic attitude or pluralism since it accepts all religions as valid.
Third attitude: Islam has a ray of the truth that Christianity has in fullness, we have to dialogue with Muslims to bring them to the full truth. We accept that there are different religions. Islam is one religion of the world. But not all religions are desired and even inspired by God. Religions can be the fruit of human efforts to know the divine in order to be in relation with him. Christianity is a unique religion in the history of religions since it is the religion of God himself. Religions could be based on what human beings understood of God’s revelation. But people can understand wrongly, with errors, they can twist God’s will to fit their own will or pure human project. Christianity stands as the religion, not of God’s words as understood by human beings, but the Religion of a person, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In that sense in Christianity there is no possibility of errors, or of manipulation of God’s words. There is Jesus, the Christ, the Truth, the Way, and the Life since he is God. What other religions, like Islam, say, may be true if it is conformed to Jesus since Jesus is God. Jesus is the point of reference. Our responsibility will be to make those people understand what is wrong in their understandings. Our mission is to dialogue with Muslims, to listen to them, to reflect on what they say, how they live and to make a discernment. What they think, and say, may be reflect the truth as Jesus taught it, may be not. Our mission is to live with Muslims, to meet them and to bring them, and their beliefs to perfection as God revealed to us. We agree that not all in Islam is wrong, neither false, there is some truth in what they say. We esteem and respect the Islamic faith in what they say of the Truth but what is there in Islam will always remain incomplete, imperfect, and may be impure. We have to bring it to perfection and to fulfillment. We have to purify Islamic faith from possible errors, and correct what is false. Even if Muslims do not become members of the Catholic Church our mission remains to show to them what is the true God, the true Human Person, and the true Religion, in the mind of God. They have some idea, but their idea will remain imperfect. We are sent to bring Muslims and their beliefs to a more complete and perfect faith as taught by Jesus Christ. We do not reject anything that is true and holy in Islam. We have even to recognize, preserve, and promote anything in Islam that is good, true, holy since it is from God. However Christianity has “a plus”, something “more” than the other religions. Christianity is given the perfect understanding of God, of the Human Person, of the relationship between the divine and the human, the perfect understanding of religion. Christians are struggling themselves to live according to that understanding, which is the ideal, the reference. It is not a question of superiority. It is a question of responsibility, and of mission. Christians have a great responsibility to show to Muslims who God is, what a human person should be in the mind of God, the kind of relation between the human and the divine desired by God.
This is called the inclusive attitude or inclusivism, since it sees some truths in other religions as part of, or included, in the Truth known perfectly, in fullness by Christianity. It is the attitude the Catholic Church adopted officially since the Second Vatican Council.
Fourth attitude: We have to dig into Islam to bring forth the complete, perfect, full truth that is there. Once we have found it we universalize it, we make it valid for all people. We accept the reality of many religions as willed by God so that people may learn how to love one another. You really love when you are capable of loving the one who is different from you. To love your enemy is the perfection of love. The other, because he or she is different from you will always stand as an enemy. Interreligious dialogue is essentially destined to bring our love to perfect love. We also enter in dialogue with the followers of other religions to grow in our knowledge of the divine reality by discovering God in the others (dialogical learning). Islam is one religion of the world. We dialogue with Muslims to understand and evaluate the truth they hold and to make it valid for all. We welcome Islam as a religion. It is neither true, nor false. We investigate its claims. We make a theological understanding and evaluation of Islam. We believe that the Christian faith itself can reveal, make manifest and universalize the unique truth that Islam holds. Each religion has a complete, perfect, full, unsurpassed, unique truth. The Christian message can reveal that unique truth and make it valid for all. In Christian theological discourse, the question of truth has been very much the point of conflict. This fourth attitude starts by analyzing the truths claimed by Islam. When it has demonstrated that they are uniquely true, it universalizes them. They are no longer Muslim truths. They are simply truth, valid for all. We move from a discussion on the truth itself to what it actually means for people. We need a lot of humility to recognize the truth of others as truth also valid for us. We are called to recognize the truth of the others as also valid for us.
This attitude has been called interiorism because it helps the person to enter deeply inside the other religion and to establish the truth it holds as valid truth for all.
Fifth attitude: we have to consider Islam essentially as a political force. The religious and spiritual aspect of Islam is not important. What is important is its capacity to organize human society according to a particular model. There is an Islamic political system. There is an Islamic economic system. For many Muslims, Christianity is above all the religion of some people who tried to dominate the world politically. Rome, England, Spain, France, Portugal were “Christian” empires who conquered and dominated the world with the blessing of Christianity. So Christianity is first of all the religion of conquerors. Muslims also try to conquer and dominate the world. Then Islam came to be seen also as the religion of conquerors. So the real issue in Christian-Muslim relations is their claim and capacity to dominate the world and organize human societies. Let us not discuss about spiritual and sacred matters. This is a private affair. We have nothing to say about Muslims’ relation with God. What is at stake here is the social impact of religions. We should consider religions as political forces and not as religious and spiritual systems. There are two different types of reactions in this attitude. Some Christians see Islam (called now Islamism) as a valid political system which is the best alternative to the well known politico-economic systems like socialism, capitalism, communism, nationalism, republicanism, monarchism, democracy, secularism… Those Christians collaborate with Muslims in political parties to establish “Islamic” republics. Other Christians see Islam as a bad political system. For Christians you can believe in any political system. The most important thing is to live Christian values and to reject anything in your political system that is contrary to Christian faith. For Muslims Islam offers you a political system you have to believe in.
This attitude can be called reductionism because it reduces religion to one of its aspect, the political, and relegates all other elements to the private sphere.
For the time being Catholics are called to follow the Church’s inclusivist attitude. Theologians are still reflecting to push the Church to not see Islam as an imperfect Christian faith holding a partial truth. Since Vatican II, there have been valuable theological attempts but they all remain at the level of speculative theology. We do not have yet a dogmatic statement that will change significantly the Church’s attitude. Let us repeat it. The main idea is that Christianity must bring Islamic faith to completion, fulfillment, and perfection. Islamic faith is on the way since there is good and values in Islam. But Islam faith is not yet perfect, complete, fulfilled. Muhammad can be said to have walked on the way of the prophets but he is not yet a prophet. Pope John Paul II contributed considerably but prudently in a Christian theological discernment of Islam. Reflecting on the Islamic faith in the oneness of God he will recognize “a significant correspondence with the Christian faith with regard to the divine substance” that according to the Council of Lateran IV (1215) has never begotten and was never begotten. The Islamic faith in the oneness of God (tawhid) would then be a perfect faith. There is nothing to fulfill. Catholics are moving slowly towards that direction. We are not yet there but we will reach such a new attitude, may be, insha allah!
Moussa Serge Traore