To approach dialogue with Islam in such a way as to increase understanding and enrich relationships, one must first enter into an authentic relationship with Muslims through an understanding of their faith and its traditions. While the varieties of Islamic belief differ according to these traditions, the essence of the faith entails a common profession in the oneness of God and the prophethood of Mohammed. Our encounter with that profession is the starting point of our dialogue, for it gives us an opportunity to demonstrate an awareness of the faith we are addressing, if not also of the person(s) with whom we are speaking. When we do enter into dialogue, furthermore, it happens not only because of our awareness of the faith traditions of the Muslims, but also because of our awareness of our own faith tradition, for no true dialogue exists between partners unequally versed in the essential elements about which they are speaking. We Catholics must, consequently, know ourselves before we can authentically engage another, and we must know Islam sufficiently well to understand terms, the imprecise use of which might naturally make us seem to speak equivocally.
The Nature of Inculturation and Evangelization
Inculturation is the appropriate adaptation of the Gospel message to the community within which it is being preached, resulting in the incarnation of the message “in the culture and the spiritual tradition of those addressed, so that the message is not only intelligible to them, but is conceived as responding to their deepest aspirations, as truly the Good News they have been longing for.” 1 Evangelization would be forced, otherwise, and result in a form of proselytism that denies the rights of the Other, be they Muslims or adherents of another faith, freely to embrace Christianity. Dignitatis humanae is rather emphatic on the necessity of distinguishing between evangelization and proselytism in its assertion that
in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonourable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one's right [to preach] and a violation of the right of others. 2
That religion is a matter of conscience and of conscious assent is a point of agreement in the Islamic tradition, too, as written in Sura 2:256 of the Koran: “[t]here is no compulsion in religion, for the right way is clearly from the wrong way.” 3 The missionary endeavour, consequently, requires patience to work within a different set of cultural values. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, furthermore, that evangelization "must involve a process of inculturation if the Gospel is to take flesh in each people's culture,” 4 and this implies a "respectful dialogue with those who do not yet accept the Gospel.” 5 While the purpose of such a dialogue is the act of proclamation of the Gospel message, the process is not, of course, aimed at proselytizing, as a more fruitful exchange and authentic encounter will be had without that.
Inculturation, as the process through which dialogue and proclamation are enacted so that the Gospel message may be revealed within any non-Christian community, is ontologically grounded, with recognition of the Truth on the part of the Catholic, but is epistemologically expressed, through finding opportunities to engage the Muslim community in the kind of dialogue that allows us to proclaim without coercion the fullness of faith in Christ. Because it is a dialogue, the Catholic must be open to a greater understanding of the faith of the Muslim to whom he is proclaiming the truth of Christ. That openness will not only facilitate the discussion, but it will likely provide opportunities for further explication of the Catholic faith. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, has explained in Dominus Iesus that the Church, “guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” 6 The charity and respect for freedom that guides this kind of a conversation will lead the Muslim to understand that being Catholic is not a renunciation of his faith but a fuller expression of it. Part of the truth, then, is understood already to exist within the Muslim faith. After all, as Aristotle writes in his Metaphysics, all men desire to know, so they all pursue the Truth, even though some stop short of their goal whenever they think they have found it.
Because so many people stop short of realizing the Truth in spite of their quest for it, we Catholics, who have the Truth, are obliged to share it with them. This obligation is a part of our teaching apostolate, and all Catholics should learn their faith sufficiently to be able to carry it out. According to the Catechism, we "proclaim the Good News to those who do not know it, in order to consolidate, complete, and raise up the truth and the goodness that God has distributed among men and nations, and to purify them from error and evil." 7 That error and evil lies in the denial of Christ’s divinity, precisely because it is a denial of the true nature of God, who is relationship, and who became incarnate to us in a special act of inculturation in order to reveal to us our true selves. For this reason, the obligation we have to proclaim the good news of Christ necessarily reaches beyond the surface. “What matters is to evangelize man's culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way, as it were, by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots), in the wide and rich sense which these terms have in Gaudium et spes, always taking the person as one's starting-point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God.” 8 We get to that starting point by first coming to know the person with whom we are starting. The incarnation of the Truth brought forth in such a way is the heart of inculturation, for it enables the proclamation of the Word to make equals in doctrine persons who are already equals in dignity. 9
The Catholic Dialogue with Islam since 1997
The foundation for the Catholic dialogue with Islam since Vatican II can be found in Nostra aetate, which is the declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions. In this document, Pope Paul VI announced that “[t]he Church regards with esteem also the Moslems,” 10 and he gave the following reasons for the purpose of building up the elements of their faith that are consonant with those of Christianity:
They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honour Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgement when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. 11
If inculturation is the process by which “[e]ach people . . . make the revealed message penetrate into their own culture, and express the salvific truth with their own language,” as Pope Benedict XVI has explained, 12 then Islam, as the first major schismatic movement away from Christianity, already has within it the capacity to be converted back to the true faith.
Between the years 1997 and 2009, moreover, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has published an annual letter to Muslims on the occasion of Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting and abstinence similar to Catholic Lenten practices. In these letters, the Council has identified a number of other similarities on which to establish a basis for dialogue, including the following as summarized:
- We define ourselves as believers and see in Abraham a model for our faith. 13
- Every authentic believer, Muslim and Christian, shows respect for each human person. 14
- Christians and Muslims are God seekers, which is a sign of hope, something that enables us to perceive the good that exists in our world. 15
- We show love through almsgiving, care for orphans, the aged, the sick, for strangers. We promote human dignity and are in favour of human rights. We have a considerable degree of agreement with regard to effectively showing mercy to our neighbours and a great convergence in condemning offences against the love of our neighbours. 16
- We think that all people, but especially Muslims, can share with us the values that we have received from Jesus: total obedience to the will of God, witness given to the truth, humility in behaviour, control of one's speech, justice in one's actions, mercy shown in deeds, love towards all, pardon granted for wrong done, maintaining peace with all brothers and sisters. 17
- Fasting is one of the ways in which both Christians and Muslims give worship to God, come to the help of the poor and strengthen family ties and the bonds of friendship. 18
- Christians and Muslims both believe in the importance of education for promoting understanding, cooperation and mutual respect. 19
- Christians and Muslims believe that peace is above all a gift from God. This is why our two communities pray for peace; it is something they are always called to do. 20
- Both Christians and Muslims consider the child to be a blessing from God. 21
- Our two religions give great importance to love, compassion and solidarity. 22
- We embrace a poverty which is simple and essential, avoiding waste and respecting the environment and the goodness of creation. 23
The salient message within these thirteen years of letters to the Muslims is that of love, for God is love, which, when expressed by man becomes an orientation to the will of God and a fruitful participation in His work. The list, furthermore, accomplishes an important goal of inculturation, and that is the finding of commonalities upon which to ground the dialogue. “In the light of the Gospel,” the General Directory for Catechesis directs, “the Church must appropriate all the positive values of culture and of cultures and reject those elements which impede development of the true potential of persons and peoples.” 24 This emphasis on appropriation means that we are dealing with the substance of what is already present in the society within which we are evangelizing. We cannot penetrate it for the purpose of improving it otherwise. An example from the Far East is instructive on this point, too, for when “[t]he Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples . . . sent missionaries to Asia (the Far East)[, it] gave them clear instructions in 1659 to respect the cultures of the new peoples who receive the Gospel and to change only what is incompatible with the Gospel.” 25 The Gospel of Christ, likewise, may change a great deal about the Muslim who responds to the proclamation of the Word, but a solid foundation in points of common interest is already laid bare for it. Such is the nature of these commonalities that it is also obvious to us, to quote one of John Paul II's maxims, that what unites us is far greater than what divides us, and that is a realization that fosters a great deal of hope in the fruitfulness of the exchange.
Aside from the basic tenets of love and social responsibility, areas of theological commonality also exist. Two such areas on which we might begin our dialogue have been identified by Archbishop Fulton Sheen and a convert from Islam, Daniel Ali. In the first case, Archbishop Sheen proposed that Muslims “will eventually be converted to Christianity . . . not through the direct teaching of Christianity but through a summoning of [them] to a veneration of the Mother of God.” 26 The Muslims, he explains, have a great interest and devotion already to Mary, whom they also recognize as having been born sinless in order to be the perfect vessel for Jesus Christ. Sheen adds that missionary focus on this point is itself a form of inculturation, for
in any apologetic endeavour, it is always best to start with that which people already accept. Because the Moslems have a devotion to Mary, our missionaries should be satisfied merely to expand and to develop that devotion, with the full realization that Our Blessed Lady will carry the Moslems the rest of the way to her Divine Son . . . [for] as those who lose devotion to her lose belief in the Divinity of Christ, so those who intensify devotion to her gradually acquire that belief. 27
The acts of charity that our missionaries have already performed, Archbishop Sheen adds, need to be taken a step further in the demonstration that the nineteenth sura of the Koran, entitled “Mary,” was taken out of the Gospel of Luke, “that Mary could not be, even in their own eyes, the most blessed of all the women of Heaven if she had not also borne One Who was the Saviour of the world.” 28 Such a declaration is not only theologically correct, but it also makes logical sense. While logic is not intended to prove theological truths, it does ensure that such truths are not absurd, and Muslims, while sometimes accused of being unreasonable in their approach to their faith, have the same human capacity as we Catholics to connect the dots when they realize a pattern exists.
The story of successful conversions is often best told from the point of view of the convert, for he who converts from one faith to another has to justify that conversion not only to his former co-religionists but also to his new ones. Daniel Ali is such a convert from Islam, who has embraced his new Catholic faith with missionary zeal. Ali, speaking with Father Mitch Pacwa on the evangelization of the Muslim world, says that it is possible to evangelize the Muslims using a method similar to that advocated by Archbishop Sheen. “We depend on the Koran itself, from Mohammed’s tradition itself, to make the case, the Christian case,” 29 he says, and identifies that as the reason for his conversion. He found an argument for the divinity of Christ, that is, within the Koran itself. He explains that “[i]t is within Mohammed’s tradition that there [were] only two souls that were sinless. That is, they sinned never. Not even Mohammed himself. So we have to understand and use these rather common concepts.” 30 If only Mary and Jesus never sinned, then something special is present in those two that is not present in anyone else, not even in Mohammed, the Prophet. He makes the point on inculturation by saying, “Personally, from first hand experience, I see the failure of the missionary is, one of the main reasons, is that they start from the Bible, which is totally, automatically rejected by the Muslims. We don’t depend upon the Bible to make our point. We depend on the Koran itself. They will listen to you because you’re going from his ground.” 31 Starting from the ground of the Muslim, from the Koran itself, is the path to facilitating the Islamic acceptance of the Truth of the Holy Trinity and all that necessarily flows from it.
Embracing this Apostolate
The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue explained in its document Dialogue and Proclamation that numerous of obstacles to dialogue exist. They include the following:
- Insufficient grounding in one's own faith.
- Insufficient knowledge and understanding of the belief and practices of other religions religions, leading to a lack of appreciation for their significance and even at times to misrepresentation.
- Socio-political factors or some burdens of the past.
- Wrong understanding of the meaning of terms such as conversion, baptism, dialogue, etc.
- Self-sufficiency, lack of openness leading to defensive or aggressive attitudes.
- A lack of conviction with regard to the value of interreligious dialogue, which some may see as a task reserved to specialists, and others as a sign of weakness or even a betrayal of the faith.
- Suspicion about the other's motives in dialogue.
- A polemical spirit when expressing religious convictions.
- Intolerance, which is often aggravated by association with political, economic, racial and ethnic factors, a lack of reciprocity in dialogue which can lead to frustration.
- Certain features of the present religious climate, e.g., growing materialism, religious indifference, and the multiplication of religious sects which creates confusions and raises new problems. 32
If we Catholics can invest the time in removing some of these obstacles, and many are easily removed with appropriate instruction in the areas of study, prayer, and fasting, then our own efforts at authentically encountering the Muslim world will be fruitful. The Council has explained that the manner in which Christians will respond to the call to personal involvement in dialogue and proclamation “will depend on the circumstances and also on their degree of preparation,” 33 which is something we Catholics ought to take as a challenge to prepare not only ourselves but also our children for the work that lies ahead of us. The souls we encounter in the beatific vision might praise Allah’s beneficence that he cared enough to send missionaries imbued with the Holy Spirit who were able more fully to reveal to them the truth of Christ already expressed within their Islamic faith.
- Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflection and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (19 May, 1991), §70.
- Vatican Council II, Dignitatis humanae: On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious (7 December, 1965), §4.
- For additional iterations of this basic truth, see also Suras 4: 79-80; 6: 68,107; 8: 28; 10: 99-100; 11: 28; 16: 82; 17: 53-4; 21: 107-9; 22: 67; 24: 54; 28: 55-6; 36: 16-7; 39: 41; 42: 6-48; 64: 12; 67: 25-6; 74: 11-7; 88: 21-2; and 109: 1-6. Contrary notions exist, for instance in the hadith of Sahih al-Bukhari (9: 57), which reads, “Whoever changes his Islamic religion, kill him.”
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (2000), §854.
- Ibid., §856.
- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus (6 August, 2000), §22.
- Catechism (op. cit.), §856.
- Paul VI, Pope, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (8 December, 1975), §20.
- Dominus Iesus (op. cit.), §22.
- Vatican Council II, Nostra aetate (28 October, 1965), §3.
- Benedict XVI, Pope, “Saints Cyril and Methodius” (General Audience, 17 June, 2009).
- Francis Cardinal Arinze, “Christians and Muslims: Believers in God, Faithful to Man” (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Message on the Occasion of the ‘Id al-Fitr for the End of Ramadan [1417/1997]), §3.
- Ibid., §5.
- F. Card. Arinze, “Christians and Muslims: Together in Hope” (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Message for the End of Ramadan [‘Id al-Fitr] 1998-1418), §2.
- F. Card. Arinze, “Christians and Muslims: Witnesses of God’s Love and Mercy” (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Message for the End of Ramadan [‘Id al-Fitr] 1419/1999), §3.
- F. Card. Arinze, “Education for Dialogue: A Duty for Christians and Muslims” (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Message for the End of Ramadan, ‘Id al-Fitr 1421 A. H. /2000 A. D.), §4.
- Arinze, op. cit. (2000), §1.
- Ibid., §4.
- Michael L. Fitzgerald, “Christians and Muslims and the Ways to Peace” (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Message for the End of Ramadan ‘Id al-Fitr 1423 A. H. /2002 A. D.), §4.
- M. L. Fitzgerald, “Children, Gift of God for the Future of Humanity” (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Message for the End of Ramadan ‘Id al-Fitr 1425 A. H. /2004 A. D.), §4.
- Paul Cardinal Poupard, “Christians and Muslims: In Confident Dialogue Aimed at Solving Together the Challenges of Our World” (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Message for the End of Ramadan ‘Id al-Fitr 1427 A. H. / 2006 A. D.), §4.
- Jean-Louis Cardinal Touran, “Christians and Muslims: Together in Overcoming Poverty” (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Message for the End of Ramadan ‘Id al-Fitr 1430 A. H. / 2009 A. D.), §4.
- Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis (1997), §21.
- F. Card. Arinze, “Reflections . . . on the Day of Prayer at Assisi” (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 24 January, 2002), §4.
- Fulton J. Sheen, Archbishop, “Mary and the Muslims”, in The World’s First Love: Mary, Mother of God (Fort Collins, Colo.: Ignatius Press, 1996), p. 201.
- Ibid., p. 204.
- Ibid. (Archbishop Sheen refers to this sura as the forty-first, a mistake, it would seem.)
- Mitch Pacwa and Daniel Ali, “Christ in Islam”, in the audio CD series Islam & Christianity, Vol. IV (Vestavia Hills, Ala.: Ignatius Publications, 2007).
- Dialogue and Proclamation (op. cit.), §52.
- Ibid., §82.