Is dialogue possible between Christians and Muslims?

Is dialogue possible between Christians and Muslims?

Cardinal George Pell

In the aftermath of the September 11 attack, one thing was perplexing. Many commentators, and apparently the governments of the "Coalition of the Willing", were claiming that Islam was essentially peaceful, and that the terrorist attacks were an aberration. On the other hand people I met, who had lived in Pakistan and suffered there, claimed to me that the Koran legitimised the killings of non-Muslims.

Although I had possessed a copy of the Koran for 30 years, I decided then to read this book for myself as a first step to adjudicating conflicting claims. And I recommend that you too read this sacred text of the Muslims, because the challenge of Islam will be with us for the remainder of our lives - at least.

In my own reading of the Koran, I began to note down invocations to violence. There are so many of them, however, that I abandoned this exercise after about 70 pages. I will return to the problems of Koranic interpretation later, but in coming to an appreciation of the true meaning of jihad, for example, it is important to bear in mind what the scholars tell us about the difference between the suras (or chapters) of the Koran written during Muhammad's thirteen years in Mecca, and those that were written after he had based himself at Medina.

Military power

Irenic interpretations of the Koran typically draw heavily on the suras written in Mecca, when Muhammad was without military power and still hoped to win people, including Christians and Jews, to his revelation through preaching and religious activity. After emigrating to Medina, Muhammad formed an alliance with two Yemeni tribes and the spread of Islam through conquest and coercion began.

One calculation is that Muhammad engaged in 78 battles, only one of which, the Battle of the Ditch, was defensive. The suras from the Medina period reflect this decisive change and are often held to abrogate suras from the Meccan period.

It is difficult to recognise the God of the New Testament in the God of the Koran, and two very different concepts of the human person have emerged from the Christian and Muslim understandings of God. Think, for example, of the Christian understanding of the person as a unity of reason, freedom and love, and the way these attributes characterise a Christian's relationship with God.

This has had significant consequences for the different cultures that Christianity and Islam have given rise to, and for the scope of what is possible within them. But these difficulties could be an impetus to dialogue, not a reason for giving up on it.

The history of relations between Muslims on the one hand and Christians and Jews on the other does not always offer reasons for optimism in the way that some people easily assume. The claims of Muslim tolerance of Christian and Jewish minorities are largely mythical, as the history of Islamic conquest and domination in the Middle East, the Iberian peninsula and the Balkans makes abundantly clear.

In the territory of modern-day Spain and Portugal, which was ruled by Muslims from 716 and not finally cleared of Muslim rule until the surrender of Granada in 1491 (although over half the peninsula had been reclaimed by 1150, and all of the peninsula except the region surrounding Granada by 1300), Christians and Jews were tolerated only as dhimmis, subject to punitive taxation, legal discrimination, and a range of minor and major humiliations.

If a dhimmi harmed a Muslim, his entire community would forfeit protection and be freely subject to pillage, enslavement and murder. Harsh reprisals, including mutilations, deportations and crucifixions, were imposed on Christians who appealed for help to the Christian kings or who were suspected of having converted to Islam opportunistically.

Raiding parties were sent out several times every year against the Spanish kingdoms in the north, and also against France and Italy, for loot and slaves. The caliph in Andalusia maintained an army of tens of thousands of Christian slaves from all over Europe, and also kept a harem of captured Christian women.

The Jewish community in the Iberian peninsula suffered similar sorts of discriminations and penalties, including restrictions on how they could dress. A pogrom in Granada in 1066 annihilated the Jewish population there and killed over 5000 people. Over the course of its history Muslim rule in the peninsula was characterised by outbreaks of violence and fanaticism as different factions assumed power, and as the Spanish gradually reclaimed territory.

Ottoman conquest

Arab rule in Spain and Portugal was a disaster for Christians and Jews, as was Turkish rule in the Balkans. The Ottoman conquest of the Balkans commenced in the mid-fifteenth century, and was completed over the following two hundred years. Churches were destroyed or converted into mosques, and the Jewish and Christian populations became subject to forcible relocation and slavery.

One scholar estimates that up to the Greek War of Independence in 1828, the Ottomans executed eleven Patriarchs of Constantinople, nearly one hundred bishops and several thousand priests, deacons and monks.

Under Byzantine rule the peninsula had enjoyed a high level of economic productivity and cultural development but this was swept away by the Ottoman conquest and replaced with a general and protracted decline in productivity.

The history of Islam's detrimental impact on economic and cultural development at certain times and in certain places returns us to the nature of Islam itself.

In the Muslim understanding, the Koran comes directly from God, unmediated. Muhammad simply wrote down God's eternal and immutable words as they were dictated to him by the Archangel Gabriel. It cannot be changed, and to make the Koran the subject of critical analysis and reflection is either to assert human authority over divine revelation (a blasphemy), or question its divine character.

The Bible, in contrast, is a product of human co-operation with divine inspiration. It arises from the encounter between God and man, an encounter characterised by reciprocity, which in Christianity is underscored by a Trinitarian understanding of God (an understanding Islam interprets as polytheism). This gives Christianity a logic or dynamic which not only favours the development of doctrine within strict limits, but also requires both critical analysis and the application of its principles to changed circumstances. It also requires a teaching authority.

Textual analysis of the Koran

Of course, none of this has prevented the Koran from being subjected to the sort of textual analysis that the Bible and the sacred texts of other religions have undergone for over a century, although by comparison the discipline is in its infancy. Errors of fact, inconsistencies, anachronisms and other defects in the Koran are not unknown to scholars, but it is difficult for Muslims to discuss these matters openly.

It is not surprising that much textual analysis is carried out pseudonymously. Death threats and violence are frequently directed against Islamic scholars who question the divine origin of the Koran.

Considered strictly on its own terms, Islam is not a tolerant religion and its capacity for far-reaching renovation is severely limited. To stop at this proposition, however, is to neglect the way these facts are mitigated or exacerbated by the human factor. History has more than its share of surprises. Australia lives next door to Indonesia, the country with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Indonesia has been a successful democracy, with limitations, since independence after World War II.

Islam in Indonesia has been tempered significantly both by indigenous animism and by earlier Hinduism and Buddhism, and also by the influence of sufism. As a consequence, in most of the country (except in particular Aceh) Islam is syncretistic, moderate and with a strong mystical leaning.

The situation in Indonesia is quite different from that in Pakistan, the country with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. 75 per cent of Pakistani Muslims are Sunni, and most of these adhere to the relatively more-liberal Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence (for example, Hanafi jurisprudence does not consider blasphemy should be punishable by the state). But religious belief in Pakistan is being radicalised because organisations, very different from Indonesia's Nahdatul Ulama, have stepped in to fill the void in education created by years of neglect by military rulers.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of religious schools (or madrasas) opening in Pakistan, and it is estimated that they are now educating perhaps 800,000 students, still a small proportion of the total, but with a disproportionate impact.

These two examples show that there is a whole range of factors, some of them susceptible to influence or a change in direction, affecting the prospects for a successful Islamic engagement with democracy.

It is easy for us to tell Muslims that they must look to themselves and find ways of reinterpreting their beliefs and remaking their societies. Exactly the same thing can and needs to be said to us. If democracy is a belief in procedures alone then the West is in deep trouble. The most telling sign that Western democracy suffers a crisis of confidence lies in the disastrous fall in fertility rates, a fact remarked on by more and more commentators.

Most of this is a preliminary clearing of the ground for dialogue and interaction with our Muslim brothers and sisters based on the conviction that it is always useful to know accurately where you are before you start to decide what you should be doing.

The war against terrorism is only one aspect of the challenge. Perhaps more important is the struggle in the Islamic world between moderate forces and extremists, especially when we set this against the enormous demographic shifts likely to occur across the world, the relative changes in population-size of the West, the Islamic and Asian worlds and the growth of Islam in a childless Europe.

Every great nation and religion has shadows and indeed crimes in their histories. This is certainly true of Catholicism and all Christian denominations. We should not airbrush these out of history, but confront them and then explain our present attitude to them.

Dialogue questions

These are also legitimate requests for our Islamic partners in dialogue. Do they believe that the peaceful suras of the Koran are abrogated by the verses of the sword? Is the program of military expansion (100 years after Muhammad's death Muslim armies reached Spain and India) to be resumed when possible?

Do they believe that democratic majorities of Muslims in Europe would impose Sharia law? Can we discuss Islamic history and even the hermeneutical problems around the origins of the Koran without threats of violence?

Obviously some of these questions about the future cannot be answered, but the issues should be discussed. Useful dialogue means that participants grapple with the truth and in this issue of Islam and the West the stakes are too high for fundamental misunderstandings.

Both Muslims and Christians are helped by accurately identifying what are core and enduring doctrines, by identifying what issues can be discussed together usefully, by identifying those who are genuine friends, seekers after truth and cooperation and separating them from those who only appear to be friends.

This is the shortened text of an address given by Cardinal Pell at the Legatus Summit, Naples, Florida, United States, on 4 February 2006. The full text, first published in 'Quadrant', is available with footnotes from:

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