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Friends with Islam?

A part of the Sacrifice of Abraham Edition in St Moluag's Coracle.

I hope by the end of this article I will be able to give a fairly positive answer to this question, but it is by no means an easy issue to address. I will look at the question from a personal angle, then from the perspective of the Church, then try to look at some of the most difficult issues that Muslims and Christians encounter in their dealings with each other, before offering a few thoughts, hopefully helpful. Muslim/Christian relations is not an issue we can ignore today, and as Catholics/Christians we need to know where we stand and what approach is most helpful to attain mutual peace and harmony. In fact Pope Benedict VXI has said that ‘interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra – it is in fact a vital necessity on which in large measure our future depends.’( speaking to young people at World Youth Day, Cologne 2005).

When we look at today’s world we see Muslims are everywhere – in former times they might have been mostly confined to certain countries, e.g. Saudi Arabia, but today they co-exist with us in most countries. And in our times we live constantly with the threat of terrorism, of which we have witnessed some appalling examples, which has given rise to ‘Islamophobia’ in some people, despite the fact that it is only a small minority who perpetrate these deeds, the majority of Muslims being completely against them. There is also the feeling that we simply do not understand Islam. Christians might ask, for example, why should there be another major religion after the revelation of Christianity? What more could God have to say after giving us the complete revelation of himself in Jesus Christ? As indeed the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: ‘ Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father’s one, perfect, and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything; there will be no other word than this one.’ (paragraph 65). And why does Islam deny what we Christians have held sacred for so long - doctrines such as the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the Incarnation? In fact Islam also claims to annul both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. This is based on an understanding that Muhammad is the ‘seal’ of the prophets, and the fact that the Qur’an specifically states that, due to deliberate interference, Jews and Christians no longer possess authentic Scriptures (e.g. Q2:.75). It is not surprising then that there have been very bad relations and frequent conflicts, between Islam and Christianity for many centuries. Until today. Therefore I begin with the Church’s present day approach which springs from, and is crystallised in the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, so let us look briefly at what is has to say - and does not say, which is equally important.

Vatican II and Islam

Amazingly the document Nostra Aetate, at the time one of the minor documents of the Council, was intended to be about Judaism only, However it was remarked by some bishops living in Muslim majority countries that they had their own particular problems with Islam, and so it came about that Islam was given serious attention along with Judaism. For the content of this part of the document we are indebted for the most part to the eminent French Islamicist Louis Massignon, who was re-converted to his childhood faith (Catholicism) abandoned for a dissolute life whilst living among Muslims in Iraq, In God’s providence, because of his love for and deep knowledge of Islam, Massignon was enabled to influence the Council’s attitude to Islam. After his conversion Massignon founded the ‘Badaliya’ movement in 1934 with his Egyptian friend Mary Kahil, a Melkite Christian, in Damietta, the town where St Francis had tried to convert the Sultan, Malik-al-Kamil, to Christianity during the Crusades, in 1219. Massignon used the Arabic word ‘badal’, meaning the acceptance and enduring of the suffering of another, for his own purposes when he founded this movement to pray for Muslims – not for their conversion, but just to hold them before God in love and friendship. It is believed, moreover that Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope Paul VI, took part in this movement and knew Massignon personally. This may have had an indirect bearing on what Vatican II had to say about Islam.

The document begins with a remarkable statement when seen in the whole context of Muslim/Christian relations as previously understood, which is that ‘the Church has a high regard for Muslims’. This is revolutionary in that nothing like this has been said before by the Church in its official capacity. The document goes on to state that Muslims ‘worship God who is one, living and subsistent, the Creator of heaven and earth. who has spoken to men’. Many have in fact doubted that the God of Islam is the same as the God worshipped by Christians – a topic I will address in more depth later, but a much more authoritative document of the Council, Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) states clearly that ‘Muslims, along with us, adore the one and merciful God’, so there should be no doubt about that anymore. The Council then goes on to assert this God ‘has spoken to men’. In saying this, the Church is implicitly acknowledging the Qur’an, without passing any judgement on it. Muslims may find this unsatisfactory but it is impossible to go further at this stage since the Qur’an denies the divinity of Jesus and other sacred Christian doctrines. The Prophet Muhammad, whom Muslims believe to have received verbatim the text of the Qur’an, being himself, it is thought, illiterate, is also implied in this brief phrase. However he is not mentioned by name and nothing is said of his prophetic status – which until today remains a sensitive area of dialogue. We need to be aware, however, of how much he means to Muslims and always speak of him with respect, especially in view of the high regard in which Jesus is held by them. He is mentioned fairly frequently in the Qur’an and revered as a great prophet, but not the Son of God. Nostra Aetate states that they (Muslims) ‘venerate Jesus as a prophet’. Mention is made of Mary in the words: ‘his virgin Mother they also honour. In fact it is much easier to speak with Muslims about Mary than Jesus, witnessed by the fact that there are many shrines to Our Lady visited by both Muslims and Christians, for example the ‘House of Mary’ in Turkey, where she is believed to have lived with John the apostle after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The document also mentions that we have a common belief in the resurrection of the dead and the day of judgement. The moral and spiritual life of Muslims is then spoken of with approval, whilst avoiding anything that may divide us, such as polygamy. It would seem in practice that the majority of Muslims do not practice polygamy, though it is technically allowed. Finally we are exhorted to ‘forget the past, and for the benefit of mankind preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.’ Of course it is impossible to literally forget the past. But what is meant is that we should put it behind us, as we have with Judaism, and negotiate the difficult terrain we may encounter now and in the future in a spirit of love and friendship.

A Personal Appoach – I study the life of a convert from Islam

I am a contemplative nun and. as such it might be questioned how I can know anything about Islam, and does it matter anyway, as I am living a life of prayer without much contact with the outside world. Nevertheless monastics of all descriptions have always been encouraged by the Church, especially since Vatican II, to engage with members of other religions. I think this may be because it is obvious that we take our religion very seriously – which is not to say that lay people do not – but it seems some depth of knowledge of one’s own religion is highly desirable if one is to engage with Muslims. And the best way for them to learn about Christianity is from their impression they gain of the people they meet. So the most important thing in Muslim/Christian dialogue for the Christian is to really BE Christian. As it happens I have Muslims in my family through marriage, so it has always been an issue for me, but apart from that I have always been concerned about the many, before Christianity and after, who have never heard of Christ, or heard of him and rejected him, or who belong to another religion, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism or Islam. Are they ‘saved’ anyway? Does their ‘non-Christian’ religion save them? For myself, being in an enclosure apart from ‘the world’ made these issues more, not less, pressing. In order to prepare myself to study Islam, I took a degree by distance learning in Christian theology, then a little later did a PhD in Muslim Christian relations. I decided to approach this topic through the study of two converts from Islam to Christianity, and therefore, I assumed, knew both religions from the inside. These were Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil, a Morrocan who ended his life as a Franciscan priest in Paris, and Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, an Anglican born in Iran, who had to seek refuge in England and ended his life as an Anglican auxiliary bishop at Winchester Cathedral. I begin with a brief description of Abd-elJalil before a discusiion of the major issues that divide Muslims and Christians, all of which he encountered in his conversion process.

Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil

Jean-Mohammed Abd-elJalil united in himself, in the depths of his being, two religions which seemed to be opposed to each other on the doctrinal level. His conversion story shows how he grappled with these issues and finally embraced Christianity at great cost to himself. His story begins in his native Morocco where he lived in a loving family deeply committed to Islam, in a very Islamic country. He himself embraced the most rigid form of Islam, called Wahhabism after the strictly puritanical Abd el Wahhab. These generally embrace a strict fundamentalism, which still pervades Saudi Arabia today. A gifted student, Jean-Mohammed was chosen to receive a government bursary to study in France with a view to his taking up a responsible position in the soon to be independent Morocco. He himself was personally convinced that Christianity was ‘wrong’, and it was virtually an impossibility to embrace it after being deeply committed to Islam, as he was at that time. Therefore it must have been a great surprise – if not a shock – to him, when he himself converted not long after his arrival in Paris, when he was still a student. It happened as follows: At Christmas he went to midnight mass with the Catholic family with whom he was lodging and, to their surprise, he accompanied them and the rest of the congregation when they went out in procession to pay homage at the crib to welcome God made Man in the new born Child. To their surprise he seemed to be profoundly moved, and as he explained much later, he sensed this ‘child’ wanted him for himself, and he himself loved the ‘Child’ passionately.

Abd-el-Jalil’s conversion was complete from this initial encounter, and he felt himself to be a deeply committed Christian. However it took him a good two years before he felt ready for baptism. He was helped in this process by Ali Mehmet Mulla-Zadé, a Turkish convert from Islam who spent thirty five years teaching Islam at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. After his baptism Abd-el-Jalil felt called to religious life rather than marriage, and eventually joined the Franciscans in Paris.. For many years he taught at the Institut Catholique in Paris, the Catholic University where he himself had been a student (to learn about Christianity in order to refute it!). He remained in France all the rest of his life, apart from one spiritual crisis when it would seem that he intended to abandon his Christianity and return to Morocco. No doubt the fact that he had been cut off from family and country for many years was a contributory factor in this decision, but in fact as soon as he was back in Morocco, with his one faithful brother who accepted his decision to become a Christian, he realised he had made a big mistake and within a few weeks was back in France and re-admitted to his religious house, never to leave it again.

He returned to his teaching at the Institut Catholique, but In fact not long afterwards he was incapacitated with cancer of the throat. Due to his health problems he spent the last fifteen years of his life as a virtual hermit in his cell, but he knew how to transform his condition into badaliya prayer on behalf of Muslims, and it seems his final years were very happy. Before this illness , he wrote two books – and had intended more if illness had not prevented him – to help Christians understand Islam. It is very clear from his writings that after his conversion Jean Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil remained very committed and loyal to Islam. After all, it had formed him and was the religion of his family and country. Also he was very knowledgeable about his religion and fervent in its practice– not a Muslim in name only, but ultra-committed. After his conversion he was very aware of and suffered deeply on account of the huge chasm which he perceived separated Islam from the Church of Jesus Christ. He knew on one level that by trying to reconcile the two he was engaged in a hopeless task, since no rapprochement was possible on the theological/doctrinal level – the chasm is too deep. Jesus Christ is not, for Islam, the Son of God, and the affirmation of the dogmas of the Trinity and Redemption are a scandal to Muslims. However it helps enormously in the process of mutual understanding to have some idea of what the ‘other’ thinks and believes about Christians and Christianity. It helps especially to know this from someone who knows Islam from the inside and knows how problematic any kind of rapport is from the Christian perspective. Misunderstandings may not be eradicated, but are clarified , and the very effort to understand helps us to grow in mutual respect and friendship.

Addressing our differences

Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil was very aware of the paradox that with Islam we are at the same time very close and very distant. This is particularly obvious when we start to try and understand how Muslims and Christians understand the basic core of their religion – the one God. As we have seen Nostra Aetate is keen to make the point that we, along with Muslims, are monotheists. I believe it has taken some time for Muslims – at least those in dialogue with Christians, to accept that they are just as monotheistic as Muslims: for God had a Son, Jesus Christ, and it is very hard for them to understand that He is intrinsically essential to the One God along with the Father and the Holy Spirit., and not begotten by God in the carnal sense.. On the other hand it is difficult for a Christian to think of God apart from Jesus Christ, his Son, and also the Holy Spirit. For Islam anything that contradicts their idea of monotheism, according to the Qur’an, is idolatry, or ‘association’, that is, associating anything human with God, such as a Son. Thus there is a huge gap between the humans and the divine – according to Jean-Mohammed a seemingly unbridgeable chasm in the way we understand God. And yet Christians too also understand God as living in ‘inaccessible light’ (1 Tikm.6:16-17). Yet at the same time he has ‘pitched his tent among us’; he is truly ‘God with us’. The Father/Son language of Christianity is considered to be anthropomorphism, for the Qur’an states unequivocally , ‘He begets not, nor was he begotten (Q112) . But what of the Qur’an that states this ‘fact’ in contradiction to long held and very sacred Christian doctrine? To obtain some insight into this a brief discussion on the Qur’an follows.

The Qur’an

The Qur’an is a small book compared with the Bible; in fact it is only about the length of the New Testament. There are 114 chapters of varying lengths, some very short. It is very different from the Bible, despite the fact that many of the prophets Christians are familiar with are there. It is quite difficult to read as the style is different from that of the Bible.. The ‘chapters’ have a title, but in fact they seem to range over various issues. However it is necessary to recognise how vitally important this book is to Muslims – one can only compare it adequately to the Christian Eucharist. As we said above, the Vat.!! Document Nostra Aetate, only says that Muslims believe in God ‘who has spoken to men’, without making any direct reference to the Qur’an, or even Muhammad. This seems to suggest that from the Church’s perspective there are still question marks and nothing certain can be affirmed – perhaps in the future there may be a Nostra Aetate 2 when we have grown more in mutual understanding? The Qur’an is believed to have been dictated verbatim to the Prophet Mohammed, whom Muslims believe was illiterate, and therefore what he received was the authentic word of God. His companions would note down what Muhammad said and only later was it put together as the Qur’an that we have today. This immediately shows how different the concept of divine revelation is in Christianity and Islam. The Bible, of course, was written over many centuries by different authors. Biblical studies are well-advanced and we can discuss any aspect of the Christian scriptures, but much less so in Islam, where to question what is in the Qur’an is to question the very word of God. If God himself (through the intermediary of an angel) dictated it, how can it be questioned? Thus it would seem that according to the Qur’an Christians are wrong to hold that Jesus is God’s Son and divine. However they hold Jesus in great veneration as a Prophet, and even more so Mary, his mother. The Qur’an claims to be a book ‘in which there is no doubt ‘ (e.g. Q.2:2) which confirms previous revelations. This gives Muslims the certainty that they are correct in their doctrinal positions, for instance concerning the nature of God, the non-divine status of Jesus etc., and if Christianity says differently, then it must be wrong. To account for the differences it is stated in the Qur’an that the Christian Scriptures, including the Hebrew Scriptures, have been altered (Q2.75,4:46). Obviously we still have a long road ahead to resolve these issues. It is manifestly absurd that Christians should alter their own holy books, but we have to respect the Muslim perspective scientific research methods on both sides may in the future throw more light on the matter, but meanwhile we have to live with the differences in mutual respect. It is not difficult to see how this has caused much strife over the centuries since the birth of Islam. Nostra Aetate acknowledges that there have been many quarrels and dissentions over the centuries, but we are now urged to forget the past and make a sincere effort to achieve mutual understanding, and for the benefit of all mankind work together for peace, liberty, social justice and moral values (NA3).


We now turn to the Prophet Muhammad, to whom Muslims believe the Qur’an was dictated through the instrumentality of the Angel Gabriel. This is another difficult topic, for Muslims would seem not to understand why Christians do not venerate him in the way that they venerate Jesus as a great Prophet, second only to Muhammed himself.. How to respond to this situation? First of all it needs to be emphasised that in order for dialogue to take place at all, Christians need to try and understand how much Muhammad means to Muslims. We have witnessed in recent times the reaction when he is insulted in any way by non-Muslims, whereas Jesus in his Passion was insulted to such a degree that it is accepted as an intrinsic part of Christianity, not something that ‘went wrong’, so to speak. And Jesus taught his followers to expect persecution: ‘If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too.’ (Jn.15.20), and there should be no retaliation: ‘When struck on one cheek, offer the other.’ (Lk.6.29).

Another reason for lack of due acknowledgement is that the Prophet Muhammad appears nowhere in the New Testament, whereas Jesus is mentioned many times in the Qur’an. However it is necessary to understand that Muslims believe that his coming is foretold in the promise of the Paraclete (Jn.14:26), but there is no textual evidence to support this claim, and Christians moreover have always understood it to refer to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. This therefore remains another non-negotiable area – we can only accept and live respectfully with the difference.

Finally we need to take note of the profound difference in character and mission between Jesus and Muhammad. In a way they could not be more different.. Abd-el-Jalil remained very attached to Muhammad, but still did not hesitate to note, seemingly with disapproval, that he used temporal and political means, wars and diplomacy to impose himself on the whole of Arabia, and therefore his followers were able to accept that war was approved by Allah (God).himself. This type of criticism would not befit an ‘outsider’, especially a Christian who wishes to dialogue with Islam. However, before these profound differences are discussed in dialogue, we can finds similarities with Jesus’ life, for instance. in Muhammad’s persecution in the early part of his ministry in Mecca, but that changed when he fled with his followers to Medina and formed his first political entity. Jesus laid down a firm principle of the separation of State and religion, but as we can observe all over the world, the two are inseparable in the spirit of the Prophet’s leadership. The Qur’an is a guide not only for the individual life of a Muslim, but as the basis of how the country is governed, i.e. ‘Sharia’ law

Finally it is striking that when Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil converted to Catholicism, it is striking to note that he did not give up his Muslim name, Mohammed, a name he holds in common with many Muslims, then and today, but united it with his baptismal name, Jean (John), because he wished to unite in himself the two religions of Christianity and Islam. He discussed in his correspondence with his mentor, Mulla-Zadé, the question of what attitude they should now have to the Prophet who claimed their former allegiance, They discuss various Christian theories which tried to prove that he was not a genuine prophet, even mentally ‘unhinged’ but they do not dwell on these issues, deciding that they should continue to respect him – after all, they concluded, he has led many people to holiness, and continues to do so.

Mary, Mother of Jesus

To counterbalance what has been said above about the seemingly insurmountable difficulty Jesus poses in our relationship with Islam, I finally turn to Mary, his mother, as she has considerable prominence in the Qur’an and is deeply loved and respected by Muslims. She is the most prominent female figure in the Qur’an and the only one called by name. She is mentioned several times and has a whole sura named after her. On the girlhood and childbearing of Mary there are passages of great beauty, although the story differs somewhat from the Christian version as found in the Gospels. The lyrical description of Mary in the Qur’an is by far the most complete and nuanced female portrait to be found in its pages. Sura 3 of the Qur’an contains a verse which may be seen as the acme of the Quranic exaltation of Mary. It says: ‘Then the angel said, “O Mary, truly God has chosen you and purified you and chosen you over the women of mankind.”’ Christians of course take this for granted, but unsurprisingly this verse has caused considerable controversy in Islamic exegesis, not least because Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, is not even mentioned by name in the Qur’an., nor Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife who encouraged and supported him during the time of the revelations. There have been attempts by various exegetes to overcome this ‘problem’, for instance, it has been suggested that Mary’s pre-eminence is only over the women of her time, but others are of the opinion that this ignores the literal meaning of the text. Generally it is agreed that Mary’s pre-eminence is because she gave birth to Jesus. The virgin birth, the absence of a human father, is clearly accepted in the Qur’an.

Today there are many shrines throughout the world dedicated to Mary which are frequented by Muslims as well as Christians. For instance there is the House of Mary in Ephesus, Turkey, where it is believed she lived with the Apostle John after the Ascension. This was only discovered in the late 1980’s, but the locals had venerated the site as a place of pilgrimage for centuries before that. Today it has been visited by five popes and declared a place of pilgrimage. It is visited by numerous Muslims and Christians every year. Finally Muslims often turn to Mary when they want to conceive a child, despite the fact that Muslims are exhorted to pray only to God, with no intermediaries. .We might also consider that Mary, of all the places she could have appeared, in Portugal, chose Fatima. Fatima is the name of Muhammad’s daughter who is greatly revered in Islam. Therefore it is good, among the many difficulties that we may have with Islam, to realise that Mary is a strong bond drawing Christians and Muslims closer together.


I have looked at two of the most difficult issues that divide Christians and Muslims, namely the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad, but we need to be aware of other issues. Basic terms, for instance, such as faith, revelation, prophets and salvation have different meanings and resonances in Christian and Muslim contexts. For instance, in Islam ‘salvation’ means preservation from destruction or failure – ‘success’ (however we interpret that) is the ultimate purpose in human life. ‘Salvation’ as understood in Christianity is fundamentally important, but according to Islam we do not need it in the sense understood by most Christians. According to Islam we do not need it, because there is no original sin. According to the Qur’an Adam and Eve did indeed fall, but they were forgiven and returned to what they were before. This is difficult for a Christian to grasp as the effects of original sin would seem to be evident everywhere, and the sacrament of Baptism which returns us to a ‘state of grace’ is necessary to become a member of the Church. However, within Christianity we believe that everybody needs to be saved, and either are or will be through the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Theologians have always admitted that a non-Christian of good faith can be saved, but have differed greatly as to how this comes about. We know people outside the institutional Chruch, in other religions for instance, can be saved as Christians understand it, but that is another issue….

Amidst all our difficulties we need to understand that knowledge of one another and mutual relations are true and sincere in proportion to the love that we all bear for the other.(From Guidelines for Dialogue between Christians and Muslims, Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, prepared by Maurice Borrmans, Paulist Press 1981). So love is the real key to dialogue and understanding, and can enable us to ‘make friends’ with Islam, but more especially with those who allow Islam to form their faith and way of life.. Finally I quote what John Paul II said in an address he gave to young Muslims in Casablanca: ‘We should recognise and respect our differences…’ Dialogue should be marked with respect and love as well as intelligence and understanding. Dialogue seeks essentially a better understanding of one another, but it also has the effect of deepening one’s own faith. These are comparatively early days in Muslim/Christian dialogue. We still have a long way to go but the only way is through love and persevering friendship with ‘the other’, and in God’s time we shall arrive.

Sister Agnes Wilkins OSB

Sister Agnes resides at the wonderful Benedictine Abbey of Standbrook in North Yorkshire.

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