A Few Spring Images

Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.: 111 Questions on Islam

Sunday Night Journal — March 27, 2011

If you want a single book that will serve as both an introduction to Islam and a careful consideration of its relationship, past and present, to Christianity, I doubt you could do better than this one. The author is an Arab Christian with many years of direct experience and a great deal of scholarly work on which to base his views, and the result is an excellent synthesis, grounded equally in honesty and good will. It avoids the hysterical fear and hostility of those in the West who can see no good whatsoever in Islam, and also the sentimental irenicism which blinds itself to the serious and intractable conflict between Christianity and Islam. Those secularists on the right who believe that western civilization began with the Enlightenment,  along with certain fundamentalist (for lack of a better word) Christians, are often among those most hostile to Islam, the one because of its hostility to secularism and the other because of its hostility to Christianity. And on the left, those who wish to think of themselves above all as liberal and tolerant often seem wilfully blind to the conflict between their values and any  realistic and historically justifiable view of Islam (an illusion which is not held symmetrically). 

In this situation Christianity finds itself in a three-way struggle. Islam is its ancient enemy, and in much of the world its conquerer. But the post-Christian civilization of Europe and the U.S.A., officially a-religious if not atheistic, is often equally hostile and continually becoming more so. With Islam, Christianity shares a conviction that the world is the creation of one God, that the meaning of this life lies beyond it, and that our life in it must be ordered with that in mind. With secularism, Christianity shares a willingness to declare the existence of a public philosophical, cultural, and political space which is not the exclusive property of any religious or anti-religious group. I would not want to say which poses the greater threat to Christianity as a way of life, and which is more likely to be something with which Christianity can coexist in some reasonable degree of harmony.

To the drama of the modern Christian encounter with unbelief is now added the encounter with a religion at least equal in power and appeal (in worldly terms) to Christianity. Islam is intrinsically “fundamentalist” in one sense—not in the loose and pejorative sense, but in the sense that it is founded on a book, and that fidelity to the book is the measure of one’s practice of the faith. (Samir affirms the applicability of the term to Islam, noting that it has been adopted, in Arabic translation, by many Muslim authorities.) My personal conjecture as to its future is that it will suffer from the same tension as Bible-only Protestantism: that there will be an increasing degree of conflict between literalists and liberals, between those who adhere strictly to the word as written, and those who feel free to interpret it according to the changing standards of the times. As in Protestantism this has produced extremes in each direction, with a rigid refusal to adapt on one end, and on the other end a near-collapse of any sense that the text has any objective permanent meaning, so I expect Islam to develop in opposing directions. But this is truly, I emphasize, only conjecture. And even if it proves to be true, there is no assurance that the fundamentalist and liberal forces will be even roughly equal in influence.

There is no doubt that Christianity can co-exist with Islam, because it has done so, and the experience has not been entirely negative. Contrary to a widely held misunderstanding, Islam did not spread by forcible conversion. It is true to say that it spread “by the sword,” by conquest. But the conquered were not forced to embrace Islam, only to accept a condition of something less than equality with Muslims. Conversion offered many practical benefits, and Islam was and is a much simpler religion than Christianity, and so in time most of the conquered peoples submitted. But the existence of large Christian communities in Muslim lands for thousands of years testifies to the willingness of Islam to tolerate other faiths.

What is in question is whether Islam can co-exist with Christianity as an equal, within a basically secular political framework. Fr. Samir makes a good case for the idea that this is not something that can be easily achieved, because Islam has not in general seen that it has anything to gain from dialogue with other, i.e. false, religions, and, more importantly, it is a tenet of Islam, in both teaching and practice, that it is the perfect revelation containing the perfect rule not only of spiritual but of political and social life. Christianity has always separated church and state conceptually, even while envisioning them as working hand-in-hand. Islam, by all accounts, does not do this. So it may prove that Islam is not able simultaneously to accept a position as one religion among many in a secular political order, and to maintain its integrity.

Fr. Samir outlines what he believes to be the conditions for authentic and fruitful dialogue in a passage which I would reproduce in its entirety if it weren’t two pages long. It will sound familiar to anyone familiar with Catholic teaching on inter-religious dialog in and since Vatican II:

Today, especially on the Christian side, [dialogue] is a time of masking one’s face and cultural heritage in order to engage the other person. This is a dialogue of the lowest common denominator, of so-called common values searched for at all costs as a starting point instead of being arrived at as the possible result of a common journey.

This position is often motivated by good intentions and by an authentic desire for encounter, but it does not lead anyone very far. It neither helps us understand each other more nor forms the conditions for a better coexistence. Saying what the other likes to hear belongs more to diplomacy.... Authentic dialogue requires love for the truth at all costs and respect for the other in his integrity. It is not minimalist but rigorous.

111 Questions is actually a series of interviews, which makes the grace and coherence of Fr. Samir’s reflections even more impressive. It is divided into five sections:

  1. The Foundation
  2. Can Islam Change?
  3. The Challenge of Human Rights
  4. Islam Among Us
  5. Islam and Christianity: the Unavoidable Encounter, the Possible Dialogue

Section I is an overview of the history and basic teachings of Islam. Section II confronts, without timidity, the relationship between Islam and violence. In another passage worth quoting:

...in the Qur’an there are two different choices, the aggressive and the peaceful, and both of them are acceptable. There is need for an authority, universally acknowledged by Muslims, that could say: From now on, only this verse is valid. But this does not—and probably never will—happen. This means that when some fanatics kill...in the name of pure and authentic Islam, nobody can tell them, “You are not pure and authentic Muslims.” All they can say is “Your reading of Islam is not ours.” …this is the ambiguity of Islam, from its beginning to the present day: violence is a part of it, although it is possible to choose tolerance; tolerance is a part of it, although it is possible to choose violence.

Section III emphasizes religious freedom and the rights of women. Section IV is focused on Europe and especially Italy, a somewhat different situation from that in the U.S., as we have not had a similar influx of Muslim immigration from former colonies, or as “guest workers.” Section V ends with a reflection on the contribution which the Arab Christian communities can make to the dialogue. One reads it sadly conscious of the escalating attempt on the part of Islamic fanatics to destroy those communities, and the tragic consequences for them of American interventions in the region.

Not to be forgotten is a point made several times in the book and emphasized at the end: the encounter with Islam is certainly a challenge, and sometimes a threat, but it is also an opportunity for witness which may lead to good things we might not have foreseen. And hostility and fear are not sound bases for witness.

Here is an interview with Fr. Samir in which he makes some of the same points found in the book.


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