Muslim scholar questions Vatican understanding of Islam

October 31, 2007

Cardinal Jean-Louis TauranThe cautious Vatican reaction to the dialogue appeal from 138 Muslim scholars has prompted one of the signatories to question whether the top Catholic official for relations with Muslims understands Islam. More specifically, Aref Ali Nayed has asked how Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran can say that a serious theological dialogue with Muslims is not possible because they will not discuss the Koran in depth. This debate (discussed in an earlier post here) is dense and highly specialised. But it may be at this level that this unprecedented dialogue could take off or fail to ignite.

Nayed, a former professor at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) in Rome and main spokesman for the 138 scholars, flatly refutes Tauran’s view. He says Muslims have always interpreted the Koran and studied it both historically and linguistically. Their methods were even the forerunners of the “historical-critical” method that Christians use with the Bible, he says. Protestants began applying this “higher criticism” to the Bible in the 18th century and Catholics accepted it only in 1943, making them latecomers to this exercise in Nayed’s view. I am no specialist on these details and will need to hear reactions from Christian theologians.

Readers interested in Nayed’s argument can read it on the website of Islamica magazine or read Cindy Wooden’s story for the Catholic News Service on it. I’ll just quote the crisp conclusion:

“Unfortunately, Cardinal Tauran’s statement turns out to be based on ill-founded ‘Islam versus Christianity’ ‘contrast tables’ developed and advocated by some ‘Islam experts’. Rather than unilaterally declaring the impossibility of theological dialogue with Muslims, Cardinal Tauran would have been wiser to ask Muslim scholars themselves as to what kind of dialogue they feel is possible, from their point of view. To unilaterally pre-determine what is possible and not possible for the other, on behalf of the other, is one sure way of achieving closure in matters dialogical.”

Pope Benedict and Mufti Mustafa Cagrici pray at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, Nov. 30, 2006Until we get the Vatican’s official reaction to the Muslim scholars’ letter, we won’t know exactly how it plans to answer this criticism. But comments made by Pope Benedict before and after his election in 2005 strongly hint he has a well-developed view of the difficulty of holding a theological dialogue with Muslims. Fr. Samir Khalil Samir S.J., an Egyptian-born Catholic expert on both faiths who welcomed the dialogue appeal despite some reservations, published this long and detailed analysis of the Pope’s views on Islam in in April 2006.

Joseph Ratzinger is an old-school German professor and they don’t give in lightly. He was so opposed to blurring the differences between faiths that he criticised Pope John Paul’s spectacular Assisi inter-faith summit in 1986. But Pope Benedict found a way to pray with Mustafa Cagrici, the mufti of Istanbul, in the Blue Mosque last year. Are we hearing echoes of Goethe’s Faust (Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust — Two souls dwell, alas! in my breast) or should we look to another poet to explain this?

While we’re on the subject, Benedict and Saudi King Abdullah will meet at the Vatican next Tuesday for the first talks between the head of the Catholic Church and the monarch who is custodian of Islam’s holiest site of Mecca and ruler of a kingdom that follows the strict Wahhabi school of Islam. Benedict has frequently noted the lack of religious reciprocity in some Muslim countries that bar the construction of Christian churches even though Western countries allow mosques to be built on their territory. In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslims are not allowed to visit Mecca. Other religions cannot build houses of worship. Christians can’t even own a Bible. Abdullah’s visit will give Benedict the opportunity to repeat his complaint about the lack of religious freedom to the man whose country is regularly listed — as here by the U.S. State Department— as among the world’s worst offenders.

Tauran, by the way, is not the only one cautious about the Muslim scholars’ dialogue appeal. The British weekly The Spectator gave it a less-than-enthusiastic review.

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As a Lutheran, I am concerned that Muslim scholars may assume that the Vatican has some authority over all Christians. The Pope may also make this unfortunate assumption. Even if that’s something THEY can agree on, it is not true.

Posted by ChuckD | Report as abusive