Muslim scholar questions Vatican understanding of Islam

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.

Vatican’s Islam institute praises Muslim dialogue appeal

Church tower and mosque minaret in AmmanWhile Muslim scholars wait for an official Vatican response, more Catholic Islam experts have spoken out in favour of the scholars’ appeal for high-level talks between Muslim and Christian leaders. Five professors from the Vatican’s own Islam institute have described the appeal by 138 Muslim scholars as “a highly significant event” that showed “a new and creative attitude” towards the Koran. The five, all priests, include the rector and the dean of studies at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) in Rome.

The interesting aspect here is that the experts seem to take a more positive view of the initiative than the Vatican apparently does. So do the other Christian leaders who have responded. The Catholic experts’ responses have not been without critical reflections — see the analyses from Jesuit scholars Samir Khalil Samir and Christian Troll. But most approach it as a novel opportunity to launch a serious dialogue, while comments by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran — the Church’s top official for relations with Islam — seemed to focus more on obstacles to further understanding. He said, for example, that a real theological discussion was not possible with Muslims because they did not question and analyse the Koran as Christian theologians dissect the Bible.

The PISAI professors’ letter said they wanted “to enter with an open mind into the dynamic of this event” and were “convinced of the good faith of those who produced it.” They said the 138 Muslim scholars had taken “a new and creative attitude relative to the Koranic text”. They noted several points on which the scholars took a broader and more inclusive approach than Muslims have usually done. “We note the emergence of a new attitude,” they wrote.

Vatican says Pope cannot sign collective response to Muslims

popesigns.jpgA new twist has appeared in the back-and-forth between the Vatican and the Muslim scholars calling for a Christian-Islamic dialogue.

It seems Vatican protocol may partly be responsible for holding up an official Catholic response. “I’m favourable to a quick response to the letter,” said Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, adding the Vatican still had “to study what kind of response to make and with whom”.

Then the head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue explained one of the problems to be solved.

Muslim scholars press Pope Benedict to go public

The 138 Muslims scholars who recently invited Christian leaders to a high-level inter-faith dialogue feel their unprecedented step of uniting so many different Islamic representatives has created a momentum that must not be lost. The responses from Christian churches have shown varying levels of urgency in taking up the challenge. muslimspray2.jpgMany denominations, most notably the Anglicans and Lutherans, responded promptly and positively to their appeal “A Common Word Between Us And You.” The Roman Catholic Church has been more cautious, and its provisional response has gone from vaguely positive to cautiously critical.

The Muslim scholars have responded with a direct appeal to the Pope to speak publicly about their initiative. Sheikh Izzeldin Ibrahim, a signatory who is a cultural adviser to the United Arab Emirates government, made a verbal appeal to that effect to Benedict when they lunched together in Naples on Sunday at the Sant’Egidio community’s annual inter-faith meeting. He told him the Muslim scholars were disappointed not only at what they saw as the Vatican’s hesitant response to their appeal but also to the lack of a Catholic response to the letter of 38 scholars last year to his controversial Regensburg speech. And, as signatory Aref Ali Nayed of the Cambridge Interfaith Program in Britain told Reuters, they made it official with a letter handed to Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told Vatican Radio on Monday that he has been discussing with other Christian leaders in Naples what the churches should do next. “I’d like to start exploring what kind of common Christian response there might be to the ‘Common Word’ document that’s come from the Muslim leaders,” he said. Christian leaders were “looking at various theoretical possibilities” and would like to have “proper face-to-face discussions with some of these people. But how to do that is quite a logistical challenge,” he said.

Pope urges religions to work for peace, mum on Muslim letter

Pope Benedict waves to crowds in Naples, Oct 21, 2007It would have been the Vatican equivalent of an instant reaction if Pope Benedict had actually mentioned the recent dialogue appeal by 138 Muslim scholars when he spoke today at a major inter-faith gathering in Naples. There were several comments from Catholic experts in the past week and an influential cardinal hinted he would have something to say. In the end, the Pope did not make a direct response. But he echoed the message that “faiths must work together to stamp out religiously motivated hatred which uses God as an excuse for violence,” as our reporter Phil Stewart wrote from Naples.

Not mentioning the letter explicitly does not indicate disagreement. His speech (here in English translation, here in Italian original) was focused on the theme of the meeting (“For a World without Violence: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue”). In it, he also said, “The Catholic Church intends to continue to walk the path of dialogue to favour understanding among different cultures, traditions and religious learning. I strongly hope that this spirit (of peace) spreads above all where tensions are strongest, where freedom and the respect for others are denied and men and women suffer because of the consequences of intolerance.” So no doors have been closed, while no further details of the Vatican view have been given.

Rowan Williams with Orthodox prelates at pope’s mass, Oct 21, 2007There was a small reminder of the Muslim appeal, however. At the lunch for the assembled religious leaders, Benedict sat at a table with Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Dr. Izzeldin Ibrahim. The latter was identified only as a cultural adviser to the United Arab Emirates government. How did he get a seat at the top table? We don’t know, but in doing a few quick checks to try to find out, Phil and our Dubai bureau dug up something a bit more interesting about him. Ibrahim is one of the 138 signatories of the Muslim appeal.