The 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.
“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.”
Until 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 Asianews.it in April 2006.