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A Common Word Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 10 February 2014

Dialogue is a much used – and much misused word – in contemporary public life, perhaps most abused when applied to relations with the Muslim world. There are very few trustworthy guides to this murky territory, but one just published is Robert Reilly’s The Prospects and Perils of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue.

(Full disclosure: this monograph is the first in a new series planned by the Faith & Reason Institute, TCT’s parent institution, in this instance in cooperation with the Westminster Institute.)

As is true of Mr. Reilly’s remarkable book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist (reviewed here several years ago by Emina Melonic), Prospects and Perils is a tour de force of scholarship and, if I may say, wisdom. We hear a great deal about the importance of interreligious conversation, and it almost goes without saying that a crucial pre-condition to real dialogue is a sufficient number of shared premises for the parties to come to amicable conclusions about peace and friendship.

Nobody expects theological conformity.

But what if, in the case of a Catholic-Muslim conversation, the basic premises on either side are contradictory? What if the conversationalists are moral strangers? To answer those questions we need a modern Virgil to guide us through sanguine rhetoric to plain truth. Bob Reilly is just the man to do it.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture is simply the most famous of the many examples of Christian outreach in the midst of an era in which conflict and misunderstanding seem insoluble by being inevitable. As Mr. Reilly points out, the pope’s particular approach to credo ut intelligam was an example of charity, which makes the violent reaction of many Muslims to his remarks “all the more ironic.”

Remember that Benedict sought to show that, historically, Islam had been friendly to reason; that Christians and Muslims have agreed (and again may work together to promote) a union of faith and reason. Such understanding as will ensue from shared efforts may be the best guarantor of peace.

But is the unity of faith and reason truly a premise shared by Catholics and Muslims?

Well, that depends upon which Muslim one is talking to. Benedict knew this, and his efforts may have been based upon Chesterton’s notion that “a thing worth doing is worth doing badly,” that not talking will get us nowhere.

But as Mr. Reilly makes clear, attempts to re-Hellenize Islam – to recover Islam’s Mu’tazilite heritage (the belief that “God is not only power; He is also reason”) – must ignore the later triumph of the Ash’arite tradition, which is the formal, Arabic version dominating Islam today.

To Ash’arites, Allah’s omnipotence means he can be limited neither by reason nor by law. If Allah says “Thou shall not kill,” that does not mean he will not later say, “Thou must kill.” As Reilly describes it:

God is not bound by anything; God can do anything. He is unaccountable. God is above or without reason; therefore, you cannot use reason to constrain what God may do by some idea of what is just.
This is akin to a Christian insisting that God may break His own promises.

Would that this were just an academic point in Islam with no likelihood of real application.

But Reilly notes that recent outreach by Muslims, in statements that appear at first to offer reasonable hope for peace, the word reason is never used. The words used may seem encouraging, but closer analysis suggests not cooperation with Christians but conversion of Christians. So when (some) Muslims quote the Qu’ranic passage, “Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you,” it’s wise for the “Christian reader . . . [to] be aware that things are not always what they seem.”

     Robert R. Reilly

“In Genesis,” Reilly writes by way of example, “humans are made in the image and likeness of God. In the Qu’ran, they are not.” Christians and Jews think of themselves as friends of God, but a Muslim is Allah’s slave.

Such “common words” as Christians and Muslims share may truly deceive. Love, for instance, is never in Islam what we think of as agape. Neither may neighbor be understood in the same way: for Muslims it is a geographic denominator, never an expression of universal brotherhood – not until all have converted to Islam.

Mr. Reilly carefully examines the specific content of recent exchanges between Catholics and Muslims. It is his subtle reading of words used in Arabic that makes his analysis both exhilarating and alarming. In this, I’m reminded of Roy H. Schoeman’s Salvation Is from the Jews, in which the Mr. Schoeman shows how Western media omit, downplay, or misunderstand the frighteningly inflammatory language of Muslims clerics about the United States and about Jews.

Is there no hope? Perhaps. There are Muslims today who seek a separation of church and state – something the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood considers heresy. This deserves praise, as do joint declarations condemning stereotyping of Muslim Americans. Rarely if ever, however, is mention made of the violent persecution by Muslims of Christians abroad.

Are the ideological positions of groups such al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood inherent in Islam? I asked Bob Reilly.

“Well,” he said in an email, “that is what the struggle is about.”

He believes Islamism is “an ideology, rather than a religion (a view that Islamists would not accept), infected as it is by strains of Western totalitarianism, which it confesses to find attractive.”

But is it the real Islam? Only Muslims, he writes, can answer the question.

“I think that so long as the main theology of Islam posits a God of pure will and power, it will not be able to get out of the grip of this. So Islamism is a true interpretation of Islam in so far as Islam is not able to resist it.”

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His book, The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Avery T, February 09, 2014
Islam is in a point of inflection, perhaps THE point of inflection for it. There have been more intra-Islam wars in the last century than during the previous two centuries. The demographics of Middle Eastern Islamic countries don't look good, indicating a real decline in their ability to grow economically. When you compare the strength of the Arab world under Nasser's Syria-Egypt pact with today's Syria and Egypt, the present day weakness of Islam to organize politically must be recognized. Almost every Islamic state (with the exception of the oil-producing few and Malaysia) is in difficult straits economically, hence politically. That's the main reason for the mass exodus of Muslims to Europe.

And I think that's also the main reason for the rise of Islamism (including the Muslim Brotherhood). As times get more desperate in Islamic countries the more influence the extremists have. The question is how long will it be before there is the collapse back to tribal feudalism in most of these states? Many of them are in the verge of it right now.

written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., February 10, 2014
This is a much needed book. Even as Christians are suffering horribly in Islamic countries both Catholic and Protestant Leftist clergyman continue to insist that Chrstianity and Islam have much and common and that the enmity is the result Crusades, supposedly a Catholic effort to forcibly convert Muslims. I cannot believe that this rampant ignorance is the result of any accident. We need more men like Robert Reilly and we need bishops who will make sure that pastors know the truth and tell it. As to what is "true Islam," while it si polite say that it up to the Muslims to decide, I think that the real answer is that there is no real Islam. Yes, Muhammed lived, but he did not hear anhyting from the Angel Gabriel, and there nothing truthful or coherent about the Koran. There can be nothing real about a hoax or a delusion.
written by grump, February 10, 2014
In the broad brush sense, Pat Buchanan reflects the ambivalence many have with regard to Islam. Pat considers Islam barbaric and inferior to Christianity but nonetheless is sympathetic to the modern Muslims' opposition to American pop culture.

He says that exporting the "imperial decadence" of "Pagan America" will only further provoke Muslim wrath. His salient point: "If conservatives reject the "equality" preached by Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, NARAL and the National Organization for Women, why seek to impose it on the Islamic world?"
written by Aramis, February 10, 2014
Our Lady of Victory, pray for us
written by Athanasius, February 10, 2014
Thomas Coleman makes a good point. Islam is not based on truth. It rejects the truth of the Trinity, it rejects the salvific power of Jesus' death and resurrection, and it rejects that the fullness of God's revelation came through His Son.

How can one faction develop "true Islam" when such a thing does not exist? Each faction will develop it to a point that benefits its own goals, which for an Islamist means a totalitarian regime where they are the cruel rulers.

It is like asking what the truth of the force is in Star Wars. Well, it is whatever the authors hired by Lucasfilm want it to be to sell books and movies. And if there are contradictions, so be it.

This leads Islam to have a view of God as one who is liberated from reason and truth. This is immature nonsense. It is the thinking of a teenager who thinks he can party all he wants with no consequences because his parents went away for the weekend. It totally misses the point of God being eternal, love, truth, goodness, and beauty.

As to the leftist clergy, they may be well-intentioned, but they too have a level of immaturity that makes the simplistic solutions of leftism attractive, despite the inherent contradictions. (I am not defending extreme rightism either. The real truth is somewhere in the middle, as St. Thomas Aquinas would say. But in today's world it is the leftists who hold statist power, not the rightists.)
written by Howard Kainz, February 10, 2014
Nonie Darwish, the daughter of an Egyptian Islamist "martyr," at the end of her book, Cruel and Unusual Punishment, comes to the following conclusion: "The conclusion that I – and others who have studied it – have reached is that Islam as a whole is not a religion. It is Arab Imperialism and a protectionist tool to preserve what they believe to be a supremacist Arab culture."
written by James Milliken, February 10, 2014
Not only does dialogue require a certain number of shared premises, it requires at least two parties who actually desire an actual conversation. I don't see a whole lot of interest in real dialogue from the Muslim side of the fence.
written by Thomas C. coleman, Jr., February 10, 2014
@Howard Kainz: In re so called Arab Imperialism, I think that it is important to point out that throughout the history of Islam some of the most absolutist and militant nations that self-indentify as Muslim have not been Arab countries at all. No jihadists are more fasnatical than those in Iran, whose proud Persian people are insulted by the suggestion that they are Arabs. Their language is not even Semitic. Jihadism might be a kind of imperialism, but, with all due respect to Nonie Darwish, I do not think that labeling it specifically Arab helps us understand the nature of this movement which is the swarn enemy of Christian Civlization. In either case if we do not return to our Catholic Faith we are doomed from within as well as from without.
written by CCR, February 10, 2014
I can see two ideas here about who is God and how does He sees man. Not much can be built upon such profound difference between Christians and Muslims. Forgive my being so simple.

Benedict, an intellectual giant could dialogue with a learned Rabbi or two but there is no one in the Muslim world that can even engage in such dialogue without risking a fatwa asking for his head in a plate.
written by Bruno, February 10, 2014
I once thought that Islam and Christianity were the same thing, "except they don't think Christ is the Son of God". Such a tiny detail, right?

Only that is no small thing. Mohammed says: "submit, for Allah is more powerful than you", while Christ says "submit to me and to neighbor, because I have submitted Myself to you". One is intimation to slavery. The other is a nuptial invitation.

Christ came powerless, as only the most powerful being could be. Otherwise he wouldn't give us a chance to love. Allah is all powerful, as the least powerful being would act. Otherwise we'd see he's really powerless.

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