A Common Word Print
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.


Other Articles By This Author