The Christian Muslim Encounter

Quite apart from such a possible catastrophe, the substantial presence of Islam within Europe promises to change Christian thought and belief in many ways. For two centuries, many of the intellectual debates within European Christianity have been shaped by the encounter with secularism and skepticism, as Christians attempted to make their faith credible and relevant in the face of modernity. But what happens when the main interlocutors in religious debate operate from assumptions quite different from those of secular critics, when the rivals assume as a given the existence and power of a personal God who intervenes directly in human affairs, and seek rather to clarify the nature of His revelation? In the early decades of immigration, Christian churches often treated Muslims sympathetically, feeling the need to act generously toward the poor and marginalized; but matters will change when the faith of Islam is acknowledged as a full neighbor, wholly resident on European soil.

Though the analogy is not close, we think how American Christianity has been changed over the past century or so by the encounter with a numerically small Jewish presence that never amounted to more than 2 percent of the overall population. Particularly since the 1940s, American Christians have striven to avoid language that would give offense to Jews or seek to exclude their religious heritage, and the term "Judeo-Christian" has become the mandatory characterization of the roots of Western culture. Many Christian clergy and intellectuals try to eliminate language suggesting that their faith has in any sense superseded or supplanted Judaism, so that the Old Testament is commonly referred to as the Hebrew Bible. For many grassroots evangelicals, a love affair with Judaism has spawned a dedicated Christian Zionism, a passionate support of the state of Israel far exceeding even that espoused by many Jews.

Despite their long struggles, Christianity and Islam have influenced each other through the centuries. In the case of Islam, it is scarcely adequate merely to speak of influences, since the religion at its inception drew so heavily on Christian thought and practice. If one single motif dominates the whole Quran, it is an awe-inspiring vision of Judgment and the afterlife that would have been immediately recognizable to Christians (or Jews) of the sixth and seventh centuries. The institution of Ramadan reflects the Christian practice of Lent as it would have existed in Syria at this very time. Christians, in turn, were inspired by Muslim piety. In the eighth century, partly spurred by the Quranic rejection of images and idolatry, a powerful movement in the Orthodox church urged the destruction of virtually all visual depictions of holy figures, provoking the bloody Iconoclast controversy. When Russian Orthodox Christians repeat the Jesus Prayer thousands of times in order to create a trancelike state of devotion, they are doing exactly what Sufi Muslims do worldwide with the declaration of faith in Allah, though in this case it is difficult to tell which practice inspired the other.10

In coming decades, European Christians will have no alternative but to look closely at Islam, and they will find there much that is familiar, and that is inspiring. At the synod of European Catholic bishops in 1999, Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels praised the Islamic emphasis on "the transcendence of God, prayer and fasting, and the impact of religion on social life." We might quote an essay authored by

Italian priest Fr. Andrea Santoro, who was himself murdered by a Turkish Muslim during the 2006 cartoon controversy. Yet he had been frank in his admiration for Islam. As he had "discovered the face of Islam in practice," he found much that could serve as a basis for fruitful dialogue:

an instinctive sense of God and His providence; spontaneous welcome of His word and His will; trusting abandonment to His guidance; daily prayer in the middle of one's activity; certainty about the afterlife and the resurrection; the sacredness of the family; the value of simplicity, of the essential things, of welcome and of solidarity.

Islam preserves potent religious practices long familiar to Christianity but largely abandoned in modern times, especially the discipline of sustained fasting. As Tariq Ramadan observes, "The real question is about spirituality. If the presence of Muslims leads Europeans to think about who they are and what they believe in, that has to be positive."11

But the presence of Islam also raises acute questions for Christians. Most fundamentally, is Islam a separate religion, as distinct from Christianity as Shinto or Hinduism, or are the two religions sisters separated at birth and raised in different family settings? The medieval Christian view, dating back to St. John Damascene in the eighth century, saw Islam as a Christian deviation, the heresy of the Ishmaelites; and St. John had far better firsthand knowledge of Islam than virtually any of the later Christian controversialists over the next millennium. Dante portrayed Muhammad as a grand and sinister heresiarch, one of the "seminator di scandalo e di scisma," the sowers of scandal and schism. Muslims themselves, of course, see Muhammad as the last and greatest of prophets, and the Quran as God's final and definitive revelation to humanity.12

Islam, even in its more liberal forms, scarcely allows for neutrality. A Christian well-wisher might praise the "Prophet Muhammad" and believe that he was in some sense inspired by God, making the Quran a magnificent spiritual document that has spawned one of the world's great faiths. But that is nowhere near enough for Muslims, who believe that Muhammad himself had precisely no input or role in the making of the Quran, which was divinely dictated through angelic mediation. For a Muslim, it is a deadly falsehood to say that Muhammad founded a religion: Islam is as old as the Creation, and Adam, Jesus, and Moses were Muslims.

Once you speak of the "Prophet" Muhammad, you are acknowledging that he did indeed bear prophetic status and that his revelation supersedes all others. But if you do accept the divine authorship of the Quran, no logical reason stands in the way of your total acceptance of Islam. Catholic thinker Alain Besançon has condemned the thoughtless politeness with which some Christians have tried to incorporate Islam into a Christian schema, with the Quran as a sacred book "rooted in Biblical Revelation." This approach "is syncretism in the guise of ecumenism," and its advocates are unwittingly acting De Propaganda Fide Islamica. But what alternative is open? If you do believe Muhammad played any role in composing the text, subject to the constraints of his time and social setting, you are issuing a deadly frontal challenge to the whole structure of that religion. If there is a third course—to accept some prophetic status for Muhammad while maintaining belief in the Christian scriptures and the church—it is not yet apparent. In coming decades, though, Europe's Christian thinkers urgently need to formulate some such synthesis, which is irenic without offering total submission to Muslim claims.13

In addressing the Muhammad Problem, Christians would also need to consider the role of continuing prophetic revelation, subsequent to the closure of the canonical biblical text. Are the credentials of a scripture to be decided solely by its numerical following, so that prophecy can be taken as genuine when its followers reach a set number, say 100 million? Other questions abound. Let us assume, for example, that Christian evangelism toward Muslims is possible, putting aside questions of both legality and prudence. Are Muslims members of a distinct religion, in need of receiving the Christian revelation, or do they already possess the truth in sufficient measure to make such efforts unnecessary and undesirable? Many Christian churches in Europe and North America, especially of liberal inclination, have already decided against the propriety of evangelizing Jews, since to do so would be to condemn the Jewish Covenant as invalid and obsolete. But do Muslims too have a valid path to God? What, in short, is Islam?

To take another issue, we have already seen the close and usually friendly relationship that Christians and Jews have formed in the United States, and Jewish-Christian relations have generally been close in postwar Europe, subject to periodic strains, particularly over Middle Eastern politics. But in Europe at least, such cooperation might be hard to sustain, as the Jewish presence diminishes while Muslims grow in numbers. Presently, western Europe has perhaps a million Jews, compared to 15 million Muslims, and that disparity will grow steadily. The easiest way for Christians to build bridges to Muslims is to take Muslim political grievances seriously, and high on that list would be the abuses attributed to the state of Israel. For many Europeans, of course, the two causes, Muslim and Jewish, are not comparable, given Europe's special historic debt toward the Jews. Recent demands that Muslim organizations in Italy and elsewhere reject extremism often require recognition of the legitimacy of the state of Israel, which is presented as a fundamental principle of liberal democratic belief. But if only in terms of realpolitik, Muslim issues also demand recognition, however dubious American Christians would be about any European opening toward Islam that neglected Jewish or Israeli interests. In decades to come, attitudes to Islam and Judaism could well form a growing division between Christianity as practiced in Europe and North America.14

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