Pope Francis talks with Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque and university, during a private meeting at the Vatican May 23. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)
In recent months, some prominent Catholics have taken pains to emphasize the supposedly special ties between Islam and Catholicism. In an editorial for The Angelus, the Los Angeles archdiocesan newspaper, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser called for greater solidarity with Islam. More recently, Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College, appeared to suggest that Catholics are required to believe in the peaceful nature of Islam. Meanwhile, in Rome, a delegation of U.S. bishops and a delegation of Iranian religious leaders issued a joint statement which include this paragraph:
Christianity and Islam share a commitment to love and respect for the life, dignity, and welfare of all members of the human community…We hold a common commitment to peaceful coexistence and mutual respect.
Iranian religious leaders are committed to peaceful coexistence? The peaceful nature of Islam is binding Catholic doctrine? We should be seeking greater solidarity with Islam? Such talk might have resonated with Catholics a few years ago, but now it has a dated quality about it. It flies in the face of facts with which we are now all familiar.
If nothing else, the recent push to put a happy face on Islam is a case of very bad timing. The American bishops’ faith in their Iranian counterparts comes at a time when all the evidence suggests that the chief commitment of Iranian religious leaders is to the destruction of the “Great Satan” (America). And while Church leaders are plumping for greater solidarity with Islam, much of the rest of the world wants nothing to do with it. In Europe, for example, various polls have shown that a majority of citizens believe that Islam does not belong in Europe. Angela Merkel’s party is doing badly in German elections precisely because of her Islam-friendly policy. If the Church continues to pursue solidarity with Islam, it is likely to alienate a great many non-Muslims. In Europe, for example, it will be increasingly identified with the secular elites whom many now view as traitors for having facilitated Islam’s cultural putsch.
But these are pragmatic reasons for not pursuing solidarity with Islam. Are there any theological reasons?
Ironically, one reason that many Catholics take an optimistic view of Islam is also the chief reason for doubting that there can be any reconciliation with Islam. Some Catholics make much of the fact that Jesus is mentioned in the Koran and is honored by Muslims as a great prophet. This respect for Jesus, they assume, is a guarantee that Islam cannot be too far away from the truth. But the fact that Jesus is included in Islamic tradition is a two-edged sword.
Saint Paul specifically warns about the misappropriation of Jesus:
“For if someone comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached…or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough” (2 Cor 11: 4).
Six hundred years after Paul, Muhammad came along and started preaching a different Jesusa very different Jesus. If anything, the Muslim Jesus is an anti-Jesus; he directly contradicts the claims of the Jesus of the Gospels. In the Koran, Allah addresses the “people of the Book” (Christians) and warns them to speak the truth about God: “The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was no more than God’s apostle…So believe in God and His apostles and do not say ‘Three’ [‘Trinity’ in some translations]…God forbid that he should have a son!” (4: 171).
That’s a flat denial of the Trinity and a rejection of the Fatherhood of God and the Sonship of Jesus. In other places, Allah denies the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. It’s not as though these are peripheral teachings of the Church whose denial can be overlooked for the sake of fellowship. These beliefs are the foundation of the Faith.
Muslims hold that Muhammad did not write the Koran, but merely recited what Allah had told him. Thus, there are two contradictory revelations. In one, God tells us that He is a Trinity and that Jesus is the Son of the Father. In the other “revelation,” Allah says he is not a Trinity and he curses those who say that Jesus is the Son of God.
Not much wiggle-room there. This is not a misunderstanding that can be papered over with dialogue and happy talk about shared respect for Jesus. It’s not the same Jesus. And, unless you want to dispense with the laws of logic, it’s not the same God.
Islam stands apart from other non-Christian religions in its specific rejection of Christian tenets. Jesus is in the Koran not because Muhammad revered him, but because Muhammad wanted to put him in his place. In order to establish himself as the final prophet of God, Muhammad had to first undercut the Christian claim that Jesus is the fulfillment of all prophecy. Rather cleverly, he did not reject Jesus. Instead, he appropriated him for his own purposes. To clear the way for his own prophethood, he reassigned Jesus as a Muslim prophet.
Although Jesus is supposedly a great prophet in Islam, he doesn’t have a great deal to say or do in the Koran. By contrast, Muhammad is mentioned frequently. The phrase “God and His Apostle” recurs throughout the Koran. There are many dozens of admonitions along the order of “Believe in God and His Apostle,” “Obey God and His Apostle,” and “Have faith in God and His Apostle.”
According to Islamic teaching, assigning a partner to God is the worst possible sinthe very sin that Christians have committed by identifying Christ as the Son of God. Yet, in effect, Muhammad assigned himself the position of partner to Allah. Read through the Koran and see how many times the two are mentioned in the same breath. One gets the impression that obeying Muhammad is the equivalent of obeying Allah. In fact, verse 4: 80 says just that: “He that obeys the Apostle obeys God.” And verse 4: 149 warns believers not to “draw a line between God and His Apostle.”
As presented in the Koran and in Islamic tradition, Allah and Muhammad are a package deal. You can’t have one without the other. The Islamic confession of faith declares that “there is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” As a Muslim, you are not allowed to dispense with the second half. In Reliance of the Traveller, one of the most authoritative guides to Islamic belief, we read:
Allah has made him [Muhammad] the highest of mankind, rejecting anyone’s attesting to the divine oneness by saying ‘There is no God but Allah,’ unless they also attest to the Prophet by saying ‘Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah’ (v 2.1)
In Islam, Muhammad is referred to simply as the Prophet. But what kind of prophet was he? Here’s a hint. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his listeners to “beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mt. 7:15). Does Muhammad qualify as a false prophet? It would seem so. He proclaims that God is not a Trinity and that Jesus is neither divine nor a savior. He rejects almost all of the central Christian teachings.
Was Muhammad a false prophet? It could be reasonably argued that he was the false prophet par excellenceperhaps the person whom Jesus had most in mind when he delivered his warning. There were false prophets in the days of Peter and Paul, but does anyone remember their names? Did any of them found a religion that is still alive and growing? Could any of them claim a following of 1.6 billion people?
There is a curious lack of curiosity about Muhammad on the part of Catholic leaders. He is not mentioned in Nostra Aetate, the document on which the current optimistic assessment of Islam is built. He is not mentioned in the Catholic Catechism’s statement on the Church’s relationship with the Muslims. He is not, as far as I know, mentioned by Pope Francis, although Francis has spoken favorably about Islam on several occasions.
But Islam is inseparable from Muhammad. If he was a false prophet who presented a false picture of Jesus, then Islam, despite whatever truths it contains, is a false religion. For prudential reasons, you might not want to shout that from the rooftops. On the other hand, you ought not keep insisting that Catholics share much in common with Islam.
Fortunately, there are signs that the Church’s Pollyannaish view of Islam may be in for a revision. The Church’s Islam policy is coming under increasing scrutiny. Up until a year or two ago, Catholic journalists tended to avoid the subject of Islam except to report on terrorist attacks or on the Pope’s meetings with imams. As for news analysis, most writers simply echoed the Vatican’s semi-official narrative that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. More recently, however, Catholic columnists have begun to question that narrative. More and more Catholic writers and intellectuals are taking a closer, more clear-eyed look at the Church’s relationship with Islam.
A number of bishops and cardinals have also begun to question the Church’s stance on Islam. American Cardinal Raymond Burke, Hungarian Bishop Lazlo Kiss-Rigo, Spanish Cardinal Antonio Canizares, and Iraqi archbishops Louis Sako and Amel Shamon Nona, along with others have expressed dissatisfaction with Church policy on Islam and/or Vatican policy on Muslim migration.
Most importantly, the dogmatic authority of Nostra Aetate has come into question in higher Church circles. This is significant because the two paragraphs on the Muslims in that document are the linchpin of the argument that Christianity and Islam are similar faiths that share much in common. But according to Archbishop Guido Pozzo, the Secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, “Nostra Aetate does not have any dogmatic authority, and thus one cannot demand from anyone to recognize this declaration as being dogmatic.”
Nostra Aetate seems to have been intended primarily as a gesture of outreach to non-Christian religions. But somehow, over the years, it came to be seen by many as the Church’s final and definitive statement on Islam. It became the trump card in any discussion of Islam among Catholics. Catholics who questioned the Church’s pro-Islam policies were told that the Church had spoken, and that was that.
Now that Nostra Aetate is being put in proper perspective, the way is open for Catholics to develop a fuller, more reality-based picture of Islam. Hopefully, they will not waste any time in doing so.