Looking at Islam Through Catholic Eyes

Comments by Pope Francis about “authentic Islam” suggest a failure to see Islam as most Muslims understand and live it.

Several Catholic columnists have commented on the tendency of people to project their own hopes and fears onto the pronouncements of Pope Francis without paying attention to what he actually says. But could it be that the pope himself is practicing a similar form of projection?

In his statements about Islam in Evangelii Gaudium (paragraphs 250-54), Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of respecting and appreciating other cultures and religions. Yet, in an important way, he fails to do so, for his apparent tendency is to view Islam not on its own terms, but from a Christian perspective, with very Christian premises and assumptions. For example, in observing that “authentic Islam” is “opposed to every form of violence” he seems to be projecting Christian beliefs, values, and hopes onto Islam.

Francis is not by any means the first pope to do so. To a lesser extent, Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and Paul VI also saw in Islam evidence of promising affinities with Christianity. Their remarks on the commonalities shared by the two faiths echo the two conciliatory statements about Islam issued by the Second Vatican Council. In Lumen Gentium and especially in Nostra Aetate, the Council Fathers emphasized those elements of Islam that seem to correspond most closely with Christian beliefs and practices—particularly, reverence for Jesus and Mary, and a striving after the moral life. In short, they painted a partial picture of Islam that was very much in the image of Christianity.

The influence of Louis Massignon

Those documents were greatly influenced by the work of the French Catholic scholar of Islam Louis Massignon (1883-1962). Massignon is arguably the father of present-day interreligious dialogue, and his writings are often credited with having paved the way for the generous presentation of Islam found in Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium. But—and this is a crucial point when one considers his influence—Massignon’s main interest was not in Islam proper, but in Sufi Islam, a mystical version of Islam which bears a resemblance to Catholic mystical traditions, but which is regarded as a heretical sect by many mainstream Muslims.

Indeed, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike have criticized Massignon for focusing too much attention on Sufism and on relatively marginal figures in Islam. Massignon’s magnum opus, his four-volume doctoral dissertation published in 1922, focused on the life of the 10th-century Persian mystic and martyr, al-Hallaj. Al-Hallaj was a Christ-like figure whose claim that he and God had become one and the same led to his trial, imprisonment, and eventual execution at the hands of Islamic authorities. Edward Said, the noted author of Orientalism, wrote that Massignon used al-Hallaj to “embody…values essentially outlawed by the mainstream doctrinal system of Islam, a system that Massignon himself described mainly in order to circumvent it with al-Hallaj.”

In short, his critics accused Massignon of confusing Islam with a relatively small sect of Islam that is unrepresentative of mainstream beliefs and practices. Even scholars friendly to Massignon admit that his scholarship seems to have been colored by his personal inclination to mysticism. From what is known of his life, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Massignon was searching for a version of Islam on which he could project his own Catholic and spiritual concerns, and that he found it in the life of al-Hallaj and the traditions of the Sufi masters.

Yet, despite his rather eccentric and idiosyncratic view of Islam, Massignon probably had more influence on Catholic thinking about Islam than any other 20th-century figure. His friends included Charles de Foucauld and Jacques Maritain; he carried on a correspondence with Thomas Merton, and he consulted with Pius XI, Pius XII, and John XXIII. In addition, he was close to Cardinal Montini (later Pope Paul VI) and strongly influenced Montini’s thinking about Islam.

The authenticity of “authentic Islam”

Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation seems to be in line with Massignon’s attempt to put a Christian face on Islam. The part that stands out is the following: “Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” [my emphasis]. Here, the Pope goes beyond the Vatican II documents and beyond the conciliatory statements of his recent predecessors. Some will call it a step forward, but there are reasons to think it is a step in the wrong direction.

The Koran is replete with admonitions to commit violence and terror. What can Pope Francis possibly mean by saying that a “proper reading” of the Koran shows that it is “opposed to every form of violence”? There are many violent passages in the Old Testament as well, but Christians believe that these have to be understood in light of the New Testament. However, there is no New Testament in Islam. Islam’s other “sacred” documents such as the Sira (the life of Muhammad), the Hadith (collections of the words and deeds of Muhammad), and the various law manuals confirm the violent teachings of the Koran. These books give us a fuller picture of Islam than does the Koran, but in no way do they soften or reinterpret the violent passages. If anything, they cast doubt on the peaceful passages. The Islamic doctrine of abrogation, which is based on sura 2:106 of the Koran, holds that if two passages in the Koran contradict each other, the later verse cancels or abrogates the earlier verse. Since most of the peaceful Koranic verses come from the early Meccan period, many Muslim authorities hold that they are superseded by the latter violent verses.

Some Sufi and Ahmadiyya sects have come up with more spiritualized interpretations of the Koran but, as noted before of the Sufis, they are far out of the Islamic mainstream and are often persecuted as heretics. Recently, an Ahmadi doctor was arrested in Pakistan for reading from the Koran because, as reported in the Ahmadiyya Times, “According to the laws of Pakistan it is a criminal act for an Ahmadi to read the Holy Qur’an or act in a manner that may be perceived as the Ahmadi is ‘posing as a Muslim.’”

If Islam is assumed to be a faith similar to Christianity, then it is possible to interpret it in the light of Christian ideas about peace, justice, and a loving God whose harsh commands can be understood in a symbolic way. Massignon’s reading of Islam was in a similar vein. He recast Islam to correspond with his own mystical Christian inclinations and yearnings. The pope’s words in Evangelii Gaudium are undoubtedly intended to express fellowship with Muslims, but whether they respect the “otherness of the other” (as a multiculturalist would put it) is another, and very important, question. Certainly, there are a great many Muslim authorities and scholars who would dispute the Pope’s interpretation. For example, the late Ayatollah Khomeini was in the habit of saying things like, “Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those are witless…Islam says: Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword!”

To Western ears, this sounds like extremist, outside-the-mainstream talk, but it should be remembered that the Ayatollah was one of the most revered persons in the Shia Muslim world and his memory is honored to this day. Khomeini was an Ayatollah Usma, a “Grand Sign of God”—an honor bestowed only on the most learned religious leaders. It seems a safe bet that the majority of Shia Muslims would accord far more respect to his reading of the Koran than to any pope’s.

For that matter, Pope Francis’ reading of the Koran would seem to put him on a different path from the one traveled by Pope Benedict. While Francis’ statement about Islam uses Nostra Aetate as its main reference point, Benedict seems to be calling for a re-examination of Nostra Aetate. In an essay published last October in L’Osservatore Romano, Benedict writes of a “weakness” in Nostra Aetate. “It speaks of religion solely in a positive way,” he said of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, “and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion.” Benedict doesn’t speak explicitly of Islam, but it seems likely that Islam is what he had in mind. In light of the havoc that Muslims have wreaked upon Christians and other non-Muslims in the name of Islam in recent decades, it appears that Nostra Aetate has left us with a very incomplete picture of Islam.

The figure of Louis Massignon has cast a long shadow over Catholic thinking about Islam. To the extent that they are interested in Islam, Catholic thinkers tend to be focused on its mystical, Sufi manifestations rather than on its mainstream, legalistic, and supremacist side. This esoteric emphasis even filters down to the popular level via widely read Catholic authors such as Thomas Merton and Peter Kreeft. I recently gave a talk about Islam to a Catholic college audience and the first question I was asked during the Q & A session concerned Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet who was profoundly influenced by al-Hallaj—this, despite the fact that my talk had nothing to do with Sufism or mysticism. Rumi, who, like many Catholic mystics, described a journey of spiritual ascent through stages to a final union with God, has become very popular with young Westerners who are seeking non-Western forms of spirituality. In 2007 he was described by the BBC as “the most popular poet in America.”

Yet, at the risk of redundancy, it bears repeating that the spiritual tradition of Rumi, al-Hallaj, and the Sufi masters lies at the margins of the Islamic faith. For example, the use of music, poetry, and dance in rituals practiced by Rumi’s followers are considered un-Islamic by many, if not most, Islamic authorities. But, thanks in large part to the work of Massignon, this mystical tradition is looked upon by many influential Catholics as the authentic Islam. Thus, one man’s skewed and partial reading of Islam has come to color the “official” Church view of Islam.

As Pope Francis asserts, it is possible to read the Koran as being “opposed to every form of violence.” We know it is possible because that it is the way that some have read it. However, to say that this reading is the “proper” or “authentic” one is debatable, even misleading. At a time when clarity about Islam may be a matter of life or death for many Christians, the Pope’s statement may, unfortunately, only further cloud the issue.

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About William Kilpatrick 81 Articles
William Kilpatrick is the author of several books on religion and culture including Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius Press) and What Catholics Need to Know About Islam (Sophia Institute Press). For more on his work and writings, visit his Turning Point Project website.