Catholic-Islamic Dialogue: Interview With Christian Troll

For Freedom of Faith

The beginning of November saw the first Catholic-Muslim Forum held in the Vatican – which came about on a Muslim initiative. One of the participants was the Jesuit and professor of Islam Studies, Christian Troll. In an interview with Lewis Gropp, he talks about freedom of religion in Europe and Islamic countries, and the challenges of the Enlightenment for belief

What are the successes of the Catholic-Muslim Forum from your point of view?

Troll: The meeting is a positive start; the atmosphere at the talks was good. The new aspect is that the initiative came firmly from the Muslim side, and that this group wanted to set new accents by placing the focus on the dual command of love that we also know in Christianity. The Muslim representatives cited the commandment to love God and love thy neighbour as thyself from the Old Testament and St. Matthew’s Gospel, explaining that it is also a central commandment of Islamic law – which gave us a completely new starting point. What was said was that we would take this affirmation as a common ground for dealing with issues together.

So it was less of a political approach; they consciously placed the focus on a theological statement, and that gave us a brave thesis! Had the Muslim delegates said, the focus for us is solely God’s mercy and the call for people to be merciful, that would have been less surprising. But this vocabulary of God’s love of humankind and humankind’s love of God is actually relatively insignificant in the Qur’an. It plays a major role in the great Sufi tradition, on the other hand, so it’s clear that a large part of the Muslims who are actively behind this initiative are strongly influenced by Sufism.

What would you say about the fact that there were no representatives of Islamism at the meeting? Is that a possible option for the future?

Troll: It is an option to some extent, yes, because Islam is very diverse, so initiatives of this kind always have to be examined as to which weightings are taken into account. The Vatican has been involved in other, longer-running dialogues with Muslim institutions, for example the Al-Azhar University, the Muslim Call Society from Libya and the Shi’a Establishment in Iran. In this case, the make-up of the forum came about because the Muslim representatives took the initiative, and there’s no particular institution involved.

So one can’t say that the initiative came from the royal family in Amman or the Center for Strategic Studies in Amman. Instead, there are a number of individuals on the Muslim side who are particularly significant for the project: Aref Nayed from the University of Cambridge, Prince Ghazi, the president of the Jordanian Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, Timothy Winter alias Abdal Hakim Murad, a professor at Cambridge University, and Sayed Hussein Nasr, the former director of the University of Teheran under the shah and now in exile in the USA, where he has been a professor at George Washington University for many years.

The Muslim delegation in Rome was relatively strongly centred on Muslims from the “West”, from the USA and Europe. But Tariq Ramadan also took part. There were relatively few participants from the Middle East: Mustafa Sherif, a former minister of culture from Algeria, and an ayatollah from Iran, who was very quiet though and hardly spoke, and is more of an academic – Professor Damat. The head of the delegation, by the way, was Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Was there a delegate from Saudi Arabia?

Troll: No, there was nobody present from Saudi Arabia. The delegation that came to Rome was dominated by prominent Muslims from the West, as I said.

After the meeting, the Pope once again urged both political and religious leaders to ensure that believers around the world can practice their religions freely. Do you think that message is appropriate in this case, considering most of the individuals at the meeting were from the academic sector and thus have little influence over politics, let alone freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia?

Troll: It’s not so easy to draw that line any more; the spheres are all connected nowadays. Incidentally, the Vatican said from the very beginning, at the preparatory meeting in March, that it made little sense to focus on a strictly theological issue. The Vatican’s position was that it was very commendable that the Muslims placed the focus on love of God and one’s neighbour – and it wanted to respond to that. So we dedicated the first day to the issue, but our primary concerns are human dignity, respect, human rights, freedom of religion – and all this also plays a very large role for Muslims in Europe.

Freedom of religion plays a major role in the Middle East in a different way, more with respect to the Christians and other minorities there, to say nothing of the Baha’i in Iran! These are global problems today, and that was the subject of the second day.

And one can’t talk about human dignity and respect without talking about freedom of religious practice. There were also four bishops from countries with a Muslim majority present at the meeting: Bishop Multan from Pakistan, the apostolic legate of Abu Dhabi, whose diocese covers six or seven Arab countries with two and a half million Catholics, the bishop of Kirkuk in Iraq and the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo. Naturally, they expressed very determined standpoints on the subject of freedom of religion, which were listened to very carefully by the Muslim side and supported to a large extent by a man like Mustafa Ceric. Ceric himself calls for the same thing from Europe.

The common factors are always particularly emphasised at religious dialogue meetings. But what about the more problematic passages in the Koran, for example sura 9, the call to fight Christians and Jews? Were these aspects addressed as well?

Troll: Those aspects were of course brought up a number of times, including by the bishops from countries with a Muslim majority. Whenever peaceable Qur’an texts were cited, it was always pointed out that there are some very different verses in the book; it was very consciously addressed.

But there weren’t any major controversies over the subject…?

Troll: Yes, there were tensions, of course, but not necessarily controversies. I mean, one can’t develop an entirely new form of hermeneutics at a meeting like this, all one can do is draw attention to the points in question, and every intelligent believer – of whatever faith – will naturally notice there’s a major hermeneutic problem at stake. But there’s no way to deal with such issues in depth at a meeting of this kind.

You have written in the past that Muslim-Catholic dialogue meetings are also important for Christianity, because it needs qualified criticism from outside the religion. What type of impulses were you thinking of in that context?

Troll: On the practical and political level, a paper like that published by the German bishops on building new mosques would be inconceivable without dialogue with Muslims. This particular issue made it clear that we have to defend and fight for rights in Europe – including the basic religious rights of minorities, including Muslims – if we realistically expect changes in the mindset and the legislation in places like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and in the majority Muslim countries in general! It’s a learning process, of course – on both sides.

But there’s another level, the values level. For example, take the value of the family, which has lost a great deal of weight in Europe and the West. In this case, the Christian church can recall its core values to do with the family together with the Muslims.

Furthermore, there are parallel texts in the Qur’an for values such as the Ten Commandments; that was another subject of intense discussion in Rome and is probably the most important area we have in common.

And not to forget the example of the many Muslims who courageously practice their religion, including in public and against great resistance – the Muslim devotion to liturgical prayer, for example.

Critics such as Hamid Dabashi assume that Christianity only reformed under political pressure, because the Enlightenment put an end to its claim to power. How would you characterise the relationship between Islam and the Enlightenment?

Troll: The challenge of justifying faith in the face of critical reason and the modern methods of the humanities, re-interpreting the sources, is something Christianity started out on more than 200 years ago. In my editorial for the November issue of the Christian cultural journal Stimme der Zeit (Voice of the Time), I quote at length from the Pope’s speech of 22 December 2006, in which he addressed precisely this subject and said that the Islamic societies generally have yet to face this challenge.

On the Muslim side, including in the Sufi tradition, there is a certain tendency to idealise the classical period of Islam and to see modernity as negative, branding it as a sign of degeneration. The Catholic opinion on the matter is rather more complicated. On the one hand we’d say the Enlightenment is first and foremost a challenge that has led to a lot of good as well – for instance the emphasis on individual freedom and the realisation that there is no point to belief if it is not chosen by free will. On the other hand, however, there really are signs of degeneration in modern societies, and that’s something we can certainly think about together. This subject – faith, biblical faith, Koranic faith and the challenge of modernity – is certainly an area where this forum in particular can make progress.

Interview: Lewis Gropp

© 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Christian Troll is one of the most important proponents of Christian-Islamic dialogue in Germany, and has had an eventful academic career. He was a professor of Islamic Studies in New Delhi from 1976 to 1988, then senior lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations an der University of Birmingham up to 1993, and after that a professor of Islamic Institutions at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome until 1999. He was appointed an honorary professor by the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in 2001.

Until 2005, Troll was a twelve-year member of the Catholic Church’s subcommission for religious relations with Muslims, which is part of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID).