The Vatican’s Encounter With Islam

A historic step was taken in Rome last week. The first seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum was held on Nov. 4-6 at the Vatican with the participation of about 60 Muslim and Catholic religious leaders and scholars from around the world.

The participants discussed the love of God, love of the neighbor, human dignity and mutual respect in the two traditions of Islam and Christianity. On Nov. 6 the delegation was received by Pope Benedict XVI inside the Vatican where Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a world-renowned scholar of Islam, spoke on behalf of the Common Word delegation.

Establishing religious and cultural accord is difficult anywhere in the world. This is especially true for the long and checkered relationship between Islam and Christianity. On top of this, Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg speech had come as a shock to many in the Muslim world because it reiterated the old misconceptions of Islam as an irrational and violent religion. The Regensburg speech claimed that the Islamic faith left little or no room for human (“natural”) reason and asked its followers to blindly follow a capricious and mostly rule-driven god. Furthermore, Islam spread violently, bringing a message that was nothing but “subhuman and evil.” On both counts, the pope implied, Christians cannot have religious dialogue with Muslims. The problem with these two arguments is not only that they are based on a very shallow and distorted reading of Islamic history. One can also easily use them against Christianity. This is what the Enlightenment did to Christianity, marginalizing it as a living spiritual tradition in the West.

The Common Word letter, out of which the first seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum came, addressed these and other issues to open up new lines of communication between Muslims and Christians. Taking its cue from the Quran, it claimed that there is a ground for theological engagement, while religious differences are to be admitted as part of a genuine dialogue. There are also grounds for practical cooperation between the two largest communities of the world. The Vatican meeting tackled both theory and practice, with much work to be done. (For the main texts as well as the history of the Common Word, see

The Vatican meeting showed that one does not need uniformity to seek common ground. The theological and historical differences between Islam and Christianity are major. A strong and exclusivist Christology is a major obstacle for Muslims and other non-Catholics. Both traditions emphasize love as an essential quality of the divine but assign different functions to its application in human life. While the Christian notion of unconditional love is central, Islam also stresses mercy (rahmah) and justice (‘adl). The experiences of the two religions with modernity and secularization have followed different trajectories. Modern Catholic theology seems to have a love-hate relationship with Enlightenment European thought. From Jacques Maritain to Pope Benedict XVI, Catholic theologians have embraced the basic values of secular modernity on personalism, human rights, social ethics, etc., to secure a breathing space for the Christian faith in an increasingly secularizing and materialistic world. The Vatican’s concept of the dignity and inalienable rights of the person resonates well with the broad outlines of Kant’s post-Christian metaphysics. But it also comes close to erecting a secular anthropocentric humanism, which brought Christianity to its knees in the first place. As a result, the church has a claim and relevance as a social institution, not as a spiritual and intellectual force.

There are also differences in the understanding of religious freedom. While Christians insist on freedom of religion and conscience as a universal human right, which the majority of Muslims accept, missionary Christians interpret it as a license to proselytize in Muslim countries, which Muslims reject. This is where Pope Benedict’s view of mission and dialogue as the two sides of the same coin enters in. While it is true that every religion is missionary in the sense of witnessing one’s faith, there are worlds of differences in the way religious communities make their message (and witnessing) available to others. Many in the Muslim world see the aggressive missionary work of the European and American churches and religious organizations as part of the Western power structure.

Given the painful memory of European colonialism and the political realities of the current world order, by countries that are predominantly Christian, albeit nominally, it is not possible to speak of religious freedom in the abstract.

Centuries of conflict, mistrust, violence and rivalry will not be resolved over several meetings. But the Common Word initiative and Pope Benedict’s positive response to it represent a major step toward a “historical reconciliation” between Islam and the West. The pope had already shown some goodwill gestures before meeting with the Muslim delegation on Nov. 6. His open stance against the Iraq war, his call for a just solution to the Palestinian problem and his positive messages during his visit to Turkey should be seen as important steps in the right direction. But much more work remains to be done.