Catholic-Muslim relations: Questions and Appraisal

As the firestorm of reaction cools to some sentences in Pope Benedict’s talk on September 12 at Regensberg University in Germany, the questions of the hour are: What lessons can be learned, and what impact will it have on Catholic-Muslim relations at-large?

The speech was in large measure a scholarly address criticizing the West for squeezing faith out the door in its love affair with reason, science, and technology. The section relating to Islam represented only three paragraphs, and came at the outset.

Pope Benedict began by recounting a conversation that took place between a 14th century Byzantine Christian emperor and a Persian scholar. “Show me,” he quoted the emperor Manuel II Paleologus as saying, “just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

In this brief introduction, Benedict also referred to the Islamic concept of jihad, which he defined as “holy war”, and said violence in the name of religion was contrary to God’s nature and to reason.

In his speech, he did not say whether he agreed with the quotation he cited about violence and Islam, but in his expression of personal regret on Sunday September 17, he said that the quotations from the medieval text “do not in any way express my personal thought.”

Earlier statements by Benedict would support this. Only days after his election, he welcomed representatives of other Christian churches and other religions. He said on that occasion, "I am particularly grateful for the presence in our midst of members of the Muslim community, and I express my appreciation for the growth of dialogue between Muslims and Christians, both at the local and international level. I assure you that the Church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the true good of every person and of society as a whole. " Muslim leaders worldwide found the use of this medieval quotation “provocative” and were joined by many Christians in judging it ill-advised. A careful reading of the text shows, however, that neither was it the broadside against Islam that it was initially perceived to be. The saddest part of it is that it was all so avoidable. The citation, unnecessary to his line of argumentation, could simply have been dropped with nothing essential lost.

Some church experts were expecting this to be a defining speech of his pontificate. One of the questions the Vatican is undoubtedly looking at is the process for vetting important addresses before they are given. According to the New York Times, several Vatican officials said they had seen the text and expressed concern before the speech was delivered that it might be negatively received by Muslims or be misconstrued by the news media as an attack on Islam. Did their concerns come to Benedict’s attention before he gave the talk, or did he decide to identify, via the seeming safety of a historical quote, a point of great contemporary concern, namely, the turn to religiously motivated violence among some radical Islamists? In any case, the point he wished to make was: “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” Unfortunately, the Vatican officials’ concerns proved to be prophetic.

Another question: Who are the experts within the Vatican who can advise on such matters? In this case, at a time of Vatican internal restructuring, the hole left by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an Islamic scholar who was relieved of his duties as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue last Spring when he was transferred as a Vatican envoy to Egypt, looms large.

What is the assessment of damage on Catholic-Muslim relations? The early signs, at least in the American context, are that the relations forged in three regional dialogues—Mid-Atlantic, Mid-West, and West Coast--will prove resilient and withstand the test. A member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the Vatican noted that on Saudi TV the Sunday following Benedict’s talk there were news programs saying that the U.S. is a model for Muslim-Christian dialogue and that this effort needs to be multiplied everywhere.

Sherrel Johnson, assistant to the director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Southern California, witnessed to this with a message following Pope Benedict’s address to the members of these dialogues: “We want the participants of our Catholic-Muslim dialogues in Southern California and across the nation, to know how proud we are of the successful relationships we have established between our faiths. Over the past several years, we have built friendships and trusts that have become what we pray will be a model for relationship building in Europe and other countries. Let us continue in our prayers for understanding as we work toward justice and peace for all.”

The various communiqués exchanged between representatives of Catholic and Muslim communities in North America carried a common motif: the proper response to the pope's remarks is for Muslims and Catholics worldwide to increase dialogue and outreach efforts aimed at building better relations between Christianity and Islam.

In one such communiqué, Aslam Abdullah, director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, noted that this unfortunate episode also offers an opportunity for Christians to learn more about Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the Islamic concept of jihad, one of the topics mentioned by the pope.

”Jihad,” Abdullah said, “is a central and broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense (e.g., having a standing army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression. 'Jihad' should not be translated as 'holy war.'

He also noted that "In Islam, there is no contradiction between faith and reason. Historically, whenever Islam flourished, so did knowledge and discovery.”

In another communiqué, Iftekhar Hai, president of a west coast Interfaith Alliance, said, “It is time to move on. We take Pope Benedict's apology seriously and we urge American Muslims to take leadership positions to condemn religiously motivated violence and work more diligently for building inter-religious cultures of peace and healing. We deeply regret the violence and the loss of life that has occurred. This is not acceptable. We also accept our inability to control the actions of 1.3 billions Muslims spread all over the world.”

Unfortunately, the violent reaction orchestrated by extreme Islamists in parts of the world exerts a supersized influence on the global perception of Islam. Critical judgment is needed in assessing any comprehensive statements about Islam. Not all Muslims are the same. Arabs, for example, comprise roughly 18% of the world Muslim population; the nations with the largest Muslim populations are Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.

When former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami spoke to participants at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual congress in Chicago on September 3, he said "There is a great opportunity of dialogue and cooperation among people of faith. But I mean people of true faith. I don't mean extremists and terrorists.” The discerning citizen of today’s world needs to make similar distinctions.

On the Catholic side, the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, sponsored by the North American Benedictine and Cistercian Communities of Men and Women, posted a communiqué on its website (, which read in part: “We are saddened by the harm caused by the Holy Father's reference to the words of Manuel II Paleologos in his September 12 lecture. We believe that the citation was a faux pas and in no way reflects the Pope's personal sentiments toward Islam. Had he acknowledged that in all three Abrahamic religions there have been figures and movements that placed God at odds with reason and at times justified acts of violence, his remarks would have been much less subject to misunderstanding.”

Broad recognition is emerging from both sides that the continued push for better understanding through dialogue is the only way forward.