Saturday, July 10, 2010

Father Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. on Islam

An interview with the Islamic scholar and Catholic theologian born in Egypt and based in the Middle East for more than 20 years — Is Islam Part of God's Plan? His answer to the question posed in the title:
    This is a delicate but legitimate question. We can express it thus: "Insofar as what has been given to men to know about this, does Islam have a place in God's plan?"

    In the course of history, Christians of the East have often asked themselves this question. The answer of Arab Christian theologians was: "God has permitted the birth of Islam to punish Christians for their infidelities." I think the truth about Islam leads back to the division between Eastern Christians, a division often due to nationalist and cultural motives hidden behind theological formulas. This situation impeded them from proclaiming the Good News to the peoples of the region, something that Islam has done partially.

    Islam served to reaffirm faith in one God, the call to dedicate ourselves completely to him, to modify our life to adore him. It was a healthy reaction, in continuity with the Jewish and Christian biblical tradition. But in reality, to come to this it eliminated everything that created a bit of difficulty, in particular: the human and at the same time divine nature of Christ; the One and Triune God, who is dialogue and love; and the fact that Christ became obedient unto death on the cross, that he emptied himself, as St. Paul says, out of love for us.

    Hence, it is a rationalized religion, not in the sense according to the Spirit and divine rationality, but in the sense of being simplified of those aspects that human reason cannot contain. Hence, Islam presents itself as the third and last revealed religion ... and for us, obviously, it isn't. After Christ -- whom the Quran recognizes as Word of God, Verbum of God -- it is incomprehensible that God sent another Word that is the Quran.

    If the Quran was in agreement and served to clarify the Gospel, I would say: why not? Like the saints who throw light on the Gospel and on the person of Jesus. But here, no: it is in contradiction. That is why I cannot say that God has sent a prophet -- which would be Mohammed -- with a new revelation. Even less can I say of him that he is "the seal of the prophets," khatam al-nabiyyin, as the Quran states, namely, that he completes and corrects and leads the revelation of Christ to fulfillment.
"But then, what is Islam's place in God's plan?" asks the interview, to whom Father Samir answers:
    I think that for us Christians it is a stimulus to lead us back to the foundation of it all: God is the Only One, the Ultimate Reality -- which is the fundamental Jewish and Christian affirmation, taken up by the Quran in the beautiful sura 112: "Yes: God is the Only One! God is the Impenetrable One!" etc. An affirmation, which modern life runs the risk of making us forget. Islam reminds us that, if Christ is the center of the Christian faith, he is so always in relation with the Father; to remain in unity, even if the Quran has not managed to understand what the Holy Spirit is.

    We are questioned every day by Muslims about our faith, and this leads us to rethink it constantly from the perspective of Islam. I thank Muslims for their criticisms, so long as they make them as reflection and not as controversy. I would say the same for Christians' questions.

    Our vocation, that of us Christians of the East, is to live with Muslims, whether we like it or not. It is a mission! It is difficult, but we must live together. Because of this, I would say that it falls to Muslims to defend the Christian presence, and to Christians to defend the Muslim presence. It is not up to each one of us, in fact, to defend ourselves, as this would lead to confrontation.

    Therefore, I hope that the synod on the Middle East , which will take place Oct. 10-24, will help us Christians of the West and the East, but that it might also help Muslims, to rethink the meaning of the divine plan that we must rediscover in friendship and at times in confrontation: why are we together in this land of the Middle East, which is the land of Jesus -- certainly -- but also the land of Moses and Mohammed? This land must truly come to be "Holy Land."

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Blogger xavier said...


I dunno. I find Mohammed very distasteful and extraordinarily problematic. Given his shameless misconduct, I deny that he was a prophet and sometimes wonder if he wasn't seduced by Satan.

That islam is part of God's plan? Perhapas insofar as it challenges us to reaffirm as well as to refine our most fundamental concepts.

My objection is the Moslems can't be reasoned with. They're incorrigible to the point that they drive everyone nuts.

In any case, I suspect that the Synod will reaffirm the usual cliches but I also hope that it challenges the Moslems to really think very sincerely about their religion and back off their unjustiofied hostility to the other religions.


10:54 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

The Life And Religion of Mohammed : The Prophet of Arabia, a 1911 book by Father J.L. Menezes, S.J., an Indian priest, was a real eye-opener for me in this regard.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Leaving Muhammad aside, what is the theological role and place of Islam from a Christian perspective. First, I tend to agree with Belloc's take on Islam -- it is actually a form of Christian heresy, a modified type of Arianism. This explains the exalted role of both Isa (Jesus) and Miriyam (Mary) in the Koran. As such, Christianity cannot affirm that Islam is "true" (in the sense that Christianity can affirm that the major tenets of say, Judaism are "true" if "incomplete").

Second, while Christianity must insist that Islam is not true, that does not mean that Islam does not contain truth and that it cannot be a vehicle (an imperfect one, but what else is new in this fallen world) for God's grace and love. There is much with Islam that is true and good and beautiful and from which Christians can learn. Here are just three examples that I would cite off the top of my head (aside from the obvious ones like, say monotheism and the basic principles of the moral law contained in the 10 Commandments, etc.):

1) The idea that God is a God of mercy and compassion. "In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate." That is how the Koran begins (Sura 1). While God has other attributes, His most notable ones are mercy and compassion. Spot on.

2) The idea of God's will -- the concept of Inshallah. Looking at life not with human beings at the center, but with God at the center, that what will happen is what God decrees to happen, not in a fatalistic way but in the sense that God is charge of history and God cares so much for each of us that He actually is involved in our daily, mundane and trivial lives. We matter to God.

3) The notion of sin as forgetfulness and repentance as remembrance. When we sin, we forget who we are -- creations of God. When we turn from our sin and repent, we remember who we are and to Whom we are accountable. To live righteously makes us more authentically who we are, not less. Beautiful concept.

Real Islam (not fake, fanatical forms) is, I think, a beautiful religion and one that teaches much truth. As I like to say, "the second best religion on the planet and of all the wrong ones, the least wrong."

2:59 AM  
Anonymous love the girls said...

Mark in Spokane writes : "Leaving Muhammad aside . . .Real Islam (not fake, fanatical forms) is, I think, a beautiful religion"

Which is rather like leaving the Church aside. Which I find often done by those who tell me how beautiful Christ's teaching is when not corrupted by my nasty Catholicism.

Islam is no more separate from Muhammad than the Faith is from the Church. If you want to know the first, you Must look to the second. And looking to Muhammad is not a pretty sight. Let alone a beautiful one.

4:28 AM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

I don't know that much about Muhammad's life to make a judgment about him, but assuming for sake of argument that he was a less than angelic character, how does that alter the reality of Islam on the ground? I have theological objections to Islam, and I object strongly to many components of Islamic culture, government, Sharia, etc. I am not saying that Christians should embrace Islam as being true or an equivalent faith to Christianity. And I'm not saying that Muhammad was divinely inspired, nor am I saying that he was correct in his unique approach to religious faith.

What I am saying is that Islam can be used by God -- as God can use anything He chooses to -- as a vehicle of grace. And I am also saying that there are points to Islam that are true, and some of them are not only true but beautiful, and that Christians can learn from them. There are also things about Islam that Christians can learn from regarding what not to do, what is not helpful, what is not conducive to living a Christ-like life.

That said, I still think that Islam is a beautiful religion on the whole, and I think that it has tremendous truth in it. Is it true like Catholicism is true? No. Is it beautiful like Catholicism is beautiful? No. Is it the sure path that Catholicism is? No. But of all the other religions out there, other than Christianity and Judaism, Islam contains the most truth -- above all else the truth about monotheism (as well as the other truths I mentioned).

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Abdul Alhazred said...

On my last visit to the Buffalo, NY area, I made a pilgrimage to a local K-Mart shopping center, and chanced upon a frustrating, hilarious visual contrast --

To my left, a rather slender, rather beautiful Middle Eastern woman, like something out of an Arabian Nights erotic fantasy, clad from head-to-toe in a black veil, leaving only her beautiful face and hands visible.

To my right, a rather horrid, fat-assed Polish-or-Irish-whatever American woman, wearing (sadly) form-fitting shorts, T-shirt, sneakers, her morbidly obese figure all-too-terrifyingly visible!

How I would have given anything to see those outfits reversed!

Praise the Lord! Allahu akbar!

(Sometimes religion can be cruel.)

2:35 PM  
Anonymous love the girls said...

Mark in Spokane writes : "assuming for sake of argument that he was a less than angelic character, how does that alter the reality of Islam on the ground?"

Since Muhammad founded the religion, his example of practicing it would not be a "fake, fanatical form" of it, but the most authentic form of it.

And his practice of Islam was not pretty, and very much according the what you appear to describe as the "fake, fanatical forms".

12:34 AM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

love the girls,

Your argument makes an assumption regarding the nature of religion that I don't agree with -- that the earliest form is the most authentic. I subscribe to Newman's idea of the Development of Doctrine, the idea that as a religion matures it becomes more authentic as its inner dynamic becomes more pronounced and is applied across a range of situations.

That Muhammad and the early Muslim community engaged in acts of violence, etc., is pretty well beyond dispute. That Islam had and in many of its forms still has imperial aspirations is also beyond dispute. But that doesn't mean that the vast majority of Muslims do. I am interested in Islam not simply as an historical phenomenon, but also as a lived religious tradition.

And that lived religious tradition has components of incredible beauty and grace to it. Malcolm X's transformation (terribly cut short by his murder) from a racist, black-supremacist into someone who was reaching out for racial reconciliation was a direct result of his deepening commitment to Islam. His retelling of his conversion from race-hatred while on pilgrimage to Mecca is, to me, one of the most powerful religious stories that I have read in any modern American literature. Whatever Islam's faults, at that moment, I believe it served as a vehicle for God's grace to reach out and turn a human heart away from hate towards something better.

3:09 AM  
Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


I'm already hopelessly liberal about the things that can serve as vehicles of God's grace, so I agree with Mark on God being able to draw straight with the crooked (curved?) lines of Islam.

On the other hand, the person of Muhammed and the practice of Islam (which, for the record, I think he completely made up) are so intimately entwined as to be almost inseparable. There are great implications in a statement of faith that does not stop at, "There is no God but Allah," but insists on adding, "and Muhammed is his prophet."

3:31 AM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...


I agree with you. I am not saying that Islam is true or that Muhammad was a valid prophet. As a Christian, I obviously do not affirm that Islam is divinely inspired in the same way that either Christianity or Judaism are divinely inspired. In fact, I believe that Islam is a derivative of Christianity, that the truths that it teaches are in fact Christian truths, and that what Muhammad and other early Islamic religious leaders did was to essentially modify Arian Christianity to fit an Arab cultural context.

That said, I think that God can use Islam, and we can learn from Islam. Just like we can learn from Aristotle, and Confucius, and Einstein. It doesn't mean we adopt their ideas uncritically, but it means we can learn from them. And we need to. Short of the Parousia, Islam ain't goin' anywhere. It is going to be around. And in the places where Christianity is growing the fastest -- Africa, south Asia, etc. -- Islam usually has a pretty strong presence.

9:12 AM  
Anonymous love the girls said...

Mark in Spokane writes : "Your argument makes an assumption regarding the nature of religion that I don't agree with"

Once you ignore Mohammad, then what the hell? Have at it, make it what you please.

10:29 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

It's a weak analogy, but Luther was a rather unsavory character while Bach produced some of the greatest Christian music ever.

I spent a year in Malaysia, and the Muslims I knew there had a profoundly edifying effect on my faith. Talking about religion came naturally to them. I learned a lot about prayer and fasting from them, perhaps because my own civilization had given up on such silly concepts. Hats off to them for not having done so.

11:46 PM  

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