An effort to go out of oneself is required in order to be present to the other. This ‘going out’ could be to help others who are in need or simply to be with others to show solidarity or to experience togetherness. One of the classical examples of ‘going out’ is rendered in the Gospel of Luke (1: 39-56): Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth. Both mothers, Mary and Elizabeth meet with one another, and so do their two sons! There is joy in that meeting. The Gospel tells that John the Baptist leapt for joy in his mother’s womb. Hence, I like this expression: “going out”! It is my experience that I return enriched every time I reached out to my Muslim friends. ‘Going out’ to the other teaches me to be humble and shows me the need of the other for a more deeply human life. In ‘going out’ to Muslims, I believe that I share the richness of my faith and listen to their faith convictions and allow them to enrich my Christian life.
The word ‘dialogue’ comes from the Greek verb dialegesthai, meaning to speak or converse with each other. The resulting conversation or exchange is called dialogia. The act of listening plays an important role in this whole exercise. Conversation is incomplete without the act of ‘listening’. Dialogue ceases to be dialogue if one of the partners does not listen to the other. Listening and sharing are keys to dialogue, and they lay the foundation for mutual understanding and enriched life. In listening and sharing, both Christians and Muslims hold firmly to their faith convictions. It does not mean a hardness of heart and intellectual arrogance with respect to those who think differently. Put differently, it is the way of being faithful to our roots and, at the same time, being open to other people’s faith.
In this article, I briefly share with some of my interactions with my Muslim brothers and sisters and reflect on the following three theological questions that are eminently pertinent to Christian-Muslim dialogue: 1. Can I pray live and work together with a Muslim individual or a Muslim family or community? 2. What do I say about the Qur’an? 3. What do I say about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam? These questions arose in the context of my interaction with my Muslim friends.
Can I pray live and work together with a Muslim individual or a Muslim family or community?
I enjoy meeting Muslims in their homes, mosques, in the university class rooms, and in their places of work. Such meetings establish and deepen our relationship with one another. Several years ago, I was introduced to the Awan family by a mutual friend of ours. The Awan family live in the Turkman Gate area in New Delhi, close to the famous Ram Lila Maidan. Over the years, our steady ‘going out’ has brought us closer to one another. The family considers me as their son. I feel that it is a great privilege to be loved by a Muslim family as their son.
Some time ago, the father of the family told me: “The media portray Muslims as violent people. There is an effort to paint Islam as one of the main sources of evil in the world. What do you feel about such propaganda? Are such efforts based on a mixture of ignorance and prejudice?” These words express fears and concerns of Indian Muslims and demand a personal answer from a Christian son.
The apprehension and distress of Muslims are not unfounded. The media, both subtly and overtly, portrays Islam as a religion of the sword. Several academic as well as popular accounts published in recent years depict Islam as inherently violent. “The collapse of the Oslo Peace Process in September 2002 in the face of a renewed and ongoing cycle of violence in the Middle East; the terrorist attacks in the United States of America a year later in September 2001, and the Bush Administration’s subsequent ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan and Iraq – have all served to reinforce the widespread perception that Islam is in some special way linked to terrorist violence” (A.R. Omar “Islam and Peace-Building,” Journal of The Henry Martyn Institute 29, no.1, January – June 2010: 26).
In the context of such negative publicity about Islam, can I stand with the Muslim family that considers me as one of its members in their moments of fears? Can I identify with them continually even if the propaganda against Muslims keeps mounting? How should I express solidarity with them as their Christian son? These questions keep coming to me every time I visit them. I recognised that sitting with the family and talking to them on faith matters, sharing concerns, and partaking in family meals are sacred moments of dialogue. Over time, I have noted some moments of deep silence that prevails punctuating our conversations. I have come to consider those moments of silence as moments of prayer. My solidarity with them is deepened in those sacred moments of prayers.
I gather myself and direct my attention towards God at those moments. I am convinced that God, whom I recognise as Father, as Jesus taught, is the One God whom Muslims surrender their lives to and towards whom they turn their hearts and minds in prayer. The Church teaches that the God worshipped by the Muslims is the God of Abraham and of the Prophets of the Old Testament, the God whom the Christians and the Jews of Arabia worshipped in the days of Prophet Muhammad—in other words the true God. I am convinced that the father of the Awan family, too, raises his heart towards Allah. In those rich moments of silence, I am deeply convinced that we pray together. I believe that the Spirit of God binds both of us in prayer.
A recent document of the Catholic Church titled Meeting God in Friend and Stranger beautifully explains such possibility of praying together. Sections 135 and 136 of this document read:
Pope John Paul II explains that his initiative of inviting all religions to Assisi in order to pray for peace was rooted in his conviction that every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person. This perception that every authentic prayer is the Holy Spirit’s activity means that all genuine prayer is in fact the work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the one God at work within us. It is the Father, through the risen Christ, who bestows the Spirit when we are moved to pray; and when we pray, it is in fact the Spirit prompting us to pray to the Father through the one Mediator, the risen Lord Jesus Christ. It follows, then, that although other religions are not Christian, and we must not call them such, they are in the Spirit related to the Church in one and the same movement of prayer, prompted by the Spirit, through Christ to the Father.
Over the years, I have recognised it is not only that we can pray together but it is also essential that we pray together. In prayer we express our solidarity for with one another in a profound way. We assure one another that we are united in prayer. Prayer intensifies our love for one another. In the ambience of love, we share and listen to joys and sorrows of one another. Our faith convictions are tested and confirmed, and, as a result, we grow in our openness towards each other. I believe prayer is very essential for deepening interfaith relations. V. Courtois, a pioneer in Christian- Muslim relations in India wrote: “The study of Islam should lead to greater love and better appreciation of Muslims. Insistence [sic] should always be made not on what separates Christians and Muslims, but on what may rapproach them, bring them closer to each other and to the Heart of Christ. We study them not as enemies but as Brothers [and sisters]. To study we shall add much prayer.”
Turning my heart to the counsel of V. Courtois, I pray that through my life and attitude I may be able to communicate my love for Jesus. Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet. Silent moments of prayer together somehow may help my Muslim family to understand that I love Jesus in a way that is different from their understanding. They know that Jesus is so very precious to me. I pray that they may come to know Jesus and love him. I think it is the mission that I am involved in. My mission is to help others to know Jesus and love him. This understanding of mission is based on the way St Theresa of Lisieux understands the mission in the Church.
What do I say about the Qur’an?
I did my Master’s degree in Islamic Studies from the Aligarh Muslim University. Rais Akbar was my co-student. He is a dear friend of mine. We are still in to contact. We used to sit together on week-day evenings to study together. Both of us found that studying together helped not only our academic performance but also our understanding of the importance of Christian-Muslim relations contextually. We had to write a thesis, and one of the topics I had to write on was on the Muslim understanding of revelation. I made notes with copious references and shared this with him. He appreciated my clarity. He paused for a while and asked me what I thought about the Qur’an. I did not expect such a personal question. But I felt my Muslim friend had a right to know what I think about the Qur’an. I needed to explain to him what I really thought about the Qur’an. If I accepted the Qur’an as revealed scripture, then I had to explain why I do not accept its authority. I told him that we should speak about it the next week, after the exams. It gave me some time to give a prayerful thought to the question.
The next week, after exam, when I met Rais Akbar, I responded to his question. Essentially, I helped him to understand that in the Catholic religious tradition there is a way to speak of the Qur’an in a respectful way. I showed him that within Catholic theology there are two different ways in which revelation is understood. Most Catholic theologians before K. Rahner recognised revelation as truths revealed by God. These revealed truths were gathered in a deposit of faith. These revealed truths should be acknowledged as true on the authority of God as mediated by the Church for one’s salvation. This could be called a ‘static’ understanding of revelation. In this stream of thought, the revelations possessed by non-Christian religions were considered to be a preparation for the gospel. In this stream, there would be no place for the Qur’anic revelation, as it came after Jesus Christ. In contrast to this first school, Rahner argued that revelation is not static but, rather, dynamic. It is God’s self communication to which a human person responds. Since revelation occurs within historical situations, there could be Jewish, Islamic, Indic and other such revelations. Prophet Muhammad as a religious man responded to God’s revelation.
That is fair enough. But the question does not stop there. I should have been ready for another question: Is the Qur’an a word of God for Christians? Although Rais Akbar did not raise this question, I recognised its importance and searched for an answer. I looked for some examples of how different Christian scholars dealt with this question. I found an interesting example in the work of Paul of Antioch. Although he recognised the fact that the Qur’an is a revelation in Arabic, he limited it to Arabic speakers and denied its universal validity. Consequently, he affirmed that the Qur’an is irrelevant for Christians. However, some modern Catholic authors like Basetti-Sani accept the Qur’an as an inspired scripture, and R. Caspar reflects theologically on the Qur’an as ‘a bearer of a Word of God’. Their approach is to treat the Qur’an with respect and to seek the voice of God through it to bring about a better understanding between Muslims and Christians.
What is my personal response to my friend’s question? What do I say about the Qur’an? I would say that the Qur’an is God’s guidance for Muslims. God is at work in the words and passages of the holy book. How do I relate with the holy book? The book has spiritual significance for me as it is central to the life of my Muslim brothers and sisters whom I love very dearly. I would show great respect to the Qur’an as a holy book as it continues to shape the spiritual lives a more than a billion Muslims. At the same time, I am aware that the Qur’an does not affirm my Christian faith. The core elements of my Christian faith in Incarnation, Redemption, and in the Trinity are denied very clearly in the Qur’an. I recognise that God’s word becomes a Book: the Qur’an for Muslims. I as a Christian believe that God’s word becomes flesh. Jesus is the word of God. These are the two different ways in which the Muslims and Christian believe and celebrate their faith. In differences we are tested and enriched. Camouflaging the difference is totally against the spirit of an honest and loving dialogue.
What do I say about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam?
Nafis Ahmed is a dear friend of mine for several years now. He studied Persian and Urdu in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and later at Aligarh Muslim University at Aligarh. He now works for the Translation Bureau in the Indian Parliament. Nafis follows the theology that is espoused by the theologians of the Barelvi school of thought. This school shows special devotion for to Muhammad. We meet regularly. Recently, we met over lunch and talked on different subjects. At one point, the discussion turned towards Prophet Muhammad.
During our conversation, I agreed that in the history of Christian-Muslim relations, Prophet Muhammad has been insulted in several ways in poetry, history, literature, drama, paintings, and popular songs. The legacy of negativity towards Prophet Muhammad is too obvious and could be a real block in Christian-Muslim relations. I felt in my conversation with Nafis that he invites me to speak about Muhammad in a dignified way. Here one could refer to a comment by the 8th century Nestorian Katholikos Timothy. When asked by the Muslim caliph what he thought of Muhammad, Katholikos Timothy said: “Muhammad walked in the way of the prophets.” Muslims and Christians have different definitions of the term ‘prophet’; for Christians they are not sinless, nor a perfect exemplars of a Godly way of life. But it is important that Christians should be able to speak of Muhammad in an informed and respectful manner.
The important question is: what can Christians say about Muhammad? Within Christian theologies, is there room for positive thinking about Prophet Muhammad? Surely, the Spirit blows freely and God uses people who are not Hebrews (e.g. the Queen of Sheba [1 Kings 10: 1-13] and Cyrus the Persian [2 Chronicles 36: 22-23; Ezra 1: 1-11; Daniel 1:21; 6::28; 10:1]) in a prophetic role. An understanding of prophethood also involves an understanding of revelation. Prophet Muhammad’s life is inseparably linked to revelation for Muslims. Any serious discussion on Prophet Muhammad between Christians and Muslims cannot avoid the area of ‘revelation’. As mentioned in the forgoing passages, while the Qur’an is the literal, verbal revelation in Islam, it is Christ himself who is the revelation of God incarnate in Christianity. In dialogue, Muslims need to understand how Christians understand the person of Jesus. Similarly, Christians need to understand how Muslims understand Prophet Muhammad. There is a great deal of work that needs to be done on all dimensions of these questions.
Personally, my own understanding of Prophet Muhammad has changed over years as I relate with Muslim friends. I should confess that my interaction with my Muslim friends and reading and re-reading of Tor Andre’s Muhammad: The Man and his Faith has helped me a great deal to think of Prophet Muhammad as a deeply religious man. However, if one asks: Is he my model? I would say that Prophet Muhammad is not my model. As a Christian, I will continue to honour Prophet Muhammad as a religious genius and a statesman but he will not become my model without seriously compromising my faith. As I have been emphasising, dialogue is the way to grow in commonalities and in differences.
This article set out to present before the readers how I have responded to important theological questions such as: 1. Can I pray live and work together with a Muslim individual or a Muslim family or community? 2. What do I say about the Qur’an? 3. What do I say about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam?
In conclusion, it should be said: first, that in-depth dialogue and religious conversations cannot avoid serious theological questions. While reflecting on possible responses, I come to realise that I should keep within the teaching of the Church so that my responses remain Catholic and that I should be aware of the complexities of the history of Christian-Muslim interactions. Sensitive responses can be developed only if partners in such dialogue are gifted with a heart that listens and discerns and a head that is aware of the history of Christian-Muslim relations.
Secondly, polemics should never find a place in conversations. In the past, they only generated heat and have never shed light. And in future, polemics are not going to have any different result. Polemics represented a model that generated prejudice and bias. This cannot be a model for future dialogue. In a similar vein, it should be said that compromising one’s faith is not dialogue either. If polemics represents hard-heartedness, then compromise embodies shallowness. In dialogue, as I have shown, one needs to be rooted in one’s faith and remain open to the Spirit of God at work within us and in history and in our context.
Thirdly, it is my experience that whenever I have been in communion with Muslim friends, I have gained a deep experience of the richness of both my own faith tradition and that of my Muslim friends. As Christians, we need to reach out to Muslims as brothers and sisters. A lot of goodwill will be generated when we meet as worshipers of One God, Who is our Creator and our Judge, without compromising my faith in Jesus, my being a follower of Christ and my loving Him intimately as the source of my life.