PAULINE RAE SMSM
The task before us is to promote a culture of dialogue. Individually and together, we must show how religious belief inspires peace, encourages solidarity, promotes justice and upholds liberty.
—John Paul II, Inter-religious Assembly, Vatican City, Oct. 28, 1999.
The relationship between Christians and Muslims can be discussed in several con-texts, positive and negative. Among others, there is the current world situation in which there are conflicts being waged in parts of Indonesia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. There is the ongoing relationship at the level of leadership and scholarship between Christianity (promoted by the Vatican, the World Council of Churches and Pope John Paul II in particular) and Islam (led by eminent scholars and various Islamic organizations around the world).
This article will look first at a brief historical background of Islam and how Christians and Muslims have developed certain attitudes and approaches to each other. This provides a context in which to situate the work of the Sydney-based Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations which seeks to promote relationships of harmony, cooperation and common action among the followers of these two faiths.
One of the biggest challenges for believers in the world today is that of inter-faith relations in general, and Muslim-Christian relations in particular. Given the history of conflict, and the collective memory of grave injustices on both sides, the followers of these two faiths are laden with the burden of that history. The reality of the Crusades particularly, cannot be forgotten. In addition to this there are more recent world events which have shaped the perceptions of Muslims and Christians of each other in an environment which seems actually to promote division.
The perception of many Australians, including the Catholic community, is shaped largely, and for some, exclusively, by images of overseas conflicts which involve fundamentalist Muslim groups. These stories and images of peoples involved in particular historical, political or economic struggles are then superimposed on our Australian Muslims who suffer by association of their faith.
It is understandable that some people’s response to what they know and see of Islam is one of fear and that they react accordingly. It is nevertheless sad that during the post-September 11 period some people expressed their anger and fear over what had happened in ways which caused a lot of suffering and bewilderment to Muslims. They were, after all, as shocked and horrified as everyone else, and yet they became targets of abuse or worse. It is fear born of ignorance which leads to such situations and the only way to avoid this happening is to know something of what Muslims believe, the origins of their religion and how they view Christianity.
Christians and Muslims have been living together for over 1400 years and have always engaged actively with each other. From the earliest days after Mohammad the traditional mutual perceptions began forming and gave rise to certain attitudes that have influenced Christian-Muslim relations ever since.
In 610 the Prophet Mohammad first began to receive what he said were revelations from God; for Muslims the revelations are God’s exact words, God’s direct communication, through the Angel Gabriel (Jibreel). The Qur’an then, is not the word of God written by Mohammad (who is said to have been illiterate), but actually God’s words. Muslims treat the Qur’an with all the respect possible for this reason.
The Qur’an contains some very clear teachings about the religions that preceded Islam, or rather, as Muslims would phrase it, the messages from God that came before. One of those messages was given through a Prophet, a messenger, whose name is given in the Qur’an as Isa (Jesus). His followers are referred to in many places in the Qur’an. In some they are referred to positively,
And nearest them in
in others, not so positively,
So if they (Christians) believe as ye believe, they are indeed on the right path; but if they turn back, it is they who are in schism; but God will suffice thee as against them, and He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing. Sura 11:37
As Muslims began to encounter Christians they did so armed with some knowledge of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus. After the death of the Prophet in 632 the Islamic territories expanded and within a short time covered the Middle East and North Africa and within these territories were huge populations of Christians. For hundreds of years there were probably larger populations of Christians and other faiths than there were Muslims and they lived at peace with each other. It is important to note that Muslims did not actively try to convert them to Islam. It is a mark of Muslim tolerance that there were many Christians who did not feel they had to convert to Islam.
Gradually, the understanding of Christianity taken from the Qur’an began to shape a set of attitudes. These are the attitudes that a typical Muslim meeting with Christians today would have.
The basic element in a Muslim’s attitude to a Christian is that they are related in faith. Islam teaches that Mohammad was the last of the line of messengers who were sent by God to bring guidance to humanity. The first of those messengers was Adam, and the many who followed included Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. Each one of them according to Islamic belief and Qur’anic teaching, brought a message from God. So for Muslims the followers of Jesus are related in faith, and the scripture that Christians possess is related to the Qur’anic scripture—we are ‘People of the Book’ along with the Jews.
However, Muslims believe that our Scripture has not been preserved in its pristine form. A number of errors have crept in and it is no longer reliable when read apart from the Qur’an. So the first basic aspect of the typical Muslim attitude towards Christianity is that although Christians are related in faith something has gone wrong with Christianity, their scripture is not reliable. And one of its major defects is that that scripture has turned a human messenger, Jesus, into a divine being. Rather than Jesus being presented as a Prophet of God, somehow he has been turned into the Son of God. There are other problems for them too, in that they see Christians worshipping three Gods.
So, in the early centuries of Islam a Muslim would tend to feel that the Christians around were people who were on the path of truth but had somehow veered off—problems had crept in. Muslims thought they should bring the Christians back to the true teaching. Islam teaches that everyone is born a Muslim, because Islam is the natural faith of human kind.
For them it is our upbringing, our socialization or geography which is responsible for people following other faiths.
The Christians did not take favourably to this interpretation of their faith. And over the centuries a massive literature on the debates between Muslims and Christians has been built up concerned largely with the divinity of Christ and the doctine of the Holy Trinity. Both sides of the debate assumed a stance of superiority; both contended they had God’s true message and both sought to change the other’s false belief. Christians and Muslims are, in their theological stance, mirror images of each other.
Another example of our attitudes to each other revolves around the leaders of Christianity and Islam, Jesus and Mohammad. Christians over the centuries have tended to have a much darker understanding of Islam than Muslims have of Christians. In relation to Mohammad himself, popular Christian understanding saw him as something of a charlatan. In some cases he has been presented as motivated by a desire for worldly power and women, a very negative and destructive dismissal of the leader of Islam. And so today, many Christians share something of this mind. In Islam, on the other hand, Jesus is shown respect and when his name is used it will be followed by the phrase, ‘peace be upon him’. For them Jesus is a very important figure, one of Allah’s messengers, just as Mohammad was, and due the same honour and respect.
The Prophet Mohammad was a man of his time and culture, a man who was instrumental in bringing monotheism to his people, a great leader and a holy man. In the words of an English Muslim,
The encounter with the story of Mohammad’s life, like the encounter with the Qur’an, requires a shift in perspective both on the part of the Christian and the secularist…The Christian, if he wishes to understand Islam, must resist the temptation to compare Mohammad with Jesus, for these two had entirely different roles…Mohammad was what he had to be, did what he had to do, and said what he had to say in accordance with the divine intention. (Eaton 1985, 96-97.)
We cannot be credible to our Muslim sisters and brothers in claiming to respect the faith of Islam without a change of attitude in relation to Mohammad. And respect is what the Church requires of us in relation to other faiths. Even more so is it due to Judaism and Islam, as faiths in the same Abrahamic tradition as our own.
This was made clear in the Declaration on The Relationship of the Church to Non-Christians (Nostrae aetate) of Vatican 11:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men…
Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of heaven and earth and Speaker to men. (NA 2-3)
Christian-Muslim relations in our time are also influenced by colonial and post-colonial history. The current world situation, in which we hear of a ‘clash of civilizations’, (Huntington, 1993, 22) i.e. Islam and the West, and see Muslims involved in conflicts in several parts of the world, can be traced back to the colonizing of countries which were predominantly Muslim. Muslims today in these places see the West as oppressive. They consider the West unfair in its dealings with the Islamic world. Added to this is their image of Christians (whom they see as Westerners) as those who want to convert them, and are only interested in them for that reason.
Another unfortunate by-product of the link which Muslims tend to make between the West and Christianity is related to moral conduct. They see the West as, generally speaking, immoral, corrupt and decadent. Hollywood and television must take much of the blame for this. This accounts for a certain tendency among some Muslims to keep their distance. Muslim women will explain their wearing of the veil as, among other reasons, a form of protection and a refusal to be caught up in fashions which they see as exploitative of women.
It is against this background that Australian Muslims and Christians meet each other. I write now from personal experience of such meetings over a period of five years.
The Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations was established in 1997. It has two main objectives: to foster relationships with the Muslim community and to address the misconceptions, lack of understanding and stereotyping, which exist in the Christian community. It was established in response to the Church’s call to enter into interfaith relations, to promote this aspect of the mission of the Church. Interfaith relations is seen as the great challenge of the new millenium, with dialogue among the world religions as the best hope for peace for the world.
In sharing something of this ministry I hope readers will discover how they can be open to Christian-Muslim relations, in whatever situation, role or environment they find themselves.
There are two requirements fundamental to entering into interchanges across the faith boundaries of Christianity and Islam.
•The first is respect for the faith of the other.
•The second is to understand the difference between Islam, the religion and the individual’s cultural expression of how it is lived.
There is often confusion in this matter. Frequently, people attribute to Islam practices or understandings of the faith which are based in culture and are not part of the teachings of the faith, e.g. female genital mutilation. A great deal of anecdotal response of Christians to Muslims falls into this category. The distinction is something we need to be aware of.
Also, not every person claiming a religious affiliation is well-informed about their religion nor are all committed to the teachings of their faith. Not every culture claiming religious sanction for their practices is totally authentic to the true teachings of their religion. Muslims are no different from Christians in this regard.
Naturally enough a significant amount of my work is with Muslim women. Going through the getting-to-know-you stage was not always comfortable. In any relationship this is marked by tentative steps, reaching out, withdrawal, uncertainty, fear of rejection. For me there was hesitation and uncertainty about the response, fear of intrusion and of a misreading of motives and coping with differing cultural expectations. For my Muslim sisters there was a similar experience, but with maybe an added difficulty: were we only interested in converting them? But they gave us the benefit of the doubt. This touches on what is central to dialogue, to interfaith relations: trust.
And trust develops over time.
In 1997 we established the Women’s Dialogue Network. This is a group of Christian women, mostly Catholic, several of whom have lived and worked in Muslim countries. The aims are to remove the barriers of mutual suspicion between Christian and Muslim women, to promote greater understanding of Islam among Christians and to develop links between Christian and Muslim women’s groups and networks. There are several Muslim women’s networks but we have a close association with the Muslim Women’s National Network of Australia, which is affiliated with similar organizations in the Pacific and South-east Asia.
Its members are from many different ethnic backgrounds and its activities are wide-ranging. Their emphasis is on education towards a better understanding of Islam for Muslim women and for the wider community. What we have in common is a motivation in faith, women working with women and a focus on deepening the understanding of faith, our own and that of the other.
In 1998 members of the W omen’s Dialogue Network were guests at the National Seminar of the Muslim Women’s National Network on ‘Issues of Concern for Muslim Women’. In 2000 the two organizations held a Joint Seminar on ‘Common Concerns of Christian and Muslim Women’. There is now an Executive Committee for the two Networks to coordinate combined activities of the groups. It is important to note that neither group is an official representative of its respective faith. What is significant is the development of Christian-Muslim relations at the grassroots level, the commitment of ordinary people to reach out across what some see as ‘barriers’ of faith.
As Australian women there are issues which are important to us and which we can address together. Some of these are the misconceptions about the faith of the other which can lead to divisions in the community; media bias on religion; how women are sometimes presented and used in media and advertising, and the situation regarding asylum seekers and detention centres.
The activities of the Centre are, of course, not restricted to these Networks. The Centre functions as a resource for information, providing Muslim and Christian speakers for different groups, organizing seminars, publishing the Newsletter, Bridges. In April 2002 the Centre, together with the Affinity Intercultural Foundation based at the Auburn Mosque, is co-hosting an International Conference on Christian-Muslim Dialogue. The scholars come from Turkey, Germany, the Vatican and New Zealand as well as Australia.
Foundational attitudes formed long ago by our Christian and Muslim ancestors and built upon by more recent conflicts, need to be reviewed and reassessed in the light of today’s world. Only removal of ignorance can break down stereotypes, only openness to learn about the other will overcome fear and prejudice, only a willingness to respect others in their cultural and faith differences will ensure peace in our time. This is the challenge we face, both as society and a Christian community.
At a Muslim-Christian Seminar held in 2000, a young Muslim woman, Haleema, said:
Don’t let the energy of this gathering die! Let’s stop looking back and start to look forward. There is so much we can do together.
Most people recognise that if we are to continue as a peaceful nation in Australia, tolerant and respectful of differences, it will be because the young people make it so. They are already forming friendships, building bridges in our schools, universities and workplaces; it is perhaps the older generations that need a little help.
Cardinal Francis Arinze, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, in an address given in Sydney in 1997 said:
What do we want in terms of interfaith relations in the new century? Will it be business as usual? Are the Religions going to say nothing, do nothing at all, engage in no action for the promotion of love, unity, understanding or the removal of prejudices? Will they do anything to promote dialogue or are the Religions just going to remain in their places of worship and engage in closed television circuits and mutual admiration societies?
Both the Churches and the Muslim communities in Australia are answering these questions. They do want mutual understanding and they are showing by their actions that they wish to work together to overcome prejudices and promote dialogue. It is up to the individuals in these faith communities to respond to this leadership in their everyday contacts. The future is promising.
Arinze, F (1997) Meeting
Other Believers, Cromwell Press, Wiltshire.
Pauline Rae is a Marist Missionary Sister. Currently she is Deputy Director of Columban Missionary Institute and convenor of the Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations.