Christianity and Islam, Dialogue and Monologues
Review of Robert R. Reilly: The Prospects and Perils of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue
By Peter D. Beaulieu
Danish translation: Kristendom og islam, dialog og monologer
Source: The Catholic World Report, February 16, 2014
Published on April 15, 2014

In the middle of the ninth century the Caliph al-Mutawakkil abruptly terminated the Mu’tazilite school of Muslim rationalist theologians, thus leaving stillborn the earliest chance to harmonize Islamic belief with reasoned (“Hellenistic”) thought on man’s relation with God and each other. This early turning point is the focus of Robert R. Reilly’s inquiry into a sectarian Islam as much “at war with itself” as with the West. He joins Pope Benedict XVI (Regensburg Lecture, 2006) in focusing at the interreligious or intercultural level. Reilly is moderate in tone but incisive, non-polemical but direct, as he draws from a wide range of sources both Christian and Muslim.

Drawing from his earlier work (The Closing of the Muslim Mind), Reilly begins with formal Church pronouncements for interreligious dialogue and for collaboration on issues like justice and peace and life. The sticking point, not yet addressed in these documents, is our nevertheless (and profoundly) different understandings of the natures and relationships of God and man. From the historical background of Islamic theology we are led through Muslim responses to Church’s dialogue initiatives—material calling for attention and real debate. The following review should not substitute for reading The Prospects and Perils of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, which this reviewer recommends to a broad citizenry as well as specialists and academics. Reilly’s audience includes leaders in interreligious dialogue and surely those positioned to restore the coherence of Christian witness under the New Evangelization.

With Hasan Hanafi of Cairo University, Reilly holds that the real problem with social, political, and economic structures in Islam is theological: the “inherited intellectual substructures.” It is at this level that “reform must take place and real dialogue be held.” Reilly notes that reason is not among the ninety-nine names for Allah (nor does the term “Father” appear in the Qur’an). Given the multiple perils from any imprecise framing of issues, the meaning or translation of basic terms (peace, justice), and the contradictory contexts in which identical things might be said, Reilly builds toward a critique of the three regional conferences on Catholic-Muslim Dialogue in the United States.

Referring to relevant litigation, the U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation trial (2008), he suggests that “if the FBI prohibits formal cooperation with un-indicted co-conspirators, perhaps the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops should also.” Based on access to only the published records, he plausibly equates some dialogue with cooperation. The bishops legitimize too routinely the most available (and radical) Muslims groups. The bishops might pause to consider Reilly’s documentation and weigh his conclusion that “Catholic-Muslim dialogue in the United States requires a major reevaluation in terms of the organizations involved, the personnel participating, and the substance addressed.” (Participants in the 2000-2011 Dialogue are listed in an Addendum.)

The Historical Context

Historically, the ninth century Mu’tazilites cut across all sects and schools of theology in their experimentation with a more reasoning Islam, but were blocked by the more cautious Ash’arites whose grip on Islam is barely diminished after twelve centuries. Human reason is too self-interested, it is believed, to be capable of moral philosophy. There are no autonomies outside of Allah, hence things have no intrinsic nature, and further, there is no intrinsic good or evil. There is only the moment-to-moment creative action of a solitary and potentially arbitrary Allah (but also a love of the particular?). “God is absolute power and pure will . . . He could change his mind tomorrow” (just as Muhammad’s interleaved entries into the Qur’an are said to “abrogate” others that contradict). Finally and today, “the revealed Qur’an does not illumine what is good and evil; it constitutes what is good and evil.”

Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) gives scholarly submission to this mentality in The Incoherence of the Philosophers but passed over in Reilly’s brief account is history itself—and latent Muslim tendencies toward ongoing revelation. It was the Battle of Badr against superior odds that first vindicated Muhammad (570-632) and his mission. Likewise the astounding spread of Islam in the seventh century. The conquest of impregnable Constantinople in 1453 brought an end to a sort of latter day Mu’tazilite-like movement when Muhammad II commanded Hodia Zada (d. 1487) to write against the works of Ibn Rushd (Averroes). In defensive victory and the crooked lines of history Allah himself had spoken. Original Islam has also been distorted from the outside by the Mongol and Turk invasions and even Western socialism and nationalism.

Jumping to the present, in his Regensburg Lecture (2006) Pope Benedict XVI challenged Islam to find a leavening place for reason in harmony with religious belief, even as he also challenged the secularist West with the coherence of faith and otherwise cyclopean rationalism. Within our Catholic intellectual heritage Reilly mentions briefly a successor to the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas whose masterful synthesis of faith and reason ballasts the Catholic worldview. Aside from intellect, the fourteenth century theologian Duns Scotus (following Avicenna) tilted in the Muslim direction by championing the inscrutable will of God. Here we might recall that in a general audience on Duns Scotus (2010) Pope Benedict explained that to safeguard the transcendence of God by spotlighting only his will “radically fails to take into account that the God who revealed himself in Christ is the God who is logos, who has acted and continues to act full of love toward us . . . of course, love transcends knowledge . . . and can perceive more than thought, but it is always the love of the God who is logos.” Authentic Christianity is a personal and historical Encounter, not any one slice of theology.

The Place of Reason

The Muslim alternative to founding interreligious dialogue on reason (Benedict’s initiative) is the Open Letter to the Pope. With 138 signatures initially, this response is both promising and problematic. Reilly shows that the “A Common Word between Us and You,” a partial verse from the Qur’an, can mean anything from dialogue in the Western sense to a prerequisite conversion to the monolithic monotheism of Islam which pre-empts any self-disclosing triune nature of ultimate reality—the foundation of Christian faith. The more complete verse reads “come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him . . .” (Qur’an 3:64). In a separate critique of the Open Letter in 2008, Christian Troll, serving the German Bishops’ Conference, remarked that citations from the Qur’an are more accurately translated from the Arabic as “obedience to God” rather than unconditional “love” in the Christian understanding. (Apart from written content, is the “open letter” procedure a projection of ijma consensus building as the Islamic method of truth—the cultural alternative to reason—or is it at the same time a more calculated step intended to engulf interpersonal dialogue on core values?)

Reilly recognizes a hopeful sign where the Open Letter proposes “peace and justice between the two religious communities,” but his developed message throughout is that a secure place for human reasoning remains consistently absent. The hoped for progress is short circuited if, instead of reasoned precision, the default position is the pre-emptive oneness of God (tawhid). Christian public revelation, in irreducible contrast to the timeless Qur’an dictated in Arabic, is inspired and written with human hands. Over the centuries a chosen people was leavened with a hope and expectation that for Christians is fulfilled to an astonishing degree in the particularity of the Incarnation, which further elevates the human person.

While Reilly’s work is not on this theology, he does appeal to human reason as distinct from and yet in harmony with such revelation. The unity among human persons is something to be discovered, not something to be only constructed as under Islamic (or Western) cosmopolitanism. Where the self-understanding of Islam is as the obedient catalyst for unity among communities—a universal religion in local contexts—the new life of Christians is a personal, social, and graced flourishing in communion with a gratuitously self-disclosing God and then with each other. Cognitively, this worldview (for lack of a better term) is articulated partly through distinctions and differentiation—between poetry and revelation, between pagan tri-theism and Trinitarian oneness, between reason and faith, and between monologue and dialogue.

Reilly’s theme is that if man is not made in this way in the image and likeness of God, then “the implications are enormous.” He approvingly quotes President Obama who in 2009 said at Al-Azhar university in Cairo: “Progress does not come when we demonize enemies . . . It comes when we look into the eyes of the other and see the face of God.” A “particularly Christian reflection,” remarks Reilly, “which no orthodox Sunni Muslim in his audience could have accepted at the theological level, but it is not an exclusively religious one.” While Reilly alludes again to the level of reason, to this reviewer the presidential script is not particularly Christian either, viz, presidential speech writers, possibly ineptly, also have displaced freedom of religion with “freedom of worship.” To pronounce that we see in each other the “face” of God rather than his “image and likeness” is possibly more Nietzschean than Christian, and illustrates precisely the difference that a single word can make even within a single culture.

In his woven documentation, Reilly also cites the much more credible Archbishop Migliore (former Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations) who in 2007 wrote that the needed dialogue is not between religious tenets, but rather “is a matter of agreeing upon the human dignity of every person, created in the image and likeness of God, which greatly precedes one’s religious affiliation.” Grace perfects—does not annihilate—nature. Communion with God and therefore with one another involves an innate (natural) law which is not deduced, but which is self-evident to human reason. At this contact point Muslims seem to intuit original Islam now much truncated and accessible only through Shari’a as a whole.

Instructive to future dialogue is an important clarification recognized by informed Muslim and Christian apologists alike. Between the lines of Reilly’s analysis is the asymmetry that exists between the two scriptures. The correct comparison is not between the Qur’an and the Bible, but between the dictated “word made book” and the Gospel witnessing to the “Word made flesh” (Jn 1:14). Clarity on this difference is a better foundation to ongoing dialogue and selective collaboration than is a presumed identical understanding in the Open Letter of even the two great commandments of “love” of God and love of “neighbor.” The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, in 1990 appended to the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, subordinates the latter document to Shari’a.

From the sidelined Western citizenship and conscience Reilly turns to the Vatican Catholic-Muslim dialogue entitled “Reason, Faith, and Mankind.” Quoted is the Turkish philosopher and participant Ibrahim Kalin (2011): “the Qur’an teaches a natural law that would be quite familiar to Thomists. Charges of irrationality persist, he said, because Islam kept a balance of faith and reason while the Enlightenment tipped the focus of Western thought towards reason and science.” “Would that this were so”, writes Reilly, referring to the crushed Mu’tazilites of the ninth century, “then there could be a very deep dialogue indeed.”

Here we find an understated “aha moment.” Muslim apologists erroneously equate the Christian message on faith and reason with the splinter post-Enlightenment project and the rationalist derailment of today. Returning to the Western and Christian predisposition to differentiate as a path toward precision and deeper unity, and Islam’s pre-emptive insistence on the oneness of Allah (excepting the dogmatic dichotomy between God and man and between the Muslim global umma and infidels), might we ask again whether Islam has conflated traces of innate natural law with much else including such fragments of divine revelation as it borrows and molds from Judaism and Christianity? Would this blurred and ahistorical sensitivity explain how Abraham and even Adam are identified in Islam as Muslims?

The Libyan Aref Ali Nayed contests Pope Benedict XVI’s statement that “not to act in accordance to reason is contrary to God’s nature,” but avoids the unavoidable proposition that an “absolute freedom to act” (Islam) means that God can randomly act irrationally. But what does it mean to say that either “God is reason by His nature” or that because God cannot be subordinated He is pure will (Islam)? Benedict did not say that the reasoning of God (the Logos) is reduced to man’s reasoning, only that He cannot act-ually contradict “reason.”

Well before Aquinas or Mohammed the Church fathers pondered the fit between finite human reason and the mystery of an infinite and self-disclosing God who as the logos is not unreasonable. St. Irenaeus (c. 135-200 A.D.) speaks of reasoned analogy: “The Father is beyond our sight and comprehension, but he is known by his Word, who tells us of him who surpasses all telling” (Against Heresies). At the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) the Church discerned a path for itself with possible hints for a Muslim community also intent on God. Christian revelation illumines not only God, but man as well: “Christ the Lord, Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). Islam accepts salvation and resurrection, but not redemption. It is not only by the will of God that creation is bought into being—but He also freely and reasonably chooses (wills) to transcend his own transcendence by becoming incarnate and one with us, Emmanuel.

Socially and politically the dependence of responsible human freedom on the primacy of reason (moral theology) is seemingly poised against the engulfing dictation of the Qur’an and the unitary Islamic state. In submerging natural law into Shari’a and reserving its benefits to only the umma, Islam converges today not with the interior intimacy of other religions, but with other self-referential narratives and the scourge of identity politics. Across the board, unity is reduced to the platitudes of cosmopolitan pluralism. All cultic affronts to humility are equally at home in the post-Christian syncretism of the twenty-first century. Theologically, the common dogma is the deconstruction and displacement of Christian Encounter with the logos.

But unlike transient Western elites, Muhammad trumps the inevitable charade of recurring obsolescence by declaring a kind of pre-parliamentary cloture. With the Qur’an he becomes the terminal prophet in all of history. Where for Christians the Logos is the attracting center of history on the move, for Muslims the Qur’an is the administrator of history preserved as in amber.

Reason for Real Dialogue and Hope?

Still, Reilly identifies creative Muslim thinkers and reformers on the horizon. But in the West, many critics hold that Islam is incapable of pulling itself up by its bootstraps, that Islam did not simply miss a turn in the road in the ninth century. Reilly is not in disagreement, but individual witnesses to Christ and individual followers of Islam can live the innate natural law—those resilient self-evident truths whose writing is imprinted first within each of us. In the coming century and millennium believing followers of a self-destructing Islam might sidestep traumatic dislocation by discovering those traces of innate natural law written first on the heart and possibly echoed in the early Qur’an writings (Mecca before 622 A.D. and the ongoing Medina phenomenon).

But what then, if an agnostic West in decline unwittingly burns the bridge of universal natural law in favor of a fully unhinged exercise of positive law disrespecting the transcendent dignity of each human person without exception? Reilly hopes for a real “common word” between you and us based on reason, even as we know the Christian places his final hope in the graced workings of the uncommon Word “in our midst” (Mt 18:19). In the meantime, hellenization should call to mind more than a Trojan Horse. Reilly enlists the long-time Egyptian authority on Islam, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir: “(Real) dialogue is better than indifference and reciprocal silence.”

To conclude, and standing back from Reilly’s latest contribution, this reviewer presumes to invite dialogue participants to note this additional intersection or congruence of texts (not multicultural convergence): “When the Gentiles who have no law do by nature what the Law prescribes . . . they show the work of the Law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15; see Mt 35:34). And, “For such He has written Faith in their hearts, and strengthened them with a spirit from Himself” (Qur’an 58:22).

And then this apparent contradiction: “. . . the entire edifice of individual right derived from the natural state . . . is alien to the structure of Islamic reasoning” (Ali Allawi, former minister in the new Iraq, cited by Reilly). But food for thought: does Islamic preemption of nature and of reason as such still apply when innate personal rights (bent into a secularist dogma) and corresponding responsibilities (distorted under Muslim dogma) are held mutually accountable—which is but one proposal in the Catholic Social Teaching on the common good?

The Prospects and Perils of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue
by Robert R. Reilly
Faith & Reason Institute, The Westminster Institute, Isaac Publishing
48 pages

Peter D. Beaulieu earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in urban and regional planning from the University of Washington (1975), is a member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author of Beyond Secularism and Jihad? A Triangular Inquiry into the Mosque, the Manger & Modernity (University Press of America, 2012).