John Paul II on Islam

John Paul II on Islam
Muhammed V  issued this coin in honor of JP2’s visit to Morocco

Crossing the Threshold of Hope came off the desk of Pope John Paul II in his pensive but unguarded moments between the demands of the papal office. He received a list of questions for an actual interview and had no time to grant the interview. So he jotted down answers to each question as he sat at his desk. He does indeed make reference to official positions, and embraces them. But he also shares concrete anecdotes and often tells us what he “really thinks.” The case of “Muhammad?” is a case in point. He both affirms official positions (from Vatican II primarily, as well memos from Secretary of State) and states his candid opinion about the situation and the challenges. Let’s just set out the first three short paragraphs, found here.

So he says at the outset: “In the Declaration Nostra Aetate we read: “The Church also has a high regard for the Muslims, who worship one God, living and subsistent, merciful and omnipotent, the Creator of heaven and earth” (§3). As a result of their monotheism, believers in Allah are particularly close to us.” So far so good — we embrace those who believe in God, against the secularists, and we share a regard for the subsistent, merciful, omnipotent Creator. (It is biblical!)
Then he draws back and recalls an incident from his youth: “I remember an event from my youth. In the convent of the Church of Saint Mark in Florence, we were looking at the frescoes by Fra Angelico. At a certain point a man joined us who, after sharing his admiration for the work of this great religious artist, immediately added: ‘But nothing can compare to our magnificent Muslim monotheism.’ His statement did not prevent us from continuing the visit and the conversation in a friendly tone. It was on that occasion that I got a kind of first taste of the dialogue between Christianity and Islam, which we have tried to develop systematically in the post-conciliar period.” I ask you, just what taste would this leave in your mouth? One admires great beauty in the context of the great historic confession of faith and someone tells you it is nothing compared to Islam. The jibe of monotheism is, of course, the constant refrain of Muslim against the Christian, for I too hear it repeatedly, “we monotheists look askance at your three gods.” Ok we have some explaining to do, but still, the taste would NOT be that of sweetness and light. Wojtyla, young and old, had a great penchant for dialogue, which he again states in a magnanimous way here.
Wojtyla at CUA 1976

I never tire of telling the story about my one encounter with John Paul II (as Cardinal Wojtyla) at Catholic University in 1976; since it involves the “taste of dialogue” I shall repeat it. As a clever graduate student studying Marx that semester I asked him if he could tell us about the Catholic-Marxist dialogue in Poland. He chuckled and told us it was “more of a monologue.” He was not about to endorse the sham trappings of dialogue, which must be a true conversation. But he did continue to reach out, to challenge, to listen. I once visited Cardinal Macharski in Krakow (2002 or 2003); one of his men just returned from a session with Islamic representatives in the mideast. The Cardinal told us — here is their form of “dialogue” — you Christians sit down there and we will tell you how wrong you are. He too continued to reach out, harboring neither illusion nor hardness of heart. The Poles have experienced centuries of such monologues, and yet  . . . they endure in faith and they hope.

Back to Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Here is the third paragraph:
Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about Himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.
That is an incredibly frank and strong statement. Recall Benedict XVI at Regensburg stirred up the anger when he simply quoted in supposition a medieval person who asked: “Show me 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.” One interpretation of that statement is this: insofar as Islam conveys the revelation of the Old and New Testaments it is good and human. John Paul makes a similar point here, less harsh no doubt, but no less direct: “completely reduces,” “movement away from what God said,” “all richness . . . set aside.” A core truth nevertheless remains throughout the reduction and motion away — monotheism and an attunement to “religiosity” or prayer. These he will praise. And he will find common points to affirm in dialogue.

The chapter moves back and forth between the hope for dialogue and considerations of the difficult truths about Islam.

For example, he had previously stated in the very opening chapter a concern with the religion emblazons on its buildings “God has no son.” (p. 10) Indeed, one can find throughout the Koran such a denial, such a reduction:
“The Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, was no more than God’s apostle . . .God is but one God. GOD FORBID THAT HE SHOULD HAVE A SON!” (4:171)
Those who say: “The Lord of Mercy has begotten a son, preach a monstrous falsehood, at which the very heavens might crack . . .” (19:88)
”God forbid that He Himself should beget a son!” (19:29)
“Praise be to God who has never begotten a son; who has no partner in His Kingdom . . .” (17:111)

John Paul correctly asserts that Islamic theology and anthropology are “very distant from Christianity.” There is no use hiding the difficulty of dialogue on matters of doctrine. But he is very struck by the depth of religiosity of Muslims:

the religiosity of Muslims deserves respect. It is impossible not to admire, for example, their fidelity to prayer. The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all.

Just as Augustine pointed to the great men of Rome to shame the Christians of his day for their aversion to personal sacrifice, so too John Paul II thinks modern day Christians need to learn about fidelity to prayer from Muslims.

He also shares the positive experiences he had in Asia and Africa where he was received with hospitality and listened to with “graciousness.” He particularly thought that youth in Morocco were receptive to his message (he always made a pitch to the young, speaking about the one God). There are reasons for hope, yes. In fact a later chapter he inquires “Is there really hope in the young?”

In his concluding paragraph he speaks of a concern close to his heart, religious freedom, and speaks directly but with some understatement: 

In countries where fundamentalist movements come to power, human rights and the principle of religious freedom are unfortunately interpreted in a very one-sided way-religious freedom comes to mean freedom to impose on all citizens the “true religion.” In these countries the situation of Christians is sometimes terribly disturbing.

It would be useful to compare John Paul II’s thoughts with the latest remarks by Pope Benedict XVI in Light of the World (pp. 97-101). For another day.


1 Comment
  1. I went to the chapter link and advise all to to do the same. It contains the most concise explication of Islam I have seen, hitting every crucial feature that makes it distinctly different- and not a sister religion, as some have wanted to believe. Pope John also recognizes that there can be no religious freedom, as we understand the term, under Islam. All of this is said in a reasoned tone, and Islam is granted respect in those areas deserving it. This should be required reading for every Catholic, ideally beginning in high school religion instruction.

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