12/19/2013, 00.00
Send to a friend

Pope Francis and his invitation to dialogue with Islam

by Samir Khalil Samir
There are so many positive things in Evangelii gaudium, its urging Christians and Muslims towards a relationship in love and truth, to work for peace, to enrich each other, to welcome immigrants ... But there are also some points that provoke criticism: is the "compassionate and merciful" God of the Muslims really the same as the Trinity? And are the Jesus and Mary in the Koran the same as the Gospels? And is Christian fundamentalism the same as Muslim fundamentalism? What is really urgent - as suggested by Francis – is "a proper reading of the Koran," which Muslims resist.

Beirut ( AsiaNews) - The Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii gaudium" is often presented as Pope Francis' pastoral program, delivered a few months into his pontificate. It reveals the open, friendly, positive and joyful soul of this Pope in his attempt to spread the Christian message in today's world.

Given my experience, of constant contact with the Middle Eastern world, I was very impressed by the section on inter-religious dialogue (nos. 250-254 ). But on re-reading and analyzing these passages a few times, especially the part devoted to Islam (nos . 252-253 ), I would like to highlight some important and interesting points, while at the same time approach some more critical and problematic aspects of the relationship with Islam.

In his Evangelii gaudium, the Pope is very positive which is really beneficial in our globalized society.

    1 . Truth and Love (No. 250)

The first thing to be detected in n. 250 is what is being said about "an attitude of openness in truth and in love " that should characterize relations with other religions . This is important for our global society in which we are in frequent contact with members of different religions.

The Pope underlines that the correct path for encounter and dialogue requires both "love and truth": there is no truth in the hardening of positions, there is no love in ambiguous and vague communication. This is the correct, balanced attitude, that is often lacking today.

2 . Dialogue and Proclamation (No. 251 )

The same theme is found in n. 251: "In this dialogue, ever friendly and sincere, attention must always be paid to the essential bond between dialogue and proclamation".
Sometimes, in dialogue, when it comes to proclamation, it appears to displeasure our partners, who immediately accuse us of proselytizing . Instead, it has nothing to do with proselytism. It is about love: out of love , I will proclaim the good news that frees me and gives me joy. And you too should offer me the good that you have encountered in your faith. We must rid ourselves of diatribes, of intellectual arguments and practices aimed at winning the other over, rather witness to truth with one another.

Moreover, the word "proclamation", "good news", is present in the Bible, but also in the Koran. The word "good news" "euanghelos" in the Bible, is found in Isaiah , Mark , Luke, etc ... In the Koran we find the verb " bashshara " = bring the good news (bishāra) and its derivatives. It is often said that Muhammad was sent "bringing the good news " (mubashshiran) . And it is Christ who, according to the Koran ( 61:6 ), says to the Israelites : "I came to bring the good news (mubashshiran) of a prophet who will come after me , whose name shall be Ahmad ." Muslims interpret this "Ahmad " as equivalent to Muhammad.

Now, the action of bringing the good news is tabshīr in Arabic, and it is the typical function of the Prophets. Muslims today use this word to criticize Christians, accused of carrying out "tabshīr" in the sense of proselytizing, thus distorting the meaning of the Koranic Arabic. This verse 61:6 is always quoted by Muslims to confirm that Jesus himself announced the coming of Muhammad. Proselytism should be criticized, because in this way I try to win over the other person with tricks. But proclamation is the proposal of the beautiful thing that freed me, and you, in your turn, should proclaim your truth to me.

We are, each of us, convinced that we have "good news" for humanity, which coincides with our faith. The Muslim, and the Muslim community , has the obligation to propagate Islam by Da'wa, which means "the call" to become a Muslim, so that every Muslim state has a ministry of Da'wa. Likewise, the Christian and the Christian community have an obligation to proclaim the faith, to invite others to discover the gospel (the Good News)! Understood correctly, it is an act of love of the other. This is why the Pope invites us to proclaim the Gospel together with dialogue, in a gesture of love and truth.
Instead, syncretism respects neither love nor truth. Thus in the following sentence, boldly condemning syncretism, the Pope says: "A facile syncretism would ultimately be a totalitarian gesture".

3 . Welcoming immigrants Muslim (no. 253)

Even at the end, no. 253, the pope has the courage to say : "We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries". Here the Pope presents the consequence of his statements on "truth and love": we must welcome migrants and not close our borders to them as is often the case in the West.

He himself gave a concrete example of this attitude by going personally to Lampedusa, July 8, 2013, and delievering a speech that begins with the following words:

"Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death. That is how the headlines put it. When I first heard of this tragedy a few weeks ago, and realized that it happens all too frequently, it has constantly come back to me like a painful thorn in my heart. So I felt that I had to come here today, to pray and to offer a sign of my closeness, but also to challenge our consciences lest this tragedy be repeated. Please, let it not be repeated!".[1]

4 . The Muslim countries should welcome Christians (No. 253)

At the same time in no. 253, the pope adds:

"I ask and I humbly entreat those countries [ and here we consider Saudi Arabia , Iran, Afghanistan , ...] to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries! ".

Here Pope Francis has the courage to tell the richest countries in the world, Saudi Arabia and some countries of the Arabian Gulf, to guarantee freedom of worship. It must be said that he does not address freedom of conscience, or the freedom to convert from one religion to another . But freedom of worship is important in and of itself, given that two million Christians who live and work on the Arabian Peninsula do not even have the right to have their own chapel!

It seems to me that freedom of conscience is guaranteed in all the countries of the West. Sooner or later we have to ask for freedom of conscience even in Muslim nations: this is the condition for a true coexistence, respectful of the individual, in truth and love.


1 . At the Service of Peace (No. 250)

The purpose of dialogue is to ensure peace in the world: "Interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities" (No. 250) .
And a little further on the Pope adds: "We can then join one another in taking up the duty of serving justice and peace, which should become a basic principle of all our exchanges" ( No. 250) . Service is therefore a duty, and particularly the service of justice and peace. And it is a duty for Christians and believers.

In my opinion, the word "together" is very important: dialogue is not just "I talk and you listen" and then "you talk and I listen", but the fact is that "together" we put ourselves at the service of justice and of peace. This is the very practical and pastoral vision of the current Pope.

Finally, the coupling of the words "justice" and "peace" is noteworthy, "We can then join one another in taking up the duty of serving justice and peace, which should become a basic principle of all our exchanges".

You can not ' achieve peace without justice. As long as someone senses an injustice, there will not be peace. I think of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. The former believe the fact that a large part of their land, where they live and lived for centuries, has been taken from them, without fault on their part, to be given to others who came from afar as an injustice. As long as this injustice is not recognized and repaired, there will be no peace!

2 . Accepting each other with our differences (n. 250, 252 and 253)

A practical consequence of this dialogue is respect for the difference of others, listening to others, having a friendly attitude towards others.

In No. 250 , he says : "In this way we learn to accept others and their different ways of living, thinking and speaking". This acceptance of the other as different from me, is crucial. It is "in which, by mutual listening, both parts can be purified and enriched".

Listening and dialogue should not be used to attack the other, to humiliate, rather as a possible function of purification and enrichment for me. Difference is seen from a positive angle.

This theme is taken up several times. For example, speaking of Muslims, he says some very positive things : "it is admirable to see how Muslims both young and old, men and women, make time for daily prayer and faithfully take part in religious services" (No. 252 ).

As Christians, we should learn from them to devote time to prayer on a regular basis. The Pope stresses the positivity of the Islamic witness in front of a certain laxity of Western Christianity.

He also praises Muslim religiosity, the dependence on God: "Many of them also have a deep conviction that their life, in its entirety, is from God and for God" (No. 252) . This attitude could correct the Western world today, tempted by Prometheanism.

In No. 253 he recalls a condition for dialogue: to be "solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs".

What the Pope says of Islam is true, and is experienced by many Muslims . For example, many of them take the value of prayer seriously. But I think that perhaps only 10% of Muslims embraces this fidelity to prayer. A few days ago I met a Muslim family in Tripoli, Lebanon. This whole family - parents and two children - respected the times of prayer. It was only out of respect for me that they did not withdraw to pray. But their phone always rings at the right time to remind them of the call to prayer.

Religious sentiment is stronger among Muslims than among Christians. And Bergoglio emphasizes these positive aspects in Islam to correct omissions and discrepancies among Christians.

Let us now turn to the points that require clarification. In No. 252, the Pope cites the famous Second Vatican Council text, Nostra Aetate, in stating that Muslims, "profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day[2] » .[198]

1 . Muslims "together with us adore the One, merciful God" (No. 252)

I would advise caution here. It is true Muslims worship one and merciful God. However, this sentence suggests that the two conceptions of God are equal. Yet in Christianity God is the Trinity in its essence, plurality united by love: He is a bit more than just clemency and mercy. We have two quite different conceptions of the Divine One. Muslims characterize God as inaccessible. The Christian vision of the Oneness of the Trinity emphasizes that God is Love which is communicated: Father-Son- Spirit , or Lover - Beloved - Love, as St. Augustine suggested.

Moreover, what does the mercy of the God of Islam mean? He has mercy for whom he wants and not on those whom displease him. "Allah might admit to His mercy whom He willed" (Koran 48:25). These expressions are, almost literally, in the Old Testament (Exodus 33:19). But never arrive at saying that "God is love" (1 John 4:16), like St John.

Mercy in the case of Islam is that of the rich man who stoops over the poor and gives him something. But the Christian God is the one who lowers Himself to the level of the poor man in order to raise him up; He does not show his wealth to be respected (or feared) by the poor : he gives Himself in order the poor should live.

2 . They "have retained some Christian teachings" (No. 252)

Another sensitive point in the document is the assertion that "the sacred writings of Islam have retained some Christian teachings" (n. 252).

This is true in a sense, but it is somewhat ambiguous. It is true that Muslims retain words or facts from the canonical gospels, such as the story of the Annunciation which is found almost literally in chapters 3 (The Family of Imrān) and 19 ( Mariam ) .

But more frequently the Koran is inspired by the pious tales of the apocryphal Gospels, and do not draw from them the theological sense they contain, and do not give these facts or words the meaning that they actually have, not out of malice, but because they do not contain the overall vision of the Christian message .

3 . The figure of Christ in the Gospel and the Koran (No. 252)

The Koran refers to "Jesus and Mary [who] are the object of profound veneration". To tell the truth, Jesus is not an object of veneration in the Muslim tradition. Instead, Mary is venerated, especially by Muslim women, who willingly go to the places of pilgrimage.

The lack of veneration for Jesus Christ is probably explained by the fact that, in the Koran, Jesus is a great prophet, famous for his miracles on behalf of a poor and sick humanity, but he is not the equal of Muhammad. Only mystics have a certain devotion to him, as the sol-called "Spirit of God".

In fact, all that is said of Jesus in the Koran is the exact opposite of Christian teachings. He is not the Son of God, but a prophet and that's it . He is not even the last of the prophets, because instead the "seal of the prophets " is Muhammad (Koran 33:40 ). Christian revelation is only seen as a step towards the ultimate revelation brought by Muhammad, ie Islam .

4 . The Quran is opposed to all the fundamental Christian dogmas

All the Christian dogmas are rejected by the Koran and Islam.

The figure of Christ as the second person of the Trinity is condemned. In the Koran it says explicitly to Christians: " O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning Allah save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not "Three" - Cease! (it is) better for you! - Allah is only One God. Far is it removed from His Transcendent Majesty that "(Koran 4:171 ).  These verses against the Trinity are very clear and need no interpretation.

The Koran denies the divinity of Christ: "O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, 'Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?'"(Koran 5:116 ). And Jesus denies it!

Finally, the Koran negates Redemption. It even says that Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross , but it was a look-alike: " And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them" (Koran 4:157 ) . In this way God saved Jesus from the wickedness of the Jews. But then Christ did not save the world!

In short, the Koran and Muslims deny the essential dogmas of Christianity : the Trinity, the Incarnation and Redemption. It should be added that this is their most absolute right ! But you can not then say that "The sacred writings of Islam retain part of Christian teachings". You simply must speak of the "Jesus of the Koran" which has nothing to do with the Jesus of the Gospels[3].

The Koran mentions Jesus because it aims to complete the revelation of Christ to exalt Muhammad. Besides, seeing what Jesus and Mary do in the Koran, we notice that it is no more than apply the prayers and fasting according to the Koran. Mary is certainly the most beautiful figure among all those presented in the Koran: she is the Virgin Mother, whom no man has ever touched . But she can not be the Theotokos; instead she is a good Muslim[4] .


1 . Ethics in Islam and IN Christianity (252)
The last sentence of this point states with regard to Muslims : "They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need". This is true and compassion toward the poor is a requirement of Islam.

There is, in my opinion however, a double difference between the Muslim and Christian ethics .

The first is that the Muslim ethic is not always universal. It is often a question of solidarity within the Islamic community, while according to Christian tradition, solidarity is universal. We note , for example, when natural disaster strikes a given region of the world, countries of Christian tradition help regardless of the religious convictions of those who are in need of help, while rich Muslim countries (those of the Arabian Peninsula , for example) do not.

The second is that Islam links ethics to legality. Those who do not fast during the month of Ramadan are guilty of having committed a crime and go to jail (in many countries). If you observe the fast, from dawn to dusk, you are perfect, even if you eat from sunset until dawn the next day, more and better than usual, " the best things to eat and plenty of it " , as some Egyptian Muslim friends told me. The Ramandan fast seems to loose all meaning if it becomes the period in which Muslims eat more , and eat the most delicious things. The next day, given that no-one has sept because tehy were up all night eating, no-one works. However, from the formal point of view , all have fasted for several hours. It is a legalistic ethics : if you do this, you are right. It is an exterior ethics.

Instead Christian fasting is something that aims to bring us closer to Christ's sacrifice, in solidarity with the poor and does not allow for a period during the day or night when we can make up for the food we have not eaten.

As long as believers observe Islamic law , everything is in order. The believer never seeks to go beyond the law. Justice is required by law, but it is not exceeded. This is also why there is no obligation to forgive in the Koran , whereas, in the Gospel, Jesus asks us to forgive an infinite number of times (seventy times seven ; cf. Mt 18 , 21-22) . In the Koran mercy never reaches the point of being love.

The same goes for polygamy: you can have up to four wives. If I want to have a fifth wife, then all I have to do is repudiate one of those that I have already, maybe the oldest , and take a younger bride . And thus because I only ever have four wives at any one given time, everything is perfectly legal.

There is also the opposite effect, for example for homosexuality.  All religions consider it a sin. But for Muslims, it is also a crime that should be punished with death. In Christianity it is a sin but not a crime. The reason is obvious: Islam is a religion, culture, social and political system, it is an integral reality . And it clearly states as much in the Koran. The Gospel instead clearly distinguishes the spiritual and ethical dimension of socio- cultural and political life.

The same applies to purity, as Christ clearly explains to the Pharisees : "What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them" (Mt 15 , 11) .


2 . "The fundamentalists on both sides" (no. 250 and 253)

Finally, there are two points that I would like to criticize: the first is where the Pope groups together all fundamentalisms . In No. 250 he says : "An attitude of openness in truth and in love must characterize the dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions, in spite of various obstacles and difficulties, especially forms of fundamentalism on both sides".

The other is the conclusion of the section on relations with Islam that ends with this sentence : "Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence"(n. 253) .

Personally, I would not put the two fundamentalisms on the same level : Christian fundamentalists do not carry weapons; Islamic fundamentalism is criticized, first of all by Muslims themselves precisely because this armed fundamentalism seeks to replicate the Mohammedan model . In his life , Muhammad waged more than 60 wars[5], and now if Muhammad is the super model (as the Koran claims 33:21 ) , it is not surprising that some Muslims also use their violence in imitation of the founder of Islam.

3 . Violence in the Koran and the life of Muhammad (No. 253)

Finally, the Pope mentions the violence in Islam. In No. 253 he writes : "True Islam and the proper interpretation of the Koran oppose all violence".

This phrase is beautiful and expresses a very benevolent attitude on the Pope's part towards Islam. However, in my humble opinion, it expresses more a wish than a reality. The fact that the majority of Muslims are opposed to violence, may well be true. But to say that " the true Islam is against any violence," does not seem true: there is violence in the Koran[6]. To say then that " for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence"" needs a lot of explaning.

It is enough to cite Chapters 2, 9 of the Koran.

What the Pope says about Islam needing a "proper interpretation" is true. Some scholars have chosen this path but not enough to counter the power of the majority. This minority of scholars is trying to reinterpret Koranic texts that speak of violence, showing that they are related to the context of Arabia at the time and were in the context of the political-religious vision of Muhammad.

If Islam wants to remain within this vision still linked to the time of Muhammad, then there will always be violence. But if Islam - and there are quite a few mystics who have done it - wants to find a deep spirituality, then violence is not acceptable .

Islam is at a crossroads : either religion is a way towards politics and towards a politically organized society, or religion is an inspiration to live and love more fully.

Those who criticize Islam with regard to the violence are not making an unjust and odious generalization: as evidenced by the present bloody and ongoing issues in the Muslim world .

Here in the East we understand very well that Islamic terrorism is religiously motivated, with quotes, prayers and fatwas from imams who encourage violence . The fact is that there is no central authority to counter this manipulation in Islam. This means that every imam is considered a mufti, a national authority, who can make judgments inspired by the Koran and even give orders to kill.


Finally, the really important point is  "a proper reading " . In the Muslim world , the most heated debate - indeed most forbidden - is precisely about the interpretation of the holy book . Muslims believe that the Koran descended upon Muhammad, complete, in the form we know . There is the concept of inspiration of the sacred text, which leaves room for interpretation of the human element present in the word of God

Let's take an example . At the time of Muhammad, with tribes that lived in the desert , the punishment for a thief was the cutting off of hands . What purpose did this serve? To stop the thief from stealing again. So we must ask: how can we preserve this purpose today, that the thief will no longer steal? Can we use other methods instead of cutting off the hand ?

Today all religions have this problem: how to re-interpret the sacred texts, which have an eternal value, but goes back centuries or even millennia.

When meeting Muslim friends, I always point out that today we must ask what  "purpose" (maqased), the indications in the Koran had. The Muslim jurists and theologians say that you should search for the "purposes of the law of God" (maqāsid al-sharī'a) . This expression corresponds to what the Gospel calls "the spirit " of the text, as opposed to the "letter" . We must seek the intent of the sacred text of Islam.

Several Muslim scholars talk about the importance of discovering "the purpose " of Koranic texts to adjust the Koranic text to the modern world . And this, it seems to me , is very close to what the Holy Father meant to suggest when he writes of " a proper reading of the Koran ."


[1] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130708_omelia-lampedusa_en.html

[2] Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 16.


[3] For further discussion of this see Samir Khalil SAMIR, "Christian and Muslims or how to live together with different dogmas," in: AsiaNews, April 1, 2008.


[4] See Michel DOUSSE, Mary the Muslim. The importance and significance of the mother of the Messiah in the Koran (ed. Arkeios, 2008).


[5] See the biography of the Prophet of Islam, Kitāb al-Maghāzī written by Al-Wāqidī 748-822), regarded as the oldest writings on the life of Muhammad. The English translation (History of Muhammad's Campaigns) by Marsden Jones and Alfred von Kremer (Calcutta, 1856) is available on the internet: https://archive.org/details/kitbalmaghz00kremgoog.


[6] Ref: Samir Khalil SAMIR, Violence et Non-violence dans le Coran et l'Islam, coll. «Cahiers de l'Orient Chrétien» 4 (Beyrouth : CEDRAC, 2005), p. 64.



Send to a friend
Printable version
See also
The Pope's speech: lending Islam a helping hand to avoid a downward spiral
Benedict XVI and Islam
The Pope in Lebanon for the mission of Christians and the Arab Spring
The Middle East by Benedict XVI
Fr. Samir: Muslim friends, let us look for a more beautiful way of living together
04/06/2018 15:17


Subscribe to Asia News updates or change your preferences

Subscribe now
“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”