Is a dialogue with Islam possible?

An insightful new book argues that there are serious philosophical obstacles.
Thomas Patrick Burke | Feb 13 2014 | comment  



Since 2000, official dialogues have been conducted quietly between Catholics and Muslims in the U.S. One learns that surprising fact from this excellent short book by one of the Catholic participants. Robert Reilly has long been a student of the Muslim world and has published one of the most insightful scholarly books about it in recent years: The Closing of the Muslim Mind.

In it he tells the story of how the Sunni world, after initially welcoming Greek philosophy during the middle ages, turned its back on it, and on reason itself, regarding it as an unacceptable limitation on the divine power, excluding thereby everything that the West understands by ethics, with devastating results that are still making themselves felt.

The very idea of a dialogue with Muslims will seem dubious to many Americans at the present time. How can you dialogue with someone who is trying to kill you? But the starting point of the book is the fact that a dialogue is already taking place, for good or ill, and needs to be assessed. Here I will summarize the book's argument and at the end hazard a suggestion or two for the dialogue.

The book has several main parts. The first deals with the origins of the dialogue.

The impetus for it came from the Catholic side, of course, which has viewed it as a practical necessity. Pope Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council in the 60s already encouraged this kind of approach to Islam. But the recent practical urgency meant that certain preliminary questions which would normally have to be raised before entering into any serious dialogue were not given an overwhelming amount of attention, the author makes plain.

What is the purpose of a dialogue? In this case, the purpose seems chiefly to have been the practical one of finding common ground, especially after 9/11. And no doubt this has been a necessity, so far as it may be possible. But the prime purpose of a dialogue is to arrive at understanding. Logically the first task of any dialogue is to clear away serious misunderstandings. But this means that a dialogue only makes sense where there is a mutual desire for understanding. Each side must want to understand the other better. And this presupposes that each side expects to benefit from the conversation, to learn something to its advantage. Where this mutual desire for dialogue holds, the success of the dialogue is almost guaranteed. On the Catholic side this precondition clearly holds good. But it is far from obvious, and it is even stretching credulity, to think that it holds on the Muslim side.

The reason for this statement is derived from certain qualities of Sunni thought since the mediaeval event described above, which the author goes on to explain. In expelling reason from the domain of theology, which took place officially in the 9th century by order of the Caliph, Islam expelled also the very concept of Nature, and the order of Nature.

This view of the world was fully developed in the school of al-Ashari, especially by al-Ghazali in the 11th century. "Reason is not a legislator" became a principle of Islamic law. Nothing is good or bad by nature, but only by the fact that God commands it or prohibits it. This eliminates the idea of justice, since there is no question of anything being right or wrong by nature. As Cicero wrote, "If justice does not exist in nature, it does not exist at all." The only question for Muslims, however, is, what does God command? And what God commands must be enforced by arms. That cannot be the basis of a dialogue.

Pope Benedict XVI explained this clearly in his celebrated Regensburg Lecture. Although the lecture has been much maligned, on the grounds that it is offensive to Muslims, anyone who reads Robert Reilly's book will be left in no doubt that it constitutes a thoroughly positive contribution to the cause of dialogue. Dialogue must be based on the truth, and on honesty in telling the truth even when it is unpleasant to some. But it is clear that attempts at dialogue with Muslims have often been undermined by obfuscation.

The Muslim rejection of reason is underpinned by a metaphysical system which eliminates secondary causality from the world. Nothing created can cause anything. As Reilly explains, "gravity does not make the rock fall: God does." This is not widely understood, and it is greatly to Reilly's credit that he makes it plain. It is a view that can also to some extent be found in the Old Testament, though he does not mention this.

Having explained the reasons why, regrettably, Catholics should have serious reservations about dialogue with Muslims, the author gives an account of the Muslim responses to these difficulties.

Some of them are heartening. I was interested to learn that King Hussein of Jordan, for example, explicitly agreed that the decline of the Muslim world began in the 9th century with its turn against reason. But many of the responses are discouraging. Pope Benedict's laudable honesty in Regensburg was not received with much comprehension – and in some places with violence.

However, Reilly focuses especially on two Muslim documents. In 2006, 39 Muslim scholars and clerics published an Open Letter To The Pope, a criticism of the Regensburg Lecture. The following year 138 Muslim leaders, including both Sunnis and Shiites from 40 countries, organized by a royal institute in Jordan, penned a longer missive to the Pope and other Christian leaders, A Common Word Between Us and You. It is this last document that receives the bulk of Reilly's attention. It arrives at the conclusion that Muslims and Christians can construct a future based on "peace and justice between the two religious communities."

But this gesture proves on examination to be not quite so hopeful as it appears, in Reilly's analysis. "Justice and peace" in Islam means only submission to the stipulations of the shar'ia, for example. The two communities are said to be able to agree because "the very foundational principles of both faiths [are] love of the One God and love of the neighbor." But "the One God" in Islam is very different in meaning from "the same God." And a "neighbor" for a Muslim can only be another Muslim. By such methods, yawning gulfs in true understanding are papered over in the interests of devising an acceptable facade.

What, then, are the prospects for dialogue, given this situation? Despite the problems, Reilly states there are some outstanding Muslim thinkers who accept the need for what Pope Benedict has called the "rehellenization" of Islam, or its acceptance of reason as it did in its early days with the Mu'tazilites. In particular he mentions the website Almuslih.org (given in my text with a typo omitting the 'm'.) I consulted this and did indeed find it worthwhile.

In a concluding section, the book gives many pages of factual information about the dialogues that have been conducted in the U.S., including lists of the participants, as well as Muslim organizations to be wary of because of known ties to Islamist groups.

Altogether, this book is a great breath of fresh air and honesty in a field where falsity is often cultivated in order to avoid not only genuine but also fake offense. It is a book which our diplomats currently negotiating in the Middle East would do well to study.

Before leaving the book, however, I would like to make one or two suggestions about the dialogue.

To repeat what was said earlier, the initial purpose of dialogue should normally be simply understanding. An accurate and objective understanding of at least the main features of the other side, first, without making judgements. It is premature to seek common ground before that has been done. This is considered standard practice in some fields, such as the general study of religions, and is known as a phenomenological approach.

When a reasonably clear comprehension of the other side has been reached, it is good then to look oneself in the mirror and try to understand one's own side objectively -- warts and all -- in the light of the understanding that has been reached of the other and his concerns. While it is tempting to think that we understand ourselves, this is not necessarily the case. It is sometimes possible to gain clarity about one's own beliefs when examining them alongside those of others. If there should be common ground, it will probably become clear enough in the process of understanding.

Thomas Patrick. Burke, president of the Wynnewood Institute, is the author of The Concept of Justice: Is Social Justice Just? and No Harm. 



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