Seeking Insight from Muslim/Christian History

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2006 | Go to article overview

Seeking Insight from Muslim/Christian History

Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter

Christianity's original experts on Islam were neither impartial scholars nor specialists in interfaith dialogue, but rough-and-tumble medieval apologists--that is to say, writers from the seventh through the 14th centuries whose aim, in no uncertain terms, was to show why Christianity is right and Islam is wrong.

This grab bag of colorful ecclesiastical characters includes John Damascene, Theodore Abu Qurrah (a Melchite bishop in the ninth century who wrote treatises against the Muslims in Arabic), Peter the Venerable, Raymond Martini, Raymond Lull, Ricoldus de Monte Croce, Dionysius the Carthusian, Cardinal Juan Torquemada, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, and even the Florentine reformer Savonarola (of "bonfire of the vanities" fame).

At first blush, their work might seem an unpromising vein to tap as Pope Benedict XVI tries to pick up the pieces following his controversial Sept. 12 comments on Islam. Yet whatever their limitations, the medieval apologists represent the first sustained Christian attempt to grapple with the challenges posed by Islam.

Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Jesuit widely considered one of America's premier Catholic theologians, believes a study of this history--both its strengths and its weaknesses--can offer useful insights for Muslim/Christian relations today.

On Oct. 2, I sat down with Dulles, still going strong at 88, in his office at Fordham University in the Bronx.

Back in 1971, Dulles published a unique survey titled A History of Apologetics (revised in 2005). It reviews medieval Christian writing on Islam, which often doesn't make for very edifying reading. Most apologists were fairly crude in their critique, deriding the way Islam had "spread by the sword" and even lampooning Muhammad's multiple wives or his earthy description of the afterlife. The title of one essay by Torquemada says it all: "Against the Principal Errors of the Miscreant Muhammad."

Yet this apologetic tradition can also exude a surprising sophistication. Nicholas of Cusa, for example, produced "Sifting the Quran" in the 15th century, which argues that the Quran may profitably be used as an introduction to the Gospel, and praises the human and religious virtues of Muslims. Peter the Venerable wrote in the 12th century that in addressing Muslims, Christians should proceed "not as our people often do, by arms, but by words; not by force, but by reason; not in hatred, but in love."

The following are excerpts from the interview with Dulles.

NCR: What can we learn from the medieval apologists?

Dulles: For one thing, they made a serious effort to understand the literature of Islam, usually in the original language. They were pretty frank in their criticism, but at the same time they tried to be fair as they understood it, and to base what they wrote on actual Islamic texts.... There was some very interesting work done, from John Damascene through Peter the Venerable and later, which hasn't really been repeated. Much of this was hostile, due to the situation in ancient Turkey and later in Spain. Yet it's also worth recalling that for centuries, Christians lived quite freely under Muslim rule, practiced their faith, held high office, and were close to the sovereigns. They had a civil, if not warm, relationship with Muslims in the Near East.

One big question is whether problems with pluralism in Islamic nations are due to historical, cultural and political factors, or something intrinsic to Islam. You seem to be saying that a rough sort of religious freedom was once the norm. Can that be done again?

I think it would be possible to do it again. I certainly hope so, because it's important that it be done again. We have to do everything we can to encourage that. We also have to remember our own history.

What do you mean?

Christianity was pretty violent itself in the early Middle Ages, into the late Middle Ages. It really wasn't until the experience of the wars of religion that we began to appreciate that it's not wise to try to use the sword to spread one's own religion, in part because others will also use their swords to advance their religion. …

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