by David B. Burrell

This article appeared in the January 31, 1997, issue of Commonweal. It appears here with the permission of the editor of Commonweal.

The watershed for Catholics with regard to other religions is the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate. Celebrated for its breakthrough in acknowledging the status of Jews as God's people–"the gifts and call of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29)–this slim statement reaches out to all "other religions," notably to Islam for its steadfast preaching of one transcendent God who is the free creator of all that is. It was that very preaching, of course, that set Islam on a collision course with Christianity over the ages, since both movements could be described as inviting all nations to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet the Qur'an "came down" to Muhammad (A.D. 570-632) six centuries after Jesus, so that a large portion of the developed world which it soon overran had been evangelized for centuries. The result was relatively isolated pockets of Christians living within dominant Islamic polities, and a massive stand-off between Western Christianity and Islam. They were, after all, competing for the same "souls." Many of the military engagements, celebrated in the church calendar or by verse in our heritage– Tours, Lepanto, and, of course, the Crusades–feature Islamic armies as the enemy.

Little has changed in that regard, as the current Western readiness to foist blame for nearly everything on "Muslim fundamentalists" can testify. Yet, as we shall see, the faith which Christians and Muslims share with Jews regarding the free creation of the universe by one God will be borne in on us more and more as we attempt to negotiate our way in a society ever in danger of losing any access to the transcendent source of all. What I have learned from living among Muslims and sharing in their life of faith is a profound respect for the palpable presence of God in human history, and a keen sense that each of us has a in-built destiny: To return all that we have received to the One from whom we have received it. And we have and do receive "nothing short of everything" from the One.

It is that sense of faith, which I first experienced in the Holy Land, then in Bangladesh and in Egypt, that has fueled my intellectual interest in Islam. And it has meant that I always take away more than I bring to any interfaith encounter with Muslims. This sounds so utterly at variance with the stereotype associated with "Muslim fundamentalist" that it should make us sit up and take notice: Anyone who has experienced the Muslim world comes away with a keen sense of its hospitality, and a desire to discover how it is rooted in Islam's particular faith in God. And certainly nothing is more opposed to terrorism than hospitality. Historical prejudices, however, die all too slowly.

Yet a historic collective enemy will invariably fascinate its adversary, particularly the latter's cultural and intellectual elites. So it will not be surprising to hear that many Western medieval thinkers, notably Thomas Aquinas, reached out to understand Islamic thinkers, especially to learn from their philosophical reflections. That outreach also reflects the fact that the Islamic cultural renaissance in tenth-century Baghdad had anticipated the touted medieval Renaissance in the West by a full two centuries. While Europe was passing through the Dark Ages, Islamic culture in what we call the Middle East was at its peak. Medieval thinkers in the West learned their astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy from the East, and its practitioners were Muslims. What was it about this conquering group of people from the Arabian peninsula that allowed them so quickly to assimilate Hellenic culture with its arts and sciences? And to communicate this to the West in such a way as to stimulate the Renaissance of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries?

The revelation grated to Muhammad in the desert beginning about A.D. 610–the Qur'an (until recently transliterated as "Koran")– is taken by Muslims to be the Word of God made Arabic, just as orthodox Christians take Jesus to be the Word of God made flesh. God's Word is eternally with God, for God could not be mute, but it was spoken in time to God's final prophet, Muhammad, over a period of years and in response to diverse situations that Muhammad faced.

Yet the Qur'an remains God's Word, not Muhammad's, so that Christians should liken the Qur'an to Jesus rather than to the Bible. This point is cardinal yet confusing. For while Muslims grant a privileged place to Jews and to Christians as "peoples of the book"– yet the relevant points of comparison are the Qur'an and Jesus. So Sufi Muslims, employing selected verses of the Qur'an as mantras for a meditation called dhikr (or recollection), will respond to that Word in their minds and hearts much as Christians respond to Communion in the context of Eucharist. The prevailing emotion is one of thanksgiving: That believers have been given God's Word to guide their actions and to enliven their hearts–the very Word through which the universe is created–"God said ‘be' and it was"– and by which all human beings will be raised up on the Last Day.

These core beliefs profoundly shape Muslim society. They are put into practice via the famous "five pillars" of Islam: (1) confessing that God is One and Muhammad is God's prophet (the shahada); (2) communal ritual prayer, five times daily; (3) fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan, which ends with (4) an annual obligatory almsgiving; and (5) for those able to do so, making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. The first and last of these are eminently personal actions, yet as the first profession of faith initiates one into the umma (the community), the other gives eloquent expression to that inclusive community itself. The three other "pillars" underscore the communal character of Islam. They consist of actions undertaken in solidarity with other believers or designed to alleviate the lot of the community's less fortunate members. The umma figures prominently in every aspect of Islamic life and practice. Muslims characterize Islam as an entire way of life rather than merely a religion. Contemporary Christians might want to object, feeling that Christianity is also a way of life. But hearing Muslims testify to their communal life of faith can make us acutely aware of how much the modern pattern of "privatizing" even religion has affected Western Christianity.

In Islam, individual rights are decidedly subordinated to the well-being of the community, with consequent effect on the various roles the community assigns to its members. It is here that the image of Islam can chafe Western sensibilities, especially in those Western societies that combine a so-called rights doctrine with a capitalist consumer culture. Yet just as personal affluence usually buys a relative dispensation from communal obligations–a fact even Islamic society has not avoided–we can readily imagine why Islam is so attractive to those members of a society who taste little of its affluence and privilege. In those sectors of our own society where the spirit of capitalism is most starkly displayed in the lucrative but destructive commerce of drug dealing, the communal bonds of Islam and its inherent discipline offer not only welcome protection but a protest against a dominant ideology that has marginalized entire sectors of society in the name of individual rights and economic success. In its communal life, Islam affords a genuine alternative to a liberal society's libertarian drift, and to the illusory freedom it touts, a freedom utterly beholden to powerful interest groups. If the phrase "common good" has ceased to function in our standard political vocabulary, it needs to become embodied in integral communities. In the United States, Islam has emerged as a viable one in our midst. Islam is the fastest growing faith worldwide, and in recent years has made striking advances in North America, particularly in the United States among African-Americans.

It is important that Christians study Islam to understand how it articulates itself from within, in its styles of theological reflection. Muslims are more at home with the descriptor "theology" than are Jews, yet they share something of a Jewish hesitation concerning academic theology. The Qur'an offers people a "straight path," how to return all they have received to the One from whom they have received everything. This path is elaborated in Qur'an commentaries of a quasi-legal sort (fiqh). Islam tends to be tolerant of a relatively wide range of beliefs, insisting primarily on compliance with the five pillars, however latitudinarian their practice may be. In short, orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy. (Indeed, as the Salmon Rushdie affair shows, egregious disrespect for the Prophet may be treated more harshly than outright statements of heterodoxy.) Here the axial differences between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, the two major branches of Islam, offer a prime example. Although their very names indicate striking dissimilarities–Sunni means "consensus" while Shi'a means "a group apart"– both have a mutual stake in showing the world that "we are all Muslims."

The best example of a theologian we can find in Islam is al-Ghazali (A.D. 1058-1111). His summa of theology – Ihya'Ulum ad-Din – uses the philosophy his predecessors had assimilated from the heritage of the Greeks to elaborate a rich understanding of Islamic faith and practice. The theological centerpiece of that work, "The Book of Faith in Divine Unity and Trust in Divine Providence [Kitab at-Tawhid wa Tawakkul]," shows how crucial is the shahada to Muslim faith, for confessing that God is One (and Muhammad his prophet) implies that all-that-is comes forth freely from God, and that all power in the universe is God's power, however much we may be impressed with our own. But the relation of the universe to the One on whom it depends so utterly and so intimately is quite beyond our capacity to understand, short of a "mystical unveiling." So our understanding of it will better be measured by our trust in God's providential care than in the brilliance of theological constructs. It will be displayed and tested by the manner of our actual response, our orthopraxy, though we can certainly use a subtle human understanding, by way of theological refection, to temper and to direct that response.

Yet if right living is better test of understanding in matters divine than correct theological formulations, there is no less room for sophistication in "practical reason" than in "speculative reason." Muslim theology is more focused on knowing how than attempting to know why, thereby respecting the ineffable transcendence of the one God. Sufi spirituality within Islam offers a way of understanding God's oneness that transcends the conceptual, concentrating at the same time on serving the needs of the disadvantaged members of the community. Despite this emphasis, Sufis make a point of not differing in their appearance from other Muslims; their focus is the heart and its struggle (jihad) to be utterly free to respond to the call to return everything to the One from whom everything derives.

Freedom and its articulation have long preoccupied Islamic thought. A school of thinkers in the first three centuries of Islam, anxious to absolve God from implication in evil actions, proposed that God was creator of everything except human actions, that human beings create their own actions. It soon became clear, however, that this human autonomy was too immense an arena to exempt from the divine creating power, so an alternative position came to prevail. Named for its proponent al-Ash'ari (d. A.D.935), it insisted that God creates everything, including human actions of all sorts, although it is we who preform them. Where human actions go askew, as in sinning, these actions cannot be attributed to God but to us. An overly subtle position, perhaps, yet one that makes ethical sense: We characteristically make it easier for ourselves to engage in wrongdoing by calling whatever we are doing by another name, that is, pretending that we are not doing what we are in fact doing. (So no one sets out to commit adultery, but rather to relieve one's loneliness.) On the Ash'arite account, the action we are in fact performing is what God creates it to be; so it is illusory to give it another name in order to pretend we are doing something else. A neat reminder that there are interpersonal norms governing ethical action. So human freedom is normative in character: We are most free when we are "doing the truth," and the clearest guide to acting truthfully will be the Qur'an and its accumulated commentary tradition.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that Islamic societies will resist a Western cultural imperialism based on "individual rights," nor that many in the West will exhibit a newfound sympathy with Islam in that regard. We have noted the special appeal of Islam to those marginalized in our society; it may find a similar response among those who are quite favored by this society but have come to find it empty and soulless. The manifest point of appeal is the umma (or community), of course, but the very meaning of "Islam" can find resonance as well. Lexically translated as "submission," the multivalent work "Islam" is best rendered by complex phrase: returning everything to the One from whom everything comes. Anyone who partakes of Muslim society and its hospitality cannot but be impressed by their palpable sense of the presence of God: God the Provider, to whom we are enjoined to give thanks by our actions on behalf of others. We are never to forget that our life comes forth each moment from the hand of God, and our destiny as well. This latter can easily spawn a form of "fatalism," where the ubiquitous phrase "in sh'Allah" (God willing") becomes an excuse for taking no initiative whatsoever. Yet we in the West are also beginning to acknowledge the corrosive effects which our equally ubiquitous "autonomy" can have on a social order.

So each religious culture, it seems, will invariably distort the revelation which inspires it, presenting a sinister collective face to the world, and one which can prove lethal to other religious groups. Yet to recognize our own shadow side is also to acknowledge how the other can help us to offset it. The point where Christians find Islam an attractive alternative to Western liberal society might offer a path for us to discover afresh our role as distinctive communities within that society. Correlatively, Islamic communities living in the midst of a society which often seems antithetical their values will need to find fresh ways to enculturate their young as well as witness to the society that surrounds them. A Christianity that no longer enjoys hegemony in the West, that is in search of new ways to witness to the community it claims to be, may take heart from an Islam transplanting itself in a society where it is clearly an outsider. The challenge of the new century to all religious groups is not only to learn to live together, as we so cavalierly put it, but to learn from each other how to do so in the face of a corrosive ethos that bears little respect for human life and destiny while ostensibly celebrating the individual. That may be one of the critical insights we can take home from Islam.

We will do so if we set ourselves to learn from Muslims how to live our lives as gifts from the free Creator of all, and so regard our freedom as a challenge to return to that Creator all that we have received–which is "nothing short of everything." As more people find Muslims moving in as neighbors, this task will become easier. Meeting them will also spur us to identify the inevitable bias in reporting things Muslim, and urge us to work against prejudice toward this group as we have been schooled to fight anti-Semitism. Indeed, Arabs will remind us that they too are Semites, as American Jews will remark that the prejudice against them seems to have been readily transferred to Arabs in our time and, by extension, to all Muslims. This essay has tried to explain why such biases persist, on both sides of the Muslim-Christian divide, and how much is at stake in dispersing them. The fringe benefit, as many have discovered, will be to meet people well-schooled in receiving others with a generosity intended to match Allah's to them , to open to them a "straight path" to God in the Qur'an. Encounters like that can only press us to understand the Gospels afresh; "mutual illumination" seems the most accurate watchword for interreligious dialogue.

David B. Burrell, C.S.C., is Theodore M. Hesburgh Professor in Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame.