The Mystery of Islam: Further Reflections
Stratford Caldecott

The article by Roch Kereszty O.Cist. in the Fall 2001 issue of Communio (“The Word of God: A Catholic Perspective in Dialogue with Judaism and Islam”) constitutes an important step forward in the dialogue of faith-perspectives, and deserves to be widely read.  My own smaller piece in the second issue of Second Spring on the same theme (“His Seed Like Stars”), though conceived independently, did little more than restate a few of Kereszty’s points in more popular form for a mixed audience.  The response to it made me aware of the delicacy of this dialogue, particularly in the wake of 11th September and growing tensions in the Middle East, not to mention the persecution of Christians in some Muslim states.  Nevertheless, it is important, indeed vitally important, that this dialogue continue, and that we invite Muslims and Jews to join us in discussing these fundamental issues.  The present contribution is an attempt to extend this debate as far as possible, from within a commitment to the full integrity of the Catholic tradition.

Evangelization depends upon both dialogue and proclamation,[1] but neither dialogue nor proclamation will be effective unless Catholics are perceived by others as committed above all to the search for truth. This commitment logically precedes our commitment to the Catholic faith itself. We are interested in truth per se, and not just truths that will help persuade others to our own point of view. We are interested in truth wherever it may lead. [2] We are Christians because we love the truth and because we believe we have found its fullness in Jesus Christ and in his Church, not because we feel comfortable being Christians, or because our ancestors were Christian - or for any other of a million possible reasons.


Elements of Truth

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s affirmed that there were elements of truth and goodness in other religions, and that those elements come from God.   The Council’s teaching was picked up in the 1998 Catechism of the Catholic Church, and may be found in sections 839-48 (see also 856).  It was repeated in the document Dominus Iesus, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000.  For example, Dominus Iesus makes clear that “the salvific action of Jesus Christ, with and through his Spirit, extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Church to all humanity”, and goes on to quote the Vatican Council as follows: “For since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery”.

It reaffirms also that “it is the Spirit who sows the ‘seeds of the word’ present in various customs and cultures, preparing them for full maturity in Christ.”  The implications of this are clear, and the document does not shirk them, while at the same time endeavouring to keep them in balance with the essential point, namely the necessity of Christ for human salvation.  Section 21 states that:

“it would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God.  Certainly, the various religious traditions contain and offer religious elements which come from God, and which are part of what ‘the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures, and religions’. Indeed, some prayers and rituals of the other religions may assume a role of preparation for the Gospel, in that they are occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God. One cannot attribute to these, however, a divine origin or an ex opere operato salvific efficacy, which is proper to the Christian sacraments. Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that other rituals, insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors (cf. 1 Cor. 10:20-21), constitute an obstacle to salvation.”

The document wants us to be sure, as Catholics in dialogue with the other religions, that those other religions cannot be “salvific” apart from Christ, that the Holy Spirit does not “save” apart from Christ, and that Christ does not “save” apart from the Church.  In this connection it is important to note the argument by Augustine DiNoia OP that other religions do not even claim to “save” in the sense that Christ does.[3]   Only in Christ is it revealed that God has called us to intimate and eternal union with him in the life of the Holy Trinity - rather than to liberation from ignorance, escape from suffering, dissolution into God, or some other form of natural fulfillment.  The word “salvation” acquires this special meaning only in Christian discourse.

Nevertheless, as the Church herself affirms, men and women may be saved (even in the full Christian sense) within other religions and even, perhaps, outside formal religion altogether, if they are “ignorant” of the Gospel “through no fault of their own” (Catechism, 847).  They are saved, of course, by Christ, provided they remain faithful to the truths and graces they have received, though they may not know it during life.  None of this undermines in the slightest the Christian’s mission and duty to evangelize; that is, to attempt to convey to all peoples the otherwise unguessable truth that has been revealed to us concerning salvation through Christ from death and evil.  Only the conscious recognition of Christ and participation in the sacraments of the Church can bring them directly to the source of their salvation.  (This is underlined in Redemptoris Missio by Pope John Paul II.

The Catechism in paragraph 760 makes its own the statement of the Shepherd of Hermas that “The world was created for the sake of the Church”, and the beautiful formulation of Clement of Alexandria: “Just as God’s will is creation and is called ‘the world’, so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called ‘the Church’.”  These statements may seem arrogant to those who perceive the Church as a mere sociological grouping (as indeed it is, though only in part), but to those who see in the light of heaven Church is “as waters flowing up the mountainside, as a fire burning without a hearth.  A rejoicing out of death, a brightness under dark martyrdom… the true form of the world!”[4]  This is the Church of the Saints, for in them she becomes more than an aspiration.  It is into this cosmic Church that we sinners are also admitted, through sacraments which infect our blood with the fire of regeneration.


A Providential Role for Muhammad?

In Section 21 of Dominus Iesus the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states that:

“With respect to the way in which the salvific grace of God — which is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church — comes to individual non-Christians, the Second Vatican Council limited itself to the statement that God bestows it ‘in ways known to himself’.  Theologians are seeking to understand this question more fully.  Their work is to be encouraged, since it is certainly useful for understanding better God’s salvific plan and the ways in which it is accomplished.”

Here we come to an important point, potentially extremely fruitful for the future of interfaith dialogue.  The emphasis in the following quotation is mine:

theology today, in its reflection on the existence of other religious experiences and on their meaning in God’s salvific plan, is invited to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation.    In this undertaking theological research has a vast field of work under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium.  The Second Vatican Council, in fact, has stated that: ‘the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude, but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a participation in this one source’. The content of this participated mediation should be explored more deeply, but must remain always consistent with the principle of Christ’s unique mediation.”

It is clearly implied here that other religions and prophets such as Muhammad may have a role in God’s salvific plan (subordinate to that of Christ).  Christian theologians are asked to explore this question, and to come up with hypotheses of their own.  What, then, may be made of the providential role or “participated mediation” of Islam?

In the case of the great religions, as distinct from the various heresies within them, we have to take account of the fact that they have not withered after a few generations, but have successfully inspired an entire civilization.  Thus the counsel of Gamaliel (Acts 5:33-9) would seem to apply to them.  God, it seems, permits several religions to exist, even though they conflict with each other.  It is this mystery that we must struggle to understand a bit better.  But what hypothesis may be offered for a religion such as Islam, that appears to contradict Christianity on so many points, and whose followers are actively persecuting Christian believers in many parts of the world?


A Religion of the Absolute

As Fr Kereszty makes plain in the article referred to, Islam and Christianity may in fact be doctrinally closer than is frequently assumed.[5]  The statements of the Qur’an which contradict Christian doctrine may be mitigated to some extent by noticing that they seem to be directed against misunderstandings that were prevalent at the time of Muhammad, particularly in the Jewish and heretical Christian communities with which he may have had most direct contact.  Louis Bouyer argued along these lines some years ago in his book The Invisible Father.  For Bouyer, Islam is intelligible partly as a protest movement directed against a Christian tendency towards idolatry and tritheism.  The “truth, the original and lasting authenticity of the prophetic element” in this protest is attested by “the quality of the mysticism Islam has nourished” ever since.  Bouyer looks forward to the time when the “Wedding of the Lamb ... will consummate the truth of the prophetic protest of Israel and of Islam, and do this within the pure confession of a Christianity which will have overcome every historical temptation”.[6]

If we look for the positive religious content of Islam, instead of always comparing it with Christianity to see how it falls short, we find that one important function that Islam has performed has been to preserve Abrahamic monotheism into the post-Christian era, alongside the Judaism that has rejected Christ, while transforming that faith into a universal creed open to all people – even the most unsophisticated.  The creed of Islam is gloriously simple: There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet.  This does not, of course, mean that Muhammad is regarded by Islam as the only Prophet of God (his actual title is “Seal of the Prophets”), but it does lay a special emphasis on the Unity of God.  At the heart of Islam is a kind of “contemplative asceticism” focused on the Absolute as such.

Kereszty writes, “Christians cannot but acknowledge that God spoke through the Qur’an and communicated the experience and knowledge of himself to countless millions of people”.[7]  Islam is a tree that has borne innumerable good fruits as well as bad.  However, in order to concentrate on the transcendence of God, Islam had perforce to disentangle God from history.  On this basis it was able to accept Christ only in diminished form, as a prophet rather than a divine Incarnation.  From a Christian point of view I would argue that much more has been lost than gained by this.  Allah has many names - the Compassionate, the Merciful, the Just, the Powerful, the Beautiful, and so on - but too often “Love” appears not to be one of them, whereas for Christians this is the one name that really counts.  While Christianity is a religion of love, Islam is a religion of the Absolute.  Or rather, it would be more accurate to say that in Islam the identity of God as Love remains hidden, or “esoteric” (to Sufis, of course, who are the mystics of Islam, it is central).  To the ordinary Muslim, God is God: there can be no Trinity, no Hypostatic Union, no divinization of man.  God cannot have died on the Cross for us.  Instead, the gulf between man and God is overcome politically, by attempting to establish a theocratic state (as was done also in Islam’s “sibling”, Judaism). 



If it is divinely permitted by God for the Abrahamic monotheists to reject Christ for a time - as it evidently is, despite every Christian effort at evangelization, which must continue till the very end and even in the face of persecution - then Islam must exist as the possibility, now actualized, of a semitic monotheism active on the world stage as a rival to Christianity, constituting for us both a scourge and a challenge.  So be it.  The passages in the Old Testament where God uses the pagan kings to rebuke Israel and to bring about his purposes in history are there to confirm this possibility. 

Nevertheless (Kereszty points out), Muslims believe that it is Jesus, rather than Muhammad, who will come back at the end of the world to institute the reign of God.  For that reason I suggested in the earlier article that Islam may be seen as helping to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Christ, alongside rabbinic Judaism.  To Christians Islam, though chronologically subsequent to the birth of Christ, appears to belong to an earlier period of religious development, one that has been extended in time for reasons connected with the failure of Christianity to be accepted by the Jews – a divine “reprieve” for monotheism.  Islam no doubt requires its own purification before the End.  Of that I am not qualified to speak.  Nevertheless, when Jesus does return, the Muslims, unlike our Western atheists, will at least have been taught to expect his arrival.

The fact that Christ was an “Incarnation” of God (not a mere Prophet, Manifestation or Avatar)[8] places him at the centre of history.  No matter how much of great value there may be in the other religions, and whatever providential roles they may be able to perform, they can only be subordinate to a religion in which God is completely united with man.  The fact of the Incarnation, however, can be known only by faith, and is necessarily veiled from those who are not Christian believers.  A Christian, on the other hand, is obliged by this knowledge to take seriously the task of evangelization, the purpose of which is to try to convert others: by, for example, removing obstacles that might be preventing them from receiving God’s gift of faith.

What should happen, then, were Christians to be successful in persuading or enabling all human beings to be baptized? Let us assume that the various religions (though of course I have been writing here mainly of Islam) do possess a "critical mass" of truth, goodness and beauty that makes them culturally valuable in their own right, and not simply valuable as a source of potential converts to Christianity. In something of the way we might imagine all remaining Orthodox Christians, at some indeterminate point in the future, uniting with the Catholic Church while retaining a somewhat separate liturgical rite and patriarchal jurisdiction, we might (even more distantly) envisage a flowing together of the world religions, but in a way that would preserve a diversity of cultures rather than subsume them all within a European matrix. The Catholic Church would gain immeasurably in the process, and would be transformed outwardly in tremendous and unpredictable ways.[9] Furthermore, nothing of real value in any of the religions or their associated cultures would need to be discarded. Cultural diversity would remain, but it would now be within the Church. And the wolf and the lamb shall feed together; the lion and the ox shall eat straw... (Isaiah 65:25).

That is the nearest I can come to a formulation of the Christian eschatological hope for the world religions.  It is only a thought-experiment: a kind of dream.  The wisest thing to do would be to leave the whole matter to God.  The end of the story is his business: for our part, we must simply concentrate on doing in the present moment whatever we are called upon to do.  If we are Christians, we must evangelize.  We must love the Truth, which is God, above all things, and our neighbour (even though he be of a different faith) as much as we love ourselves.  We must walk the path that is before us, knowing the direction, but not yet in sight of the end.

[1] Dialogue and Proclamation is the title of an excellent document produced jointly by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in 1991, complementing the encyclical on the missions, Redemptoris Missio, by John Paul II in the previous year.

[2] I think this is true of all Christians; nevertheless those who converted as adults, as the result of a search for truth and a conscious decision, may be more conscious of it than others. This is the reason converts are often despised (or smiled upon) for their "enthusiasm" – as though it will eventually wear off! So-called "cradle Catholics" who have never examined their faith closely with their adult intelligence may sometimes harbour a certain reluctance to do so, fearing that their faith might be weakened. They should not worry.

[3]J.A. DiNoia OP, The Diversity of Religions: A Christian perspective (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1992.  Cf. Gavin D’Costa, The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), which argues that “pluralist” approaches to inter-religious dialogue (Hick, Knitter, Panikkar, etc.) are marked by modernist and secularizing assumptions.

[4] From Gertrude von Le Fort’s Hymns to the Church, trans. Margaret Chanler (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1942), pp. 25-32.

[5]In his popular book, Ecumenical Jihad (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1996, p. 104), Peter Kreeft writes: “I suppose you know that the Qur’an attributes no shortcomings of any kind to Jesus.  And that it says (3:59) that He was one of only two men who were immediately created by god, rather than having a human father.  (The other was Adam.)  And that it calls Jesus ‘the Word of God’ (4:171).  And that it says He had the power to work miracles, even giving life to the dead (5:110).  And that He shares with the angels the experience of being in God’s presence (4:172).”  According to Kreeft, the Virgin Mary is mentioned 34 times in the Qur’an: more than any other woman.  The devotion of many Muslims to Our Lady is well known.

[6]Louis Bouyer, The Invisible Father: Approaches to the Mystery of Divinity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), p. 246.  The great Catholic scholar Louis Massignon made a sympathetic study of Sufism, and in particular of the martyr Hallaj.  Charles Journet also called attention to these Islamic mystics of love, so close to the heart of Christianity, in The Meaning of Grace (London: Chapman, 1960), last chapter.

[7]He also points out that Catholic acceptance of this “inspiring activity of God in Muhammad” would not amount to an endorsement of the Qur’an as an inspired text on the same level as the Christian Scriptures.  This is something I also assumed, but did not state.  There is a qualitative distinction between a canonically inspired text of Scripture and the statement of a human individual, however “inspired” in the looser sense of that word.  On private revelations, see Cathechism paras 65-67.

[8]A Prophet is a man inspired by God, a Manifestation of God is a man whose whole life expresses as aspect of the divine, and an Avatar is a God who takes on the appearance of a man.  The God-Man, on the other hand, is a human being but also a divine Person: the very concept is so unique that it only makes sense within the theological terms of reference that have been developed to account for the Incarnation within the Christian tradition.

[9]In The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 133) Gavin D’Costa writes that “learning from other religions is not simply a matter of looking at the Other to see Christianity’s already attained mirror image (as the undialectical notion of fulfilment tended to suggest), but in meeting the Other, there may be a real challenge to Christian identity in the radical manner expressed in Gaudium et Spes 44.  Hence, Christian practice and reflection may change in ways that are not a priori predictable in the light of encountering other religions.”  D’Costa believes that the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity makes possible for Christianity an extraordinary appreciation and praxis of diversity within unity.