A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Middle Eastern Priest Explains Islam

Part 1

Interview With Father Samir Khalil Samir

By Annamarie Adkins

BEIRUT, Lebanon, 4 MARCH 2009 (ZENIT)

Confusion over Islam — among Christians and Muslims — may have peaked after Sept. 11, 2001, but many questions still remain.

That's why Jesuit Father Samir Khalil felt called to offer some answers, as an Islamic scholar, Semitologist, Orientalist and a Catholic theologian born in Egypt and based in the Middle East for more than 20 years.

The Jesuit priest teaches Catholic theology and Islamic studies at St. Joseph University in Beirut, is founder of the CEDRAC research institute and is author of, most recently, "111 Questions on Islam" (Ignatius).

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Samir speaks about his experience and efforts to build a mutual understanding between followers of the two Abrahamic faiths.

Part 2 will appear Thursday.

Q: Why did you agree to produce this book?

Father Samir: Two reasons. It was a year before 9/11 that I started discussing this topic with journalists, having interviews together. I noticed a great ignorance of Islam in the West — Christians, non-Christians and nonbelievers.

In general, they had very poor knowledge of Islam. I thought I had to clarify. Their ignorance pushed some of them to be aggressive and negative toward Muslims. Some of them were very naοve, believing everything they heard. Some even were using Islam to be aggressive toward Christianity. All of that is a consequence of ignorance.

The second reason was to help Muslims reflect on their own religion and faith. In a previous experience with Muslim youth in a Paris suburb, I noticed they didn't know almost anything about their own religion.

Speaking with different Muslim people I met in Europe — in Germany during the summer, or in France where I teach, or in Italy where I was living — it was always the same. Most Christians don't know their religion, either.

I wanted to give good information about Islam to help people not to have any false information or prejudice against it.

Q: How did the interviewers choose the 111 questions from the thousands that could have been asked?

Father Samir: The journalists I worked with had a lot of questions themselves, and questions from what people were asking them: about violence; whether Muslims would accept Western civilization; and about Muslims having problems with equality between men and women.

So, in fact, the questions are more directed to Western society so it could understand Islam better.

Q: Do you think most Muslims would be satisfied by the objectivity of your answers to the 111 questions? Why or why not?

Father Samir: My effort was to be objective; I tried, but you can never truly reach a perfect objectivity.

Certainly, not everybody will be happy. Some think Islam is a violent religion, or a religion against women; they will not be happy because they will say I am not clear enough about the violence and inequality of men and women.

People who think Islam is a religion of peace and equality between men and women, and that Mohammed elevated the status of women, will not be happy either.

Everyone has a position. Few people will be satisfied, if they are against or for Islam.

But those who want to know something serious about Islam will be able to make their own opinion, because they will have the facts in front of them in my book.

Q: The introduction to the book notes that it is an attempt to foster mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims. But many of your answers paint Islam and its origins in a very negative light. How do you think the average Christian's opinion of Islam will change after reading the book?

Father Samir: I don't think it was very negative, or negative at all; my intention is a better understanding. Not a feeling, but an understanding — something that uses the head first, then the heart.

You have to first give serious information to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. If I don't say the whole truth, the truth will appear anyway, and the situation will be worse.

I am trying to build a mutual understanding, not built on compromises and false information. Dialogue starts with serious, academic, honest information about Christianity and Islam.

The answers are trying to be useful information; some answers are negative because the point is negative.

I don't know what the average Christian thinks. Nowadays, I suppose the majority has a negative opinion of Islam, before reading any book.

We, Arabs and Muslims, are in a crisis. When we Arabs — Muslims and Christians — speak together, we recognize we are in a bad situation. We had a glorious time in other centuries, but now we are at the bottom.

I hope that the book will help people understand things that concern them, like terrorism; there are some explanations, but not justifications. I can't justify terrorism, but I can explain why others are led to terrorist acts, I can also show that it has some support in the Koran and the Tradition — sunnah.

Most Muslims choose peace and nonviolence. The 10% that chooses violence is stronger than the 90% that doesn't. Sometimes the bad part of humanity, though smaller, is stronger.

Q: Is a critical examination of Islam's history and sacred texts — that is, subjecting the faith to reason — even possible in the Muslim world? Why or why not?

Father Samir: Usually, in the Muslim tradition, faith is over everything; it is above reason.

If you tell a Muslim the Koran says something, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says something contrary, the Muslim will say, "We have to follow God's words and law, and not the human rights laws."

In the Christian tradition, we find more people interpreting the Bible than Muslims interpreting the Koran. They had an interpretive movement in the Islamic world in 9th, 10th and 11th century, but then they went backward.

As for the relationship between reason and faith, today Muslims are in a negative period of their history. Certainly it is possible to unite the two, but they would have to work very hard. There are many reasons for this regression, but fundamentally, there is ignorance on the part of the Muslim clergy.
 


Part 2

Interview With Father Samir Khalil Samir

By Annamarie Adkins

BEIRUT, Lebanon, 5 MARCH 2009 (ZENIT)

Father Samir Khalil Samir, a native of Egypt and longtime resident of the Middle East, says he does not fear Muslims.

Knowing their faith and knowing the Gospel, the Gospel cannot fear the Koran, in his expert opinion.

The Jesuit priest teaches Catholic theology and Islamic studies at St. Joseph University in Beirut, is founder of the CEDRAC research institute and is author of, most recently, "111 Questions on Islam" (Ignatius).

Father Samir spoke with ZENIT about his true concerns: indifferent Christians who don't know their faith, and Christians who don't realize that Muslim immigration to the West may be the perfect opportunity for evangelization.

Part 1 of the interview appeared Wednesday.

Q: What are the most common preconceptions about Islam you encounter among practicing Christians?

Father Samir: The most common preconceptions are rather negative: Muslims are not modern people; they are not open to others; Muslims are a violent group — things like that.

You find the same negative preconceptions when you hear what Muslims say about Christians: They are unbelievers, pagans, immoral; they are aggressive.

What you hear about the United States is also very negative: It is imperialistic, it uses its power to dominate other people, etc.

This is common in humanity. Each one looks at the other from his point of view and notices what is different, and the difference is often seen as negative. As Christ said in the sixth chapter of Luke, verse 41: Why do you take note of the grain of dust in your brother's eye, but take no note of the bit of wood which is in your eye?

So, we have to learn that some differences are negative, some are positive.

We have different approaches to many things. For instance, the Trinity in our dogma is the deepest expression of communion with God himself — he is loving and self-giving. But to Muslims, it is seen as something awful: three gods.

It makes them think Christians are like the old pagans, seemingly believing in more than one god.

Q: What question are you asked most often in your presentations about Islam?

Father Samir: Mostly, I hear questions about whether a good Muslim can be modern and faithful at the same time.

In Europe, especially in France, the question is whether Islam is compatible with a secular society. Another question is whether Islam is violent; this comes regularly. They wonder if this is something inherent to Islam, or simply a problem we have today.

Q: Historically speaking, Muslim lands rarely revert to Christianity or any other religion, and are generally intolerant of Christianity. Today we see explosive Muslim population growth in traditionally Christian lands such as Europe and North America. Should Christians fear the growth of Islam? What is the proper Christian response to the constantly expanding Muslim umma?

Father Samir: Muslims rarely convert to Christianity or other religions — this is true. Even if we've seen in the last 10 years a change, in Algeria they are making laws against conversion to Christianity. But this does not stop the conversions.

The same is happening with less intensity in Morocco. In southern Africa, there is much more conversion.

You can see on YouTube an Al Jazeera clip in Arabic about the conversion of Muslims to Christianity. The response of the Libyan imam, who is responsible for the propagation of Islam in Africa, was wondering how to stop conversions to Christianity, saying that there have been 6 million Muslims converting to Christianity in Africa.

Why is Islam growing in Europe and America? Because Muslims have children.

Recently, I met one of my former students, an Algerian Muslim, and I asked him whether he had married and had children. He said he and his wife had three children, but this was just the beginning of their family. Meanwhile, you have Western people having one or two and saying that it's enough.

What I fear really is the indifference of many Christians to their own faith. You hear a lot of Christians saying that it doesn't matter if you are Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, the main thing is to love each other.

This is partly true, but you have to ask yourself, "How do we love each other better? If I really am a Christian, and living according to the Gospel, I will love better."

I don't fear Muslims. Knowing their faith and knowing the Gospel, the Gospel cannot fear the Koran.

Q: Have you seen an increase in interest among Christians since Pope Benedict's famous Regensburg address to gain knowledge and foster dialogue with Muslims? Is the reverse true as well?

Father Samir: I think the famous address of Pope Benedict at Regensburg was a very important step in the last decade.

The first reaction was very negative by Muslims; many Christians and Catholics said it was a mistake. After a while, when all this noise disappeared slowly, Muslims started to rethink it. Christians also started to ask themselves why the Pope quoted this sentence from the 14th century.

We all started, Christians and Muslims, to reflect on what he really said in this address. There was one sentence that was not wrong but difficult to explain — because you have to go back to history — but the address was eight pages.

Many in the West then realized it was very positive, in fact, that the Pope had put his finger on something very important. Faith is disappearing in the West. Reason is emptied from its original Greek spiritual meaning. People think if you can't prove physically something, it doesn't exist. Now people are starting to reflect anew on faith.

In the Muslim world, the same thing happened. One hundred and thirty-eight people, lead by Prince Al-Ghazi of Jordan, undersigned a very positive letter in response to Regensburg — now 300 people have signed it, explaining that Islam and Christianity have a common double principle: love for God and for neighbor.

Two years later, in November of 2008, we had a meeting to discuss the issues brought up in the Regensburg address, with 30 Muslim and 30 Catholic representatives in Rome.

We had a wonderful discussion. It was not always easy, but very deep and open-minded, each person making a great effort to hear the other.

The last day we had to write a common statement. We came to a point at which it was impossible to go further — the conflict was so strong — dealing with the liberty of conscience.

Right before the end of meeting, before we were going to meet the Pope, Cardinal Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said, "Unfortunately, I have to announce something very sad; we couldn't reach a common agreement."

But a minute later, the great mufti of Sarajevo, imam Mustafa Ceric, representing the Muslim group, came and said, "I have good news for you: we agreed on point five dealing with the liberty of conscience." He explained that it was found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was undersigned by most Muslim countries, so there was no reason for the Muslim representatives to refuse it now.

We made small steps for two days, and on the third day found something to agree on.

We have decided to have a meeting every two years, one time hosted by Muslims and the next time hosted by Catholics.

This is an answer to Regensburg, and it was a very positive one.

Q: What, in your experience, are the most fruitful ways for fostering peace and goodwill between Christians and Muslims?

Father Samir: I as a Christian know that Muslims are loved by God. God loves them. This is very important. They are not enemies, they are not foreigners; they are, as sincere believers, members of our family.

Muslims are religious people essentially, because a good Muslim puts God above everything else in his life, normally. The same should be said for Christians, but I must recognize that often, in the West, Christians don't put God above everything else.

When I have any encounter with a Muslim, I know if I appeal to something religious in his and my life, we will agree. We will agree on values because we say these are coming from God.

I know we are all brothers. This is not a simple assertion; it's real. We are really brothers. We all descend from Adam. The intent of Islam is to adore the only God, and they think they achieve the mission initiated with Abraham through the prophets, Moses and Christ — and Islam in the achievement.

It's clear for me as a Christian that the achievement is in Christ, because he is the Word of God. After God sent his Word, he cannot send another word, the Koran, to correct or fulfill his previous Word, Christ.

I disagree with Muslims that the Koran is the last word of God, and that Mohammad is the "seal of the prophets." For me, the seal is Christ and the Gospel.

Here we disagree, but this disagreement means a Muslim and I are seeking the perfection of God. This is not bad.

There is no exclusion, but with one condition. I am convinced the perfection and the achievement of perfection is in the Gospel, but I am also convinced a Muslim is seeking the same aim and the same God.

In religion, deep belief fosters peace between mankind. That belief does not foster exclusivity.

I am asking myself, "Why are Muslims spreading so much, are growing in the Western countries? Why in Europe are there 15 million Muslims? Would it be better if we didn't have Muslims there at all?"

The fact that Muslims are in North America and Europe means that they are my neighbors. They can find a Bible and open it, and find Jesus Christ. They can enter into a church; they can participate in prayer with us.

The tragedy is when they don't find the real Christian who will help them there.

In the past, we went over the ocean to convert Muslims and maybe it was almost impossible. Now the Muslim is in my country, my neighbor, and we don't do anything.

This is for me a pity. After all of our efforts for centuries to reach the Muslims, God has sent us Muslims at home and we pass up the opportunity of sharing the most beautiful reality we have, Christ and the Gospel.

The presence of Muslims in the West is the greatest benediction we could hope for. The question is whether we will open our heart and receive them as our brothers.

I have a mission toward them, and they think they have a mission toward me. They know the Koranic Jesus, and I have to show them the evangelical Jesus.

This is our mission. It is something beautiful and should give us more hope than anything else.

Everything is providential. There cannot be a very large movement of Muslims in the world for only economic reasons. God is sending them. Perhaps it's the best way for them to discover the true image of God — that God is love.

Our mission is to testify that God is love and only love.
 

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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