Professor José Morales, a theologian at the University of Navarra in Spain, is an expert on contemporary Islam in Europe. His recent books include Caminos del Islam (The Paths of Islam, 2006) and El Islam (Islam, 2001). He was interviewed by Ignacio Aréchaga.
Aréchaga: In his speech at Ratisbonne, Pope Benedict XVI distinguished between two ways of looking at God: the Christian God, who acts in accordance with reason and whom we can reflect upon with our reason, and the Islamic God, who is absolutely transcendent and alien to human ways of thinking. How do these differences affect the development of how we think about God?
Morales: The Christian God is certainly an eminently rational God who has never said, for instance, that good and evil are the same. But Divine rationality, according to Christian theology, does not exclude, but rather includes, the ineffable mystery of God, who is unknowable by human beings, including believers.
The Islamic understanding of God is more rigid and less nuanced. This happens because of its excessive emphasis on the divine transcendence and on the unattainable distance between God and the world and man. If Christianity springs from the closeness of a God who takes on human flesh, Islam springs from divine distance. The God of Islam has a purely extrinsic relationship with man. Before God, man can only submit himself.
In Islam, what matters most is the inexorable divine will, which is expressed in his law, as revealed in the Qur’an. That Law makes insignificant both human beings and the very history of humanity. It is an immovable factor which does not develop either in the mind of man or in the course of history. The focus of Islam’s concern is not theological reflection on the Koranic Law, but the interpretation of its precepts to know what a Muslim can or cannot do in order to be a good believer. Certainly there is a certain grandeur in this, but it is quite different to how Christians see the divine will and the divine law. These take man and history seriously as a being who was created free and as the succession of events which occur in time. Here we have a vision of man as a created being in history.
Aréchaga: In Islam, there are different ways of understanding jihad, or “holy war”, depending upon whether one is a moderate or a fundamentalist. Even in Muslim countries there might be more or less tolerance of non-Muslims, but not authentic religious freedom in which each person can adopt and practice the faith according to his or her conscience. Are things evolving towards greater religious freedom or are more intolerant currents prevailing?
Morales: Islam distinguishes between greater jihad and lesser jihad. Most contemporary Muslim authors focus on the meaning of the greater jihad, as the effort which a believing Muslim must make within himself to be able to fulfil the Koranic Law. The lesser jihad is warlike activity which may be necessary on certain occasions to defend Islam.
The modern world has helped some groups of Muslims to connect and strengthen this lesser jihad with terrorist ideas and practices. But this way of acting and feeling does not reflect, in my opinion, the consensus of Muslim authorities. I am sure that countless believers in Islam do not approve of acts of Islamic terrorism perpetrated against the West in recent years. But the truth is that their voices are not sufficiently heard in the Muslim world. This matter has been discussed in recent times in numerous books and essays such as Olivier Roy’s Globalized Islam, Gilles Kepel’s The War for Muslim Minds, and Faisal Devij’s Landscape of the Jihad.
Aréchaga: In times of crisis, there are always calls for the need for mutual respect and for dialogue between Christianity and Islam, but one has the impression that apart from a few gestures, nothing much happens. What specific difficulties are there in dialoguing with Islam?
Morales: Dialogue between Christianity and Islam began with the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church (1962-65). I believe that it is more a Christian initiative than a Muslim one. You can sense in the Muslim world a certain suspicion towards these attempts at communication and mutual understanding. Apart from this attitude, I think that the difficulties derive mainly from the different cultural mentality of the Christian or Muslim participants in the conversation. There doesn’t seem to be a common language. When Catholics or Protestants speak to one another about their own religious outlook, they do so with a common ground in their religious, intellectual and cultural assumptions. They understand each other. This does not happen in dialogues between Muslims and Christians.
On the other hand, Christian participants in dialogues with Muslims report a tendency of their counterparts to put up barriers, so to speak, and to set down conditions which make it difficult, even impossible, to have true communication. Nonetheless, this climate of relative dialogue has allowed greater mutual understanding, and has created growing respect. We mustn’t forget that the Islamic world in itself is not as unruffled as a millpond, and that there are tensions, crises and schemes within it which have a negative effect upon effective dialogue with Christians.
Aréchaga: Muslim countries tend to attribute all their maladies to exterior enemies — the new crusades, the aggressive West, Zionism, etc. But with a religion like Islam, which tries to regulate all of social life, has the failure of Muslim societies to modernise raised questions about their own model of Islamic civilisation?
Morales: In the Muslim world different and apparently contradictory processes are happening simultaneously. The experience of failure, stagnation and disfunctionality in the Muslim world has increased the prestige of religion as a way to solve problems. This does not seem to be diminishing at the moment.
But nearly all the militant Islamic movements have entered a more constructive and sensible phase. They have decided to become more moderate and to reform and democratise. I believe, however, that at the moment, no one openly questions the model of Islamic civilisation in which religion has a dominant role.
Ignacio Aréchaga is editor of the Spanish magazine Aceprensa.