Sometime between 1274 and 1276 Blessed Ramon Llull, a Catalan polymath, missionary, scholar and martyr, wrote The Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men. It remains a fascinating medieval experiment in a “trialogue”, in which a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim explain their beliefs for the benefit of the others. It is distinguished by the delicacy and courtesy which the participants display towards each other. At the conclusion, Llull writes that the three “took leave of one another most amiably and politely and each asked forgiveness of the other for any disrespectful words he might have spoken against his religion”.
Heirs of Abraham is a courageous modern attempt to take up the baton from Llull. It began as a lecture series at Marquette University in the spring of 2004. The three participants in this contemporary trialogue are Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam and Mahmoud Ayoub, a professor of Islamic studies. The format of the book, somewhat more flexible and responsive than that devised by Llull, is a statement of religious belief beginning with the Jew, followed by the Christian and finally the Muslim. Each statement is replied to by the others; the individual spokesman then responds to these replies.
The question that inspires the book is: “Can there be friendship between the heirs of Abraham?” All three of the great monotheistic religions share Abraham as their common spiritual ancestor; all are “People of the Book”; all share a belief in God’s revelation and in the function of the prophets. Today, even more acutely than in the 13th century, when Blessed Ramon Llull was devising his ingenious method in order to lead Jews and Saracens to an understanding of the Trinity and the Incarnation (the two great stumbling blocks to Christian faith in their eyes), we need to pray and work for greater mutual understanding and friendship between these religions. The turmoil of the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Israel, the rapid advent of suicide bombing and the antipathy towards America and the West by international Islamists all threaten world peace and are a cause of endless violence and suffering. Churchill once remarked, “Jaw jaw, not war war” and this book is to be commended for trying to promote, in its civilised and scholarly exchanges, the peaceful coexistence and true tolerance – not indifference – needed to change the current political climate.
In his initial statement of faith Reuven Firestone, rather surprisingly, attempts a naturalistic explanation of the development of monotheism: sometime between 800-200 BC “the old polytheistic systems no longer spoke to the intellectual and spiritual needs of the time.” Gradually “the primary Gods of old that Israel knew became conceptually and structurally united in YHVH”, ie, Yahweh. Both the other participants find this unsatisfactory; Fitzgerald raises the question of the Exodus and, more importantly, the covenant relationship God established with His chosen people; Ayoub thinks it “a purely secular investigation”, drawing attention to the great personalities of the Old Testament, such as Moses, Isaiah and Elijah. Divine guidance, he points out, is essential to the human quest for Truth. To demonstrate Muslim enlightenment, he draws attention to the Lebanese Christian holy man, Sharbel Maklouf, venerated by devout Muslims for many decades – until, ironically, he was canonised by the Church.
Archbishop Fitzgerald follows Firestone with the Catholic perspective, emphasising a reference in the Mass to “Abraham, our father in faith.” For Christians Abraham symbolises faith, hope and trust in God. The Church, Fitzgerald reminds the others, proposes the Truth but does not impose it, emphasising that “in dialogue partners must remain true to their own identity.” What about the Church’s commitment to missionary activity? For Fitzgerald, “mission” is a call to “conversion from idolatry to the living and true God”. Although Islam is not considered by Christians a revealed religion – like Judaism – we share with Muslims the belief in one God, who is creator and judge. Yet we still have the duty, Fitzgerald acknowledges, to bear witness to Christ. He quotes John Paul II’s address to Muslims in 1981: “I deliberately address you as brothers…” One might comment that the example of fraternal love shown by the late Pope towards Muslims by this very form of address is itself a witness to the love of Christ.
Professor Ayoub, who is the third to state his case, explains the importance of Ishmael, son of Abraham’s slave girl, Hagar, to the Muslim tradition, rather than the legitimate son, Isaac, who is critical for the Judaeo-Christian tradition. For him, Abraham’s true heirs are those who follow his example of faith and submission to the will of God. (“Islam”, we recall, means “submission”). He also points out that religion “has been most creative when it has spoken in poetry, allegory and myth”. He appeals for respect for the scriptures of the other, emphasising the need for a “dialogue of life, or belief and of faith.”
This is necessarily only a brief summary of a book much more significant than its modest size and unheralded publication would suggest. It is full of reflections by the three scholars that cry out for further development. The statements and responses are characterised by a courtesy reminiscent of Llull, yet rarely present in contemporary exchanges where ignorance and prejudice too often blight the possibility of mutual respect and understanding.
Yet such a respectful attentiveness to another’s faith must not blind one to the truth of one’s own. For Christians, the Trinitarian nature of the one God, His becoming Man in the person of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and the divine foundation of the Church can never be put aside or forgotten. The Church claims to speak with authority, the authority given to her by a divine founder, and it has to be recognised that neither Jews nor Muslims accept this Christian concept of ecclesial authority – though they do accept the concept of revelation. The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his book, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (2003) writes appositely: “Christian mission will doubtless have to understand other religions far more profoundly and accept them at a deeper level than has been the case hitherto; but these religions… need to recognise their own adventual character, the way they point forward to Christ.”
Does Archbishop Fitzgerald play down these truths in this trialogue? It might seem so – until one remembers that he is responding to a particular perspective; that of being an “heir of Abraham,” and trying to hold fast to what is held in common rather than draw attention to what divides.
For Firestone, the Jew, “my religious tradition teaches that no one has the wisdom to really know the divine will”. To Christians, this seems odd: they would aver that by the grace of God, they can know it. For Ayoub, the Muslim, “May the faith of Abraham, the spirit of Christ and the prophetic genius of Mohammed continue to guide us to the good and to God”. Again, for Christians there can be no new revelation after Christ, whether from Mohammed or anyone else. Perhaps the final word should go to Fitzgerald, the Catholic, who points out the importance of the Holy Spirit in the lives of non-Christians: “Muslims can die to self and live for others” – the essence of the paschal mystery, entirely contrary to the fanaticism and false “martyrdom” of suicide bombers.
Rather than focussing on our differences and seemingly insurmountable hurdles to Truth in our encounters with Jews and Muslims, Christians should look towards the example of Abraham who is truly our father in faith, and pray for divine inspiration. This book certainly impels one in that direction. St Paul tells us that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” – and perhaps no Muslim, either. I shall give my copy to a local taxi-driver I know, a devout Muslim of Pakistani origin, who is far removed from Bin Laden and his kind and for whom I have great respect — and see where it leads us.
Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.