Although articles on Islam appear every day in Western newspapers, it is normally treated as a political phenomenon. But Islam is a religion and its characteristics flow from its theology. To get an understanding of the underpinnings of the religion of one-fifth of today’s world, we consulted Dr José Morales, a Spanish theologian and Catholic priest who has recently published a book on Islam in contemporary Europe.
MercatorNet: The Islamic world and the West have very different ways of looking at the nature of man and society. What are the fundamental reasons for these differences? Are they theological or sociological?
Morales: The Islamic world and the West are very broad realities and concepts which have very different ways of understanding man and society. It is often said that Islam is not a monolith but a mosaic. It is a very fragmented and divided world and only the Western habit of drawing concepts together can treat it as a unity. On the other hand, the Western Enlightenment and Western modernism do not accept a Christian understanding of man either.
With these caveats, let me give my impressions. Islam holds that man and woman have been created by God and owe to Him absolute submission of intellect and will. The word Islam actually means “submission to God”. The principal obligation of every human being is to accept God’s revelation in the Qur’an. This revelation is so self-evident that only someone with a bad will can reject it. Fulfilment or non-fulfilment of the revealed Law of God (sharia) determines man’s eternal destiny and this is not to enjoy the vision of God, as Christians have it, but Paradise or Hell.
In Islam, the individual is subordinated to the Islamic community (the ummah) and to Muslim traditions. The whole truth has already been found and is formulated in the past, so no development is possible. The whole vocabulary of human rights, of freedom and equality and so on, is regarded as a kind of foreign Western discourse. It may have its own validity, but it is not applicable to Islamic culture and the Muslim frame of mind.
The personal dignity of each man and woman, who must never be considered as means, but as ends in themselves, is the key point of the Western view of man, which ultimately derives from Christian concepts. In the Christian tradition, a person is a unity of body and soul which has been restored by grace after a fall from grace through original sin. Other Western thinkers claim that the foundation of human dignity is man himself and that he does not necessarily have a transcendent end. Broadly speaking both of these views are more or less foreign to the Muslim mind.
MercatorNet: Do Muslims believe that they are made “in the image and likeness of God”. If not, does this make a difference?
Morales: Such language is quite incomprehensible for a Muslim. In Islam the relationship between God and man is purely extrinsic. What man can and must do is submit to God. No other relationship is believed to be possible, except in a few mystical and esoteric sects which tend towards pantheism. But this has nothing to do with Islamic orthodoxy.
MercatorNet: In the West, we tend to think of religion as a well-organised “church”. Is Islam a church in this sense?
Morales: In Islam, the “community of believers”, the so-called ummah, is very important. This is the gathering of all men and women who have accepted the preaching of Mohammed and try to live according to the precepts and spirit of the Qur’an. It is not an organisation, not is it a church in the Christian sense of the word. The task of the ummah is not to sanctify or save. It is simply a religious fact which gives Muslims a feeling of belonging to a reality which transcends the individual. The ummah is the religious equivalent of the “nation of Islam”.
MercatorNet: Does the fact that their religion is based on a book and not on the teachings of a Church make a difference?
Morales: There is a big difference. A Christian Church, and especially the Catholic Church, has a “magisterium”, a teaching role, which sets down a unified doctrine on faith and morals, what is to be believed and how men are to behave. This teaching is proclaimed authoritatively. In the Catholic Church the so-called “ordinary magisterium” clarifies doubts and resolves differing interpretations. This does not happen in Islam, because there is no single magisterium or authority, nor is the Muslim community as organised as a Christian Church.
Within Islam there are authoritative voices which, down through the centuries, have interpreted the revealed law in a more or less consistent way according to a certain consensus. Hence there is such a thing as Islamic orthodoxy. But this orthodoxy co-exists with very different parallel interpretations of important issues. This is what is happening with jihad and the so-called martyrs.
MercatorNet: What accounts for the rage with which Muslims react when they hear that their religion has been insulted? Is it just the frustration of being an oppressed minority?
Morales: Islam is a civilisation which is very proud of its religion and of its past. It feels offended and humiliated by the West. Islam contains an almost incurable resentment towards the Western world. In some respects it has good reason to feel this way, even though a good measure of this is due to lack of information and excessive emotion. And then there are politicians who manipulate these feeling for their own purposes.
MercatorNet: Why are they so sensitive to blasphemy, as in their reaction to the Danish cartoons or Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses”?
Morales: Insults to the “Messenger of God” wound Muslims in the deepest part of their being. They feel that their beliefs are more important than themselves and they are part of their personal identity. This feeling is linked to patriotism, to family bonds and communal roots.
MercatorNet: The “West” is hardly united in its views. Apart from the division between Catholics and many types of Protestantism, there is an even more fundamental division between Christian views and Enlightenment views of man and society. Which has the better chance of understanding Islam: the Enlightenment or Christianity?
Morales: The Enlightenment has never been very good at understanding Islam. In fact, it cannot understand it. When rationalist writers like Voltaire, Carlyle or Renan examined Muslim religious attitudes, they praised them as courageous or scorned them as fanatical. But the Enlightenment has generally looked upon Islam mainly as something to be studied with a detached scientific eye. So the study of their sacred books, their history, their creeds, their rites and their art has been the province of orientalist scholars, who are, in the main, agnostics.
Christians have suffered at the hands of Islam and sometime they have attacked Muslims. Today, it seems, people want to sweep all this history into the dustbin. But I feel that a Christian today is better able to understand the religious values of Muslims than Enlightenment scholars, because if he understands his own religion, he will find it easier to grasp the values which exist in Islam. The documents of the Second Vatican Council are very good on this point, such as Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate.
MercatorNet: You have just published a study of Islam in contemporary Europe. Apart from demographic growth, do you think that Islam will attract many converts amongst Europeans? Who will be most attracted to it?
Morales: My feeling is that it cannot attract many real converts. The notion of converting to Islam has little to do with what Christians mean by converting. Europeans who become Muslims do so, broadly speaking, out of a desire for experimentation and a hankering after exotic experiences. The fact that Islam can attract people in Europe is due basically to the crisis in Christian churches, especially amongst Protestants and Anglicans. There have been two or three thousand Spanish converts and most of them come from the radical left or from greens who have embraced ecologism as a kind of ideology. It is not really a religious phenomenon.
MercatorNet: Is the presence of Muslim communities in the heart of Europe an opportunity for Christians to win converts, as well? Are many Muslims attracted to Christianity?
Morales: I don’t think that the present moment is a good time for Muslim conversions to Christianity. But there will always be a few cases here and there.
This interview was conducted by Michael Cook, the editor of MercatorNet. Dr Jose Morales teaches theology at the University of Navarra in Spain. His survey of Islam was published in 2001 and his most recent book, “Muslims in Europe” was published earlier this year. He is also an expert on the thought of John Henry Newman.