Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

May 11, 2009

Islam through a Catholic Lens

Pope Benedict XVI is currently on a pilgrimage? across the Holy Land in which he is meeting with several political and religious leaders who are Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. On Monday he pleaded for the creation of a Palestinian homeland alongside of the state of Israel. Besides making sure your students are following this historic visit through the news, take some time to share this information on "Islam through a Catholic Lens" as excerpted from Exploring the Religions of Our World.

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator in the first place, amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day (CCC, 841).

While visiting Morocco in August 1985, Pope John Paul II met a group of Muslim youth. There he said, “Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is today more necessary than ever.” The truth of this statement has not dissipated. As two religious traditions with a common heritage, dialogue between the faiths with the two largest numbers of adherents in the world is late in coming. Yet, as children of Abraham, along with the Jews, Catholics have more in common with Muslims than we may think.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council instructed Catholics on the similarities between Catholics and Muslims. It said:

The church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to people. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his virgin mother they also honor and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the Day of Judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason, they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms, deeds, and fasting. (Nostra Aetate, 3)

There are also significant differences between Catholic and Muslim belief. One major difference is in the understanding of the nature of God. Though Muslims believe in one God, Catholics believe in one God who is in Three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the central mystery of Christian faith, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This unity of persons within the One God is foreign to Muslim understanding, which cannot conceive of God manifesting self in any way.

Of course, Catholics and Muslims also have a basic and essential difference in their understanding of Jesus. Catholics believe in the divinity of Christ and that he was at once both divine and human. Through the Paschal Mystery of his suffering, death, and resurrection, he won for mankind its redemption and salvation. Muslims do believe that Jesus existed; however, they do not acknowledge his divinity. Rather, they hold that Jesus was a prophet second only to Muhammad. More particularly, Muslims believe Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary but did not suffer a human death by crucifixion. Muslims believe that what seemed to be a crucifixion was an illusion created for some of Jesus’ enemies and that God raised Jesus to heaven.

As Catholics engage in dialogue with Muslims, there are two things to remember from the point of view of Muslims. First, Muslims are acutely aware that most Catholics have an understanding of Muslims gleaned from the Western media. The negative images of Muslims connected with the events of September 11, 2001, and other terrorist attacks is a skewed view of the almost one billion Muslims in the world who subscribe to peaceful solutions and lifestyles. Second, Islam continues to react in many different ways in response to the Western colonialism of the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. Many Muslims believe that the fall of the great Islamic empires was due to their own religious laxity. For this reason, Muslims have attempted to purify their religion at least somewhat by isolating themselves from dialogue with other religions.

Effective dialogue between Catholics and Muslims begins at the starting point of common beliefs. The nature of one God, the heritage of peoples formed from Abraham, and the sharing of positive and peaceful human values is the best place to start. Another important area is the common struggle both religions have with some modern “isms” such as secularism, materialism, and racism. Family life is central to both Catholics and Muslims. Preserving religious values and practices while avoiding these creeping outside pressures and strategies to do so are worthy goals of discussion. Issues like systemic prejudice, poverty, and the care of the environment also form common concerns. As the Second Vatican Council asserted, “there must be a sincere effort on both sides to achieve mutual understanding” (Nostra Aetate, #3).

Review Questions

1.   List some similarities between Catholics and Muslims.

2.   Explain two major differences between Catholics and Muslims.

3.   What are two areas of concern when Muslims engage in inter-religious dialogue with Catholics?

4.   List some suggested areas of dialogue with Muslims


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