Evangelii Gaudium on Islam: Outreach or Overreach?

Much attention has been paid to Pope Francis’ observations about economic life in Evangelii Gaudium. Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to the pope’s remarks about Islam in the same document, even though they may turn out to be of much greater consequence. One sentence in particular needs to be called into question. When writing about interreligious dialogue between Christians and Muslims, Pope Francis cautions against “hateful generalizations about Islam,” for “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” (253).

This sweeping statement would be difficult to justify even if the pope were speaking about the Bible. It would not be an easy task to make the case that even a proper reading of the Bible is opposed to every form of violence. To make that case for the Koran, which is filled with encouragements to violence, is more problematic still.

Here is just a small sampling from the Koran:

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When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them.  Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush for them everywhere. (9.5)

When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads. (47.4)

I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the  very tips of their fingers! (8.12)

There are hundreds of similar verses in the Koran. It has been argued that they should be understood symbolically or else that these verses must be viewed in their proper context, but this is a weak argument. For some context, let’s turn to the earliest sira (or “life”) of Muhammad written by Ibn Ishaq about 130 years after the death of Muhammad. Although the biographies of Muhammad are now called sira, they were originally called kitab al-maghazi—“book of the raids.” If you look at the chapter headings in Ishaq’s 800-page book, you can see why. Here’s a brief excerpt from Part III of the table of contents in the English translation:

Names of the Emigrants who fought at Badr                   327
Names of the Helpers who fought at Badr                        330
Names of the Quraysh prisoners                                         338
Verses on the battle                                                                340
Raid on B. Sulaym                                                                  360
Raid called al-Sawiq                                                               361
Raid on Dhu Amarr                                                                362
Raid on al-Furu                                                                       362
Attack on B. Qaynuqa                                                            363
Raid on al-Qarada                                                                  364
Killing of Ka’b b. al-Ashraf                                                   364
Muhayyisa and Huwayyisa                                                   369
Battle of Uhud                                                                         370
The Qu’ran on Uhud                                                              391
Names of the Muslims slain at Uhud                                 401


This is not an exercise in cherry-picking on my part. The chapter headings continue in this vein for the next 89 entries—that is, to the end of the book. In short, fighting and raiding and slave trading were the chief pursuits of Muhammad and his followers during their ten-year stay in Medina. Whatever else they may have been doing seemed relatively unimportant to Muhammad’s first biographer. That is the context in which the Koran should be understood. When Allah commands his followers to “strike off their heads,” he is not speaking symbolically but of real battles and raids—raids and battles which were almost always initiated by Muhammad.

The pope’s generous statement about Islam is in line with similar statements by various world leaders who assure us that whenever violence is committed in the name of Islam, such violence has nothing to do with Islam. Since these statements are so contrary to the evidence of Islamic texts as well as to the reality of widespread persecution of non-Muslims in the name of Islam, we have to conclude that they are made either for strategic reasons or else because the leaders are badly advised.

Whoever the pope turned to for advice, it was most probably not fellow Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir, an expert on Islamic theology and history and a close adviser to Pope Benedict XVI. Fr. Samir is not nearly as sanguine about the peaceful nature of Islam as Pope Francis. Take this exchange from a book-length interview with two Italian journalists published in 2002 (translated as 111 Questions about Islam). Question:  “In  the Western world … people often say that the mujahidin are not true Muslims, that their actions are contrary to the spirit of Islam, that Islam etymologically means ‘peace’ and ‘tolerance,’ and so on. Is this opinion correct?” His answer? “Most Westerners who accept these statements usually know very little about Islam. So they willingly accept these erroneous theories coming from Muslim sources” (65).

In this respect, it’s important to understand the context of the interview.  It seems to have been conducted in whole or in large part after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.  In the immediate wake of the attack, governmental, educational, and media elites rushed to assure citizens that Islam was a religion of peace that had been hijacked by a tiny minority of extremists.  Many of Fr. Samir’s observations seem intended as a corrective to that view.  Here’s another exchange—this time from a 2010 interview with the National Catholic Register conducted on the anniversary of 9/11. Question: “Some would argue that the 9/11 bombers were not real Muslims, but fundamentalist ideologues and terrorists?” Answer: “Yes, but this is the wrong position because radical Muslims are true Muslims…. You’ll find other positions but this is one, and one that is very strongly presented in the Koran and in the Sunnah. Nine-eleven was a Muslim action even if for apologetic reasons it’s said this was a terrorist action and terrorism has nothing to do with Islam….”

Fr. Samir maintains that although there are different ways to read the Koran—some more tolerant and some more violent—the violent interpretation cannot be looked upon as a deformation. In fact, he provides evidence that the intolerant and warlike verses have a better claim to legitimacy:

Confronted with these contradictory verses, the Muslim tradition was obliged to   find a method of interpretation, called “the principle of the abrogating and the  abrogated”… The theory is simple:  God, after giving a disposition or an order,  can give an opposite order, for the contrary reasons.  It is then a matter of  knowing which one was God’s last order, which cancels and abrogates the preceding disposition (70).

The problem is, most of the peaceful verses in the Qur’an come from the early Meccan period and many Muslim authorities agree that they are cancelled by the latter, more violent verses.  Thus, “In Egypt, for example, it is a commonly held opinion that the so-called Verse of the Sword (ayat-al-sayf) abrogated more than one hundred verses, that is to say, all the ‘peaceful’ ones” (70-71).

Moreover, even if there were no doctrine of abrogation, it would be difficult to know how much weight to assign to the peaceful verses since, as Fr. Samir points out, there is no central teaching authority in Islam:

This means that when some fanatics kill children, women, and men in the name of pure and authentic Islam, or in the name of the Qur’an or of the Muslim tradition,  nobody can tell them: “You are not true and authentic Muslims.” All they can say  is: “Your reading of the Koran is not ours” (71).

Fr. Samir, who teaches at the University of Saint Joseph in Beirut and the Pontifical Oriental Institute, is the president of the International Association for Christian Arabic Studies and is the author of thirty-six books and more than five hundred scholarly articles concerning Islam and the Christian East. If what he says is accurate, then the pope’s statement about the proper reading of the Koran should have been more carefully constructed.

Why then didn’t Pope Francis qualify his statement? Some indication can be found in his response to Pope Benedict’s 2005 Regensburg address. During the address, Benedict quoted from a medieval text that castigated Muhammad for his “evil and inhuman” commands. “Pope Benedict’s statements don’t reflect my own opinions,” the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires said. “These statements will serve to destroy in twenty seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last twenty years.” Tellingly, Cardinal Bergoglio’s response was not directed at the substance of Pope Benedict’s remarks but to their effect on the Church’s relationship with Muslims.

As any number of commentators have remarked, Pope Francis has set a new tone for the papacy—one that is more concerned with outreach to non-Catholics than with issues of doctrine or definition. His statements on Islam in Evangelii Gaudium are in line with that approach:  their aim is not accuracy but outreach. It seems that for the sake of improving relations with the Islamic world, the pope has chosen to put the best possible face on Islam. But, sometimes, outreach can result in overreach. And it seems that, in this instance, the pope has overreached himself. As he writes elsewhere in the document, “Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism” (232). In presenting this idealistic view of Islam, the pope has ignored a great many realities.

Evangelii Gaudium paints an unrealistic picture of Islam and the Koran. Should this be a matter of great concern? In one sense, no. Some Catholics become upset whenever the pope is criticized about anything, as though any questioning of the pope’s statements is tantamount to questioning the truth of the Catholic faith. They can relax. An apostolic exhortation is not meant to be a solemn promulgation of doctrine, and in any event the pope’s teaching authority only extends to authentic Catholic teaching, not to “authentic” Islamic beliefs.

Catholics whose sole concern is to defend papal inerrancy can relax. On the other hand, far too many Catholics are already much too relaxed when it comes to the subject of Islam. And one unfortunate effect of the pope’s ill-advised statement is that they will become even more relaxed about Islam at a time when they should be awake and alert. The importance of outreach to Muslims has to be balanced with the pope’s duty to properly inform his flock about matters that may put their freedom and security at risk.

Pope Francis’ observations tend to reinforce the standard apologetic that says Islam is a religion of peace, and that terror is the work of a handful of extremists who misunderstand their religion. Thus, “Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations…” (253). There are a number of problems with this statement. Take the word “episodes.” It suggests something that happens once in a while, whereas Muslim attacks against Christians, Hindus, and other Muslims occur on a daily basis. On Christmas day 34 people in a Christian area of Baghdad were killed in bomb attacks, some by a car bomb that exploded as worshippers were leaving a church after a Christmas service. A few days before that, Islamic jihadists in Syria murdered twelve people and wounded many others by firing mortars at a church. Earlier in December, Muslims killed over 1,000 Christians in the Central African Republic. Close observers of the Middle East and Africa now refer to the situation as a “war against Christians” or as a campaign of extermination. The Pope blames the violence on “fundamentalism,” but according to numerous surveys, the majority of Muslims worldwide hold to fundamentalist views. For example, a 2010 Pew survey of Egyptians found that 77 percent support whipping and amputation for thieves, 82 percent support the execution of adulterers, and 84 percent support the execution of apostates. Are they not “true followers of Islam”? Moreover, fundamentalism is not just a problem for the Middle East and Africa. A recent poll of 9,000 European respondents found that 75 percent of Muslim immigrants believe that there is only one possible interpretation of the Koran, while 54 percent believe that the West is out to destroy Muslim culture. Many expert observers predict that Muslims (while not yet a majority) will be the dominant political and cultural force in Europe within twenty-five years—and this in large part due to all-embracing immigration policies of the type which the pope encourages (253).

As Pope Francis says, Christians should avoid “hateful generalizations”; however, they should not be discouraged from making realistic generalizations based on ample evidence. Their lives and the lives of their families may depend on it. In the meantime, Catholic leaders should avoid making unwarranted generalizations that encourage a false sense of security about Islam.

Editor’s note: The image above is a photo of a burning Egyptian Coptic church set ablaze by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.


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