Issue Date: November 3, 2006
Seeking insight from Muslim/Christian history
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Christianitys original experts on Islam were neither impartial
scholars nor specialists in interfaith dialogue, but rough-and-tumble medieval
apologists -- that is to say, writers from the seventh through the 14th
centuries whose aim, in no uncertain terms, was to show why Christianity is
right and Islam is wrong.
This grab bag of colorful ecclesiastical characters includes John
Damascene, Theodore Abu Qurrah (a Melchite bishop in the ninth century who
wrote treatises against the Muslims in Arabic), Peter the Venerable, Raymond
Martini, Raymond Lull, Ricoldus de Monte Croce, Dionysius the Carthusian,
Cardinal Juan Torquemada, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, and even the Florentine
reformer Savonarola (of bonfire of the vanities fame).
At first blush, their work might seem an unpromising vein to tap as Pope
Benedict XVI tries to pick up the pieces following his controversial Sept. 12
comments on Islam. Yet whatever their limitations, the medieval apologists
represent the first sustained Christian attempt to grapple with the challenges
posed by Islam.
Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Jesuit widely considered one of Americas
premier Catholic theologians, believes a study of this history -- both its
strengths and its weaknesses -- can offer useful insights for Muslim/Christian
On Oct. 2, I sat down with Dulles, still going strong at 88, in his
office at Fordham University in the Bronx.
Back in 1971, Dulles published a unique survey titled A History of
Apologetics (revised in 2005). It reviews medieval Christian writing on
Islam, which often doesnt make for very edifying reading. Most apologists
were fairly crude in their critique, deriding the way Islam had spread by
the sword and even lampooning Muhammads multiple wives or his
earthy description of the afterlife. The title of one essay by Torquemada says
it all: Against the Principal Errors of the Miscreant Muhammad.
Yet this apologetic tradition can also exude a surprising
sophistication. Nicholas of Cusa, for example, produced Sifting the
Quran in the 15th century, which argues that the Quran may profitably be
used as an introduction to the Gospel, and praises the human and religious
virtues of Muslims. Peter the Venerable wrote in the 12th century that in
addressing Muslims, Christians should proceed not as our people often do,
by arms, but by words; not by force, but by reason; not in hatred, but in
The following are excerpts from the interview with Dulles.
NCR: What can we learn from the medieval
Dulles: For one thing, they made a serious effort to
understand the literature of Islam, usually in the original language. They were
pretty frank in their criticism, but at the same time they tried to be fair as
they understood it, and to base what they wrote on actual Islamic texts.
There was some very interesting work done, from John Damascene through Peter
the Venerable and later, which hasnt really been repeated. Much of this
was hostile, due to the situation in ancient Turkey and later in Spain. Yet
its also worth recalling that for centuries, Christians lived quite
freely under Muslim rule, practiced their faith, held high office, and were
close to the sovereigns. They had a civil, if not warm, relationship with
Muslims in the Near East.
One big question is whether problems with pluralism in Islamic
nations are due to historical, cultural and political factors, or something
intrinsic to Islam. You seem to be saying that a rough sort of religious
freedom was once the norm. Can that be done again?
I think it would be
possible to do it again. I certainly hope so, because its important that
it be done again. We have to do everything we can to encourage that. We also
have to remember our own history.
What do you mean?
Christianity was pretty violent itself in
the early Middle Ages, into the late Middle Ages. It really wasnt until
the experience of the wars of religion that we began to appreciate that
its not wise to try to use the sword to spread ones own religion,
in part because others will also use their swords to advance their religion.
This history is part of what brought religion into disrepute in the
Enlightenment. In some ways, were still paying a price for this history
of hostility -- between the Orthodox and Western Christians, Protestants and
Catholics, and between Christians and both Jews and Muslims. John Paul II did
everything he could to atone for that history, and to separate himself from
In your book, you said one failure of the medieval apologists was
that they didnt approach Islam as a living religion. What did you
Their writing was largely based on books they had read, rather
than actual contact with Muslims. This was especially true in the later period,
when you had people in France and England who were writing about Islam but who
really didnt have any contact at all with Muslim communities. So for them
Islam was largely an abstraction, without much complexity.
Some would say that this tendency to approach Islam almost
exclusively from its texts, not as a living religion, is true of Benedict XVI
as well. Is that fair?
Probably, yes. Of course, its often not
very easy to have dialogue with some Muslims. They generally consider dialogue
a sign of weakness, to admit that they might have something to learn. They will
confront you with the teaching of Islam, but they wont engage in what we
would consider dialogue. Often they wont even show up at meetings.
Isnt there a related problem, in that some of the Muslims who
do show up at dialogue meetings arent representative of mainstream
Yes, that can be a problem. I remember back in 1968, there was a
Christian/Muslim meeting at Woodstock that I attended. [Note: From 1966 to
1973, Dulles served as a consultor to the Papal Secretariat for Dialogue with
Non-Believers.] One of the Muslims had obviously read a lot of Kant, and the
whole thing struck me as a little phony. He had studied in the West, and
clearly didnt represent the Muslim tradition in a normative way.
To return to Pope Benedict, would it be helpful if he put himself in
contact more thoroughly with Islam as a living religion, meeting with
representative Muslim leaders?
Certainly, it would be helpful, and
its definitely worth trying. Im sure he would love to do that. I
believe the thinking around the Vatican these days is that the dialogue with
Islam should start with things like ecology, poverty, these sorts of common
human problems, before we get to more sensitive theological questions. This is
part of Benedicts emphasis on reason. His approach seems to be,
lets go as far as reason can take us before we get to these other
Aside from the controversy over the remarks on Islam, what did you
make of the Regensburg lecture?
I thought it was a very impressive
address. The pope went amazingly far in laying out the principles of tolerance.
It seems to me that hes read a lot of de Tocqueville, that he likes the
American system on these matters and is trying to apply it to Europe. The idea
is that theres a generic Christianity which is part of the culture.
Its not enforced by the government, but it has social influence because
its the dominant popular religion, while still allowing for diversity.
One finds this sort of generic biblical religion in the founding documents of
the United States. All this made the old European struggles to have either a
Protestant or a Catholic government unnecessary, because it doesnt make
so much difference who the ruler is. There is no automatic transfer
from the state to the society of an official creed, but the basic Jewish and
Christian values of biblical religion form the bedrock of the culture. I think
the Holy Father likes this model, which was expressed in the decree on
religious freedom at the Second Vatican Council.
John Allen is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is
National Catholic Reporter, November 3,