Ejaz Akram interviews two prominent scholars, one Muslim and one Roman Catholic, on the relationship between Islam and Christianity. They discuss the relationship between Islam and Christianity, and explore the possibilities of a dialogue
Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He has authored some 40-plus books and over 500 articles.
Ejaz (E): What is the nature of Muslim-Christian dialogue? At this point in history, where do we seem to be heading in resolving differences with the Christians?
Seyyed Hossein Nasr (SHN): Bismillah Al Rahman Al Rahim. There are several planes on which relationships are taking place between Christianity and Islam. There is a plane of search for mutual understanding, a plane of rivalry, and the plane of out-and-out conflict and confrontation. For example, you can take the events in East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechenya. I shall leave the open political confrontation aside, which is another issue.
However, as far as religious relationships between Islam and Christianity [are concerned], since World War II, there has been more of an attempt on behalf of mainstream Christian churches. Not the evangelical movements. Mainstream Catholicism and Protestantism, and during the last 10 years, also the Orthodox Churches. This came first from the Christian side, not because of any external factor but because of the inner need of Christian theology to confront this issue because of the break-up of the homogeneity of the religious atmosphere in the West. Also, gradually the Muslims began to take interest in this.
E: In Islam, we have a very respectful treatment of Jesus Christ in the Qur'an, while Christians do not have the same regard for prophet Muhammad. Keeping in view also the Christian doctrine of no salvation outside of the church, do you think it makes it difficult for the Christians to achieve a dialogue?
SHN: It makes it very difficult for them. In the whole [issue] of confrontation or discussion between Christianity and Islam, it is easier for Islam to have a dialogue than the other religions. First of all, the Qur'an has a universal perspective concerning revelation, which practically no other sacred scripture emphasizes to the same extent. The Qur'an is explicit in stating that God has created different peoples, different religions, who should vie with each other in goodness and virtue.
So, there is a direct assertion that God has sent prophets and messengers to every people. In addition to that, Islam pays special respect to the Christ, which makes it easier for Muslims to confront this situation than it is for Christians. Christianity is a religion in which, as usually understood, the vision of the world is Christocentric and not Theocentric. Although, in their mind God and Christ are the same, everything is absorbed in Christ. However, there is another fundamental problem, which is more difficult. There are a few Muslims who are modernized and who say things that a vast majority of the Islamic community would not accept. Of course, they are the darlings for the West. But they are irrelevant, because their views do not have any relationship with the vast majority of the people in the Muslim world. On the Christian side, the situation is more difficult. Christian theology itself has been affected a great deal during the last few centuries (and especially the last century) by elements outside the context of Christianity. It has been affected by philosophy, science, anthropology, psychology, and sociology--and God knows what!
The positions, which one is trying to come to terms with, are themselves fluid. For example, all Muslims accept the authority of the Qur'an, accept that Christ--peace be upon him--was born of a virgin mother. Anyone who does not accept the virginity of Sayyidatana Maryam is not a believing Muslim, because he does not believe in the text of the Qur'an. Whereas many Christians think Mary's virginity is just a metaphor, and one could go down the line and count many such errant positions. So, who are the Muslims debating with becomes the overriding question for such a dialogue.
Despite the onslaught of modernism in the Islamic world, it is theologically still orthodox and traditional. For all the Muslim adherents of that position, God still sits on his throne and his divine names are still the divine names. Muslims are not worried about the gender or the race of God. They are unanimous on the question of revelation, and you have people with a common worldview. On the other side, we have Christianity, which is a religion that has succumbed to the fashions of the day. Not all the Christians, but a vast majority of them have given in to modernism. And therefore, they keep reformulating Christian theology every few years. This makes it much more difficult to have a really profound discourse.