Fall 1982, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 209-221.

John Renard:
      A Contemporary Christian Response to Islam

As Christians gradually overcome ignorance about the millions of Muslims in the world, they will discover fellow pilgrims earnestly seeking God and desiring universal justice.

Father Renard, S.J., an Islamic scholar, teaches at St. Louis University in the Department of Theological Studies and also the Department of Art and Art History. This article is the second of two on Islam to appear in Spirituality Today; the first appeared in summer 1982.

A classic Islamic story tells of how the Prophet Abraham had the habit of never taking breakfast until some hungry wayfarer should happen along to share the meal with him. One morning Abraham waited a long time for a guest. When no traveler appeared on the horizon, Abraham decided to go out looking. Some distance away he came across an old man, tired and hungry. He brought the old man home and offered him breakfast. Abraham began to say the prayer before the meal. But when he noticed that his guest's lips were mouthing a different prayer, Abraham became incensed and drove the old man away. He would never share his breakfast with a fire-worshiper! Shortly thereafter, God reproached Abraham: "I have given this man life and food for a hundred years. Could you not give him hospitality for one hour, even if he does homage to fire?"

If we were to go in search of a breakfast guest now, our chances of bringing home a Muslim would be about one in six. By the year 2000 they will be about one in five. We would notice that our guest began with a prayer somewhat different from ours. We might well find ourselves confused, embarrassed, even frightened. And we would be in good company. As recently as 1975 printings of the documents of the Second Vatican Council have appeared in whose indices there is no mention of Islam.(1) In reference to the nearly three-quarters of a billion people who follow an ancient religious tradition, two editions use the term Moharnmedans, an appellation offensive to Muslims.(2) A 1966 volume entitled Vatican II: An Inter-faith Appraisal makes no mention whatsoever of things Islamic under any heading in its index.(3) Given that state of affairs in standard editions of what has become an important source book for twentieth-century Catholics, it is hardly surprising that we have heard so little in the way of attempts to arrive at a sympathetic understanding of Islam.

Vatican II devoted a little over two paragraphs explicitly to the religion of Islam, about as much as the indices might lead one to expect. The council's statements are not extensive; they are, however, significant. They are cautious and reserved, but they are also open-ended; and they signal a long overdue change of attitude from previous "official" pronouncements of the Catholic church concerning Islam. Long-standing prejudices of Christians against Muslims are at last becoming an embarrassment to us. That it has taken so long for Christians to awaken to the need for mutual understanding is itself a cause for reflection.

Perhaps the single most important statement in Vatican II's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions is this: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions" (739). Fortunately, the document does not go on to define in detail precisely what Christians ought to regard as true and holy in other religions. It would have been premature, if not entirely inappropriate, to set out in doctrinal fashion rigid guidelines for a field of investigation that is, practically speaking, only in its infancy. I would like to suggest, for our reflection here, some general criteria by which we might discern, first, what is true and holy for Muslims, and second, ways in which we might begin to consider Islam itself as true and holy.

The first item will demand a willingness on our part not to impose our religious or cultural frames of reference on the people of Islam. It will require unto challenge the assumption, all too prevalent among us, that to act in good faith is to see the world just as we do. The second item evokes from us the frank admission that we frequently identify what we perceive as "the true and the holy" with whatever makes us feel secure. I suggest that the call to become more explicitly aware of what we hold as true and holy virtually dares us to venture into the unknown. The true encompasses far more than merely those things we already feel sure of; and the experience of the holy includes an encounter with the awesome and terrifying as well as the attractive, fascinating, and consoling.

What I propose, therefore, is, first, to explore some ways in which a Christian may enter into the faith-world of Muslims without the feeling that he or she has compromised his or her own faith or backed away from personal commitment; and second, to describe four possible results of an encounter with Islam, ways in which an appreciation of that faith calls us to reexamine our faith, values, and view of planet Earth in the twentieth century. From the ways in which Muslims perceive and respond to God's "signs on the horizons" in their scripture and history, and in the individual believer, we may better understand what they hold to be true and holy. Those very perceptions and responses in turn pose for Christians a challenge, a risk, a source of encouragement, and an invitation to enlarge our perspective.


In its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Vatican II acknowledges Islam's esteem for a life of uprightness and justice, and its worship of the Creator "especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds, and fasting." The council describes Islam's belief in God as "one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth," who has spoken to humankind. Muslims strive "to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God" (739-40). In addition, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church very significantly accords "first place" to Muslims among those who "together with us" acknowledge the Creator, the "one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day" (367).

According to the Qur'an, God offered to Heaven and Earth the "Trust" of watching over creation. Heaven and Earth were afraid to accept the Trust, so God offered it to humankind. When God told his angels he was preparing to entrust creation to Adam as his representative (literally, caliph), they warned the Creator that human beings would surely act unjustly and shed blood. But God assured the angels that the risk he was about to take was a worthy one, for he had called forth from the newly created body of Adam all of his yet unborn descendants and had asked them, "Am I not your Lord?" And they had responded as one, "Yes, we are witnesses to that" (Qur'an 33:72, 2:30, 7:172).

Humanity's uncoerced acceptance of responsibility for creation and free acknowledgment of God as Lord are two crucial indications of how Muslims are called to find the true and holy in the created world. Human freedom in choosing the responsibility is further emphasized by the Qur'an's frequent use of the word perhaps, usually followed by verbs of knowing, recognizing, understanding, and thanking, in connection with the revelation of God's signs. God knew that he was taking a calculated risk: perhaps his creatures would perceive and respond, perhaps not.

A number of enormously important social and moral issues lie beneath the surface of this beautiful Qur'anic imagery. What are the attitudes of Muslims toward this world, toward the search for new learning, human equality, religious freedom, societal roles, peace, the value of human life itself? What, in other words, do Muslims regard as true and holy in creation? There are, of course, as many individual attitudes as there are Muslims. But I would like to respond in general to some of these questions, and to others like them as they arise in the context of our later discussion of Islamic confessional and personal concerns. I will in each instance first indicate some common Western stereotypes, and then suggest some possible responses consonant with the values and aspirations of Muslims themselves. One need hardly mention that among Muslims, as among all mortals, ideals are always a step ahead of realities.

It is often said that Muslims are overwhelmingly fatalistic, and that they regard the state of the world and the human predicament as immutable effects of an omnipotent Creator's fixed preordained decrees. Hence, nothing can be done to alleviate human suffering or to better the lot of humankind. While it is true that among Muslims, as among Christians, there has been the option of a deterministic brand of thought that says, "Life is what it is," there has also been ample room and reason for the conviction that life is what we make of it. In our time Muslims are emphasizing the latter approach more and more, persuaded that Islam is in no way inimical to genuine progress, whether social, intellectual and cultural, or scientific. What we Americans, especially, often regard as a refusal to enter the twentieth century is in fact the growing resolve not to be dominated by those who may be inclined to market the tools of progress at a price that far exceeds their dollar amounts. Too often in the past foreign technologies have been purchased at the cost of sovereign rule and freedom from outside interference. Muslims today desire to know and mold this world, so long as the signs that human beings erect on the horizons do not threaten to efface God's signs.

Non-Muslim Westerners have not infrequently charged that Islam fosters repression, specifically, that it does not guarantee the religious freedoms of non-Muslims living in predominantly Muslim lands, and that women in Islamic societies are deprived of social equality and the liberty to pursue careers outside the home. Several years ago, Pakistan hosted an International Islamic Seminar on the Application of the Revealed (that is, Islamic religious) Law. In a statement that amounts to a kind of response to these charges the Seminar declared: " . . . the Islamic code of life lays down not only moral, but also social, economic, political, cultural and educational norms and rules based on the principles of equality, brotherhood and social justice . . . . the Islamic code is designed to create a just and free society in which every individual enjoys equal rights and equal opportunities regardless of rank, birth, caste, colour, or creed."(4)

The Seminar could not, and did not, presume to speak officially for every Muslim on earth; and the issue of religious pluralism is one with which predominantly and "officially" Islamic nations, such as Malaysia, must continue to deal honestly. But I believe it is important for Western Christians to be aware that Muslims across the world are actively seeking to promote the ideal of equality.

Westerners often misunderstand the status of women in Islam. Often having in mind some dreamlike image such as stories of the Thousand and One Nights might conjure up, Westerners who fail to take a hard look at their own societal values will conclude categorically that all Muslim women are confined to the harem and restricted to rigidly traditional roles. To the extent that Muslim women do play more "traditional" roles, however, they do so for reasons not unlike those that continue to cast non-Muslim women in similar roles. Those reasons are not fundamentally and essentially religious in either case, though they have often been backed up in both Muslim and non-Muslim societies by ostensibly religious argumentation that does a disservice to both women and religion. At the root of the issue is the nature of traditional societies, or views of society that are tradition oriented. In a marvelous new book called Women in Islam: Tradition and Transition in the Middle East, Naila Minai, a Turkish Muslim woman, has presented various facets of this issue in a delightfully balanced fashion.(5) I do not intend to attempt an answer here to this very complex issue. I merely wish to suggest that it is a human issue, not a specifically Islamic problem. St. Paul's recommendations that women keep silent have sometimes been invoked inappropriately among Christians. But occasional attempts to enforce strict adherence to Paul's first-century injunctions do not mean that Christianity is inherently intolerant of women's rights. The same may be said about Islam.

"Life seems to be awfully cheap over there," I have heard many Americans observe, usually in reference to the Middle East. Statements of this sort often veil an insinuation that the religion of Islam tolerates, even promotes, assassinations and social upheavals. Many people whose only exposure to Islam has come through the print and electronic news media have felt themselves advised, at least indirectly, not to be too surprised if a "holy war" should break out at almost any moment somewhere in the Islamic world. One hears, for example, that Iran and Iraq are fighting a holy war with each other, or that Libya's leader preaches the need for a holy war against Israel. But who among us is ready to blame Christianity for the battling between Christian and Muslim groups in Lebanon, or for the fighting in Northern Ireland or El Salvador? The Arabic word jihad, which long but misdirected custom usually translates as "holy war," means a justifiable struggle against injustice and oppression -- simply that. It enshrines a moral imperative that is by no means uniquely Islamic. Most important, Muslims do not like war any more than we do, and they never have. What is true and holy for Muslims in this respect, then, is the need to strive for justice and peace. The age-old immediate association of "holy war" and its manifold negative connotations with Islam is the result of an unhappy caricature of the people of Islam.


"Islamic fundamentalism" has lately become almost a code phrase employed to epitomize what many non-Muslims have come to equate with the sum total of Islam's religious potential. Muslims are often regarded as essentially or naturally "fundamentalistic." Whatever else one might think of the word fundamentalism when it is used alone or as a description of some Christian approach to faith, when the term is linked with Islam it becomes a one-word description of all that is "wrong" with Islam. It is true that the news media generally speak of groups of Islamic fundamentalists within nations such as Egypt or Iran. But I cannot escape the impression that many listeners immediately label the entire society in question as fundamentalistic (read "backward and medieval"). The problem lies in the use of the term as a blanket univocal characterization of whole Muslim societies and of Islam in general.

Perhaps the difficulty stems from the imprecision with which the term fundamentalistic is applied. As one Muslim scholar, Dr. Fazlur Rahman of the University of Chicago, describes it, fundamentalism is an active force standing midway between "conservative placidity and the uncontrolled pioneering adventures of liberalism."(6) Very different from what an American Christian might think of as fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism properly understood developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a protest against what Rahman calls Westernism, "the projection of Western modernity into non-Western societies."(7) Two things need to be noted here. First, fundamentalism in Islam is not precisely the same as the fundamentalism commonly predicated of certain Christian constituencies. Second, there are now, and always have been, other religious and social options available to Muslims. I do not intend to take a position here either for or against Islamic fundamentalism properly so-called. I merely wish to single out the term as one that must be applied with care if we are to avoid unfair stereotypes of Islam.

At various moments in Islamic history, the need to reinterpret the Qur'an in the light of changing social and political circumstances has provoked very agitated intramural debate. Whatever the "orthodox" opinion has been at any given period, there have always been alternative views. What is most true and holy for Muslims is, of course, the word of God itself. But that scripture cautions that some of its verses are clear and others ambiguous. It goes on to warn against seizing only upon the ambiguous verses and interpreting them according to whim or taste, as a way of avoiding a confrontation with the hard reality of the clear verses (Qur'an 3:7). The question, however, of which verses are to be considered categorical and which susceptible of various interpretations continues to arise. All in all, there have been and still are about as many different schools of thought among Muslims as there are among Christians as to how to hear and respond to God's word in the twentieth century.

One of the Qur'an's most beautiful images suggests that there is more to God's revelation than even the scripture can contain: "If all the trees on the earth were pens, and all the oceans ink, and seven times that, they would not be able to record the words of God" (Qur'an 31:27; see also 18:109). Muslims believe God still speaks through the medium of Islamic history. Revelation is not a status quo. It is a call to conversion, a summons to "command the good and forbid the evil," an exhortation to sincerity and right intention. As the Vatican II documents indicate, the historic vocation of Islam looks both back to Abraham, "to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own" (367, 740), and forward, "for they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead" (740).

Survival through the vicissitudes of their history as a community of faith has demanded of Muslims the very same humble admission of their need for God's forgiveness and the very same openness to renewal in faith that are encumbent on Christians. What remains true and holy to Muslims as a community ideal is the responsibility to carry into the future the burden of the Qur'an's legacy, to fashion a just and compassionate society, to attempt the "steep ascent."

And what will make clear to you what the steep ascent is? It is the freeing of a slave, and the feeding in time of need a kindred orphan, or someone needy and downtrodden. Then is an individual one of those who believe, those who encourage one another to persevere, those who enjoin upon one another deeds of mercy. (Qu~an 90:12-17)


In recent years a number of autobiographical works have begun to make available to English readers the personal experiences of individual Muslims. They are the kind of contact we need because they can show us Muslims, no longer merely as ciphers in an alien land, but as individual human beings whose life experiences are both like and unlike our own. The Moroccan Driss Chraibi, Taha Husayn of Egypt, Muhammad Ali of India, and the American Malcolm X tell us of the tension in a young man's life when he leaves North Africa to study in Paris, of growing up in a traditional Egyptian village, of a political prisoner's rediscovering the Qur'an, of a black American's struggle to discover authentic Islam.(8) Reading about individual Muslims can never substitute for actually meeting and knowing them personally, but it is a start. Though it may be obvious, I must mention that Christians need to encounter the people of Islam in a way that is more direct and personal than that afforded by the news media, which for a variety of reasons lump all Muslims into a homogeneous mass and seldom present them in a very favorable light. There are, for example, Libyans who do not hate Jews, Iranians who do not hate Americans, Pakistanis who do not hate Hindus, Palestinians who have no desire to see Israeli blood run in the streets of Old Jerusalem. Stereotyping is easy but demeaning. We have never met each other!

What is true and holy for the individual Muslim? How does he or she perceive God's signs within the self? I can hardly speak about the personal spiritual lives of any one Muslim, let alone all. A glimpse at some of the rich imagery available to Muslims through Islamic tradition may, nevertheless, give some inkling of the possibilities.

A recurrent theme in much Islamic spiritual literature is the difficulty of reconciling the notion of an utterly transcendent God with the desire for a personal relationship between Creator and creature. The language of the Qur'an leaves an awesome impression of God's sublimity and grandeur, but the tradition of Islamic spirituality has also focused in on such scriptural verses as: "Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God" (2:109) and: "We are closer to the person than the jugular vein" (50:16). Later tradition has developed the Qur'anic intimations of divine immanence, attributing to the Prophet Muhammad such sayings as: "Who knows oneself knows one's Lord." According to the noted Islamicist Annemarie Schimmel, many Islamic mystics have interpreted the saying "as a condensation of the basic experience of the mystical path as a way inward, an interiorization of experience, a journey into one's own heart."(9) Whether or not an individual Muslim qualifies as a mystic, the important point is that the tradition allows considerable scope for the believer who longs to know, and be known by, God more intimately. Other sayings of this sort are ascribed to God himself. For example: "I fulfill My servant's expectation of Me" and: "Though the heavens and the earth cannot contain Me, there is room for Me in the heart of the believer." These quotations indicate an interiority that descriptions of Islam too often do not include.

The Qur'an describes Muslims as "those who believe and do good works." A matter on which I have already touched briefly, and which naturally arises again in the context of the relationship between the omnipotent Master and the needy, powerless servant, is that of human freedom. Muhammad is reported to have said, "The heart of the believer is between the two fingers of the Merciful." The saying leaves little room for doubt that it is God who both proposes and disposes; but, like many verses in the Qur'an that speak of God's will and power, this saying is a hint at who God is rather than at what the human being is not. The divine-human relationship remains a mystery and cannot be explained away by a logic that would exonerate the human person of responsibility with an appeal to the all-sufficiency of divine initiative. "Anyone who denies God's decree is an unbeliever, but anyone who claims he does not sin is a liar."

One of the most frequently used images in Islamic spiritual writing is that of the heart as a mirror. The heart must be polished continually so that, free of the rust and tarnish of self-absorption, it may reflect the light of God. Living in community with other believers is an indispensable means of polishing, for "the believer is the mirror of the believer." In the spirit of this last Prophetic Tradition, the Muslim who discerns a fault in a fellow Muslim can be sure that it is precisely that weakness that threatens to mar the clarity of his or her own heart.

If one may speak of a moral and spiritual exemplar for the individual Muslim, a paradigm against which to assess one's own growth in faith and conduct, it is surely the Prophet Muhammad. Few personalities have been dealt a more ample dose of vituperation and calumny over the centuries from the pens of Christian writers than Muhammad. We have seriously misunderstood the man and his meaning for scores of millions of Muslims. Vatican II does not mention Muhammad at all, perhaps out of a desire to avoid any semblance of controversy over Christian belief in the finality of Christ, as against the Muslim belief that God delivered the climactic revelation through Muhammad. But one simply cannot understand Islam without appreciating the place of the Prophet and his family as role-models for countless individual Muslims. Jesus and the other pre-Islamic prophets also hold an exemplary place in Islamic spirituality. As Vatican II acknowledges, Muslims do not consider Jesus divine but hold him in the profoundest reverence, along with his Virgin Mother Mary (after whom a chapter of the Qur'an is named). The council's statement, in the 1975 edition used here, that Muslims "worship" Jesus as a prophet is misleading. Muslims worship God alone; prophets they revere and seek to emulate (740).(10) Muslims see in Muhammad a human being who was the finest product of our race -- a man in every way and no more, but eminently worthy of imitation.


What then has Islam to say to us? I believe that Islam is itself one of God's signs. Its implications for us as individuals, as Christians, and as members of the human community are enormous. Islam is a challenge, a risk, a source of encouragement, and a summons to take a bigger view of what life on our planet is about. The way we respond to Islam will have a great deal to do with what we consider true and holy.

Jesus challenged the people of his time not to be complacent about being the "chosen" people. He challenged them to read the signs of the times. The question for us now is this: How big are we prepared to allow God to be? How expansive his love? Islam brings that challenge into sharp relief. It may give us cause to ask ourselves whether we have taken refuge behind the ramparts of religion in order not to have to deal with so many millions of people who do not think as we do. If religion comes between us and God's other children, it may also come between us and God. Religion, too, can become an idol, a veil, a security blanket.

With every challenge goes risk. In St. John's Gospel Jesus tells the Samaritan woman: "The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father .... The hour is coming, and it is now, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him" (4:21, 23). It may seem that we are risking a compromise of our religious values, but the challenge does not call for a diminishing of our Christian commitments. It does, however, call us to loosen our grip on the familiar, on our Gerizims and our Jerusalems. Spirit and truth are uncharted territory. To trust in God to guide us through -- that is the risk.

My own experience of studying Islam full-time for the past eight years has been extraordinarily positive. It has been an experience of hope, encouragement, and profound consolation. If our faith in God as Father tells us anything immediately germane to the difficulties of coping with life in the twentieth century, it tells us we must trust our experience now. And one of the increasingly evident factors in that experience is our world's religious pluralism. Instead of becoming discouraged that so much of humanity is not Christian and is not likely to become Christian in the immediate future, we can be encouraged that so vast a multitude who call themselves Muslims seek God with a sincere heart. I am as grateful for the prayers of my Muslim friends as for those of my Christian friends; for when a devout Muslim prays, the result is prayer.

Finally, the fact of Islam is a call to a conversion more radical than any transfer of religious allegiance. It is a call to expanded awareness. Islam is not off in someone else's world. It is part of our own, a chapter in the human story. Vatican II has summed up the need for a new vision in these words: "Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all . . . , let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values" (740).

The prophet Isaiah, too, reminds us of God's global vision: "I will say to the north, Give them up; and to the south, Do not hold back. Bring my sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is named as mine, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made" (43:6-7).

May God's vision be our own.

  1. See, for example, Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Costello Publishing Co., 1975), the translation of which I have used throughout this article. Hereafter page references to this translation will appear in parentheses in the text. See also The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter Abbott (New York: America Press, 1966).
  2. Both editions listed above do so, the first giving "Mohammedans: see Muslins" (sic). In fairness to the editors, it may be that they used the term Mohammedan because they felt people would look under that reference first, so widespread is the use of the term, whereas not nearly as many people ordinarily speak of the members of Islam as Muslims. Mohammedan is offensive because it suggests that Muslims are primarily followers of Muhammad, and even leads some to believe that Muhammad is identical with "Allah"!
  3. Ed. John Miller (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966).
  4. Printed in Hamdard Islamicus 2, no. 4, p. 98.
  5. Naila Minai, Women in Islam (New York: Seaview Books, 1981).
  6. Fazlur Rahman, Islam (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1968), p. 274.
  7. Ibid. Rahman says Westernism is equivalent to "pure secularism" in this context (p. 275).
  8. Driss Chraibi, Heirs to the Past, trans. Len Ortzen (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971); Taha Husayn, An Egyptian Childhood, trans. E. H. Paxton (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1932); Muhammad Ali, My Life, A Fragment, ed. Afzal Iqbal (Lahore, Pakistan: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf, 1942); Malcolm X (with Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965).
  9. Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 190.
  10. The 1966 version edited by W. Abbott translates the Latin by "revere" instead of "worship" (p. 663) and is thus more accurate.