Christians and Muslims: Is there Any Common Ground? - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Christians and Muslims: Is there Any Common Ground?

From the Christian perspective, it seems that there is little dispute over the necessity of dialogue between Christianity and Islam, the world’s two largest religions.However, do Christianity and Islam share similar conceptions as to what constitutes the common good and justice that could render such dialogue fruitful? The urge to answer in the positive is so great as to make these questions seem almost rhetorical. However, they are not. They require careful examination in order not to lose sight of essential principles.

It is one thing – and it is a very big thing – to set aside or overcome historical grudges and ignorance; it is another to ascertain if the profoundly different anthropologies in Christianity and Islam meet in a common notion of a human being who possesses “inalienable rights.”  In Christian anthropology, man is created in God’s image and called to share God’s life.  Both of these notions are anathema to Islam, which considers them blasphemous.

It is standard Muslim rhetoric to refer to Judaism and Christianity as Abrahamic faiths.  However, the real question is not whether Christianity and Islam share a common origin in Abraham, whom Islam claims as a Muslim, but whether or not they share a God who is Logos – the Greek word for word or reason. The answer to this question, raised so powerfully by Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture, is really what will determine the possibility and nature of any Christian-Muslim dialogue.

The Gospel of St. John begins by stating that Christ is Logos. If Christ is Logos, if God introduces himself as ratio, then God is not only all-powerful, He is reason. For a time in the ninth century, a similar view held sway in Islam according to the prevailing Mu’tazilite theology, which had been influenced by Greek philosophy. This was the period of Islam’s all too brief hellenization. The Mu’tazilites, too, held that God is reason. They emphasized most particularly God’s rationality and justice. Man’s reason is a gift from God, who expects man to use it to come to know Him. Through reason, man is also able to understand God as manifested in his creation and to apprehend the moral law, which it is incumbent upon man to follow with the gift of his free will. This is true of all men, they said, not just of Muslims. This conception of God makes dialogue possible because it asserts the primacy of reason.

The Closing of the Muslim Mind

Unfortunately, the Mu’tazilites were suppressed during the reign of Caliph Ja’afar al-Mutawakkil (847-861), who made holding the Mu’tazilite doctrines a crime punishable by death. The long process of dehellenization and its resulting ossification began.

The opponents of Mu’tazalites were called the Ash’arites, after al-Ash’ari, who denied all the principal Mu’tazilite tenets. Al-Ash’ari denounced the Mu’tazilite teaching that, through his unaided reason, man can come to know the differences between good and evil. He claimed that there is nothing to be known in terms of moral philosophy because things are neither good nor bad in themselves. They have no nature, so there is nothing in them that could lead one to discern that this is good, or that is bad. In other words, the Ash‘arites would say: God does not forbid murder because it is bad; it is bad because He forbids it. Telling lies is not evil in itself. It is only evil because God says not to lie. However, He could change his mind tomorrow and make lying obligatory.

God is absolute power and pure will. He is not bound by anything and He can do anything. He is unaccountable. God is above or without reason; therefore, you cannot use reason to understand God or to constrain what He may do by some idea of what is just or reasonable. You cannot say that there is anything unreasonable in what He might do, such as oblige you to engage in lying or even ritual murder. His will is what is just by definition, no matter what He wills. Unlike the Mu‘tazalites, the Ash‘arites said that revelation in the Qur’an does not reveal what is good and evil; it constitutes what is good and evil. Furthermore, it is the sole source of this knowledge, which is unavailable to reason.

God is omnipotent to the extent that no other thing is so much as potent. This extends to the fact of denying secondary causality – no cause and effect in the natural world. There is solely the first and only cause — the prime cause: Allah, who does everything directly. Fire does not burn cotton; God does. Gravity does not make the rock fall; God does. To suggest otherwise would mean that Allah is not omnipotent because the secondary causes would exist somehow semi-autonomously apart from Him.

Therefore, there are no laws of nature that inhere in things themselves and make them what they are. Things have nothing within themselves; they have no nature. They are only momentary juxtapositions of time-space atoms that God has agglomerated in a certain way for the instant, and there is no telling what they may become in the next instant.

Everything is Miraculous, and Incomprehensible

Ash’arite metaphysics robs reality of its integrity and man of his freedom.  Reality has no standing of its own on which one can rely. One instantaneous expression of God’s will is replaced by the next instantaneous expression, with nothing connecting them other than God’s determination. Everything is miraculous. As a result, things become incomprehensible. Reason loses its purchase on reality.

God, in turn, becomes a legal positivist. In Aristotelian terms, justice is giving to things what is due them according to what they are. In other words, in order to act justly, one must first know what things are. It is exactly this knowledge that the Ash‘arites said is unavailable to man. You cannot know what things are in themselves, because there is no “in themselves.” Because of this, a work such as Aristotle’s The Ethics, the essential work of moral philosophy, would be impossible. Reality is unknowable, and there is nothing to be known. The primacy of reason is replaced by the primacy of will and force.

The Ash’arite strain of thinking, which became predominant in Sunni Islam, can be traced through the centuries to the present day. The triumph of the Ash’arite school so influenced the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East, that the development of science was stillborn, translation efforts were curtailed, philosophy was banned, and theology degenerated into the enumeration of divine Sharia rules for everything. The Muslim mind closed in a profound way. The effects of this closure pervade the Muslim world to this day, and present enormous obstacles to Christian-Muslim dialogue. The contrast with Christianity can be stated thusly:

In Christianity, God’s reason is antecedent to his will, meaning his will proceeds from his reason – and therefore his law is not – cannot be according to his essence – arbitrary. In the predominant Ash‘arite form of Islam, God’s reason is consequent to his will, meaning reason becomes a product of irrationality, and God’s law turns into caprice.

The question then becomes: How do we think about the common good and justice with the mental horizon so circumscribed on one side of the conversation?  If the common good and justice are solely defined by revelation, and the revelations differ, how can mutual ground be found?  If nothing is obligatory by reason, what will act as an arbitrator in the dialogue?  How, with the loss of philosophy, epistemology and ethics, can we reason together?  Without these disciplines, it is hard to envisage upon what basis meaningful interfaith dialogue with Islam could take place.

The single most surprising, and disappointing, thing about the various Christian-Muslim dialogue efforts is that the topic of the need for a re-hellenization of Islam – a restoration of philosophy and critical thinking – is almost never addressed in a major, serious way. Yet it is upon this that the future of real dialogue depends. The year before becoming Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that, “without peace between reason and faith, there cannot be peace at the world level, because without peace between reason and religion, the very sources of morals and the rule of law dry out.”

As contentious as the Regensburg Lecture may have seemed to many in the Muslim world and elsewhere, it was necessary. Islam needs peace within itself along the very lines which Ratzinger laid out– a peace between reason and faith. The lack of that peace is at the source of the strife in the Muslim world today.  Islam is at war with itself.  To pretend otherwise does a disservice to Muslims and Christians alike. Of course, if reason is reduced to a “Western concept,” this peace will never happen, which is why reason’s integrity must be insisted on by both sides in the dialogue. The Christian side is ready for this conversation. So are a number of Muslims who share the same diagnosis of the ills of our time. With them, one can share a very real dialogue. Unfortunately, another part of Islam won’t talk with them, or us.


This article is based on the monograph The Prospects and Perils of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, forthcoming in January from Isaac Publishing, sponsored by The Faith and Reason Institute and The Westminster Institute. Robert R. Reilly is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, from ISI Press.

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