VATICAN CITY — Not only is there a good deal in common between Muslims and Christians, but Catholics are called to respect and work together with those who practise the Muslim faith in recognition of truth and goodness they do possess, said Islam scholar Fr Thomas Michel.
Fr Michel, who holds a PhD in Islamic Theology and worked under Pope John Paul II as head of the Vatican Office for Relations with Muslims, told CNA that Benedict XVI, like both St John Paul II and Pope Francis, have all repeated the same message regarding Muslims – that of the Second Vatican Council.
“The document Nostrae aetate says that the Church has ‘esteem’ for Muslims,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we should just tolerate Muslims or put up with Muslims. ‘Esteem’ means to try to see what people have that’s good and appreciate them for that.”
The major “common point” between Christianity and Islam, Fr Michel said, is that both faiths believe in the existence of only one God, and that both are trying to do what this one God wants.
Therefore, “how can we be enemies with people who are also, like us, trying to worship the one God?” he said. “Since the time of the Second Vatican Council, we’ve seen that part of our work as Christians is to be in dialogue with people of other faiths.”
“And this means not only talking to them and listening to them, but it also means cooperating with them, working together with them for good.”
This dialogue, Fr Michel emphasized, isn’t just about making peace with each other, although that is important, but is about “the kind of world we live in” and how that makes it important that we all come to know each other better.
Fr Michel noted that when the Fathers of the Council taught us, they didn’t deny the past conflict and tension between Catholics and Muslims, but they did say that it is in the past, and “what we have to do now is work together for the common good.”
The document Nostrae aetate is the declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions from the Second Vatican Council, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 28 October 1965.
Fr Michel referenced a part of the document that says that the Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”
“The Church, therefore,” it continues, “exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognise, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.”
Four ways we can collaborate with Muslims or those of other faiths, Fr Michel said, is by together working to build peace, and to promote social justice, “true human values”, and “true human freedom”.
A Jesuit, Fr Thomas Michel has lived and worked among Muslims himself for many years, particularly in Turkey. He first went to Indonesia, joining the order’s Indonesia Province, in 1969.
Fr Michel worked in the Vatican under Pope John Paul II from 1981-1994 as head of the Office for Relations with Muslims. From 2013-2016 he taught religious studies at the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University in Doha, Qatar.
For 2016-2017, Fr Michel joined the teaching staff at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome, where he gave a lecture on 23 February.
His lecture on Contemporary Islam, titled “A Christian Encounter with Said Nursi’s Risale-i Nur,” gave a Christian analysis of the Risale-i Nur Collection, an interpretation on the Qur’an written by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi between the 1910s and 1950s in Turkey.
Summing up the teachings in what is a 6,000 page collection, Fr Michel told CNA that Nursi “was trying to help Muslims live their faith in a lively way in modern terms”.
“He said you don’t have to live in the past, you don’t have to have nostalgia for earlier times”. The idea Nursi tried to convey, Fr Michel explained, is that modernity is not the enemy of faith, “but a patient in need of the spiritual medicine faith provides.”
Nursi said, according to Fr Michel, that “our enemies aren’t this group of people or that group of people”. Instead, he said our enemies are ignorance, poverty and disunity. And these are not only the enemies of Muslims, but of everyone.
Fr Michel said that Nursi taught that to fight these common enemies everyone must work together, using both faith and reason.
According to Fr Michel, there are somewhere around 5-12 million people who try to live the Qur’an according to the teachings of Nursi, depending on how you measure the level of commitment.
The majority of these Muslims are in Turkey, but some can be found in central Asia, places in Europe and even in the US. It isn’t a formal movement per se, but some people devote their lives to studying Nursi’s teachings and others try to study it in the midst of living their normal lives, he said.
If worried about Islamic extremists or that the Muslim religion will overwhelm Christian values in Western society, Fr Michel said to try to remember that in the case of refugees, they “want the same things that normal Americans want”.
They want “to raise their children to be good God-fearing people, and to have a life, to have a job, to enjoy simple enjoyments. They’re no different than we are,” he said.
He said that in his experience, those who have negative attitudes about Muslims have only experienced the religion through TV or the newspaper, but that those “who know Muslims… have a very different attitude”.
“I’ve lived among thousands of Muslims… The people that I’ve lived with in many different countries, they go from birth to death, and from children to grandchildren, and there’s no violence in their lives,” he said.
“The average Muslim sees Islam as a religion of peace”.