Guest Columnist The Muslim-Catholic forum: Can you name the animals?

Late last month, 24Catholic and 24 Muslim leaders, scholars, and educators met on the east bank of the Jordan River for the second of the two Catholic-Muslim forums, inaugurated by Benedict XVI in 2008 to encourage dialogue between the world's two largest religions. How much can be gained from such encounters is hard to say. But the extremely astute Father Samir Khalil Samir has said, "dialogue is better than indifference and reciprocal silence."

The forum's subject was "Reason, Faith, and Mankind," a highly important topic. King Abdullah saluted the participants: "the forum is the outcome of ongoing initiatives to foster concepts embraced by both Muslims and Christians. . . ." There certainly are things in common, principally in morals, but the sources of those morals differ significantly in terms of the authority on which they draw.

I often reflect upon the moving episode that my wife experienced in Cairo during the 1995 U.N. Population Conference. She and her colleagues from the National Institute of Womanhood were busy assembling papers opposing the U.N.'s pro-population control and abortion policies. The Muslim women staff of the hotel would voluntarily help my wife collate the sheets and assemble them for distribution. After several days, she tried to thank them. They responded, "Please don't thank us; we should thank you for coming here to help save our country."

I have also worked closely with Muslims both in the United States and in the Middle East. If they discern you are primarily motivated by moral concerns which they share, the walls of separation quickly come down.

But it can be difficult to go any further because of various theological problems. Thomas Aquinas counseled his fellow Dominicans about how to approach Muslims: you cannot appeal to them from our revelation, he said, because they do not accept it; and you cannot appeal to them from their revelation because we do not accept it; therefore, you must deal with them as natural men.

By this, of course, he meant appeal to their reason. The problem is whether Muslims accept themselves as natural men. Muslims believe that all men are naturally Muslims. If you are not a Muslim, it is probably because you have been apostasized by your parents. In this view, people do not convert to Islam so much as revert to it.

The essential issue here is the status of reason, which is why this latest forum was so important. Can we reason together? This was an issue Benedict XVI dealt with in the Regensburg Lecture. His answer: this is possible only in so far as we and they are “Hellenized,” which means that we both recognize reason as capable of apprehending reality.

Is this the case? On the Muslim side, Ibrahim Kalin, a Turkish philosopher, certainly thinks so. In Jordan, he said, "Islam largely shares this notion of rationality with Judaism and Christianity." According to The Tablet, he claimed that "the Qur'an teaches a natural law that would be quite familiar to Thomists. Charges of irrationality persist, he said, because Islam kept a balance of faith and reason while the Enlightenment tipped the focus of Western thought towards reason and science."

Would that this were so; then there could be a very deep dialogue, indeed. Unfortunately, Kalin omits that the one Muslim theological school that roughly fits his description, the Mu'tazilites of the early ninth century, were irreparably crushed, starting with caliph Al-Mutawikkil around the year 850 AD. This is the period of de-hellenization to which the Pope has referred.

After that, the notion of natural law became anathema in Islam, because of its view of God as omnipotent pure will, unconstrained by anything, including reason. Fire does not burn cotton; God does. Gravity does not make the rock fall; God does, etc. Rather than avoiding the Enlightenment, this form of Islamic occasionalism beat David Hume to the punch by some 800 years. The denial of cause and effect in the natural world eventually devastated the Muslim realm, which looked to Allah as the first and only cause of all things. To suggest otherwise became a form of blasphemy.

While I would agree that there are invitations to natural theology in the Qur'an, there are also several less inviting things. For instance, in the Qur'an's account of creation, there appears an interesting detail. In Genesis, God parades the animals in front of Adam, who then names them, and these names are what they are. In the Qur'an, it is Allah who names the animals, not man. Man does not have this power to name.

This is symptomatic of the difference between the two views of man in Genesis and the Qur'an. The power to name is, in a way, the power to know. Joseph Pieper once wrote, "Reality becomes intelligible through words. Man speaks so that through naming things what is real may become intelligible." If you cannot name a thing, can you know it? Can reality be intelligible to you without this power?

Actually, the situation in the Qur'an is even worse. The angels complain to Allah in Surah 2 about his having created Adam. Allah then challenges them to name these very same animals. The angels cannot do it, and respond: "Oh, Allah, You who know all things, You know we do not know; we know only what You have taught us."

Not even pure spirits have within their reason the ability to apprehend reality independent of what God himself directly places in their minds. This seemingly little detail foreshadows what later develops within Islam: the epistemological inability to grasp reality and to know only that which God himself has revealed. Islam thus loses rational access to reality through a deformed theology, which in turn has produced a dysfunctional culture.

Until these problems are addressed (the extent to which they still exist is displayed in the recent Arab elections), it will be very difficult to reason together.

First they have to be able to name the animals.

This column first appeared on the website The Catholic Thing ( Copyright 2011, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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