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A Christian explains his faith to MuslimsTHOMAS MICHEL, S.J.
CHAPTER I INTRODUCTION A. The purpose of this book This book has been written mainly for Muslim students who intend to study the Christian religion in the context of the History of Religions or Comparative Religion. As a believing Christian, I hope to give an inside view of how Christians understand their own religion. Since the book is written from this starting point, its emphasis will be different from the many apologetic and polemical books which have been written by Christians down through the centuries. Some of the subjects which historically have been central to ChristianMuslim debates will receive relatively little attention here, simply because they are not at the heart of what Christian faith means to those who practice it. Nevertheless, I will try to take into consideration the questions which Muslims have asked me in the context of university courses or informally outside class and those that have been raised in articles and books. Muslims are highly critical, with good reason, of many Orientalist writings on Islam which they feel give a distorted view of what Muslims actually believe and live. Often these Orientalist scholars are not consciously trying to give an unbalanced presentation of Islam. More frequently, these nonMuslim writers on Islam are unconsciously bringing their own concerns, preconceptions, and emphases and applying them to their study of Islam. The result, however, is that a Muslim who reads such works may have difficulty recognizing his faith in what he reads. The same is the case with Christians. We often find that works written by nonChristians fail to express the same concerns that we Christians speak and pray about and often debate heatedly among ourselves. I hope that through this book Muslim students will come to know better how Christians understand their own faith. In this work, I am not going to try to persuade anyone that Christianity is true and that Islam or any other religion is in error. I should state at the beginning, however, that I am a believing Christian and, as such, I believe in what is taught by the Christian faith. Any truly religious person, Christian or Muslim, believes that his or her faith offers a comprehensive answer to the important questions of human life: where do we come from, where are we going, and how should we live during our time on this planet. It is natural that every believer believes that their path is the true
religious response to what God has revealed to us. If anyone believed that some other religion offered the final answers to life and the way to God in a way more acceptable than ones own, that person should properly change their religion and follow that which he or she considers more convincing, more correct. In fact, history has shown that the number of sincere, conscientious Christians or Muslims who convert to another religion is very few. For reasons of marriage, professional advancement, cultural assimilation, or social pressure, individuals have in the past and even today occasionally change from one religion to another. But among those who believe deeply in their faith and follow its teachings carefully, there are not many who convert to another religion. The reason is obvious: when a person has encountered God and Gods message through ones religious practice, the person feels no need to begin to search for God elsewhere. I have no doubt that God has touched the lives of millions of Muslims and Christians precisely through the religious teachings, books, and rites of Islam or Christianity, and for such people God is to be found within the context of their Islamic or Christian faith. I do not mean that Islam and Christianity are basically the same religion, or that there are no real differences between the two. There are real differences, and Muslims and Christians must not minimize or ignore these differences when we encounter each other. The differences are painful, because humanly we always want those whom we live with and care about to think and act the same way as ourselves. For religious believers, the fact that others do not follow our path to God is especially painful, because we all consider our faith as a treasure to be shared, the greatest gift which we can offer to our immediate neighbors and even to the whole world. Studying together the differences between our two faiths can have positive results. We come to a renewed appreciation for what is unique in our own religious path, and we return to God grateful for the faith with which we have been blessed. We also grow in respect for the sincere convictions of others, even though those be different from our own. We understand better why others act the way they do, how they view life and its problems, and we realize better something of our common humanity before God. On the other hand, we must not concentrate solely on the differences. I am convinced that in many of the deepest, most important elements of our beliefs and religious experience, Muslims and Christians are one. When Christians and Muslims engage in a study of each others religion, they often experience a great sense of discovery of how much they have in common. It is frequently the case that the different terminology used by each group can mask ideas about God and human life which are in fact quite similar. They can also have the opposite experience. In learning more about the religion of the other, the Christian or Muslim sometimes discovers that similar or identical terms can refer to very different concepts. One fruit of ChristianMuslim dialogue is learning to delineate more exactly the areas of convergence and divergence between the two faiths.
This is the very limited purpose of this book: not conversion, not polemics, but a simply deeper understanding of what Christians believe and how our religion leads us to live. I would consider my efforts successful if this book might inspire other Muslims and Christians to write their own works and explain their faith to each other in a spirit of friendship. I certainly do not consider this little book to be the last word on Christian faith and I, along with many other Christians, would welcome the opportunity to learn more about Islam from Muslim friends who are committed believers. An oft-repeated saying holds: the more thoroughly we understand the faith of another, the better we come to understand our own. In my own life, this has certainly been the case. I consider it to have been a great blessing from God that for the past 30 years, I have lived among Muslims, have had the opportunity to study the Quran and the works of the Islamic tradition, and have been able to spend many hours discussing with Muslims questions of Christian and Islamic faith. B. Introducing the author At this point, I should introduce myself. I am a Catholic priest, originally from St. Louis, Missouri, in the U.S.A. As a priest, I do not have a wife or children. My parents died some years ago, but I have a brother and two sisters, who are married and have children and grandchildren. In order to become a priest, I studied philosophy for four years and then Catholic theology for four years. The theology studies included the Bible; dogmatic theology, which is a systematic presentation of Catholic faith; moral theology or Christian ethics; history of the Christian church; patristics, which is the study of the early Christian thinkers; and spiritual theology or the practice of trying to follow Jesus Christ perfectly. After working for two years as a parish priest in America, I went to Indonesia to teach English in a teachers college. Many of my students were Muslims, and through them I became interested in learning more about Islam. Some Muslim students suggested that I do Islamic studies, so that as a teacher I could serve as a bridge between the Christian and Muslim communities, helping Christians to know more about the faith of Islam, and helping Muslims to come to a better understanding of the Christian faith. Thus began the work I have been engaged in for the past 30 years. In 1971, I went to Lebanon to study Arabic. After a year there, I entered the University of Chicago in order to study under Professor Fazlur Rahman, whose writings on Islam had greatly impressed me. In the course of my studies, I spent two years in Cairo deepening my knowledge of Arabic and attending lectures on Islamic themes at universities in the city. I returned to the University of Chicago to work on the topic of my doctoral dissertation, which was Ibn Taymiyyas great critique of the Christian religion, Aljawab al-sahih li-man baddal din al-Masih. This required extensive reading in the many writings of Ibn Taymiyya and other great Muslim thinkers. Having completed my studies, I spent a year teaching Arabic language and Islamic philosophy at Columbia University in New York.
I returned to Indonesia, to the city of Yogyakarta in Central Java, where I taught Christian theology, Islamic philosophy, and introductions to Islam at Sanata Dharma University, the Catholic theological faculty and other Christian schools. I was often invited by Muslim groups to present explanations of the Christian faith at various Islamic institutions in Indonesia, as part of their study of comparative religions and the history of religions. My years in Indonesia were very happy ones, and the many contacts I had with Indonesian Muslims and Christians have deeply touched my life and enriched it greatly. In 1981, the Vatican, which is the administrative arm of the Pope, the head of the Catholic community of Christians, was seeking someone with academic training in Islamic studies and personal experience in dialogue with Muslims to work in the Vatican to help promote better understanding and cooperation between Christians and Muslims. So from 1981 until the end of 1994, I worked at the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (form