The outpouring of affection for John Paul II is unprecedented in Muslim history. Reminiscing at the first anniversary of John Paul II's death Scott Alexander, Associate Professor of Islam and director Catholic-Muslim Studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, marveled at the outpouring of affection by Muslims as the news of the Pope's death spread. "It started out as a single phone call," he recalled "but soon grew into a flood: telephone call after telephone call from Muslim friends, colleagues, and associates from all over the United States."
The proximate reasons for his popularity among Muslims, were his unfailing support for the rights of the Palestinian people, and his stand against the Iraq war. He earned a reputation in the Muslim world of a man of principle that stood for justice and peace. Appreciation of his persona came from all parts of the Muslim spectrum.
The warm Catholic-Muslim relationship, however, antedates John Paul II's papacy and is not merely political but far more nuanced and complex. The Vatican's rapprochement with Islam started in Paul VI's papacy. Scholars attribute this to the influence of the distinguished French scholar of Islam, Louis Massignon, who was close to Pope Paul VI. Massignon was far more than an influential academic. Jerry Ryan in an article "The mystical vision of Louis Massignon: Islam inspired scholar's gratitude, life work and Christian faith" published in the National Catholic Reporter, Dec 17, 2004, details Massignon's relationship with Islam and Muslims. This relationship was deeply personal and marked his life in profound and dramatic ways.
While being held as spy on a ship on the Tigris River Massignon had a vision, from a "Stranger without a Face", who took away everything he was and gave him everything he would become.
As Braibanti points out in his monograph "The Nature and Structure of the Islamic world", as early as 1964, following the second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI declared in Ecclesiam Suam, "We do well to admire these people [of the Moslem religion] for all that is good and true in their worship of God." It was Paul VI's encyclical declaration, Nostra Aetate, proclaimed in 1965, which set forth this new relationship most clearly and fully: "They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth who also has spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God's plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they respect Jesus as a prophet, his Virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further they await the Day of Judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead."
John Paul II built on these ecumenical foundations and strengthened them. In his address at his visit to the Umayyad mosque in Syria in 2001, he said "It is important that Muslims and Christians continue to explore philosophical and theological questions together, in order to come to a more objective and comprehensive knowledge of each others' religious beliefs.
Better mutual understanding will surely lead, at the practical level, to a new way of presenting our two religions, not in opposition, as has happened too often in the past, but in partnership for the good of the human family."
"For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another" he said "we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness." Some feel this was an implicit apology for the Crusades.
This decidedly inclusive attitude, and a serious attempt at bridge building, stands in sharp contrast against the hostile attitude of some Christian Church leaders in the US, who in the post September the 11th environment, have called Islam an evil religion and Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) an impostor and worse.
The new Pope Benedictine XVI seems to be reaching out to Muslims and other traditions. "I am particularly grateful" said Pope Benedictine, "for the presence in our midst of members of the Muslim community," the International Herald Tribune reported on April 26th.
History will remember John Paul II as a man of vision who believed in cooperation between faiths and traditions rather than in confrontation. The world will be better off if the Vatican continues to advance the ecumenism that John Paul II so deeply cherished and so assiduously nourished. Other faith communities could emulate his example.
Massignon's metaphor of the "Stranger without a Face" has a different and less metaphysical significance in my mind. As we get to know each other, we learn from our rich traditions that enhance our mutual experience and deepen it. If, on the other hand, we fail to do so, we remain strangers without faces.
Javeed Akhter, a physician, is founding member of a Muslim American think tank the "International Strategy And Policy Institute."
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