by Christopher Clohessy
Although the Church does not regard the Qur’an as Divine revelation, she nonetheless continues to invite us, and did so most clearly during Vatican II and during the pontificate of St John Paul II, to stand with deference and reverence before the text. Again, although the Church does not believe about this book what Islam believes about it, and even though there have been, are and always will be those who misread it, misinterpret it and use it for destruction and harm, it remains, primarily, what is always and has been for millions of Muslims: the book of God.
It is the text, held sacred by millions, that lies at the very heart of Islam, the text that Islam regards as God’s own speech made audible and visible. For Muslims, the Qur’an is both the source of truth and guide for inserting truth into the actions of one’s daily life. Muslims draw the language of their faith, their devotional and spiritual life, and the practical applications for living justly, wisely and with balance in a complex world, deeply engaged with justice and equality, from the Qur’an. It offers for daily Muslim life the essential structure, reminding faithful Muslims each day that God has spoken to people, and people have heard God’s voice.
Our Christian response to the Qur’an, and to the faith that it constructs in countless lives, should always be one of reverence and respect. The Church consistently invites us to seek God in every situation, every place, every person, so that whatever is good and true and noble in the Qur’anic text should be for each of us an epiphany experience, a small manifestation of Christ’s presence.
“The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims,” says the document Nostra Aetate of Vatican II. Blessed Paul VI, in his Ecclesiam Suam, writes of Muslims being “deserving of our admiration for all that is true and good in their worship of God.” St John Paul II referred more than once to the Qur’an as “the sacred book” or as “holy” – in Ankara in 1979, in the Philippines in 1981, in Rome in 1985. It did not mean that he was putting the Qur’anic text on the same level as the Bible. St John Paul II could recognise traces of the presence of Christ and greet him joyfully there, as once John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb when he recognised the nearness of his Saviour. In 2011 Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI called “upon the Church, in every situation, to persist in esteem for Muslims, who ‘worship God who is one, living and subsistent; merciful and almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to humanity’.”
Even if we do not agree with the Qur’an or with the basic tenets of Islamic faith, it is this reverential stance before Islam and its text that brings us close to Jesus, who himself once listened to the words of a pagan centurion, that is, a non-Jewish, non-Christian Roman polytheist, and declared of him: “Truly, I tell you: in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8: 10).
*Fr Clohessy is a Professor at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome.