Muslim-Catholic Regional Dialogues Celebrate Past, Look to Future
Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP
Three regional Muslim-Catholic dialogues came together October 3-5 in a plenary session in Chicago to celebrate fifteen years of dialogue and to chart the way forward.
In the opening address, Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle, Washington, traced the origins of the dialogue. In the early 1970’s, the National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers (NADEIO) was formed, and a handbook was provided for those engaged in interreligious dialogue. Two characteristics marked the scene: 1) Many Americans have negative ideas around Muslims/Islam; and 2) Muslims, who were at the time just trying to start and unite their own communities, were not all that inclined to dialogue with Christians.
Brunett worked with Dr. John Borelli at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs to set up three Catholic-Muslim regional dialogues which now meet once a year over two days time.
The Midwest Dialogue, co-chaired by Auxiliary Bishop Francis Reiss of Detroit and Dr. Sayyid Syeed of The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), first convened in 1996. Muslim participants include representatives from ISNA and local Islamic communities. In all three of the dialogues, the Catholic representatives come from the local and regional Catholic dioceses. This dialogue has produced a joint document in book form on Revelation: Catholic and Muslim Perspectives.
The Mid-Atlantic Dialogue convened in 1998 . It is co-chaired by Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout of Washington, DC, and Dr. Talat Sultan of The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), with representation on the Muslim side from ICNA and local communities. In 2011 this dialogue published a resource on “Marriage: Roman Catholic and Sunni Muslim Perspectives.”
The West Coast Dialogue, co-chaired by Bishop Carlos Sevilla, SJ, and Immam Mustafa Al-Qazwini, first met in 1999, with Muslim representation including the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, Islamic Society of Orange County, and the Islamic Education Center of Orange County. It is the only one of the three dialogues that has both a Sunni and Shi’a representation on the Muslim side. A document produced by this group is “Friends and Not Adversaries: A Catholic-Muslim Spiritual Journey”.
Dialogue members participating in a workshop session
In the opening evening discussion period, ICNA’s Dr. Sultan said that the Catholic-Muslim dialogue has been a precedent for Muslims, making them aware that they need to establish dialogues with other religions as well, which they are doing.
In a session featuring reflections by the co-chairs of the regional dialogues, Dr. Sayyid Syeed, national director for the Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances of ISNA, underlined that Muslims didn’t just get involved in interreligious dialogue after 9/11. “Many churches offered us space for prayers when we arrived in this country,” he said. “We have explained to the Minister for Christians in the Pakistan government, for example, how much we have learned from Christians here in America. What has relevance for us in America has implications for Muslims where Christians are a minority. Muslims everywhere need to hear how both Christians and Jews have stood with us for religious freedom here. ”
Bishop Francis Reiss referred to the work of the Midwest Dialogue on Revelation as a “proof that Catholics and Muslims can enter into beneficial and constructive work. We live in a post-Enlightenment nightmare regarding the denial of God. Can we as people of faith together address these challenges today?” he asked.
Bishop Sevilla from the West Coast Dialogue took it a step further: “Our dialogue is a mission that has been given to us. How can we extend the experience of our dialogue to others, especially youth? How can we engage them so they will promote it among their peers?” He expressed the hope that the fruits of the various dialogues would be made more more available to people on websites.
Can We Live Our Faith Together?
Catholic and Muslim Participants in the First Plenary Session of the 3 Regional Dialogues
In a keynote address titled “Can We Live Our Faith Together: an Islamic Perspective”, Dr. Jawal Badawi who has lectured and taught in 41 countries, said his answer to the question is, “Yes, we can. We must. We did it in the past, and we must do it right now.”
Badawi cited significant points of faith on which there is compatibility: Faith in one Creator; accepting God’s prophets and messengers; the prophets as a moral anchor. Together we can affirm the sanctity of life; the universality of human dignity; human equality and diversity; universal human brotherhood and sisterhood; justice and the maintenance of a balanced economy and environment; peaceful and just co-existence between peoples; and the role of mercy in dwelling with humans, animals, and creation.
“Why is there so much tension between us?” Dr. Badawi asked, again offering some answers to his own question. A first reason: the mix-up between authentic, normative teaching, and misinterpretation of that teaching by individuals and groups in ways that indict hundreds of millions of others. “We don’t blame normative teaching for that,” he said, “but blame individuals whose actions are often driven by other agendas.” He called this “the ‘cut and paste’ approach to normative teaching to serve your own ends.”
A related problem, noted Dr. Badawi, is that of hermeneutics or interpretation of texts which can lead to erroneous emphases, such as in the case of jihad. “Holy war” is not found anywhere lexically in the Qur’an,” he said. “No verse in the Qur’an condones fighting. ‘Holy war’ is a contradiction in terms. War is never ‘holy’. ‘Jihad’ literally means ‘maximum effort’, and is applied to prayers, and struggle to purify oneself. There are only two grounds for fighting others—self-defense and fighting against someone who is trying to occupy your land. Fighting people for any other reason is forbidden.”
Badawi called for Muslims and Christians to reach out to one another in mutual kindness, understanding, and respect; to hold together the connection between justice and peace; and to work together for the elimination of poverty and family violence, and the protection of our environment.
Owning the Common Ground
In another plenary session, Fr. Tom Michel, SJ, who formerly headed the Pontifical Council for Intereligious Dialogue’s desk on Islam and presently teaches at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said “We’re not talking about some common denominator, or a shaving down of our differences. We’re talking about owning the common ground that unites us.”
Michel recalled Pope John Paul II’s words to Muslims that “Abraham is our model of faith in God—in God’s goodness, hospitality, and trust in God.” He then recounted how during the Muslim month of Ramadan this year, “no less than ten mosques were defaced or vandalized or burned to the ground. Postings in New York City subways describe Muslims as ‘savages’. We can renew Abraham’s spirit of hospitality by teaching it to our own. Hate-talk and videos are not consistent with the teachings of Jesus.”
“We must go beyond peaceful co-existence,” said Michel, “ and see ourselves as partners in forming a society of social justice, peace, moral values and freedom. In the Qur’an it says that ‘Christians are those closest to Muslims’. If it was true during the Prophet Muhammad’s time, can it not be true today?”
Documents produced by the three regional dialogues can be accessed at
Thomas Ryan directs the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC