In spring 2008 I was asked to accompany a group of people from the United States during their stay in Istanbul. I was told that this group was working on a documentary and they would spend some time in the Middle East exploring themes for their project. I agreed to spend a few days with them.
The group consisted of two priests, a nun, a publisher, and a director. For me as a Muslim, it was the first time I had seen Franciscan monks in their habits, a long, hooded, brown robe, tied at the waist with a white cord, and with large concealed pockets in the arms. I thought they were wearing them simply because they wanted to make everything in the documentary appear as if it were in the Middle Ages, but, no, it was their everyday attire, and they wore their habits all the time we were together.
It was a noteworthy mission that merged from different parts of the US (Texas, California, Ohio) in order to set out on a tiring journey passing through Istanbul, Urfa, Damascus, Cairo, and Damietta, meet lots of people, and visit a great number of places. The project was named the Damietta Project, Damietta being the city where St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), the founder of the Franciscan order, met the Muslim sultan in the heat of war in 1219. I learned that it was a very cordial encounter between St. Francis and Sultan Al-Kamil, and the monks hoped that their documentary would serve to build a peaceful world by presenting a model from eight hundred years ago.
John, the publisher in the group, presented to me as a gift a copy of this book by George Dardess. This is why I am referring to this group and their project, for their philosophy resonates in the core message of the book.
Due to the limited space available, I will not give a comprehensive review of the book, for almost every argument carries baggage, and a fair review would entail a lengthy analysis. I will briefly touch on some aspects of the first part of this book, which I believe is an effort by the Franciscan order to help remove interfaith misunderstandings. In this respect, the author, who is a member of both the Muslim-Catholic Alliance and the Commission on Muslim-Christian Relations in Rochester, is the right author, and this makes the book worth reading. The opening prayer given in the introduction indicates the sincere efforts of the author, and thus of the group, to be revealed in the later pages:
God, creator of us all, master of the universe,
we ask you to be present with us
as we search to know you
not only in our own sacred scripture
but also in that of our Muslim sisters and brothers.
help us forget past quarrels
as well as present fears and suspicions.
Help us instead to keep our minds open,
our spirits free,
and our hearts joyful
as we ponder:
whether the god we both worship
Praising the Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) of the Second Vatican Council, Dardess points to a great achievement on the side of the Christian world, as they managed to move away from Dante’s inauspicious depiction of the Prophet in The Divine Comedy, to acceptance of Muslims as worshipping the same God as Christians. Although this step toward dialogue received relatively little elaboration in the Council documents, it was still a positive effort. Nevertheless, this fragile step was threatened after 9/11, which makes books such as this one invaluable contributions to eliminating misconceptions about Islam.
The author’s intention in writing this book is summarized in his willingness to worship together with all humanity, as one family: “If we . . . come to the understanding that we do indeed worship . . . the same God, we can find ways of praying to that God together without violating our significant differences” (p. 6). The author does not deny the fact that it is not easy pass the stumbling block of the Christian attribution of divinity to Jesus versus the Muslim belief that he was not divine, but he argues that the purpose of this book is “to open up the possibility of [such] enrichment, even at the point when dialogue seems impossible” (p. 26).
The author does not skip over details such as the word “Allah,” which is perceived by some non-Muslims as some kind of god for Muslims, like an idol. Dardess carefully notes that “Allah” is not a special name peculiar to Islam but simply the Arabic word for God. Many Christians in the West are not aware that their co-religionists in the Middle East use the word Allah for God, as well. Dardess underlines the fact that God of Islam is not a God of wrath: “... the Muslim approaches God, not in abject fear, but in the profoundest gratitude” (p. 18).
The author lays down a very objective historical background to Islam for novice readers who have a superficial knowledge of its history, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the Holy Qur’an. In this section, Dardess carefully notes that “honest dialogue depends upon having enough confidence in our own religious identity to be able to explore the religious identity of others without tension or defensiveness” (p. 30). In the comparison he makes between the Christian Eucharist and Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, he states a principle, which is essential in true dialogue: “only lovers understand other lovers” (p. 30).
Analyzing further Qur’anic language, the author rightfully underlines that “words like Jihad, Allah, Muslim and Islam have so lost connection [in English] with their original context that they have become more truly English words than Arabic ones. The words convey our own understanding of Islam, not the understanding of Muslims themselves” (p. 31). Dardess points out that it is more of a linguistic challenge than a doctrinal one for Christians to understand the Qur’an. Language differences are no doubt a barrier in any human context, but in the case of the Qur’an, a specific branch of scholarship, tafsir, has been developed since the advent of Islam, as a result of which a number of interpretations have been produced to help readers understand the universal message of the Qur’an, not only for non-Arabs but also for Arabic-speaking believers. Surface reading of the divine text-actually any text-is never a profound reading of it, and it might even be misleading at times. Besides, the emphasis on the preservation of the original text should never be underestimated, for not only in the case of the Qur’an but in all translation works, it is of the utmost significance to be able to refer to the true original text in its original language.
In the Middle Ages, when Muslims were the pioneers in science, their works were translated from Arabic into Latin for many centuries, and this resulted in the European Enlightenment, which, according to the author, is “humankind’s greatest achievement, the one against which [we] must measure all other civilizations” (p.31). This last statement is problematic in itself and needs to be addressed. Western perceptions of the East have been shaped largely within the framework Western social sciences have drawn. The dress sewn for the Western context does not fit the Muslim world and social movements therein; however, social analysts work on the same model in their efforts to understand the East. So, the author’s argument to “measure all civilizations against European Enlightenment” contradicts his overall positive approach to understanding Islam.
Nevertheless, the book is a significant contribution to the literature on interfaith dialogue despite some of the shortcomings pointed out above. However, as the author mentions in the introduction, “the discussion itself is more important than the answer.” Those non-Muslims who are curious about Islam will certainly benefit a lot from this book: What exactly do Muslims believe? How do those beliefs differ from their own? What do Muslims believe about Jesus? Mary? Satan? Creation? The Holy Spirit? Do we worship the same God? Guided discussion questions in each chapter encourage readers towards further reflection and dialogue.