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Michael Healy

Kissing the Koran

Jun. 9, 2009, at 8:44pm

Kissing the Koran: To What Extent can Christians Regard it as an Inspired Book?


As one of his many acts of reconciliation, Pope John Paul II at one point in his reign accepted a copy of the Koran from an Imam and kissed it “as a sign of respect.” Here is the reference: http://www.traditioninaction.org/RevolutionPhotos/A055rcKoran.htm
The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Rafael, who was present at the time, affirmed that this “gesture” demonstrates that the Pope “has also great respect for Islam.”

Now such a profound gesture of respect also raises the question of the exact status of Mohammed as a “Prophet” and of his “Revelations” (the Koran) from a Christian point of view. Mohammed did seem to receive some special religious messages in his cave and the book itself carries an outspoken “numinous” or religious power to it. However, as Catholics we believe absolutely that God’s public revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle John. So how is a believing Christian to interpret Mohammed and the Koran? I wish to review a few possibilities that have arisen historically or that reason might suggest:

1) Some say Mohammed was simply deceived by a demon to promote a “new” religion as a rival to Christianity and with the purpose of stamping Christianity out. Thus the reference in Christian history to “the imposter Mohammed.” There seem to be vast times in Christian history when the name Mohammed is scarcely used without this prior designation. Now in light of the Pope’s gesture, in light of a valid ecumenism, and in light of world situation demanding fraternal respect and cooperation in order to avoid horrors, this would seem to be a very destructive, insulting, and unacceptable approach in the present day. Of course, such a way of speaking, insulting their deeply revered founder, is also not at all helpful toward attracting and converting Muslims, toward inspiring them to take a fresh look at Christ as really the God-Man, rather than merely a highly respected forerunner to Mohammed. Nor is this approach justified in light of the fact that there is much good and truth in their religion (even if as Christians we believe these dimensions go back mainly Old and New Testaments and the early years of the Church, i.e. borrowed from the Judeo-Christian tradition itself).

2) Some think Mohammed simply deceived himself into thinking he was having revelations and was a victim of his own pride and vanity here (or even epileptic fits). Again, not the best first step in trying to appeal to Muslims to think seriously about taking a fresh look at Christ, i.e. simply calling their founding hero either sick, a psycho, or an egomaniac. All of the objections raised in Point #1 count here as well. We as Christians know that if someone opens up insulting Jesus Christ, our natural reaction is to turn away from or be highly suspicious of their further message. It follows that Muslims would react in the same way if we insult Muhammad.

3) I think it could be argued that Mohammed may actually have received private revelations from above in his cave near Mecca. However, a difficulty here is that the standard Muslim interpretation is that Mohammed was a pure vessel of the revelation of God directly, i.e., that nothing in his personality or milieu touched or effected the “revelations” in any way, but that they are God talking directly from heaven through a chosen mouthpiece. This interpretation, of course, Christians would have to reject. But Christians could accept that Mohammed did receive private revelations from a messenger of God but that in fact those revelations were filtered through the human vessel of his personality. Thereby those private revelations may have been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and distorted: a) by Mohammed’s own personal faults, b) by his reception of the revelations in light of his surrounding milieu through which he would naturally have interpreted them, and c) by interpreting his private revelations in the context of his incomplete, faulty, and distorted contact with Jewish and Christian scriptures and beliefs. I think this third possibility is a real one that acknowledges some supernatural origin to the Koran (the OT and NT as remote causes, private revelations interpreted by a fallible human being as the immediate cause).

4) However, a problem arises with Point #3 even within the Islamic tradition itself (often not a popular topic of discussion, and disputed by some as to historical accuracy, but with evidence for the historicity of the account) in that Mohammed himself admitted at one point that he was deceived by Satan in certain of his revelations (the “Satanic verses”). In a crisis situation, while under persecution by the Meccans, he seems to have proclaimed that the 3 goddesses worshipped by the Meccans were valid objects of worship for his followers (contradicting his monotheism). This caused the Meccans to stop the persecution of the Muslims and to flock to Mohammed. However, he later claimed he was deceived by Satan in this proclamation about the three goddesses and rejected this “new” teaching. Then the persecution returned. Yet Mohammed himself seems to admit error here in being deceived by Satan. [Note that some Muslims today deny the historical accuracy of the “Satanic Verses” account, and threaten with death anyone who speaks of them. However, some even within Islam accept the historicity of the account.]

So in light of all this, it seems to me that in trying to interpret the status of the Koran as a holy book, we may have some entangled combination of (now listed in order of importance):

1) some genuine remnants of God’s true revelation as delivered to the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament and fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament (yet distorted, misunderstood and only partially known by Mohammed),

2) some actual private revelations from a divine messenger to Mohammed (yet again at times distorted and misunderstood in various ways in their interpretation by both Mohammed and his followers when passing through the human vessel),

3) some interjection of purely human dynamism via Mohammed’s own charismatic and complicated personality and human faults, and …

4) some possibility of deception by Satan himself, as seemingly admitted in at least one case by Mohammed himself.

It seems to me the most fruitful attitude to adopt today in a respectful and ecumenical approach to Islam would be to more emphasize the positive possibilities of the above and then to try to show how Islam and the Koran actually point toward and are fulfilled by Christ, despite Muslim claims that it is the other way around. [One can also build such arguments to some extent from within the Koran itself, though of course this is not the “orthodox” Muslim mode of interpretation. My son Michael happens to be working on just this perspective for his doctoral dissertation for the International Academy of Philosophy.]

So we as Christians can acknowledge that the Koran contains many elements of God’s genuine supernatural revelation traced back to the Old and New Testaments and the early centuries of the Church, some private revelations to Mohammed, and some insights on the level of human experience and reasoning, together with distortions, exaggerations, omissions, and deceptions that may have come from human or devilish origin. Pope John Paul II seemed to think there was enough good here to give the book a solemn and respectful kiss.


Bill Drennen • Jun 10, 2009 - 5:23 pm

Dr. Healy,

How can we respect the good without an attitude of appeasement towards the evil?

Western civilization being built upon the Christian inspired ethic of human dignity. This anthropological ethical basis seems to be entirely missing in Islam where human rights are not inalienable but subjected to submission to Allah.

The pope touched on this problem tangentially in his Regensburg address on faith and reason. The situation in the world factors ect. does not change the basic truths required to live together in peace and where these truths are rejected there should be no respect given otherwise we simply enable the evil to continue.

If someone took the bible and inserted all kinds of anti personalist ethical violations and distortions and then handed it back to you would you kiss it? Not sure I agree with JPII’s gesture there and wonder if Benedict would do the same.

Bill

Katie van Schaijik • Jun 10, 2009 - 7:18 pm

I wonder if JP II would do it today, given the Islamic inspired terrorism that has wrought so much evil in the last decade.

Scott Johnston • Jun 13, 2009 - 7:37 pm

Very interesting post, Dr. Healy. This sounds very reasonable to me. But, I’m not sure if an especially ardent Muslim would be very impressed or opened to Christianity by the suggestion (what he would probably summarize as) that his holy book is essentially a corrupted derivative of the Christian holy book, which remains pure.

Is it known whether this kiss was planned in advance? I think one can only read this gesture as a specifically intended symbolic statement by JPII if it was planned ahead. Now, these things usually are planned ahead. But JPII was not unknown for his spontaneity at public events. It could simply have been a spur-of-the-moment act he added into the ceremony of handing the book to him.

Your analysis of the situation of where the contents of the Koran stand in relationship to authentic revelation is very interesting. It seems to me your first point no. 3 is analogous to private revelations received by Catholic Saints. It is not uncommon for someone whose private visions have been found by the Church essentially sound, nonetheless, to have received and interpreted some of them in strange ways. A fairly innocuous example: St. Francis, when first being told to “rebuild my church,” did not realize which “church” God was talking about, and his initial response (was it a few years?) was to physically repair the decrepit chapel he was praying in at the time. But this, also, demonstrates how necessary it is for private revelations to be examined and interpreted through the Holy-Spirit protected magisterium. Sts. Joan of Arc, and Faustina, also, did not understand correctly everything that they received in the way of private supernatural visions (though there was much they did).


Would you agree that the following is a factor in the controversy over this particular action of the late great JPII?

In our zeal to be Catholic with a capital “C,” sometimes we who strive to be vigorously Catholic can forget, in practical terms, that not every single public gesture by a Pope (even an otherwise great and wonderful Pope)—even those at official events—are protected by the Holy Spirit as to their meaning as prophetic signs in the way that a pope’s doctrinal teaching is protected by infallibility.

I mention this because sometimes it seems that the level of harshness in the criticism of some (a small but vocal contingent) about this event with the Koran presumes that the world should read every single physical gesture by a pope at a public event to be itself properly considered as a prophetic sign representing the official stance of the Catholic Church herself. But this is not so! [Yet, also relevant, is that the post-modern Western world does not place the same significance upon physical gestures as prophetic signs as Eastern cultures still do (by comparison), generally speaking.]

Popes are human underneath all the official trappings around them, and it should be understood, with some mercy, that even a very great man can—for a moment—do something that under more consideration he would not have done.

I think that this infamous kiss was ill-considered and it would have been better had JPII not done it. But, I don’t get worked up about it because I think he should be allowed some occasional blunders. And, (and I don’t know which was the case) it makes a difference whether this act was planned ahead, or, if it was a spontaneous gesture that JPII added on a spur of the moment. I would suspect the latter.

Jules van Schaijik • Jun 13, 2009 - 8:37 pm

“Catholic with a capital ‘T,’”  !?  Is this a typo or did you mean something deep with it?  Like, does T stand for Tradition?

Scott Johnston • Jun 13, 2009 - 8:49 pm

Oops. I meant, with a capital “C.” :) I’ll go up and edit.

Jules van Schaijik • Jun 13, 2009 - 9:04 pm

Scott, it appears that you were able to edit your post, even though the time-limit I thought I had set (30 minutes) had past.  Is there no time limit on the edit button then?

Scott Johnston • Jun 13, 2009 - 9:19 pm

Yes, it seems to be possible to edit one’s own comments at any time afterward. I just checked, and I can still click on edit and get the edit box on a comment I posted several hours ago.

Michael J. Healy • Jun 14, 2009 - 12:42 pm

Bill, Scott, and Katie,
Several points:
1) The Regensburg address was top-notch and the key was the idea that the human mind can actually know some metaphysical and moral truths about reality and ultimately even about God.  Thus all is not reversible, even by an omnipotent God—remembering that St. Thomas says that nothing that implies contradiction lies under the omnipotence of God.  Now I think the key with Islam is to try to uncover or recover some sort of natural law and natural knowledge tradition.  I think there is such a thing but only as a precarious minority tradition.  One approach might be to ask Muslims exactly what they mean with their devotion to the 99 Names of Allah, which JPII described (in Crossing the Threshold of Hope) as some of the beautiful names of God in the history of the human race.  Are each of these names just an “appearance” God chooses to give to us, but which could all be reversed?  Doesn’t this drain out the very reason for the devotion to the 99 names?  Furthermore, though the anthropology is different, certain universal statements (like UN statements on human rights) have, at least officially, been accepted by some Muslim nations.  Also, thoughtful Muslims in the West and at some centers in the Muslim world have argued for recognition of basic human rights.  So all this has to be affirmed and advanced.  Moreover, despite the theoretical problems of grounding human rights in Islam, I think most of the billion Muslims on the street implicitly acknowledge respect for others and for human rights.  Without a clear rational grounding, of course, such an average person might be more easily radicalized, so more has to be done to explain the foundation for basic human rights in reality and in the Islamic tradition.  Daunting task, but necessary.
2) Personally I think that JPII probably was spontaneous in his kiss of the Koran, but I think he would do it again today as an affirmation of the good to be respected in Islam having priority over the errors or evils that were exemplified in 9/11.
3) I agree that in evaluating this gesture, we must be aware of the limits of Papal authority and example; sometimes Catholics put too much stock in every single thing a Pope says and does.  We must remember that Paul “withstood Peter to his face.”  However, this gesture was a good one in my opinion, despite possible misunderstandings.  If the Pope can show such respect for the Islamic Holy Book, perhaps his example will encourage a similar response of respect on the part of Muslims and be a starting point for further interest in Christianity.
4) Granted that Muslims at the moment would seem little interested in the view that their Book points toward Christ for its fulfillment, if some justification could be unfolded for this perspective from within the Koran, then perhaps at least Muslims would not have maintain current law (or family custom) in many places saying that conversions to Christianity are punishable by death.  Even with that law, conversions are taking place.  Without it, they might increase exponentially.

modballfaith • Sep 17, 2009 - 5:43 pm

I’m sorry, I do have muslim friends, and what I know about the muslim faith is that, it’s more openly based on tradition. As a prodestant, most churches (not all, but should) focus on Jesus Christ and the reason he was sent to us. A lot of history is behind this yes, starting with God’s message in the beginning, starting with Grace. Instead of God actually giving up on us, and wiping Adam and Eve off the face of the Earth after being disobediant, he didn’t. Throughout the entire Bible, God’s grace and mercy is shown, but from what I know, which I said is not a lot, it seems that the only way to get to heaven, is believe in God, and complete traditional values that have been specifically written out, and of course certain things that have to be fulfilled in order to go to heaven. Now a debatable argument is that christianity does the same thing, but our main goal is that if you love God, then you will want to do these things, and HE himself will make you stronger. NOT the person himself, which also seems to be evident in the Muslim culture. By relying on God (or having faith) we are drawing closer to him. It seems in the muslim culture, that it’s a one man show with traditions and rules atached, that HAVE to be followed in order to get into heaven. In christianity we have certain “rules” we consider them guidelines because we know we CANNOT follow them, but because we love God we try to and when we have troubles or are failing then we ask him to guide or help us. It’s also the faith that whatever problem/trial/hurt he has given us, he gave it to us, because he knows during that time and trouble we will look to him. Any person outside of the christian faith would think that’s mean, but a christian would in the beginning have the same attitude been hopefully realize and be thankful. I.E. Dad gives the keys to the car to his son, whom he knows is relatively capable of driving, but not completely. The son crashes two or three times, and the son goes to the Dad for answers, after a couple of weeks the son knows how to drive and is a little worn but thankful that he’s even closer to his father before. From what I have read heard, and how many times my friends have explained to me, it seems that the Muslim culture has no room for this. Another point made is that most of the apostles endured mistakes by Satan BEFORE they were given the Holy Spirit. Muhammed if he was given these divine revelations and was as equal if not more important than the apostles in the Bible, then he would have been perfect also, and he wouldn’t have had Satanic problems. He also would have fortold what was to come at the end of the world like Jesus, Paul and Peter and a few of the other apostles had prophesied, but he didn’t. I think the best argument to show to a islamic believer is that the way to get to heaven is faith through grace and what way he gave it. (through Jesus Christ) and why. And if that doesn’t work, then let it be God’s will.

Sorry for the typos, no need to point them out, but I am sure there are plenty. Thank you.

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