On Overcoming the "Clash of Ignorance" Between Islam and the West

Interview with Father Maurice Borrmans, Expert in Interreligious Dialogue

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ROME, MARCH 23, 2003 (ZENIT.org-Avvenire).- Freedom of conscience and a critical method toward sacred texts are key challenges for Muslims, says a priest who spent 20 years as a missionary in the Arab world.



Father Maurice Borrmans, a professor at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic Studies who has been active in interreligious dialogue with Muslims, talked about the difficulties encountered in relations with Islam.

Q: Islam accuses the West of lack of understanding. Is this true?

Father Borrmans: The accusation could be turned around and directed to the opposite. In this connection, I refer to an article of Edward Said, who maintains that we must address the "clash of ignorance."

To surmount it, one must keep in mind the efforts of both sides to understand the other through, for example, translations. However, although we have in our European languages translations of the masterworks of classic Arabic culture, there are very few translations in Arabic of the masterworks of the Christian heritage.

Perhaps it is because the Muslim side penetrates our languages with greater facility and the texts can be read in the original. Moreover, each one would like the other to know its religion under its more beautiful and fascinating aspects, rejecting self-criticism or hetero-criticism.

Q: Are you referring to the approach to the respective sacred texts?

Father Borrmans: Yes. We Christians are used to the critical method, for example, in the study of the Bible, which has also purified the faith and religious experience.

On the Muslim side, however, it is maintained that the Koran is a book entirely dictated and revealed by Allah through Mohammed and, therefore, it is not possible to exercise a scientific-critical approach. Moreover, it so happens that we Westerners are accused of being incapable of understanding the Koran itself, which of course is not true.

This is the origin of the misunderstanding between the different points of view. The transcendence that is God's has been attributed to the Koran, and then to the society and to the Shariah [Islamic law]. While such characteristics persist, the dialogue will be difficult unless we are content to talk about the dignity of man, his rights and duties.

Q: The Saudi government is talking about eliminating the special police that makes Koranic law be respected in the streets. Don't you think that the West should make an effort to value this gesture as a sign of progress?

Father Borrmans: Of all the Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia is a rather uncommon model because the condition of non-Muslims is below what can be demanded in the name of the rights of man. If at present it intends to modify its model, doing away, perhaps, with this body of volunteers, the situation might change.

However, the important need persists, which many Muslims have, to update their sacred text and the living tradition. This implies freedom of expression, of press, of social communications, and all too frequently governments do not allow freedom of expression. Is the Shariah divine in all its details or only in its principles? These are questions that must be resolved through intercultural dialogue.

It is also true that the diaspora in Europe or the United States might perhaps bring about an adaptation to democracy and pluralism.

Q: In the dialogue, shouldn't the West insist more on cooperation than on conflict?

Father Borrmans: It is obvious that our societies must make an examination of conscience. It was suggested after Sept. 11, 2001, that the more enlightened in the intercultural dialogue verify how their faith is lived and transmitted and how the faith of others is valued.

In Europe we have laicized societies where there is a very clear distinction between religions, state, and legislation, and, indeed, in our nations we have Muslim minorities of a different kind, from the most liberal to the most intransigent.

They promote their aims before our laicism, which no longer knows how to define itself, and they exalt an Islam with categories that for us are outdated; herein stems the difficulty of mutual understanding.

This is for us still another reason to understand the other, but also to be exacting: Our laicism must not make us too compromising with the fundamentalists, all the more so when the greater part of those who are by our side are able to live a personalized religious life in a communal way, without aiming at the Islamization of the society.

Q: Then, on what values must there be understanding?

Father Borrmans: All monotheisms affirm the dignity of the human being, which must respect creatures and develop the world out of respect for the divine plan.

Therefore, all the ecological area forms part of the dialogue that must be developed, as well as respect for life, scientific discoveries, technologies. All of it is part of a divine plan. Keeping in mind the end of history oriented to God, I think there is a lot to be done.