Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic

At the end of 2017, I published a book with Liturgical Press entitled Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic. Written for a Catholic and broader Christian audience, the book shows how interreligious dialogue with Muslims can deepen Christians’ relationship with God. In this post, I share a bit about the book, which you can learn more about at findingjesusamongmuslims.com.

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In many ways, the book grew out of my own experiences of dialogue with Muslims, both in the United States and in the Middle East. In it I draw on church teaching, statements from popes, and the stories of Catholic saints and martyrs. Woven throughout the book are also quotations from the Qur’an, references to Islamic history and scholarship, and excerpts of Islamic mystical poetry.

The book is available for purchase online through the publisher and major booksellers, including AmazonBarnes & Noble, and Target. The e-book version is available here and here. You can also ask your local Catholic bookstore to carry it.

Finding Jesus among Muslims has received endorsements from Christian leaders from various denominations, including Bishop Mitchell Rozanski and Gov. Martin O’Malley, and from a range of Muslim scholars and religious leaders including Eboo Patel, Omid Safi, and Omar Suleiman.

Appropriate for those with little prior exposure to or knowledge of Islam, Finding Jesus among Muslims includes an extensive glossary and discussion questions for each chapter, making it suitable for individual reading as well as study groups and high school and college classroom discussions. Written primarily for a Catholic Christian audience, its educational message can be enriching for readers from any faith (or no faith) background.

At the end of the book, I provide an interfaith prayer for use in Muslim-Christian dialogue, as well as thorough guidelines for organizing events with Muslims and a list of resources for further reading and study. This book endeavors to be the first step on readers’ journey of the “dialogue of life” with Muslims and those of other faiths. For more resources related to the book, check out the Resources page on the book website.

Over the past several months, I have spoken to diverse audiences about Finding Jesus among Muslims at universities and parishes across the United States. I have also met with groups over Skype to discuss the book. If you are interested in setting up a speaking engagement, please reach out through the contact page on this website or at findingjesusamongmuslims.com.

Lessons from Pope Francis’ outreach to Muslims

In his earliest days as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis declared that he would make outreach to Muslims a priority. “It is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people,” he said, “Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam.”

Pope Francis has lived up to the goal he set for himself five years ago, making outreach to Muslims an important aspect of his ministry. Within a few months of those remarks, Pope Francis had met and welcomed Muslim refugees on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa and he washed the feet of Muslim individuals in a Holy Week ritual that is often reserved for Catholics. Since those early days, he has visited mosques, expanded and encouraged opportunities for interfaith dialogue, and traveled to numerous countries with a mainly Muslim population. He has surprised Muslims by unexpectedly showing up at their homes for tea or inviting Muslim refugee families from Syria to be resettled in Rome. And he has surprised Catholics by pointing to truth of God conveyed in Muslims’ rich religious tradition and by speaking about Islamophobia.

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From these gestures and statements, important lessons emerge — about how Christians should (and shouldn’t) treat our Muslim brothers and sisters. In Pope Francis’ five years of outreach to Muslims, there is much to emulate but there is also room for improvement.

“Pray for me”: Lift up what we share

Pope Francis has often affirmed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, in which the Catholic Church stated its esteem and high regard for Muslims and highlighted the many religious aspects Catholics and Muslims share, including reverence for Jesus and Mary, commitment to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and belief in the one, merciful God.

Pope Francis has called on Catholics and Muslims to work together to solve tangible problems and has also demonstrated that both communities can and should come together to praise and petition God. Though there are some differences in what Catholics and Muslims profess about God, Pope Francis recognizes that this should not be a barrier for invoking God together. Francis has not only prayed silently alongside with Muslims (as he did in the Blue Mosque in Turkey) but has also bowed his head in prayer as Muslims called on God, as he did at an interreligious gathering in Bangladesh. Francis is not the first pope to take actions like these — Benedict XVI and John Paul II also prayed with Muslims in different capacities during their own pontificates.

Pope Francis prays with Istanbul's grand mufti during visit to Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Turkey
Pope Francis prays with Istanbul’s grand mufti Rahmi Yaran during a visit to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul Nov. 29. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters) See POPE-ISTANBUL Nov. 29, 2014.

Francis has also asked Muslim leaders, like the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, to pray for him. This gesture, as well as Pope Francis’ other statements that imply Muslims’ belief in the same God, are significant on a theological level. They signal that Muslims’ prayers to God are valid and that they are directed to the One, Living, Merciful God who Catholics also strive to serve.

“God of surprises”: See God in the other

Countless times during this papacy, Francis has reminded his audiences that God resides in places where Christians often don’t expect to find God, especially in people who are feared or seen as ‘others.’ “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” he said in 2017 of the Muslim community who had fled killing and persecution in Myanmar.

Pope Francis 99 names Channel 4In the vein of John Paul II, Pope Francis also reminds us that we can see God’s activity at work and God’s truth expressed through other religious traditions. “There is an aspect of God’s mercy that goes beyond the confines of the church,” Pope Francis wrote in a document announcing the 2016 Year of Mercy. In his encyclical Laudato Si, when making a theological point about the “sacramentality” of creation, Pope Francis footnoted the writings of a Muslim mystic, Ali al-Khawas. This was likely the first time that a non-Christian source was cited as theological justification in a Catholic teaching document. In 2017, when meeting the Rohingya refugees, Francis also recounted an Islamic saying he’d heard to remind his audience that God lives in all people. In these examples, Pope Francis echos what the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate states: that other religious traditions can convey truth of God.

 

The other could be you”: Reject the ‘clash of civilizations’

In a time when many speak of an inevitable conflict between Christians and Muslims, particularly in Europe, Pope Francis rejects a discourse of fear and scapegoating and urges Christians to welcome their Muslim brothers and sisters.

Pope Francis muslims, Catholic WeeklyAcknowledging the reality of anti-Muslim hostility in Europe and elsewhere, Pope Francis has inaugurated campaigns to welcome migrants and refugees, many of whom are Muslim. He has also set an example of hospitality by helping to resettle Muslim refugee families from Syria at the Vatican. The pope rejects the attitude that Christianity must be defended from other religions, including Islam, and argues that encountering differences through dialogue can be enriching for all.

Pope Francis’ approach stands in contrast to another perspective—voiced by some prominent Catholics and others—that Christianity and Islam are in a “clash of civilizations.” Pope Francis warns against succumbing to fear of change and turning against one another in hate, saying that we must overcome fear and welcome all people.

“I don’t like to speak of Islamic violence”: Speak out consistently and with integrity

Some of Pope Francis’ comments on religion, violence, and persecution have been a helpful corrective to the dominant discourse, but others have repeated some common fallacies and stereotypical tropes.

In the positive side, Pope Francis has spoken out forcefully against religious persecution of all forms, including that which targets Muslims in places like Myanmar. This is an important message for many corners of the Church, where Christian persecution is prioritized as an issue over that which targets other people of faith.

Pope Francis also challenges the tendency among some Christians to reduce the causes of violence committed by Muslims to religion. In July 2016, in response to a question posed by a journalist, Pope Francis said, “It’s not fair to identify Islam with violence. It’s not fair and it’s not true.” He pointed out that violence committed by those of other religious groups is not reduced to their religious identity, and he pointed to what he sees as deeper root causes of violence committed by Muslims. These include a loss of identity among young people and, as he said in a Holy Thursday homily, the arms trade and those who benefit financially from conflict. The “global economy” that has money at the center is “the first terrorism,” he says. Many Catholics who are ordinarily fans of Pope Francis have resisted his message on Islam and pushed back against it.

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Still, Pope Francis has sometimes fallen into problematic patterns in discussing Islam, ones that often contradict his better intentions. At numerous points in his papacy, he has publicly called on Muslim leaders to condemn violence committed by their fellow Muslims. These calls for condemnation imply to the pope’s audience that Muslims aren’t condemning terrorism — when, in fact, they are — and thus contributes to unjust perceptions of Muslims. Demanding that Muslims condemn acts of terrorism is also problematic, in that implies that Muslims everywhere are responsible for what some Muslims do, and that deep down Islam as a faith tradition is responsible for it (something Francis actually rejects). Pope Francis’ frequent discussion of violence in his conversations with Muslims or in his messages to them can be seen as part of a broader Western discourse on Islam that often reduces complex issues down to stereotypical dichotomies of violence and peace.

Following Francis

In addition to offering Muslims a warm message of hospitality and friendship, Pope Francis’ outreach offers Catholics and other Christians important lessons about how we should reach out. Many of his gestures and statements challenge us positively to live out our Christianity in new and more radical ways. And even in his missteps, Pope Francis offers lessons about how all of us can improve.

Looking back on the last five years, we can thank Pope Francis for his dedication to dialogue and for reminding us that we are all “children of the same God.”

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Islamophobia is a religious freedom issue Catholics should prioritize

This summer, we’ve seen a string of anti-Muslim incidents across the country. Many of them — including several brutal attacks of Muslim individuals outside of their houses of worship — occurred during Ramadan, Muslim’s holy month.

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Amid these concerning events, I’ve written and spoken about Islamophobia and how it is a threat to American Muslim’s religious freedom. Below I share excerpts from an op-ed I wrote for Crux, a panel I participated in hosted by Georgetown’s Initiative for Catholic Social Thought, and a Huffington Post article I was quoted in.

From Crux:

Dehumanizing political rhetoric about refugees and discriminatory policy proposals by presidential candidates also have a very real impact on the daily lives of American Muslims.

Young Muslim students have been bullied and called “ISIS” or “terrorist” at school. Some women have considered taking off their headscarves so they don’t appear Muslim. And even children have approached their parents with the heartbreaking question: “If Donald Trump is president, will we have to leave?”

In the wake of the gay nightclub shooting in Orlando, some Muslims decided to stay away from their mosques for fear of being targeted.

The comedian and actor, Aziz Ansari, told his parents not to go to services, even though it was the festive and holy season of Ramadan. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, he wrote, “I realized how awful it was to tell an American citizen to be careful about how she worshiped.”

At its most basic level, Islamophobia is a religious freedom issue. American families can’t go to their houses of worship without fear of them being sprayed with bullets or graffiti. Men and women feel they must change the way they dress to receive fewer stares and the threat of assaults. Children are bullied at school because they are Muslim.

This is a reality that should alarm all Americans, especially Catholics concerned about issues of religious liberty. Continue reading

 

Video from “Faith, Hope, and Courage in a Time of Fear” event:

And from Huffington Post:

Given these incidents, many [Muslims] are understandably fearful to go to their houses of worship. And this is a shame in a country where freedom of religion is supposed to be a basic right. As a Catholic, I can’t imagine what it would be like to find my church vandalized or shot at during the lead up to Christmas, or to learn that in many places around the country, people who share my faith were beaten up outside their place of prayer. It would be extremely frightening. This is the reality American Muslims are living with. Continue Reading

 

 

How can Christians respond to Islamophobia?

The following article was originally published in Living City, the magazine of the Focolare movement. Their March issue is focused on Islamophobia and interfaith issues. I hope to see more Catholic publications dedicate articles or entire issues to these important topics. I hope this article can be a resource for parishes, churches, and related groups. Please share it with those who might find it useful.

One day in 2007, I received a chain email from a family friend from my parish. It cast suspicion on all Muslims in light of the violence committed by a few, saying that the majority were “irrelevant” or even “our enemy.”

The anonymous author asked recipients to forward the message to family and friends, and I realized the email had already circulated among members of my Catholic community.

Even though I didn’t know many Muslims at the time, the message troubled me. It didn’t seem to reflect the loving attitude I heard preached at Mass every week, but rather fear of those who were different and unknown. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to respond. But now — after getting involved in interreligious dialogue and studying Muslim-Christian relations — I have some ideas from my Catholic perspective about what to do when encountering anti-Muslim prejudice.

1. Look up what the Catholic Church teaches about Islam and Muslims

Pope Francis prays with Istanbul's grand mufti Rahmi Yaran during a visit to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul Nov. 29. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters) See POPE-ISTANBUL Nov. 29, 2014.
Pope Francis prays with Istanbul’s grand mufti Rahmi Yaran during a visit to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul Nov. 29. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

The Second Vatican Council didn’t only change the Mass from Latin to English — it also changed the way the Church approached non-Christians and their religions. Nostra Aetate, one of the most influential council documents, says that the Church regards Muslims with “esteem.” It praises their dedication to prayer, fasting and charitable giving, and highlights their reverence and devotion to Jesus, who is considered a prophet, and Mary, his virgin mother. Nostra Aetate also calls Catholics to work with Muslims to establish peace and social justice, something Pope Francis and his predecessors have also emphasized. Pope St. John Paul II identified four ways that Catholics can participate in dialogue with Muslims, the most important being everyday, lived dialogue.

2. Help your parish host a dinner with the local Muslim community 

Adam Park, chaplain of George Washington the Newman Center, greets students at the university's Interfaith Journeys Dinner.
Adam Park, chaplain of George Washington the Newman Center, greets students at the university’s Interfaith Journeys Dinner.

A meal is always a great starting point for dialogue. Parishes could coordinate with the local mosque or interfaith group to host a meal with local Muslims. The gathering doesn’t necessarily need a topic for discussion; breaking bread to get to know one another is enough. But if Christians are looking for a theme to shape the event, they might consider a discussion on mercy. For Catholics, 2016 is the Year of Mercy and can be a great time to learn about the strong emphasis placed on God’s mercy in Islam.

3. Organize an educational event about Islamophobia

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Creating an atmosphere of hospitality and solidarity with Muslims is especially important today, given the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks in many parts of the world. From 2014 to 2015, mosque vandalisms tripled in the U.S., and in many parts of Europe, anti-Muslim acts jumped to troubling heights. These  statistics and the experiences of Muslims who have been targeted still don’t receive the attention they should.  A parish could host an event with an expert and even invite members of the Muslim community to speak. Organizations like The Bridge Initiative, a Georgetown University research project on Islamophobia, have resources and potential speakers that could be utilized for an event like this.

4. Respond to anti-Muslim prejudice 
Now, more than ever, it is important for Christians to speak up against Islamophobia in their communities. As I know from experience, it’s often uncomfortable to address a friend’s stereotypical remarks or an inappropriate Facebook post. But we are called to stand in solidarity with all people, particularly the marginalized. If you’re faced with an anti-Muslim chain email, respond to your friend in person, and invite her to join you at an interfaith event in your city. But don’t simply wait until you’re confronted with Islamophobia personally — start the work of bridge-building now. Let us take concrete actions during this Year of Mercy to do what Pope Francis asks of us: to “eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination.”

Dr. Larycia Hawkins: Click on the photo to read her story.
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: Click on the photo to read her story.

2016 Is a Time to Learn about Islam’s Mercy

Earlier in December, I published the following piece in National Catholic Reporter. It speaks about the centrality of mercy in the Islamic tradition, something that is unknown by many in the West. During this time of increased Islamophobia — when anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks against Muslims are at a post-9/11 high — it’s ever more important to become better acquainted with Muslims and their tradition. I hope this piece can aid in that endeavor. 

Dec. 8 marks the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy, a yearlong celebration of God’s compassion. Pope Francis, who has made mercy the motto of his papacy, hopes that this year will be “a true moment of encounter with the mercy of God.” One way Catholics can become better acquainted with this divine mercy is by more deliberately encountering another religion that takes God’s mercy as its central focus: Islam.

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Faced with news media images of violence and black flags in the Middle East, the last thing many Catholics might associate with Islam is mercy. Aside from knowing about Muslims’ frequent prayer and Ramadan fast, most are unaware of Muslim religious practices, let alone their beliefs about God. But written at the beginning of every chapter of the Quran but one, and recited by Muslims at the start of every meal, prayer and task, is the invocation Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, which can be translated “In the name of God, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.”

In his papal bull announcing the jubilee, Francis referenced both Islam’s and Judaism’s emphases on God’s mercy, writing, “There is an aspect of mercy that goes beyond the confines of the Church.” He urged Catholics to use the Year of Mercy as an opportunity to learn about Islam and other religions to “eliminate every form of close-mindedness and disrespect … violence and discrimination.”

Like a parent

As Francis has described in homilies throughout his papacy, God’s mercy isn’t simply pity or forgiveness after we’ve done wrong. Rather, mercy is God’s overarching disposition toward creation, a parental love that extends to all. This is also true in Islam.

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Ya Rahman, “Oh, the Most Merciful.”

Muslims don’t refer to God as “Father,” but the parent-like nature of God in Islam becomes clear when we examine the Arabic roots of the word for mercy: rahmah. This word — and the names for God al-Rahman (the Entirely Merciful) and al-Rahim (the Especially Merciful) — comes from rahm, the Arabic word for a mother’s womb. The Prophet Muhammad compared God’s rahmah to that of a nurturing mother.

In the Quran, God identifies rahmah — which Muslims also translate into English as graciousness, compassion and loving kindness — as His chief attribute, and says that the name al-Rahman is but a synonym of Allah, the Arabic word for God. In a famous hadith, or saying of the prophet, Muhammad tells his followers that God has more mercy toward his servants than a mother does toward her child.

CXfgANnWkAQV8-T.jpg-largeFor both Christians and Muslims, God’s mercy is also characterized by infinite patience and a constant reaching out to wayward humanity.

Francis frequently cites Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, or what the pope calls the story of the “merciful father.” In the parable, a young man runs away from his family, abandoning his elderly father and living a life of selfishness. After he squanders his money, he returns ashamed to his family home.

As the Bible tells it, “While [the son] was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”

An oft-cited saying of Muhammad echoes this picture of God. He said, “God says: When a servant of mine draws nearer to me by the length of a hand, I draw toward him an arm’s length; and when he draws near to me an arm’s length, I draw near to him the distance of a wingspan; and if he comes to me walking, I go to him running.”

‘My Mercy encompasses all things’

The motherly quality of God’s mercy in Islam also speaks to God’s creation and sustaining of the universe. All things have been created by God, who, as the spiritual master Ibn Arabi put it, “mercified” the universe into being.

God’s infinite compassion (Quran 7:156) embraces the whole world (as a mother’s womb), and his attributes are partially made manifest in his creatures, particularly humans.

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This universal and constantly flowing mercy of God is also paired with what scholars of Islam have called God’s particular or secondary mercy, which is bestowed in response to humans’ efforts to live as God wants. This special mercy (ultimately achieved in salvation at the end of life) is not guaranteed, since humans are free to turn away from God’s universal care.

Still, like a patient parent, God constantly offers mercy, which, as Muhammad described, always “prevails over” his wrath.

Model of mercy

Muslims also believe God’s mercy was expressed through messengers who conveyed his revelation to humanity. These messengers include many figures that are familiar to Christians, such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, of whom God says in the Quran, “We have not sent you [Muhammad] but as a mercy for the universe” (Quran 21:107).

12274415_10153167320776631_884562967806251597_nFor Muslims, Muhammad is the model of merciful living. They look to his example of rahmah toward animals, the elderly, his grandchildren and everyone he met as a blueprint for their own lives, striving to emulate his caring nature and to be a mercy to their own universe.

CelebrateMercy,” an online educational initiative started by American Muslims, strives to share the life and legacy of the Muhammad not just with Muslims but with those who have only countered negative stereotypes about Islam and its prophet.

Mercy is our motto, too

In learning about the centrality of mercy in Islam, Catholics can become more cognizant of the emphasis of mercy in our own tradition, finding resonances to the Islamic notion in passages like this one, in Isaiah: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”

This Year of Mercy is a time for Catholics to re-encounter God’s rahmah through our own Scriptures and tradition, but also through the religion of our Muslim brothers and sisters. What we will discover is that, even with our doctrinal differences, Muslims and Christians share a core belief in a God who approaches all of creation with the loving kindness of a parent.

Perhaps then, we’ll find ourselves beginning each prayer, each task and each meal with an invocation of God’s mercy on our lips.

[This story appeared in the Dec 4-17, 2015 print issue of National Catholic Reporter under the headline: The Year of Mercy is a time to learn about Islam.]

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“My Mercy encompasses all things.” Qur’an 7:156