In 1965, under the direction of Pope Paul VI, the Second Vatican Council made historic changes to the Church’s policies and theology. These changes were crystallised in a document known as Nostra Aetate, Latin for ‘In Our Time,’ a document that revolutionised the Catholic Church’s approach towards other religions. For the first time it acknowledged the possibility that other religions ‘reflect rays of that Truth which enlightens all men’. In this document the Catholic Church attempted to introduce new terms for dialogue with specific references to Judaism and Islam. The church was attempting to redress a centuries-long painful relationship.
The Nostra Aetate was an open call to the Church to dialogue with other world religions from a premise of an acknowledged existence of common grounds especially in relation to the other monotheistic faiths of the Abrahamic branch; Judaism and Islam. In relation to Islam we read:
‘The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honour Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addi-tion, they await the Day of Judgment when God will render their desserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom. As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock’.
Of the three monotheistic religions Islam is the most favourably positioned for dialogue since it contains no outright rejection of Judaism nor Christianity; it considers them religions of the People of the Book, a term used by the Qur’an to describe the religions of those communities to whom a ‘Book’ was given by God (Torah to Moses(a), Zabur to David(a), Evangel to Jesus(a) and Qur’an to Muhammad(s). This was a logical step for the Church if it wanted to engage in a meaningful dialogue.
Christianity is chronologically placed in the middle between Judaism which precedes it and Islam which follows it. For centuries the veracity of Christianity in relation to both Judaism and Islam was based on the rejection of the Jews, blamed for the involvement in the killing of Jesus(a) and of Islam seen originally as an apostasy from Christianity. As a result any dialogue with peoples holding such views would have been meaningless.
Dirk Hartwig, in this issue’s cover article, analyses the milieu of the Quranic revelation, highlighting the marked transformation in the character of revelations between previous scriptures and the Qur’an. While essentially the moral and ethical aspect of its teaching is the same, the Qur’an has to reflect its status as the final revelation and as such it has to address not a specific community but humanity at large. It transcends lands and ethnicities abrogating any concept of superiority or claimed closeness to God based on race.
The Qur’an represents the final evolu¬tion of a Divine Message that has taken different forms throughout human history.
As Dirk Hartwing points out the ‘Qur’an emerges as a unique voice in the interpretive milieu that can no longer be seen as an insufficient replica of the Bible’. There is no attempt to emulate previous scriptures but rather to compliment them and in doing so open a new chapter of communication between humanity and its Creator. •
Amir De Martino is the chief editor of islam today