“Islam: Friend or Foe,” was the headline that drew nearly 50 attendees to a banquet room of the Sea Galley Restaurant in Anchorage earlier this fall.
The speaker, popular Catholic scholar, writer and teacher Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio, was in Anchorage to kick off this year’s Theology & Brew monthly speaker series for young adults in the Anchorage Archdiocese.
A former professor at Loyola and the University of Dallas, D’Ambrosio holds a doctorate in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. He is also a frequent guest on EWTN television and Catholic Answers Live national radio.
D’Ambrosio frequently leads tours to the Holy Lands and knows many Christian Arabs living in predominantly Muslim lands. He also has friends who have converted from Islam to Christianity. His talk drew from these personal friendships, along with his study of Islam and the Koran.
Overshadowing the evening presentation was the reality of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) unleashing violence rarely seen on the world stage. D’Ambrosio’s talk aimed to clarify the “surprising similarities” as well as the stark differences between Islam and Christianity. He also aimed to highlight the distinction between extreme Islamic terror groups and the beliefs and practices of many Muslims around the world.
“One of the questions you ask about ISIS is, are these guys fundamentalist crazies, how much do they represent Islam? Is Islam essentially violent? This is one of the big questions that everyone has,” D’Ambrosio said to begin his Aug. 25 talk.
To understand Islam the first step is to see “where we have correspondence with Muslims,” he said.
FINDING COMMON GROUND
Finding common ground with other faiths is a Christian principle dating to the earliest days of the church, D’Ambrosio noted.
Saint Paul, he observed, found common ground with the Athenians and their “unknown God” — a deity the apostle said was actually Christ. Others, such as Saint Justin Martyr, found seeds of truth in pagan religions, D’Ambrosio said.
“We honor truth wherever it’s found,” he said, adding that “only Christ is the fullness of truth.” Therefore Catholics should draw people into the full life of Christ.
This contradicts the belief that all religions are paths up the same mountain, but it also paves the way for dialogue and finding common ground, D’Ambrosio emphasized.
“That’s the Catholic approach. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have honored Plato and Aristotle,” he said. “We take what’s good from all cultures of the world, this is part of what the word ‘catholic’ means — what’s true from every religion in the world, we honor it and we try to complete it. But at the same time, you critique it, you don’t make any excuses. You have to say certain things can’t come into the Catholic fullness, there are some things that are wrong.”
SIMILARITIES WITH ISLAM
“Actually, we have a lot of things in common, a lot more in common than a lot of people realize who are Catholic,” D’Ambrosio pointed out. “First of all, Islam believes in one God.”
In fact, Catholic Arabs use the word “Allah” during Mass, he said. “So Allah is not the name of the Muslim deity; it’s simply the name for God, the Supreme Being.”
That Muslims affirm one God — the supreme creator of the universe — whom we must obey provides common ground from which to build a discussion, D’Ambrosio noted.
That monotheistic belief should be “something we recognize and applaud — especially in a society where so many people ignore God,” he said.
Additionally, in a time when many question whether Jesus ever lived, Muslims affirm his existence. And while they do not believe he was the Son of God, they honor him as a great prophet and defend his virgin birth.
“Mohammed doesn’t have a virgin birth, but Jesus does,” D’Ambrosio said. “And they believe he’s sinless, which they don’t say about anybody except Jesus and one other person. Guess who else they think is sinless? Mary.”
Muslims deny that Jesus was ever crucified on the cross, maintaining that he escaped and ascended into heaven. But “they believe in the Second Coming of Jesus,” D’Ambrosio said.
“Mohammed’s not coming back to judge the world,” he added. “Jesus is coming back to judge the world.”
Within the five pillars of Islam, Christians can also find common ground, D‘Ambrosio said.
He noted that the first pillar affirms that “Allah is one, and Mohammed is his prophet.”
“We don’t believe you’re supposed to accept Mohammed as a prophet,” he said. “But we do believe God is one.”
Another pillar is the duty to pray five times a day.
“Is that admirable?” he asked. “Obviously.”
Fasting is another commonality, D’Ambrosio highlighted. “And their fasting is for a month. Now where do we have fasting for about a month? Lent.”
Then there’s almsgiving.
“For a Muslim, you have to give alms to the poor,” he said. “So these are all noble and good things that we would agree with.”
PROTECTING UNBORN LIFE
In regard to some of the life issues, D’Ambrosio pointed out that much of western society has “no sense of modesty and no connection between sexual intimacy and life.”
“We have a contraceptive mentality,” he said, and we have “broken the idea that children are one of the main purposes of marriage and that marital love or sexual love is essentially somehow connected to children and fertility.”
This is not so within Islam.
“They don’t contracept, at least the ones who are faithful Muslims,” he said. “They don’t contracept and they don’t abort. Abortion and contraception are anathema in Islam.”
This can be seen in the fact that many Islamic countries have been allies of the Vatican in world population control conferences that have pushed to include abortion as part of the United Nations population control policies, D’Ambrosio said.
These shared concerns Christians can “honor and applaud in the midst of a civilization that doesn’t honor these things,” D’Ambrosio said.
“In fact, I would submit to you that one of the reasons why Islam is attractive to certain westerners … is because there is a moral code that’s clear — order. There’s simplicity of truth as far as God — God has a plan, we’re supposed to follow his plan, we’re supposed to obey him. All these things bring order out of the chaos of modern life, and so for some people, when they happen upon Islam, it makes sense to them, and there’s an attraction.”
But there are also profound areas of disagreement between Christianity and Islam, prayer being a prime example.
“What do you expect out of prayer?” D’Ambrosio asked attendees. “You want God’s grace, to live a holy life — you want his assistance.”
But Muslims do not share this Christian view of grace, in which the loving God assists the faithful in following him because they do not have the power on their own, he explained.
“Islam is a religion of will power,” he said. “There is no concept of salvation by grace. We just need to do what Allah says.”
Islamic prayer is not as much about fostering a relationship with God or dialoguing with God, but more about “obeying God and showing him homage,” he said. “It’s you bowing down before the Master of the Universe.”
Calling God “Father” and affirming that we are “sons and daughters” of God is foreign to Islam, D’Ambrosio said.
Even Jesus is not seen as the Son of God, he said.
“Jesus is a great prophet,” and in some ways “greater than Mohammed [because of his virgin birth and the fact that he is going to judge the world], D’Ambrosio said. But for Muslims “Jesus is not the Son of God,” he explained. “He’s not the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.”
HEAVEN, JESUS & MORALITY
Heaven, too, differs from the Christian vision that includes intimacy with God, D’Ambrosio said.
“God is a community, a community of love, from all eternity,” he said of the Christian view. “Before the world is created, Father, Son and Spirit are pouring themselves in love for each other. This is absolutely foreign to Muslim theology.”
“You don’t dare ask for intimacy with God,” D’Ambrosio said of the Islamic faith. “And in heaven, you won’t know God. Heaven is going to be physical, sensual delights. You can’t have wine here. Alcohol is bad, it makes you crazy. In heaven, you’re going to be able to drink all the wine you want. And it won’t make you crazy. And you’ll have all the virgins you want.”
But intimacy with God is not part of Islamic paradise, D’Ambrosio asserted.
“He’s not Father, he’s not close, he’s not near, and there’s no dynamism of knowing him,” he said, adding that for Christians, “we’re going to be unpacking, getting to know the beauty and the depth of God and all of his saints.”
Moreover, morality is very different, D’Ambrosio said. Catholic morality views sin as that which is “destructive of you” and “destructive of your relationship with God” or “destructive of other people.”
In Islam morality is not so much a reflection of “the essential order of things” but more of “God’s capricious will,” he said. “This is a very, very different kind of morality.”
A sharp distinction is also found in how Christians and Muslims approach those who do not hold to their respective religions, D’Ambrosio noted.
“People who are against Islam and against God’s prophet Mohammed do not have rights and do not have dignity, and quite frankly, it is taught, in cases where people are resisting Islam, to subjugate them,” he said.
He noted that both Sunnis and Shiite Muslims look to the Koran and the Islamic traditions found in the sacred book of the Hadith. Both of these writings contain “counsel to violence in a way that is not in the Christian Scriptures at all. Did Jesus ever lead an army? Well they wanted to make him king. Did he allow that?”
“The only crown Jesus wore was a crown of thorns. And he didn’t ride a warhorse, he rode a donkey into Jerusalem,” D’Ambrosio said. But Islam prescribes a set of political ideas and makes no distinction between faith and politics, he explained.
“It is a complete way of life,” D’Ambrosio said. “It was a military, political, religious force; it was spread by force.”
D’Ambrosio noted that verses in the Koran call Christians and Jews “people of the book, and some verses in the Koran are very kindly toward people of the book. If we do not convert to Islam and accept Mohammed, we are to pay a tax. But generally, we are to be protected.”
But later verses in the Koran “are not as nice at all and talk really about the duty to force the infidel to submit,” D’Ambrosio continued.
The actual approach to unbelievers (or infidels) differs among Muslims, he said.
“Muslims themselves are not all alike, they don’t take the Koran and their faith the same way the people of ISIS do,” D’Ambrosio said. “So there are many Muslims, for example, who are not terribly religious, you know there are cultural Muslims like cultural Catholics. There are other Muslims that belong to some minority sects that are being killed right now by the likes of ISIS.”
The Sufis for example are “a mystical group that is considered heretics by most Muslims like the ISIS who’d chop their heads off if they found them,” D’Ambrosio said. “[Sufis] come out of the Muslim tradition, but they have a tradition of seeking intimacy with God, joy in his presence.”
D’Ambrosio said this highlights the fact that “God will take whoever is sincerely seeking him in the midst of a religious tradition that has distortions” and he will “guide them towards himself.”
“I met a Muslim man who is a teacher,” he said, “and I really experienced in him the fruits of the Spirit. He was really connecting with the one true God in his search for God through Islam.”
DIALOGUING WITH MUSLIMS
In sharing Christian faith with Muslims, D’Ambrosio suggested taking the approach laid out by Saint Paul and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
“We start with respect, we start with love, we start with openness,” he said. “If you know something about Islam, it really helps to win that person’s respect that you’ve taken enough time to learn a little bit.”
“Vatican II said we respect the truth that we find elsewhere, but they didn’t say not to try to share with them the fullness of truth,” D’Ambrosio affirmed. “Quite the contrary. We are absolutely bound to understand that everyone has the right to know that God is their loving father, that Christ died for them” and that “prayer isn’t just about obeying and bowing before God, it’s about intimacy with God, it’s about change and transformation, communion with God.”
“These things people need, and they’re suffering if they don’t have it,” he added. “And so we’re obliged to share it.”
Islam, D’Ambrosio said, answers some questions of the human heart, “but they leave other needs of the human heart totally unfulfilled, like communion with God.”
“We have the whole thing,” he added. “So, it’s our duty to invite them to our house. Invite a Muslim, if they’re your neighbor, to come and see what the church is like.”