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"To believe each other capable
of questioning oneself critically"

An interview with the Islam expert Christian W. Troll {*}

 

From: Herder correspondence, 2006/11, P. 555-560

 

    The reactions to an Islam-critical quotation in the Regensburg lecture of the Pope made clear again how difficult at present the Christian-Islamic relations are. We talked with the Jesuit and Islam expert Christian W. Troll about the changes in the Islam dialogue, and which basic questions should be placed on the agenda now. Stefan Orth asked the questions.

 

HK: Mr. Troll, acts of terror by Islamists, the caricature controversy and now the argument about the Regensburg lecture of the Pope. How much increased the difficulties in the Christian-Islamic dialogue in the past five years?

Troll: The dialogue has always been difficult, but in the last years it changed again. Since the days of the Second Vatican Council there were always people in the Catholic Church who were sceptical with regard to a further opening toward other religions, and particularly toward Islam. In spite of all continuity there arose - as a result from the exciting events of the recent time - a paradigm change to greater sobriety. Besides the points in common also the different features are taken more seriously. The contrasting matter as well as the different perception is increasingly stated by the dialogue partners. Apart from the emotional and demagogic reactions to any criticism, after all also the readiness grew to ask painful questions - and to believe each other also capable of questioning oneself critically. This new atmosphere of objectivity, which came into being in spite of everything, makes it possible to make conditions for the religious dialogue, and to be e.g. more critical with regard to the dialogue partners.

HK: Of which conditions for the interreligious dialogue do you think? Where then has one been not attentive enough before?

Troll: In the past one had e.g. invited occasionally to Europe interlocutors from by majority Muslim countries, with whom one could not be secure that they also at home represented effectively and publicly those convictions that had been proclaimed by them here, and that had been celebrated here in the public. It was really an annoyance, when for instance personalities took part in common prayers, of whom one should have known that they speak and act quite differently in their homelands, for example in Sudan, against the Christian minorities - hence that they do not fulfil the conditions for an honest dialogue. That was water on the mills of the sceptics, who felt confirmed by such mistakes. Here the pontificate of Benedict XVI sets also new directions.

HK: In view of the recent turbulences some people hope nevertheless that the Islam dialogue will - due to the recent annoyances - rather become more significant. Which basic questions would have to be discussed for the matter's sake in the future?

Troll: That is on the one hand the topics faith, power, violence. Naturally the Pope, who identified himself with the quoted criticism at Mohammed in no way, should have formulated more carefully, and should have dissociated himself from his quotation more clearly - in view of the danger to be represented, as it were, mutilated by the world-wide mass media, and because of the ease with which larger groups among the Muslims can be seduced - due to the not only felt, but really existing injustice in the world. But the problem had to be brought up that it cannot be denied that in the basic writings of Islam, in the Koran as well as in the Hadiths, i.e. in those sayings and deeds of the Prophet that are seen as genuine by Muslims, the expansion of Islam's sphere of influence by military means and other ways of force was of crucial importance.

 

"The historical facts are not to be manipulated"

HK: To what extent is force important for the world religion Islam? Is it a constitutive element of Islam?

Troll: The plundering and war rides of the Medina period, including the policy of the Prophet in relation to the Jewish tribes there as well as the expansion by force of the Arab-Islamic realm during the so-called golden period of the rightly-led caliphs, are in some newer biographies of the Prophet and in representations of Islam - for instance by Reza Aslan, Tariq Ramadan, Karen Armstrong - represented as forced upon it, and as pure defence strategy to save one's skin. Hence the others are the aggressors and violent criminals. Up to the modern times the Muslim authors were proud of the military, tactical and political successes of the early Muslim communities under the leadership of the Prophet and his successors.

 


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Just these successes of the Prophet and his community were seen as a proof of being chosen by God, and of God's grace for Islam, as a proof of the truth and effectiveness of the last and true religion. The intention to project a peace-loving Islam is praiseworthy. But is it meaningful and on the long-term basis fruitful to manipulate the historical facts, or to deny them, in order to serve this object? Should one not develop a convincing hermeneutics of the mentioned texts and historical events?

HK: Whether there are reported events and other passages within the basic documents of a religion, which might lead to violence, is - with regard to the Jewish-Christian writings already discussed quite lively...

Troll: This question has to be put also with regard to the Koran. For it cannot be denied that one preaches about those texts, and that the different phases of the Prophet's life are discussed in the mosque. Therefore it is not only important for Muslims, but also for those who live together with them, how these texts are interpreted. Likewise there are from the point of view of the constitutions of modern, democratic states not only tensions, but also direct contradictions to certain regulations of the Scharia, as they are taught up to this very day, and confirmed by contemporary legal decisions. Not in vain this is a central question for the discussion in Europe, for instance at the German Islam Conference. Differently than thirty or forty years ago we can no longer ignore it today within a rapidly interlacing world.

HK: How is Benedict's XVI aforementioned thesis to evaluate, that - according to the God conception in Islam - faith is not to be bound inevitably to reason?

Troll: In the Regensburg lecture important things of the science of Islam have been mentioned, which, since they were not in the centre of the speech, appear too simplified, if not even wrongly drawn. Sure, the by the Pope mentioned Andalusian Ibn Hazm belongs to the Islamic Zahirit school, which emphasizes among other things quite strongly God's absolute transcendence, in relation to any rational thinking of man. But there is in the first centuries, in the time of bloom of Islamic thinking, also a pointedly rational school of theology: the Mu'tazilits. But this rational theology has relatively early been suppressed in the Sunni Islam, or pushed completely to the margin. It has been revived again only in the 19th century by the first modern Muslim philosophers, but was also displaced again in the course of the 20th century to a large extent.

HK: Hence the reproach was justified...

Troll: While in the Shiite theological tradition the rational analysis had and continues to have an important role also in the teachings about God, the mainstreams in the Sunni Islam actually tend to an understanding of Koran and God that is closed to a real and comprehensive rational analysis. The theological tradition of Hanbalism, in later centuries strongly formulated by Ibn Taymiyya again, founded theologically the today enormously influential, if not - in its different forms - dominating Islamist thinking. We will have to discuss it yet.

HK: Why could the representatives of a rational theology in Islam not gain greater acceptance?

Troll: The great philosophers of Islam have - as far as the theological juridical thinking is concerned - never been part of the mainstream, and were always suspected of heresy. Sure, within jurisprudence, that plays a large role in Islam, intellect takes an important position, but it is, as it were, a functional reason, and not a reason of radical analysis in the sense of Enlightenment. There is no real encounter between the radical questions of reason and the statements of revelation, no really radical analysis in the sense of scholasticism, and above all not in the sense of the modern Enlightenment. Even Tariq Ramadan, the influential contemporary Swiss reform preacher, who sees himself as a modern Muslim, and wants to create a European Islam, does not really confront the text of the Koran and the reliable Hadithe with critical reason. It is rather his object to achieve - by means of a flexible application of the Islamic juridical reason - a certain adjustment of the Islamic law to contemporary ways of life. Thereby the Koran and the "healthy" traditions remain in the last analysis untouched by any historical-rational criticism.

 

"The importance of hermeneutics is the key question"

HK: Does - as Cardinal Lehmann recently suggested - a missing historical thinking in Islam prevent the argument with modernity, that is certainly necessary for the clarification of the problem of violence?

 


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Troll: Up to the 16th century A.D. Muslims made noteworthy contributions to geography, historiography, historical philosophy, sociology, and religious studies. But this does not mean that the theologians approached the revelation in the true sense historically, or that they saw reversely history in any way connected with the event of revelation. New religious philosophers in Islam try to develop here new approaches today, but thereby they make themselves certainly more than unpopular with the large majority of the Muslim religious scholars and their institutions. According to the overwhelming majority of Muslims the word of God, as it is revealed to us by the Koran, are on no account to be drawn somehow into the changeability of history.

HK: Is this the reason why there is no appropriate historical-critical Koran exegesis - respectively no appropriate hermeneutics in Islamic theology in general in majority Islam? At least there are Muslim theologians, e.g. Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, who stand up for the reading of the Korans on the basis of a western understanding of exegesis of religious texts ...

Troll: The importance of hermeneutics is actually the religion-scientific, exegetic and theological key question for the future development of Islam. There are in various countries several Islamic scholars who are striving on this way. But they can move and express themselves freely only in countries where Islam is in the minority - an exception is Turkey that is still moulded by Ataturk's laicism. Many of these scholars can work and give their views in peace only in the emigration. They do not only ask quite purposefully into which situation and time, and under which circumstances statements of the Koran have been revealed. They consider also the classical teachings on revelation, and they refuse to regard the Prophet simply as a spokesman, whose mental and religious gift had nothing to do with the event of revelation: neither with its procedure nor with its contents. They try to prove from the text of the Koran that it was given into the heart of the Prophet, yes, that it rose from the spirit and heart of the Prophet, without touching by such a view the authorship of God.

HK: With which success?

Troll: So far they stand more or less alone, and they became not the starting point or even founders of new religious and theological movements in the larger Muslim community. There are still no considerable networks of mosques and training centres, which would deepen, investigate and pass on this kind of theological thinking. Of course, one cannot rule out that there will be in the future among the Muslims very different theological schools and directions next to each other - as it is the case in Judaism.

HK: To what extent was this already readable from the reactions in the caricature controversy that caused substantial annoyances at the beginning of this year?

Troll: Also in the Arab world it was asked why one does not in same and demonstrative way get excited about the injury of the holiness and inviolability of human life, and went onto the street after the numerous suicide attempts, by which also a huge number of children and civilians are killed. Many Muslims felt: As Muslims we have to defend more consistently the holiness and dignity of human life. Also in the Islamic world one saw that at least some caricatures had pointed out the scandal that people act here and there in the name of the Prophet, without sufficiently respecting thereby the human dignity and the holiness of life - and that one so only caused this aggressive answer of the west.

 

"In Islam too the individualizing will become noticeable"

HK: How are the chances for the so-called Euro-Islam in view of the altogether larger difficulties in the Christian-Islamic discussion?

Troll: The already mentioned Tariq Ramadan is among the European Muslims probably the most important personality who supports a European Islam. Whether one sees him now more as a modern preacher or as an original philosopher: His newest book "Western Muslims and the Future of Islam" is fascinating, because an Islamic mentality is to be created here, which calls itself to this extent European, as it wants to be in agreement with the western, secular democracy. Muslims - so the fundamental conviction - are absolutely able to realize exemplarily in Europe the principles and the ethical basic values of Islam, e.g. on the field of social justice, bio ethics and responsibility for the creation. Ramadan refrains from the old, post-Koran dichotomy: here the Islamic world, the 'House of Peace', on the other side Europe, the 'House of War'. The question is to what extent he really accepts consistently the foundations of our democracy, including the human rights and above all the freedom of religion as well as the equality of the sexes. Progressive Muslims reproach him that his idea of Islam and his religious thinking will finally come to a mental parallel society in Europe.

HK: What are the precise reproaches of his critics?

Troll: Ramadan too does not face the radical hermeneutic questions. Sure, his message and preaching help young Muslims to take Europe seriously,

 


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and to feel no longer only as exiles. In mere juridical questions Ramadan's thinking is quite flexible, and ready for reforms. But the question arises: Will Ramadan's Islam also - out of a deep Koran conviction - genuinely accept the religiously neutral basic conditions which are indispensable for the success of a pluralistic, secularly constituted society? Does his Islam understand itself really in such a way that it is able and ready to participate in a common political project, where not any religious or ideological group is neither ruler nor controlled, but where all people are equal fellow citizens, who actively cooperate in it? Or does then, in the last analysis, a society matter to him that should be shaped by a Scharia adapted to Europe, above all when the political balance of power will have developed clearly in favour of the Muslims?

HK: It would anyway be the question whether one can talk about a Euro-Islam - or whether the actual existing Muslim landscape in Europe will become a comparatively multiform one...

Troll: Where Islam develops within democratic societies, it is actually quite probable that there will be not only different schools, which call themselves Islamic and which read the Koran very differently. They will come then also to different ways how they understand the God given revelation, i.e. Koran and Hadith, and how they want to realize it in the practical life in respective variety - up to the very differently shaped mosque associations. Here too the individualizing of the religious aspect, which is caused almost automatically by the life in a democracy, will become noticeable - since just the Sunnis do not want any doctrinaire office, and insist deliberately on the fact that in the Islamic idea of faith each individual Muslim has to find his/her own answer to the Koran. Muslims, so one says then further, have the liberty to stand up for quite different views on faith. But then the question will arise, what distinguishes the binding idea of the Umma in its variety, and how does the Umma articulate its common interests in a pluralistic society.

 

"What is the Muslims' and Christians' view on the question of power?"

HK: How good are momentarily the chances for more reliable contacts, and for developed structures within Islam, which would be important for both, church and state, in the dialogue?

Troll: We will see that in practice at the recently from the Federal Minister of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble initiated German Islam Conference, as it was to be seen already with the discussions about the participants in the discussion group. What minimum requirement has a person to fulfil, in order to be regarded as a Muslim, and to be allowed to speak as a Muslim? Who is regarded as a practicing Muslim? There is a broad discussion now about these questions among the organized Muslims. Its dynamics will force them to clarify their common positions.

HK: A dialogue is always a mutual happening. What are the painful questions that the discussion with Muslims will have ready in the future for Christianity?

Troll: The reactions to the Pope's Regensburg lecture were also therefore so violent because one wondered whether the Catholics are actually sufficiently aware of their own history. By it not only outward terror and force are concerned, but also - keywords inquisition, index of forbidden books - the missing freedom and the coercive measures that existed within the Catholic Church. Even if the church made a comprehensive confession of guilt by the mouth of John Paul II at the beginning of the third millennium, we are further invited to realism in dealing with our own history.

HK: And which are the common challenges that had also to be discussed in the Christian-Islamic dialogue?

Troll: How do Muslims and Christians stand to the question of power? Which are - seen from the respective faith convictions and moral teachings - the appropriate means in the effort to give them socially and politically effectiveness? There are many Muslims - as there are, mutatis mutandis, also many Christians - who do not feel well, if politics is moved one-sidedly into the foreground and controls the entire discourse of a religion. In this connection one has to remind of the great spiritual and mystical tradition of Islam. Islam gave to the world outstanding mystics throughout the world, and Sufi works in prose and poetry. Compared with that today's situation is rather depressing: The spiritual message of Islam disappears to a large extent behind the political and ideological discourse. In the first half of the 20th century the Europeans were much more aware of the mystical tradition of Islam. Of course, there are also today still Sufi groups in Europe, but they are not of that importance, neither in our awareness nor in the Christian-Islamic dialogue, to which they are entitled actually.

HK: At which points in the discussion could Muslims and Christians - on the basis of their large common features - come soon to an understanding?

Troll: The Pope emphasized in his speech to the Ambassadors from Muslim countries in Castel Gandolfo on 25 September that we have a common task in view of moral questions. Actually the dialogue should be steered more strongly

 


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to the bases for a co-operation within the ethical range: be it in view of the social ethics, or also regarding bioethical questions. It is important for instance that in the Islamic life the values marriage and family are of great importance. Also the Muslims' will to live for the next generation, and to shape the future from there, challenges us Christians here in Europe. And finally we as Christians do not lose anything, if we recognize gratefully the fact that the Muslim majority continues to be shaped by its faith in God, and has awareness for the deepest and last questions of life that we have often lost. One will also appreciate the concern and efforts of Muslim parents in all parts of the world to introduce their children and grandchildren to the Islamic faith.

 

"It is not the fault of Muslims that churches are closed"

HK: Which demands have Christians to face in the future?

Troll: First we Christians have to notice the whole range of Muslim movements and views of Islam throughout the world but also in Germany. This is not so simple at all, and presupposes much openness, knowledge and discernment. At any rate, the need for information on Muslims and Islam did grow in the society, certainly pretty often mixed with fear and suspicion after 11 September 2001. Many want to acquaint themselves with the Muslims in their diversity. But just the Christian disseminators, not least the theologians have not enough objective and differentiated knowledge, and also the ability to empathize its missing yet.

HK: Has one become too dialogue sceptical on the part of the Christians, resp. the Catholic Church?

Troll: On the level of Rome, and on that of the Bishops' Conference, of dioceses and Christian academies the dialogue is not at all pushed aside. There are more efforts of the Christian-Islamic Encounter- and Documentation Institute (CIBEDO) of the German Bishops' Conference as well as of the dialogue experts of several dioceses than ever before. But I am not content with the efforts at the faculties of theology with regard to our questions. Today one can no longer live and think as Christian without examination of Islam too. The theological training and research has to take more notice of this. It should be so that everyone who studies Christian theology gets obligating not only a reasonable introduction on Islam's conception of itself, but learns also to reflect on the Christian view and the Christian answers, and on the theological challenges of Islam. A lot of things remain to be done there.

HK: How can one meet those fears of Islam that often seem irrational?

Troll: Sure, there is momentarily a large feeling of insecurity, though admittedly not only with Christians. On the occasion of lectures and discussions I notice in recent time that many people refuse even to accept just the fact that more than three million Muslims are living among us. There are still a great many fears of contact. But why do we see Muslims, for whom God has such a high value, only as political problem? Why do we not try to come together as neighbours, workmates and active fellow citizens? Due to resentment Muslims get to hear time and again also reproaches for things about which they cannot do anything. At present many for miles around visible mosques are built that replace the prayer rooms in the backyards. This new visibility of Islam corresponds to the numeric weight of the Muslim population, and is the legitimate expression of the freedom of religion, guaranteed by the constitution. It is not the fault of Muslims that churches are closed at the same time.

HK: The question of living together is certainly an important dimension of the interreligious dialogue. But what is its deeper sense, if on the one hand everyone has to contribute his/her convictions, but on the other hand nobody is allowed to convert others to his/her own ideas?

Troll: We must take it seriously and translate it into reality that we, Muslims and Christians, who believe that all human beings come from one origin and go toward one aim, belong in a special way together as brothers and sisters, in our faith in God the Creator, Judge and Lord of history. This requires a respectful meeting and the will to build together the things that are important to us. In each prayer we implore the One who is implored also by the Muslim and Jewish faithful.

 


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In the last analysis we pray to the same God, even if we make different statements about him/her. If I stand facing this God, I must also be open to those who want, like me, to serve this God. Hence dialogue is today more necessary than ever, simply because we are fellow citizen, and live together much more intensively in the same society than in former times. The problems which are to be clarified can only be solved if one - among people for whom the religious-cultural dimension is important - knows the respective backgrounds. As faithful Muslims and Christians we come thereby immediately upon differences, but also - and this is in the long run the crucial thing - upon things that connect us deeply and make us discharge our duties. There are then also strokes of luck, where in a human meeting, in a religious discussion the one can become for the other one an example for a succeeding religious life looking for God.

 

    {*} Christian W. Troll (born in 1937) entered in 1963 into the Society of Jesus. He worked from 1976 to 1988 as professor for Islamic studies in New Delhi, taught then in Birmingham, and from 1993 to 1999 at the Papal Oriental Institute in Rome. He leads the "Study Program 'Islam and Christian-Muslim Encounter'" of the Philosophical-Theological University Sankt Georgen.

 

CIBEDO, the Chistian-Islamic meeting and documentation place, has as office of the German Bishops' Conference the task to promote the dialogue between Christianity and Islam, and the living together of Christians and Muslims.
Contact: Balduinstr. 62
60599 Frankfurt am Main
Tel. + 49 (69) 726491
www.cibedo.de

 

Link to 'Public Con-Spiracy for-with-of the Poor'