Middle Eastern Priest Explains Islam (Part 1)

Interview With Father Samir Khalil Samir

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By Annamarie Adkins

BEIRUT, Lebanon, MARCH 4, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Confusion over Islam — among Christians and Muslims — may have peaked after Sept. 11, 2001, but many questions still remain.

That’s why Jesuit Father Samir Khalil felt called to offer some answers, as an Islamic scholar, Semitologist, Orientalist and a Catholic theologian born in Egypt and based in the Middle East for more than 20 years.

The Jesuit priest teaches Catholic theology and Islamic studies at St. Joseph University in Beirut, is founder of the CEDRAC research institute and is author of, most recently, «111 Questions on Islam» (Ignatius).

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Samir speaks about his experience and efforts to build a mutual understanding between followers of the two Abrahamic faiths.

Part 2 will appear Thursday.

Q: Why did you agree to produce this book?

Father Samir: Two reasons. It was a year before 9/11 that I started discussing this topic with journalists, having interviews together. I noticed a great ignorance of Islam in the West — Christians, non-Christians and nonbelievers.

In general, they had very poor knowledge of Islam. I thought I had to clarify. Their ignorance pushed some of them to be aggressive and negative toward Muslims. Some of them were very naïve, believing everything they heard. Some even were using Islam to be aggressive toward Christianity. All of that is a consequence of ignorance.

The second reason was to help Muslims reflect on their own religion and faith. In a previous experience with Muslim youth in a Paris suburb, I noticed they didn’t know almost anything about their own religion.

Speaking with different Muslim people I met in Europe — in Germany during the summer, or in France where I teach, or in Italy where I was living — it was always the same. Most Christians don’t know their religion, either.

I wanted to give good information about Islam to help people not to have any false information or prejudice against it.

Q: How did the interviewers choose the 111 questions from the thousands that could have been asked?

Father Samir: The journalists I worked with had a lot of questions themselves, and questions from what people were asking them: about violence; whether Muslims would accept Western civilization; and about Muslims having problems with equality between men and women.

So, in fact, the questions are more directed to Western society so it could understand Islam better.

Q: Do you think most Muslims would be satisfied by the objectivity of your answers to the 111 questions? Why or why not?

Father Samir: My effort was to be objective; I tried, but you can never truly reach a perfect objectivity.

Certainly, not everybody will be happy. Some think Islam is a violent religion, or a religion against women; they will not be happy because they will say I am not clear enough about the violence and inequality of men and women.

People who think Islam is a religion of peace and equality between men and women, and that Mohammed elevated the status of women, will not be happy either.

Everyone has a position. Few people will be satisfied, if they are against or for Islam.

But those who want to know something serious about Islam will be able to make their own opinion, because they will have the facts in front of them in my book.

Q: The introduction to the book notes that it is an attempt to foster mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims. But many of your answers paint Islam and its origins in a very negative light. How do you think the average Christian’s opinion of Islam will change after reading the book?

Father Samir: I don’t think it was very negative, or negative at all; my intention is a better understanding. Not a feeling, but an understanding — something that uses the head first, then the heart.

You have to first give serious information to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. If I don’t say the whole truth, the truth will appear anyway, and the situation will be worse.

I am trying to build a mutual understanding, not built on compromises and false information. Dialogue starts with serious, academic, honest information about Christianity and Islam.

The answers are trying to be useful information; some answers are negative because the point is negative.

I don’t know what the average Christian thinks. Nowadays, I suppose the majority has a negative opinion of Islam, before reading any book.

We, Arabs and Muslims, are in a crisis. When we Arabs — Muslims and Christians — speak together, we recognize we are in a bad situation. We had a glorious time in other centuries, but now we are at the bottom.

I hope that the book will help people understand things that concern them, like terrorism; there are some explanations, but not justifications. I can’t justify terrorism, but I can explain why others are led to terrorist acts, I can also show that it has some support in the Koran and the Tradition — sunnah.

Most Muslims choose peace and nonviolence. The 10% that chooses violence is stronger than the 90% that doesn’t. Sometimes the bad part of humanity, though smaller, is stronger.

Q: Is a critical examination of Islam’s history and sacred texts — that is, subjecting the faith to reason — even possible in the Muslim world? Why or why not?

Father Samir: Usually, in the Muslim tradition, faith is over everything; it is above reason.

If you tell a Muslim the Koran says something, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says something contrary, the Muslim will say, «We have to follow God’s words and law, and not the human rights laws.»

In the Christian tradition, we find more people interpreting the Bible than Muslims interpreting the Koran. They had an interpretive movement in the Islamic world in 9th, 10th and 11th century, but then they went backward.

As for the relationship between reason and faith, today Muslims are in a negative period of their history. Certainly it is possible to unite the two, but they would have to work very hard. There are many reasons for this regression, but fundamentally, there is ignorance on the part of the Muslim clergy.

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