WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 27, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Catholics have a duty to be informed about Islam and the challenges it poses to Christianity. So says Robert Spencer, an expert on Islam who recently co-authored "Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics" (Ascension) with Daniel Ali, a convert from Islam.

Spencer shared with ZENIT why he and Ali are dedicated to informing Christians about one of the most misunderstood and fastest growing faiths in the world: They see it not only as the Church's chief rival for souls but as a serious threat to the peace and well-being of the Church and the Western world in general.

Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch and author of two previous books on Islam, is a board member of Ali's Christian Islamic Forum and an adjunct fellow with the Free Congress Foundation.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

Spencer: Daniel and I wrote this book in order to help Catholics become informed about Islam -- to clear away common misunderstandings and distortions and to give Catholics an accurate and complete introduction to the Islamic faith and the challenges it poses to Christians.

Q: Why is it important for Catholics to understand Islam?

Spencer: Islam increasingly poses a challenge to the Church and every Christian. By most accounts, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. Even if he or she never meets a Muslim, much less proclaims the Gospel to one, it is every Christian's duty to become informed about Islam since that faith is the Church's chief and most energetic present-day rival for souls.

Q: What is the theology of the Islamic jihad?

Spencer: Jihad literally means "struggle." It is a central duty of every Muslim. Modern Muslim theologians have spoken of many things as jihads: defending the faith from critics, supporting its growth and defense financially, even migrating to non-Muslim lands for the purpose of spreading Islam.

But violent jihad is a constant of Islamic history. Many passages of the Koran and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed are used by radical Muslims today to justify their actions and gain new recruits. No major Muslim group has ever repudiated the doctrines of armed jihad. The theology of jihad, which denies unbelievers equality of human rights and dignity, is available today for anyone with the will and means to bring it to life.

In a lengthy and well-attested tradition, Mohammed delineates three choices for nonbelievers -- choices which are derived from Koran's Sura 9:29: "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, [even if they are] of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."

Says Mohammed: "Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. ... When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these you also accept it and withhold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to [accept] Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them. ... If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya [the special tax on non-Muslims prescribed by Islamic law]. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah's help and fight them."

Q: Can you describe for us some of the different schools within Islam, for example, Sunni and Shiite, and how their interpretations of Islam differ?

Spencer: Sunnis comprise around 85% of Muslims worldwide. The word "Sunni" is related to "Sunna," or tradition. Sunni Muslims follow doctrines and practices derived from the Sunna of the Prophet -- that is, the Hadith as interpreted by Muslim scholars throughout history.

The Wahhabis, who have become famous lately for their role in Saudi Arabia and global terrorism, are a Sunni subsect. Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab -- he lived from 1703 to 1792 -- was a reformer. He wanted to rid Islam of everything that developed after the first few centuries.

He stressed a literal reading of the Koran and Hadith that made the Wahhabis a furious, violent sect that even made war against other Muslim groups it considered heretical. The Wahhabis control Saudi Arabia today and from there aggressively export Wahhabism around the world.

The second largest Muslim group is the Shiites. The word "Shia" is a short for "Shiat Ali," or "the party of Ali." This is the largest non-Sunni sect: the group of Muslims who believed that Ali, the husband of Mohammed's daughter Fatima, was the Prophet's only rightful successor as leader of the Muslim community.

Shiites have traditions and practices that are quite distinct from those of the Sunnis. Notable among these is the belief that the Imams who succeeded Ali in Mohammed's prophetic line inherited Mohammed's prophetic spirit. Most Shiites believe that there were 12 such Imams, and that the last one disappeared from the earth and will return as the Mahdi, a Messianic figure, at the end of the age.

The Sufis are the mystical sect in Islam, although Shiite Islam also bears strong marks of mystical influence. The Sufis stress love for Allah and union with him in terms that often strongly resemble Christian mysticism. They have been and still are ferociously persecuted as heretics in many areas of the Islamic world.

Other notable sects include the Bahais of Iran, who have a presence in the United States as well; the Kharijites of Oman; and the Alawites of Syria. The larger Muslim groups often consider these sects to be heretics.

Q: When we talk of Islam, many think of the Middle East. What are the main contrasts with the form of Islam as practiced in African and Asian countries?

Spencer: While there are some differences in how Islam is practiced from place to place, there is a relative uniformity among Sunni Muslims in their understanding of the requirements of the faith as delineated by the Koran and the Sunna, the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed that are second in authority to the Koran itself. Radical Muslims are found everywhere Islam is found, from Nigeria to Indonesia -- as well as in Western Europe and the United States.

Q: Will the moderate elements within Islam be able to defeat the extremist interpretations being promoted by some groups?

Spencer: I hope so, but it will be difficult. As the great ex-Muslim scholar Ibn Warraq has noted, radical Islamic theology "was taken from the Koran, the Hadith and Islamic tradition. ... We must take seriously what the Islamists say to understand their motivation, [that] it is the divinely ordained duty of all Muslims to fight -- in the literal sense -- until man-made law has been replaced by God's law, the Shariah, and Islamic law has conquered the entire world. ... For every text the liberal Muslims produce, the mullahs will use dozens of counter-examples [that are] exegetically, philosophically, historically far more legitimate."

Q: How do you see the current and future state of Christian-Muslim relations? How have Pope John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council influenced the relationship between the Church and Islam?

Spencer: Many believe that the Holy Father, by his kissing of the Koran, and Vatican II have taught that all religions worship the one true God to a greater or lesser degree, and that Muslims are included in the plan of salvation and thus should not be evangelized. This is in fact not the case.

The Catechism, working from Vatican II's "Nostra Aetate," does say that, "the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are the Muslims. These profess to hold the faith of Abr aham, and together with us adore one Merciful God, mankind's judge in the last day."

This is a carefully worded statement. It does not actually say that Muslims believe in Abraham's faith, but only that they profess to hold the faith of Abraham.

Professing and possessing are two different things: Certainly there are many more Christians who profess Christ than there are people who actually live for him. Nowhere does the Catechism say that Muslims are not eligible for the salvation that is in Christ, or that the Gospel should not be preached to them.

A recent article published in La Civiltà Cattolica was most interesting. Nothing is published in La Civiltà Cattolica without the approval of the Vatican Secretariat of State -- so the article probably corresponds to the views of some very high placed Vatican officials, if not the ailing Pope himself.

The Civiltà Cattolica piece represents the first indication that any Catholic Church officials recognize the dimensions of the religious conflict that jihadists are waging against Christians and others around the world.

The article brushes aside decades of misleading historical revisionism about the Muslim conquests, daring to point out that "in all the places where Islam imposed itself by military force, which has few historical parallels for its rapidity and breadth, Christianity, which had been extraordinarily vigorous and rooted for centuries, practically disappeared or was reduced to tiny islands in an endless Islamic sea."

Charity is essential; but it must not be confused with the temptation to ignore or deny unpleasant truths. This Civiltà Cattolica article is a step in the right direction.