Interfaith dialogue is a must today, and the first step in establishing it is forgetting the past, ignoring polemical arguments, and giving precedence to common points, which far outnumber polemical ones. In the West, some changes can be seen in the attitudes of some intellectuals and clerics toward Islam. I must particularly mention the late Massignon, who referred to Islam by the expression: "The faith of Abraham revived with Muhammad." He believed that Islam has a positive, almost prophetic mission in the post-Christian world, for: "Islam is the religion of faith. It is not a religion of natural faith in the God of the philosophers, but faith in the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Ishmael, faith in our God. Islam is a great mystery of Divine Will." He believed in the Divine authorship of the Qur'an and the Prophethood of Muhammad.3 The West's perspective on our Prophet also has softened. Together with Christian clerics and men of religion, many Western thinkers besides Massignon, like Charles J. Ledit, Y. Moubarac, Irene-M. Dalmais, L. Gardet, Norman Daniel, Michel Lelong, H. Maurier, Olivier Lacombe, and Thomas Merton express warmth for both Islam and for our Prophet, and support the call for dialogue.
Also, what the final declaration of the Second Vatican Council, which began the process of dialogue, said about Islam cannot be ignored. This means that the attitude of the Catholic Church toward Islam has now changed. In the second period of the Council, Pope Paul VI said:
On the other hand, the Catholic Church is looking farther, beyond the horizons of Christianity. It is turning towards other religions that preserve the concept and meaning of God as One, Transcendental, Creator, Ruler of Fate and Wise. Those religions worship God with sincere, devotional actions.
He also indicated that the Catholic Church commended these religions' good, true, and humane sides:
The Church reaffirms to them that in modern society in order to save the meaning of religion and servanthood to God – a necessity and need of true civilization – the Church itself is going to take its place as a resolute advocate of God's rights on man.
As a final result, the written statement entitled "A Declaration Regarding the Church's Relations with non-Christian Religions," which was accepted at the Council, declared that:
In our world that has become smaller and in which relations have become closer, people are expecting answers from religion regarding mysterious enigmas in human nature that turn their hearts upside down. What is man? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is goodness and reward, what is sin? What is the source and point of suffering? What is the path to true happiness? What is death, what is the meaning of judgement after death and receiving the fruits of what one has done on earth? What is the mystery surrounding the beginning and end of existence?
After stating that different religions attempt to answer these questions in their own ways, and that the Church does not reject altogether the values of other religions, the Council encourages Christians to have dialogue with members of other religions:
The Church encourages its children, together with believing and living as Christians, to get to know and support with precaution, compassion, dialogue and co-operation those who follow other religions and to encourage them to develop their spiritual, moral and socio-cultural values.
Another important point is that Pope John Paul II admits in his Crossing the Threshold of Hope that (despite Muslim neglect and carelessness), it is still the Muslims who worship in the best and most careful manner. He reminds his readers that, on this point, Christians should take Muslims as their example.
In addition, Islam's resistance to materialist ideologies and its important role in the modern world has amazed many Western observers. The observations of E. H. Jurji are very significant here:
In its self-respect, self-maintenance, and realistic zeal, in its fight for solidarity against racist and Marxist ideologies, in its vigorous denunciation of exploitation, as in the preaching of its message to a wayward, bleeding humanity, Islam faces the modern world with a peculiar sense of mission. Not confused and not torn apart by a mass of theological subtleties, nor buried beneath a heavy burden of dogma, this sense of mission draws its strength from a complete conviction of the relevance of Islam.
Muslims and the West have struggled with each other for almost 1,400 years. From the Western perspective, Islam has threatened Western doors and opened many of them, facts that have not been forgotten. That said, the fact that this struggle is leading Muslims to oppose and resent the West, will never benefit Islam or Muslims. Modern modes of transportation and mass communication have turned the world into a global village in which every relationship is interactive. The West cannot wipe out Islam or its territory, and Muslim armies can no longer march on the West. Moreover, as this world is becoming even more global, both sides feel the need for a give-and-take relationship. The West has scientific, technological, economic, and military supremacy. However, Islam possesses more important and vital factors: Islam, as represented by the Qur'an and Sunna, has retained the freshness of its beliefs, spiritual essence, good works, and morality as it has unfolded over the last 14 centuries. In addition, it has the potential to blow spirit and life into Muslims who have been numbed for centuries, as well as into many other peoples drowned in the swamp of materialism.
Just as religion has not yet escaped the onslaught of unbelief based on science and philosophy, no one can guarantee that this storm will not blow even stronger in the future. These and other factors do not allow Muslims to view and present Islam purely as a political ideology or an economic system. Neither do they allow Muslims to consider the West, Christianity, Judaism, and even other great religions like Buddhism from a historical perspective and define their attitude accordingly.
When those who have adopted Islam as a political ideology, rather than a religion in its true sense and function, review their self-proclaimed Islamic activities and attitudes, especially their political ones, they will discover that the driving force is usually personal or national anger, hostility, and similar motives. If this is the case, we must accept Islam and adopt an Islamic attitude as the fundamental starting point for action, rather than the existing oppressive situation. The Prophet defined true Muslims as those who harm no one with their words and actions, and who are the most trustworthy representatives of universal peace. Muslims travel everywhere with this sublime feeling that they nourish deep in their spirits. Contrary to inflicting torment and suffering, they are remembered as symbols of safety and security. In their eyes, there is no difference between a physical and a verbal violation, such as backbiting, false accusation, insult, and ridicule.
Our beginning point must have an Islamic basis. Muslims cannot act out of ideological or political partisanship and then dress it in Islamic garb. Nor can they represent mere desires as ideas. If we can overcome this tendency, Islam's true image will become known. The present, distorted image of Islam that has resulted from its misuse by both Muslims and non-Muslims for their own goals scares both Muslims and non-Muslims. Moreover, as stated in Zaman in an interview with Professor Sidney Griffith, director of the Institute of Christian Oriental Research in The Catholic University of America and a sincere supporter of Islam–Christian dialogue, how the West sees Islam is illustrated by one simple fact: In American universities, Islam is not taught as a religion in theological schools but as a political system in the political science or international relations departments. Such a perception also is found among Westernized segments of the Islamic world and non-Muslims in Asia and Africa. Strangely enough, many groups that have put themselves forward under the banner of Islam export and actually strengthen this image.