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Reviewed by:
  • Roman Catholics and Shi‘i Muslims: Prayer, Passion, & Politics
  • Paul Rich
Roman Catholics and Shi‘i Muslims: Prayer, Passion, & Politics. By James A. Bill and John Alden Williams. (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press. 2002. Pp. xiv, 194. $24.95; $17.95 Paperback.)

Seldom has the general public had its attention more forcefully riveted on comparative religious studies than today, when the distinctions between Muslim groups have become nightly news fare and the connection between faith and terrorism has become a matter of keen debate. The authors, both at the College of William and Mary, contend that Catholicism and Shi'ism have some common ground to explore in terms of ceremony, redemptive suffering, and social activism. They consider the power of martyrdom and of ritual, of a mother-image (Mary, Fatima), and of other congruences.

The pages are enlivened by diagrams to show the taxonomy of law and politics (pp. 95, 98-99) and an engaging debate over the problems of reconciling reason with revelation. Not everyone will agree that Thomism offers as ready a reply to Muslim views on politics as the book asserts, and the contention that social sensitivity has consistently characterized both faiths will find critics. Indeed, the question is ultimately asked, "But what happens when the state wields the sword in the interest of the few and the corrupt or when the political elite promotes injustice rather than redressing it? History suggests that in these circumstances, the Church often temporizes, accommodates, and compromises" (p. 121).

A danger that the volume has avoided is to smooth out the differences to the point that the very real distinctions disappear. Still, the authors find many similarities for discussion. Central to their thesis is their view that religious fervor is at a high pitch in times of difficulty. Jesus and Muhammad enter history when [End Page 521] corruption and oppression were rampant. Today people turn to religion in a time of tremendous turmoil: "There is every reason to expect that populist religious faith will represent a major ideological force in the twenty-first century, a century certain to be an age of transformation. At this time, it is important that the widely diverse world communities and cultures strive to communicate with, tolerate, and most important, understand one another" (p. 146).

This is a short study and more could have been made of the style of the two faiths when it comes to politics. The view expressed that the leaders of both believe in central control, and "have adopted many similar tactics and strategies, including the use of carefully apportioned reform in order to avoid radical political change" (p. 137) certainly deserves much more extensive treatment. But it would be churlish to complain about what is a well-written and easily understood analysis of two major world faiths and of their relevance to contemporary affairs. The book is highly recommended both for libraries and discussion groups as well as the shelves of anyone interested in understanding the current tempestuous Middle Eastern situation.

Paul Rich
University of the Americas
Puebla, Mexico


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pp. 521-522
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