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  • Gavin D'Costa, Vatican II, and Islam1
  • Gabriel Said Reynolds

By the end of Gavin D'Costa's Vatican II: Catholic Doctrines on Jews and Muslims, readers will come to appreciate the particular challenges that the study of Islam poses to Catholic theologians. The study of Islam calls for a certain familiarity with the Qurʾan and with the Islamic religious sciences. It also calls for the careful consideration of magisterial teaching on non-Christian religions and Islam in particular. The Church, however, has said very little about Islam (especially in comparison to Judaism), and so, theologians proceeding with a study of Islam find themselves without many signposts along the way.

The study of Islam is also challenging because of the ways in which Christians and Muslims disagree on central religious questions. This point is often neglected or ignored altogether, and I would like to address it in some detail here. It is true, of course, that many things are common in Christian and Islamic teaching, beginning with the doctrine of God. Muslims believe with Christians in one God, the creator, who is at once merciful and just. Lumen Gentium §16 explains that Muslims, "along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind" (an explanation to which Pope Francis alluded in his address before leaders of world religions on March 20, 2013, soon after his election to the papacy). This statement (perhaps modeled after Paul VI's August 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam) stops short of a simple declaration that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Nevertheless, the Church chose here to emphasize what is common in the Christian and Islamic doctrines of [End Page 291] God, and not what is distinctive to Christianity or to Islam.

Islam also recognizes many biblical figures as prophets or, in the case of women (according to Islam only men are propehts), as holy figures blessed by God. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Moses, David, Solomon, John [the Baptist], Jesus, and Mary are all protagonists in the Qurʾan. In a sense, however, this is where the problems begin, as the Qurʾan does not simply follow the Bible in its presentation of these characters. It presents them in a way meant to advance the effectiveness of Muhammad's own preaching. To this end, the Qurʾan turns many biblical figures who play distinctive roles in the grand salvation history of the Bible, which begins with Adam and ends with Jesus, into prophets who admonish their people to obey them and to worship God alone under the threat of divine punishment. According to the standard Qurʾanic prophetic scenario (or "punishment story," as Western scholars of the Qurʾan have dubbed them), a prophet is sent by God to his people, the people rejects the prophet and God, and God destroys the people. The various retellings of this scenario (involving Noah, Lot, Moses, and a number of Arabian prophets unknown to the Bible) are all meant as lessons to Muhammad's own people. The Qurʾan intends for its audience, having heard of the demise of earlier peoples who rejected earlier prophets, to accept Muhammad, the prophet who has been sent to them.

While the Qurʾan does not completely erase the distinctive characteristics of biblical protagonists (Adam is still expelled from a garden, Noah still builds an ark, and Moses still confronts Pharaoh), it does seem to have what one French Catholic scholar (Claude Gilliot) has called a "monoprophetism": one has the impression that the same prophet appears under different names. All of the prophets teach the same basic message. Muslims would add that God has sent a prophet to each people (Qurʾan 10:47; 16:36) but that the last of these prophets is Muhammad, the only prophet whom God has sent to the entire world. Muhammad's scripture, the Qurʾan, abrogated all earlier scriptures, and his law, or shariʿa, replaced all earlier laws. God's will is for all humanity to follow that law until the Day of Resurrection.

It is perhaps important to add that the role of a prophet is not so much to bring mysterious or...


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