What Can Muslims Learn From Nostra Aetate

17 Dec 2015

Dr. Mohammad Sammak

Before answering or trying to answer the question : What can Muslims learn from Nostra Aetate, it is useful to answer two more premelinary questions :

What is wrong with –and in- the Muslims world to learn from the others?
What is right in the Nostra Aetate that Muslims can learn from ?

The two question are interconnected :

On the one hand, one-third of the 1,6 billion Muslims, that is about 600 million of them, live in non-Islamic countries and societies; and two-thirds of the 2,2  billion Christians live in the third world (Africa and Asia) where Islam is, besides South American. This physical inter-connectedness implies the necessity for a mutual acceptance, respect, and cooperation. The main gate for this is a mutual understanding. Nostra Aetate itself is a main source for this understanding , as I’ll show later.

To be honest, I have to admit that, yes there is something wrong in the Islamic world.

This world is very rich in natural resources, yet its peoples are very poor and unsettled.

The highest percentage of refugees and displaced in the world are Muslims.

Tensions are high within Muslims of different confessions (Sunni & Shia) and between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Muslims and Hindus in India and Serilanka
Muslims and Buddhists in China, Thailand and Myanmar.
Muslims and Christian Orthodox in Russia.
Muslims and Christian Catholics in Europe..etc.
Muslims and Christian Protestants in the USA ..etc.
Muslims and Jews in Israel and beyond.
Muslims and other different believers (the Izidis of Iraq in particular)

All these negative features require a courageous reconsideration and revaluation of the current situation in the Islamic world . The process of reconsideration requires first of all the admission, even the confession, that there is a major problem. That it is not true that others (?) are responsible for that problem, but Muslims themselves are. That it is not useful anymore to avoid self-criticism and seek refuge under the umbrella of a “foreign conspiracy theory against Islam”, but to blame ourselves as Muslims, in the first place.

We, Muslims, have to admit that we are facing a real and existential problem. The right definition of this problem (or any other problem) is half the way to solve it, as the English Sociologist W. Hacksly  put it decades ago.

Now the question is who has the legitimate authority to define the problem? And who has the wisdom to outline the solution? and who has the courage to admit that Muslims should learn from other constructive experiences like Nostra Aetate?.

Now before talking about Nostra Aetate, and what and how to learn from it,  let me tell you a short story of a great man who made history. The man is Angelo Roncali. Angelo was a soldier in the Italian army during WWI. In the battle field he saw how millions were killed by every means, even by poisonous gaz. He was shocked and got sick.  After the war he joined the clergy to find spiritual refuge, and was appointed to the Vatican Embassy first in Greece, then in Bulgaria, where he was acquainted with Christian Orthodoxy, then in Ankara where he was introduced to Muslims. After WW2 he became Bishop and appointed Ambassador (of the Vatican) to France, where communism, securilism, and the left movements were at that time at its peak.

In 1958 (28 October) now Cardinal, Roncali was elected a Pope. He got the name John 23. Pope John 23 carried with him to the Papacy his experiences and encounters both in war and peace. In 1959 (25 January) and for the first time in the history of the Vatican he addressed a message to the UN (that is to all nations of different religions, cultures and ethnicities), in which he said :

“ Peace on earth is an object of profound desire for humanity”.

He confirmed in his message, on four principles in order to achieve peace for humanity :

“Truth, justice, solidarity, and liberty”.

At that time, the Catholic church was considering communism as anti-Christian (Pope Pacelli). But Pope John 23 himself received in the Holy See, the son in law of the Soviet President at that time Nikita Khrocheve.

This is a short story of the Pope who called for the Vatican II, but who passed away (3 June 1963) two years before it concluded its meetings which were culminated by Nostra Aetate (18 Dec. 1965) with the participation of 2450 Bishops from all over the world.

Nostra Aetate cancelled, and turned the page on all previous religious laws against the Bishops of Constantinople which led in 1054 to the great divide between the two churches (Rome and Istanbul) .

Nostra Aetate reconciled with the Evangelical and Orthodox churches. (ecumenical dialogue).

Nostra Aetate opened the door of the church to the secularist Christians to participate in its activities.(Now Pope Francis is opening more doors).

Nostra Aetate withdrew the church’s old verdict that condemns all the Jews until the end of time for the crucification of Jesus Christ. (Magna Carta of Christian Jewish relations).

Nostra Aetate declared that Muslims are believers in one God and that Muslims respect Jesus and His Mother Virgin Marry, though they don’t believe in Him as God, they do believe that he is a Prophet. That they believe in the Day After when God will judge between all peoples. That they worship God especially by prayer, charity and fasting and hence, “differences with them is a sin” .

After Vatican II and on the basis of these new Christian Principles stated in Nostra Aetate, Popes John 6, John Paul 2, and Benedict 16,  addressed Muslims as “brothers”.

These are the lessons that Muslims in the 21 century are supposed to learn from.

But we cannot learn if we don’t realize that we need to learn. And we cannot realize the need to learn if we do not feel that we are wrong somewhere. And we cannot have the feeling of being wrong if we are not courageous enough to practice self criticism. After that, we should be exceptionally courageous to admit that we have to learn from other’s experiences, especially if that other is an outsider to our spiritual and doctrinal system.

Now before saying how we can learn, let me underline the following important point :

Contrary to what extremists (like ISIS) are doing in the Middle East, and to the Middle East, Christians are described in the Holy Koran as believers in God, and are nearest to Muslims. Their clergy are praised in the Koran for being humble, though in principle there  is  no  clergy  in  Islam  itself      ( لا رهبانية )  as Prophet Muhammad clearly declared. That is why there is no religious state in Islam, run by the clergy who are not there – or who are supposed not to be there-, in the first place.

Now for us –Muslims- to follow the example of Vatican II, as stated in Nostra Aetate, we need a religious leader with the qualifications of Pope John 23 who believes in humanity as one family and who respects and believes in all religions. I am sure we have many, because this is exactly what Islam teaches. After all, to be a Muslim is to believe in all Messages from God, and in all His Messengers, those who are mentioned in the Holy Koran and those who are not. To believe in Islam is also to believe in Human Plurality, and in Human differences as a manifestation of the glory of God. But to my humble knowledge, I don’t know who has the moral and the religious authority (that Pope John 23 had) to bring together 2450 Muslim scholars and Imams from all over the Islamic world and to convince them to keep their meetings and discussions on, until they come to a unified 21 century interpretation of Islamic principles that deal with contemporary human challenges.

This is not to underestimate the many courageous attempts that Muslims have taken so far.

The Al-Azhar four documents about human liberty and national state.
The Makah’s principles against extremism and terror.
The Beirut Declaration on religious freedom.

Just to mention initiatives that I was part of, and directly involved in, as KAICIID Board Member. The question is how to bring together all these scattered initiatives, to form a snow ball and push it down the hill.

The war against extremism and terrorism (committed in the name of Islam) is an Islamic war because it is an Islamic responsibility in the first place.  There are many soldiers who stand up courageously against imposing odd ideas, and misinterpretations of  the Islamic doctrine. They know that it is a long and costly war that cannot be won by military means alone. But at the same time, some Christians are also waiting for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Some Muslims are waiting  for the re-emergence of Al-Mehdi. Others are dreaming of  a “Califate” to be like a “city on the Hill”.

I am more humble.. I am looking for a Muslim Angelo Roncali.