If the Arabian prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) is to be considered part of the same stream of tradition as the other great prophets of that stretch of desert land, can we identify any mention of him in the Bible texts?
Muslims regard Muhammad as the final prophet, the seal over all who went before him. Can we find any forth-tellings of his coming in the present-day Christian scriptures; or would any such prophecy been a prime candidate for redaction and censorship, so that at best such anticipations today appear in heavily disguised form, legible only to the expert? This is an important matter. For if it is true that Muhammad must be recognised as a Messenger of God by people of Christian or Jewish inheritance, it would surely be strange if their texts included prophecies referring to the penultimate Messenger, but lacked indications of the later Seal who was to come.
In fact, the Old and New Testaments do contain evidence that there existed an expectation not only of a Messiah for the Jewish people, but also of another prophetic figure whose time would come later. One very important prophecy of this type is the one attributed to Moses, and recorded in Deuteronomy 18:
The Lord said to me [Moses] […] ‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put My word in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not give heed to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him.’ […] And if you say it in your heart, ‘How may we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ – when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not to be afraid of him (Deut 18:15-22).
In these words the author, perhaps Moses himself, sets the criterion for knowing the truth of a prophecy. Needless to say, it would also apply to his own prophecy with which he commenced this passage. If Moses himself, as a man who was himself recognised as a prophet of God, was not ‘speaking presumptuously’, then one should expect the foretold event to come to pass. Did it? Who was the ‘prophet like unto him’? That description would surely signify a prophet who was called to be a lawgiver to the people, setting out God’s commandments clearly for the masses to listen and understand. Which prophet fits most closely to one who had the words of God put into his mouth, so that he repeated to the people all that he heard from God? A Christian might like to see a reference to the coming of Jesus in these words, but surely none fits the description more closely than the Blessed Muhammad.
The ministry of Jesus was specifically delivered to convince the people that the Kingdom of God would be set up on earth. Muslim scholars maintain that this would come about through a Messenger of the family of Ishmael, the eldest son of Abraham, and thus heir of the original Covenant with Abraham.
They claim it is contentious editing of history that has falsely presented Abraham’s second son Isaac as the heir. Anyone with a knowledge of nomadic sheikhdom would understand that the eldest son was commissioned as ‘lord’ of the tribe (and therefore he and his descendants ruled from the Arabian region around the ancient shrine of Mecca), whereas the youngest son, in this case Isaac, would have had the role of ‘guarding the hearth’ (and staying with his father’s private tents and herds). The latter’s mission is hence local.
Genesis 15 reports the distress of Abraham that he had no son to be his heir, although he had the promise that his ‘seed’ would inherit from him (Genesis 15:4). God ‘brought Abraham outside and said, “Look toward heaven and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be”.’ Then Abraham asked for some proof, and was told to take three young animals and two birds. The animals were cut in two halves, and Abraham waited as the next day wore on, driving away all the birds of prey that came down on them. At sunset, he fell into a trance-like sleep, and God gave him prophecies about his descendants that would be slaves in Egypt (the descendants of the unborn Isaac). When the sun had gone and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between the cut pieces of the animal carcasses, and God made a covenant with Abraham: ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates.’ His was the task of subjugating ten different nations between those two rivers (Genesis 15:18-21). This promise of an heir was fulfilled when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16), and in due course, Ishmael’s descendants did subjugate all those peoples, an actual and literal fulfilment of one of the conditions of the Covenant which is usually overlooked.
When Ishmael was thirteen years old a further Covenant was made between God and Abraham: the Covenant of circumcision. Abraham circumcised himself, and his son Ishmael, and all his household that very day. All this took place long before Isaac was born. However, it was true that God had also promised that the barren Sarah would bear a son and that there would be an everlasting covenant with him too (Gen 17:15-19).
Sometimes it is argued that Isaac was Abraham’s true heir, as his mother was the beloved wife, and Ishmael’s mother only a servant, and hence, according to traditional assumptions, to be despised. But Deuteronomy 21:15-17 presents the true legal picture. If a man has two wives, one beloved and the other despised, and each has a son, and if the son of the despised wife is the first-born, that son, and not the son of the beloved wife, is still entitled to the birthright. The prophecy that ‘by Abraham all the generations of the earth shall be blessed’, would therefore more clearly refer to the heritage by birthright of Ishmael, and not Isaac.
The text of Genesis 22 now goes on to talk of Isaac as Abraham’s ‘only son’, and records Abraham’s famous test of obedience when he was asked to sacrifice him. In the Bible narrative, Isaac is kept in ignorance of what is going to happen until the very last moment. He is saved from the sacrifice when an angel of God stays Abraham’s hand, and a ram caught in a thicket is substituted as the sacrifice.
Professor Dawud, the former bishop who has meditated extensively on these themes, comments that ‘to efface the name Ishmael from the second, sixth and seventh verses of Genesis 22 and to insert in its place “Isaac”, yet to leave the epithet “the only begotten son” is to deny the existence of the former and to violate the Covenant made between God and Ishmael.’
Sura 37:100-113 has rather different emphases: when Ishmael was about fourteen (‘the age of serious work’), Abraham had a vision (or dream) that he should sacrifice Ishmael. He asked the boy’s opinion, and Ishmael agreed that he would do whatever was God’s will, and urged his father to sacrifice him, if that was what God required. However, God does not require the flesh and blood of animals (Sura 22:37), much less of human beings: what He requires is the giving of our whole being to Him. The ‘momentous sacrifice’ with which the youth was ransomed is commemorated in the great annual festival of Hajj and Eid ul-Adha. It was as a reward for Abraham’s faith that God granted the son Isaac to Abraham’s barren wife Sarah.
Genesis, true to its generally negative portrayal of Sarah, offers the story of her jealousy of Hagar and Ishmael, and her request that he be cast out: a thing which greatly displeased Abraham, although he complied (Gen 21:10-11). He sent them away into the southerly ‘wilderness of Beersheba’, where Ishmael nearly died of thirst. However, God sent an angel to save him, and Ishmael survived. He lived ‘in the wilderness of Paran’, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt, from whence she herself had come (Gen 16:1).
The Qur’anic version does not record a comparable character lapse on the part of either Sarah or Abraham. Ishmael is left with Hagar in the valley-floor of Mecca, where Abraham trusts that God will take care of them. Hagar’s desperate search for water is commemorated in the ritual of the sa‘y during the Hajj; the spring of water revealed by the angel still flows today, and is called Zamzam. Sura 2:124-129 tells of Abraham and Ishmael sanctifying the Ka‘ba, and raising the foundations of the House.
Ishmael’s firstborn Kedar became the ancestor of the Arabs who from that time until now are the dwellers of the wilderness of Paran. As Dawud notes, this makes passages such as Deuteronomy 33:2 extremely interesting: ‘The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; He shined forth from Mount Paran, and he came with ten thousands of saints. From his right hand went forth a fiery law for them.’ Dawud identifies that Mount Paran with Mount Arafat near Mecca, and claims this passage as a direct prophecy concerning the ‘one who was to come’, the Hmd (or ‘Ahmad’, or ‘Praised one’). Dawud also picks out many possible Old Testament references to this man known as the ‘Himada’ (from the root hmd), which all point to a Messenger from the line of Ishmael. For example, one prophecy in the ever-enigmatic Book of Habbakuk is that the glory of the Holy One from Paran will cover the heavens, and the earth will be full of his praise.
Other interesting passages occur in the book of the prophet Isaiah: ‘Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits; let the inhabitants of the rock [Petra?] sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory and declare His praise in the islands. He shall go forth as a mighty man, he shall stir up zeal like a man of war, he shall cry, yea, roar; he shall prevail against his enemies.’ (Isaiah 42:11)
Other prophesies concerning Kedar occur in Isaiah 50:7 and 50:13-17. ‘All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered together unto You, the rams of Nabaioth (the Nabataeans) will minister unto You; they shall come up with acceptance on My altar, and I will glorify the house of My glory.’ (Isaiah 50:7)
Ishmael inhabited the wilderness of Paran, where he sired the Arabian patriarch Kedar; and if the ‘sons of Kedar’ received revelation from God and accepted it, and came to a divine altar to glorify ‘the house of My glory’, then surely the ‘holy one from Paran’ of Habbakuk 3:3 is none other than the Blessed Muhammad. And Mecca is the house of God’s glory where the ‘flocks of Kedar’ came to bow the knee. The ‘flocks of Kedar’ have never come to the Trinitarian church, and have remained impenetrable to any influence of it.
The prophet Haggai, seeing the older generation weeping because of their disappointment that after their exile in Babylon the rebuilt Jewish Temple did not match up to the original one, consoled them with the message: ‘And I will shake all nations, and the Himada [the treasure?] of all the nations will come; and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of Hosts […] The glory of My last house shall be greater than the first one, says the Lord of Hosts; and in this place, I will give shalom [cognate with islam].’ (Haggai 2:7-9)
The New Testament documents are the work of many hands, many of them quite unknown, and the search for predictions of the world-shaking event of Islam is necessarily fraught with difficulties. However Muslim writers suggest that one should look again at the interpretation of the references of Jesus to the ‘Son of Man’ who would come, and in John’s Gospel to the Counsellor who was to come after Jesus had left them. The Gospel calls this prophesied one a ‘Paraclete’, with the primary meaning of ‘counsel for the defence’. This was later supposed to be the ‘Holy Spirit’, the third entity in the Trinity. However these passages could be no less credibly read as prophecies of the ‘Himada’ or ‘Ahmad’. Given the defective orthography of the early Gospel texts, it is quite feasible that the Greek word was not parakletos but periklytos, thus corresponding exactly to ‘Ahmad’ or the Hmd, meaning ‘illustrious’, ‘glorious’ and ‘praised’.
Therefore Muslims believe that the paraclete spoken of in those ‘Farewell Discourses’ was not the third being in a Trinity, but the future prophet Muhammad. The words clearly show that the Comforter had to come after the departure of Jesus, and was not with him when he uttered these words. Are we to presume that Jesus was devoid of the Holy Spirit, if its coming was conditional on Jesus’ leaving? The way in which Jesus describes him makes him a human being, with a particular role to fulfil.
Even if we include the words that Muslims would regard as Trinitarian editing, the prophecy runs: ‘I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Counsellor, to be with you for ever, even the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him [i.e. does not accept him]. You know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you’ (Jn 14:16). ‘These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Counsellor whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you’ (Jn 14:25-26). ‘When the Counsellor comes whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me’ (Jn 15:26). ‘When he comes, he will convince the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgement; of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father; of judgement, because the ruler of this world is judged. I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he shall not speak on his own authority, but whatever he shall hear, that he shall speak and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ (Jn 16:8-16)
Muslims will recall straight away that the Qur’an consists not of the Prophet’s own words, but that which he heard, which was revealed to him; and it was said of him in the Qur’an: ‘Nay, he has come with the truth, and shows forth the truth of the Messengers.’
The Prophet Muhammad may have been the one foretold by John the Baptist (Mt 3:11; Lk 3:16). This would certainly explain why John carried on baptising, receiving initiates and disciples and foretelling a coming prophet more powerful than himself, without joining up with Jesus in Galilee. It is accepted by all Christians that Jesus and John had a parallel ministry until John’s martyrdom at the hands of Herod Antipas (Mk 6); but how few have marvelled at the oddness of the fact that John, having spent all his ministry ‘crying in the wilderness’ to prepare the way for the one to come, did not become Jesus’ closest and most intimate disciple. Our explanation also accounts for the rather odd remark Jesus made about John when he said that the ‘least’ in the Kingdom of Heaven would be greater than him. This sounds at first sight like an inexplicable and unnecessarily unpleasant derogatory remark; but if the word ‘least’ really meant the ‘last’ in the long line, the ‘youngest’, then what Jesus meant was that John had been the greatest of the prophets up to that time, but that the last of the prophets, the one who was still to come, would be greater than him: a remark that was in no way intended to belittle the saintly John. The Pshitta Version (the Aramaic version, which is older than the Latin Vulgate) does indeed use the word zira or zeira for ‘least’, meaning small or young, as opposed to rabba, meaning great or old.
Professor Dawud offers another interesting suggestion: could it be that the persecution of the true faith after the Council of Nicaea might have been prophesied in the enigmatic Book of Daniel? The ‘four beasts’ and the conquering ‘Son of Man’ of the vision in Daniel 7 have always invited speculative identifications; perhaps they represented the Chaldaeans (the eagle-winged lion), the Medo-Persian Empire (the bear), the Empire of Alexander the Great (the tiger with four wings and four heads), and the formidable Roman Empire (the fourth beast, the demon monster). The ten horns might have been the ten Emperors who persecuted the early Christians, down to the time of the so-called conversion of Constantine. So far, the beasts all represented the ‘Power of Darkness’, or the kingdom of Satan: idolatry itself.
But the nature and character of the Little Horn before which the three other horns fell, and which was finally defeated by a Bar Nasha (Son of Man) is quite different. It springs up after the Ten Persecutions under the Roman Emperors. The Roman Empire was then writhing under four rivals, Constantine being one of them. They were all struggling for the purple, and when the other three died or fell in battle, Constantine was left alone as the supreme sovereign of the vast Empire.
The earlier beasts were brutish, but the Little Horn possessed mouth and eyes: a hideous monster endowed with reason and speech. Maybe this was none other than Constantine, and the traditional presentation of him as ‘the first Christian Emperor’ is really Trinitarian propaganda. He was in fact one of the most dangerous and effective enemies of tawhid. The Little Horn was so diabolical and malignant, and his enmity to the faith the more harmful, because it sought to pervert the truth from within. This interpretation is on strikingly similar lines to that advanced by modern biblical experts who see Paul as the traitor and ‘Liar’ of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This enemy spoke ‘great things’ against the Most High; the unity of God was openly and officially profaned by Constantine and his unbelieving ecclesiastical cronies as the Trinitarian dogmas of the Council of Nicaea were proclaimed and violently enforced by Constantine’s edict, amidst the horror and protests of three-quarters of the Church’s members! This Little Horn waged war against the saints of the Most High; so Constantine persecuted those Christians who, like the Jews, believed in the Absolute Unity of God.
More than a thousand ecclesiastics were summoned to the General Council at Nicaea, of whom only 318 persons subscribed to the decisions of the Council, and these too formed three opposite factions with their respective ambiguous and unholy expressions of ‘homoiusion’ or ‘homoousion’, ‘consubstantial’ and other terms utterly and wholly strange to the prophets of Israel, but worthy of the ‘speaking Horn’. The Christians who suffered persecutions and martyrdoms under the pagan Emperors of Rome because they believed in One God and in His servant Jesus were now doomed by the imperial edict of the ‘Christian’ Constantine to even severer tortures, because they refused to adore the servant Jesus as consubstantial and coeval with his Lord the Creator!  (Abdul Ahad Daud)
The elders and ministers who opposed Trinitarianism were deposed or banished, their religious books suppressed, and their churches seized and handed over to Trinitarian bishops and priests. Merciless legions in every province were placed at the disposal of the ecclesiastical authorities, and a reign of terror against the unitarians lasted in the East for three and a half centuries: until a ‘Son of Man’ did restore the religion of One God, and Muslims liberated the lands trampled and devastated by the four beasts, from the Pyrenees to the walls of China.
The soul and kernel of what Jesus taught is contained in that famous clause in his prayer: ‘Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!’ Most Christians assume all sorts of illusory or meaningless things about the nature of this Kingdom. It is not a triumphant Catholic Church, nor a regenerated and sinless Puritan State. It is not a kingdom composed of celestial beings, including departed spirits of the believers under the reign of the Divine Lamb. The Kingdom of God on earth is a society of believers in One God equipped with faith to maintain its existence against the Kingdom of Darkness.
Jesus referred frequently to this kingdom which would come, and to the Bar Nasha or Son of Man who would inaugurate it; but Christians have assumed that Jesus meant his ‘church’, and that he himself was the Son of Man. Could he really have been referring to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad?
These theories also throw light on another religious group commended by the Qur’an along with certain Christians: the Sabians. Dawud interprets these as the followers of John the Baptist (Yahya ibn Zakariyya), adherents of a parallel movement to early Christianity, who were absorbed into Islam when it came. The Subba, or Sabaeans of the marshes are otherwise known as the Mandaeans in Southern Iraq. Significantly, ‘Mandaean’ was the name for the rank and file of these groups, whereas the Nazareans were the priestly elite.
The original Aramaic or Hebrew word for the Greek ‘baptism’ is not certain. The Pshitta (Aramaic) version of the Gospels uses the word ma‘muditha, from the verb aa‘mid which means ‘to stand up like a pillar’. Its causative form means ‘to erect, set up, establish, confirm’ and has no signification of bathing or washing. Arabic versions of the New Testament call the Baptist ‘al-Ma‘midan’.
In fact, the Greek baptismos derives from the Aramaic Sab’utha or Sbhu’tha, (Arabic cognate, sabagha), which has the sense of ‘to dye, tincture or immerse’. These ‘Masbutheans’ (also called ‘Besmotheans’ and ‘Subba’) existed before the coming of Jesus – as did the Essenes of Qumran – and were either the same as, or strongly similar to, the Daily Bathers/Hermerobaptists and Sabaeans (or Sabuneans) mentioned by Hippolytus, whom we have encountered before. Probably all these names are simply overlapping designations and intertransference of various regions. These ‘Baptists’, like the Qumraners and Ebionites, led an austere life of self-discipline and prayer. Perhaps they caused their proselytes to stand straight like a pillar in a pool of water or river, in order to be baptised, whence the Pshitta name of Ma’muditha.
Baptism is not a purification (thara) or washing (rahsa) or immersion (tabhala), but a dyeing, a colouring (sab’aitha). Just as a Saba’a or dyer gives a new colour to a garment by dipping it into tincture, so a baptist gives a convert a new spiritual hue. It was a mark of admission into the society of purified penitents who promised loyalty to God and His apostles. It goes without saying that the baptism of John in the river of Jordan was considered sufficient to ‘dye’ the hundreds of Jewish penitents (‘all the country of Judaea and the entire region about the Jordan’ – Mt 3:5) who were baptised by him while confessing their sins. The idea of the shedding of the blood of a God-Man is superfluous.
There is little doubt that until the arrival of Paul on the scene, the followers of Jesus practised the same baptismal ritual as John. It may be significant that the converts of Samaria who had been baptised in the name of Jesus did not receive the Holy Spirit, but had to have an extra ritual: the laying on of hands (Acts 8:16-17). The same was said for John’s baptism in Acts 19:2-7. This appears to indicate that Jesus’ baptism was in actual fact precisely the same as that of John, and to provide evidence that the Trinitarian churches wantonly transformed the original rite into a sacrament or mystery. The statement that some twelve persons in Samaria ‘had not yet received the Holy Spirit, because they were only baptised in the name of our Lord Jesus’ (Acts 8:16-17) is surely decisive as evidence.
How was it that the Sabians did not embrace Trinitarian Christianity if their master John had truly and openly declared and presented Jesus as the ‘more powerful’ Prophet than himself who was to come, and whose shoes he was not worthy to unloose? The followers of John might have been excused if Jesus had come a century later; but they were contemporaries, born in the same year. They both baptised with water unto repentance, and prepared their penitent converts for the Kingdom of God that was approaching, but which was not to be established in their time.
The Sabians believed that although Jesus was one of the great Messengers, he was not the one referred to in the prophecy of John as the ‘one who was to come’; most of them happily recognised and embraced Islam when it came.
It is all too obvious that those who believe in the doctrine that baptism means an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, who believe that the ‘inspiration’ of the Holy Spirit fills the hearts of those who, in their emotional excitement and ecstasy, believe themselves to be ‘new-born’, are suffering from wishful thinking. These ‘new-born’ frequently slide back and become what they were before. The ‘miracle’ of the ‘Holy Spirit’ is a myth. True baptism is that which comes only from submission to the Divine Will, and requires genuine commitment and a great deal of hard work.
Who turns away from the religion of Abraham but such as debase their souls with folly? […] ‘Oh my sons, God has chosen the Faith for you; do not die except in the faith of Islam’ […] They say: ‘Become Jews or Christians, if you would be guided aright.’ Say thou: ‘Nay! I would rather the religion of Abraham the true – he joined not gods with God. Say ye: ‘We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to all prophets from their Lord: we make no difference between one and another of them: and we bow [only] to God. If they believe as you believe, they are indeed on the right path; but if they turn back, it is they who are in schism. God will suffice thee as against them, He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing. [Our religion is] the baptism of God: and who is better than God to baptise? It is He Whom we worship.’ (Sura 2:130,132,135-138)
The Baptism of God (sibghatu’Llah) does not move Muslims to believe themselves ‘made holy’. Every Muslim has to run the race of our short earthly life to the best of his or her ability and effort, in order to win the crown of glory in the next world. Every Muslim needs education and training in accordance with the Word of God: but stands in no need of the intercession of a priest or sacrament. God Himself is quite enough.
Extract from The Mysteries of Jesus (Sakina Books, 2000)
 Professor ‘Abdu’l Ahad Dawud is an example of a scholar with knowledge and competence who presents many extremely interesting theories on this topic in his book Muhammad in the Bible. The Professor himself is an interesting witness, for he was formally a Christian, the Catholic Bishop of Urmiah in Iran: the Reverend David Keldani, BD.
 The New Testament references to the ‘one to come, who will speak all that he hears’ is discussed later in the chapter.
 Notice how the prophecy concerning Isaac’s descendants broke into the narrative, and took place while Abraham was asleep.
 Dawud, p.32.
 Hagar was an Egyptian, possibly of the royal house, and not just a ‘servant’.
 Seir is usually identified with Petra.
 It can surely hardly be a coincidence that of all the names on earth his pagan relatives chose the very name Muhammad. In linguistic terms, Muhammad is cognate with the Hebrew passive particle of what is called the pi’el form of the verb hamad, and the passive participle of the second derived form of the Arabic hamida: its meaning being: ‘praise and praiseworthy, celebrity and celebrated, glory and glorious.’
 See above, p.oo.
 Dawud, pp23-24, 144-145.
 ‘Spirit of truth’ (Ruh al-haqq) is one of the Prophet’s titles of honour.
 Of like substance, similar but not the same.
 Of the one and the same substance.
 Dawud, p.67.
 Eisenman, op cit. p.836.
Appalling atrocities have been committed by Crusaders, inquisitors and other enthusiasts who were convinced that they were following the Spirit.
In the immediate aftermath of the election of Joseph Ratzinger to the Papacy, Muslim reactions to the new pontiff were diverse and confused. Turks were dismayed by his very public opposition to their membership of the European Union, a view rooted in his conviction that ‘Europe was founded not on geography but on a common faith.’ Others pointed to the absence of any mention of Muslims from his inaugural address (a fact welcomed by the Jerusalem Post) as a hint that Vatican willingness to open minds and hearts to dialogue with Islam was now at an end. Despite this, however, some Muslims, most notably Akbar Ahmad, welcomed the appointment of a man of considerable seriousness and intelligence, in the hope that he would reinvigorate the world’s moral debate. This Muslim ambivalence seems set to continue, partly thanks to the fact that a year into his papacy, Ratzinger has not spoken or written in any substantial way about Islam, realising, perhaps, that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
His Polish predecessor had certainly recognised Islam’s immense importance, and had sought to encourage a friendly Muslim view of the papacy. This bore fruit in a remarkable outpouring of Muslim commemorations upon his death. The Shaykh al-Azhar described his demise as ‘a great loss for the Catholic Church and the Muslim world. He was a man who defended the values of justice and peace.’ The then Iranian president Khatami praised John Paul as a master of three spiritual paths: philosophy, poetry, and artistic creativity. Yusuf al-Qardawi commended his opposition to Israel’s ‘apartheid wall,’ and asked Muslims to offer their condolences to Christians. In Afghanistan, a Taliban spokesman said that ‘even though some have launched a Crusader war against Islam, the pope’s voice was for bringing peace to the world.’ Overall, the Muslim world’s affection for John Paul was clear.
John Paul had earned this distinction in multiple ways. Often impulsive, he could not be said to have maintained a distinctive ‘Islam policy’, but he made several significant gestures which indicated his awareness of the religion’s growing importance and its spiritual integrity. In 1985 he became the first Pope to visit a Muslim country, and in 2001 the first to enter a mosque, where he annoyed ultra-conservative Catholics by kissing a copy of the Qur’an. ‘Your God and ours is the same God, and we are brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham,’ he told a Muslim crowd. His appeal, he said, was to ‘authentic religious Islam, the praying Islam, the Islam that knows how to join in solidarity with the needy.’ He distinguished this clearly from extremism, which he seldom failed to condemn.
To date, Ratzinger has shown few signs of continuing this theologically-unarticulated but sincere desire to reach out in affirmation. On the contrary, he has already shown himself to be sharply judgemental. He worried Muslims across Europe when, in an August 2005 meeting with imams in Germany who were worried about discrimination against their community, he made it clear that the only issue he wished to raise was ‘Islamic terrorism’. Apparently echoing a standard right-wing claim (made by Joerg Haider, Pim Fortuyn and Jean-Marie Le Pen in particular), he has said that ‘Islam is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society.’ Another theme which he shares with the far right is his apparent belief that Muslims in Europe cannot be ‘assimilated’: ‘Islam makes no sort of concession to inculturation.’ (He does not seem to have noticed the immense differences in Muslim cultural style across the world.)
Such misunderstandings are the staple of Italy’s leading anti-immigration writer, Oriana Fallaci, who, at the time of writing, is in court on charges of incitement to religious hatred. Fallaci is the author of three anti-Muslim works popular in right-wing circles, and offers views of the usual xenophobic type: ‘Islam sows hatred in the place of love and slavery in the place of freedom.’ One of the most striking acts of Benedict’s papacy to date has been his unusual granting of a private audience to Fallaci in the papal palace at Castelgandolfo. The meeting was arranged discreetly, but was discovered by an Italian journalist, and later acknowledged by the Vatican press office. The content of the consultation was not made public, but Muslim sources noted that Fallaci, who had repeatedly condemned the previous pope’s commitment to dialogue with Muslims, has been consistently supportive of Benedict.
The Vatican’s apparent volte-face with respect to Muslims is not the work of Ratzinger alone. The sociologist Renzo Guolo, in his book Xenophobes and Xenophiles: Italians and Islam, notes a ‘turnaround in the Italian bishops’ conference in recent years.’ A new right-wing spirit has taken hold in many quarters. Cardinal Biffi of Bologna, for instance, has called for the closure of Italy’s mosques and for a new law banning Muslim immigration, ‘because these people are outside our humanity.’ So widespread is this kind of talk that even the traditionally anti-clerical party, the Northern League, is experimenting with the crusader’s sword. The Euro-MP Francesco Speroni, for instance, has called for a ban on allowing Muslims to enter Italy, prompting one human rights activist, Rinella Cere, to conclude that ‘a “pact with the devil” was clearly being made between sections of the Catholic church and the Northern League.’ And although the previous pope had made clear his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, many influential Church officials now seem to be supportive of Washington’s belief that Western models of government and society can be imposed through force of arms. Once, according to one Catholic journalist, Sandro Magister: ‘Vatican diplomacy did not separate itself from the policy of maintaining good relations with Arabic dictators, especially the secular and nationalistic ones. In the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, this policy obtained conditions of relative privilege for the Chaldean Christians.’ However, in the new atmosphere, ‘The Holy See … does not exclude the possibility that military forces could intervene as “missionaries of peace” when necessary. Present-day Iraq is one of these cases of necessity, in the judgment of Vatican leaders.’
That Ratzinger is part of this new hardening of attitudes towards Muslims may be deduced from some of his most significant reshuffles of Vatican officialdom. The generally eirenic Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, formerly head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a well-known adversary of Ratzinger, has been sacked and demoted to run the papal mission in Egypt. Ratzinger has also moved to distance himself from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the previous pope’s Secretary of State, who is widely regarded as pro-Palestinian, and remains a close friend of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah. Sodano’s likely successor is widely expected to be Cardinal Ruini, the former president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, who has been outspoken in insisting that Muslim children in Italian schools should not have the right to study their own religion, because, Ruini believes, this would involve ‘dangerous social indoctrination.’ In Palestine, two key appointments have added to the pessimism of the beleaguered Palestinians. Sabbah has been given a new auxiliary bishop, who will succeed him automatically in two years’ time: this is Fouad Twal of Jordan, regarded in Israel as far more acceptable than Sabbah, who has been a fearless critic of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. No less symbolic has been the choice of Pierbattista Pizzabella as bishop of the Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. Pizzabella has regularly outraged Palestinian human rights activists by his outspoken support for Israel, and his appointment was loudly applauded in right-wing circles. One Anglican Palestinian leader calls him ‘very bad news’, and sees him as a sign that the Vatican is determined to draw a line under its former support for Palestinian rights, in favour of a pro-Israel strategy that will tie it in with wider right-wing aspirations for the Middle East. In making such an appointment, Ratzinger must have known very well the symbolic gravity of the step he was taking.
Ratzinger’s seeming harshness is regularly interpreted as a sign of a larger change of heart that has come over the Catholic church in recent years in response to the growing demographic significance of Islam in Europe, and the rise of Wahhabi terrorism. However he is not primarily a politician. His emerging Islam policy is ultimately rooted in a distinctive kind of theology. In particular, it should be taken in the context of his wider conservative conviction that Catholicism alone can guide human beings to true salvation, a view that his predecessor had seemed less anxious to advertise. Muslims may wince at his opinion of Islam, but his views on non-Catholic Christians have hardly been less trenchant. He was the leading contributor to the ‘definitive and irrevocable’ Catholic declaration Dominus Jesus in the year 2000, which insisted that non-Catholic churches ‘are not churches in the proper sense,’ and implied that non-Catholics are naturally destined for hellfire. He certainly subscribes to the traditional view that the ordination of Anglican priests is ‘utterly null and void,’ making most church-going in England a kind of theatre, a dim groping after a truth that may only be reliably found in Rome. In fact, his formal position, and his habit of mind, are far from any kind of pluralism, and his criticisms of Islam must be seen in this light. It is not quite correct to say, as some Muslims have done, that he has singled out Islam for a unique condemnation; he is, by the logic of his conservative theology, passionately critical of everything that fails to be ‘in communion with Rome’.
Among Muslim commentators there has as yet been little consideration of the ideas which drive this 78-year old Vatican insider, and which might supply a clue to understanding his view of Islam. Many Muslims think that Christianity in Europe ‘has lost its vision and is becoming a club for the elderly’ (Lord Carey’s allegation about the Anglican Church), in stark contrast to the American situation, where Christianity is politically dominant. Yet as the most significant survival from Europe’s religious past, and as an institution still immensely respected even by many secular Europeans, the Vatican is potentially an important interpreter of Islam to a Europe which now finds itself inhabited by twenty million Muslims, whose rights are increasingly under threat or actively denied by right-wing politicians and municipalities, and where Islamophobic violence is increasingly common.
Ratzinger’s knowledge of Islam is clearly patchy, and based on little practical engagement. The thinkers he prefers to hear tend not to be academic specialists in non-Christian religions, but activists and pastoral theologians. One advisor who has conferred with him on Islam, Joseph Fessio, believes, for instance, that ‘Islam is stuck. It’s stuck with a text that cannot be adapted, or even be interpreted properly,’ a view that Vatican Islam experts such as Daniel Madigan dismiss out of hand. Another rising star said to be close to Papal thinking is Piersandro Vanzan, a Jesuit professor at the Gregorian University in Rome. In early 2006, Vanzan co-authored a piece in the Catholic journal Studium which enthusiastically reproduced standard far-right discourse on Islam, complete with notions such as ‘moderate Islam, properly speaking, does not exist.’ Like Fessio, Fallaci and other self-appointed advisors on Islam, Vanzan has no expertise in Islamic studies, and is regarded as an embarrassment by the better-informed; yet this type of journalistic denunciation, unable or unwilling to distinguish the extreme from the orthodox, appears to be increasingly prominent in Ratzinger’s circle. The dismissal of Fitzgerald, a genuine Islam expert, is symptomatic of this tendency.
It helps to remember that Ratzinger is a European; more particularly, he is intensely Bavarian, and therefore not from a district with a long historic engagement with Islam (Poland, with its ancient and respected Tatar communities, seems to have been a different case). He is an accomplished pianist, a lover of Goethe, baroque sculpture and fine wine, who is less comfortable in other languages than his predecessor. The references in his many theological texts are mainly to the very introspective world of German theology; indeed, it is probable that he knows Lutheran theology better than he does the Catholic theology of the Third World. Bavaria lies at the heart of Europe; and indeed, was the beating heart of Nazism, the most intense of European attempts to reject non-white, non-European others.
Ratzinger is no Nazi; indeed, his thought is in large measure best understood as a reaction against the kind of modernity which produced the twentieth century’s great science-obsessed totalitarianisms. Yet he is deeply European. Faced with several Third World candidates, at the conclave in April 2005 the cardinals deliberately chose an icon of Europeanness, perhaps as an attempt to stem Europe’s drift away from Christianity. The appointment of a European was not really a surprise; what was more interesting was the choice of an icon of the anti-totalitarian reaction which saw the twentieth-century’s violence as a consequence of modernity, not as a strange aberration. Here Ratzinger parts company dramatically with other Catholic thinkers such as Hans Küng, a former friend, whose reading of the times is much more optimistic and upbeat than his own. Indeed, Ratzinger investigated and chastised such men during his time at the helm of his Vatican Congregation, the distant descendent of the Inquisition.
To understand the new pope, it helps to remember that despite this watchdog role he was once a leading light of the ‘moderate progressive’ wing of the Church. During the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s he collaborated with reformist figures such as Karl Rahner in pushing the Church roughly in the direction which had been urged by the Protestant reformers four hundred years before. The Tridentine Mass was scrapped, the notion of the clergy as a separate caste of human beings came under fire, many picturesque medieval traditions were banned, and space was given to lay Catholics in discussing issues once monopolised by the hierarchy. The backdrop was not, however, a stern bible-fundamentalism, but the curious idealism of the post-war years. Apparently oblivious to the threatening presence of a Soviet empire implanting nuclear warheads in silos across Eastern Europe, many in the West believed that it was time that religious conservatism gave way to a more ‘inclusive’ and affirmative attitude to human desires, which could allow Christians to participate in the playful culture of the modern West. Ratzinger, who in his early thirties cautiously committed to this view, repented suddenly when his students at the University of Tübingen’s Faculty of Catholic Theology, inflamed by Marxist ideas in the heady excitement of 1968, walked out of lectures shouting ‘Curse Christ! Curse Christ!’ From that time on he has solidified his position as a leading critic of what he saw as the naïve optimism of the 1960s, which had caused many in the church to read Vatican II as a populist moment. His abiding suspicion remains that Vatican II was a plughole through which faith and tradition drained, to be replaced by a liberal Protestant modernity.
Perhaps out of guilt at his own former flirtation with liberalism, for the remainder of his busy career as a bishop Ratzinger dedicated himself to a crusade against subversion by the secular, egalitarian culture of the West. He came to oppose the principle that regional bishops’ conferences might take decisions separately from the Vatican hierarchy. Most conspicuously, he used his position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to defend the fortress of the Church from the barbarian liberal hordes without. Theologians who, despite the recent lessons of Hitler and Stalin, and the example of materialist secular culture, were influenced by a naïve modern optimism, were reproached, usually in private, but on occasion in the eyes of the world. This is why Küng, after being stripped of his licence to teach as a Catholic theologian, compared Ratzinger’s Congregation to the KGB. Liberation theologians in Latin America were too optimistic about the possibility of successful revolutionary activism on behalf of the poor. Liberals trying to ‘update’ the Church only seemed to do so with reference to a surrounding secular culture of change and triviality. Hence the lethal danger, as Ratzinger saw it, of allowing popular preferences to shape worship. ‘I am convinced,’ he wrote, ‘that the crisis in the church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy.’
Ratzinger’s idealistic opposition to modernity found expression in the pages of the journal Communio, which he helped to launch in partnership with his friend, the Swiss anti-modernist Hans Urs von Balthasar. Abandoning the unpleasantly liberal atmosphere of Tübingen, he moved in 1968 to Regensburg to launch a new faculty where he energetically trained dozens of neo-conservative thinkers. Many of these, like the American Joseph Fessio, have served as staunch buttresses against the rise of Protestant agendas and modernising tendencies in the church, and were steadily recruited by John Paul II to fill the college of cardinals that one day would elect a new pope.
The theology which Ratzinger championed through this period was not the dusty repetitions of the thirteenth-century monk Thomas Aquinas that had dominated the Catholic world before Vatican II. Neither, however, was it the kind of subjective free-thinking which some feared would result from the Church’s convulsions in the mid-1960s. In common with many Catholics seeking renewal, Ratzinger returned to the fourth-century North African thinker St Augustine, and his medieval interpreter Bonaventure. Crisis, for Ratzinger, was not an excuse for inaction, but for a fearful recollection of human sinfulness; and Augustine and Bonaventure, with their heavy emphasis on original sin, the inherited defect with which they thought all humans are born, have often served as the foundation-stones of attempts to produce Catholic renewal. Ratzinger is certainly convinced of the radical sinfulness of human beings; and it is this conviction which underpins his onslaught on liberalism and liberation theology, and his scepticism about non-Christian religions. Without the sacraments of the Catholic Church, all is implicitly a form of wickedness, although it may contain broken fragments of the truth.
In his understanding of Judaism and Islam, Ratzinger is guided by the same Augustinian pessimism, which he finds ultimately in the letters of St Paul. Rituals ofwudu and ibada are essentially worthless, as they lie outside the grace which is only mediated by God’s one true church. As he writes: ‘the law of Moses, the rituals of purification, the regulations concerning food, and all other such things are not to be carried out by us, otherwise the biblical Word would be senseless and meaningless.’ Such rituals are ‘slavery’, from which submission to the Church alone offers salvation. The Semitic principle is thus categorically inferior; Jews and Muslims, he seems to imply, are slaves, and their ability truly to please God must be Biblically doubted.
But it is not only ‘the Law’ which is ruled by sin; for Ratzinger, sin also dominates modernity, which represents the ‘human threat to all living things.’ It reduces everything, including religion, to blind cause and effect. Hence in modern eyes the Bible is not to be understood as a story leading to a conclusion, each of whose parts can only be read in terms of that conclusion, but as a series of disconnected fragments subjected to arguments over authorship. For the moderns, too, the idea of a medieval consensus as forming part of the sensus fidelium, the view of the community of believers (an idea resembling the Muslim principle of ijma’), is meaningless. But in the Pope’s eyes, the credibility of divine providence is hopelessly undermined by the Protestant idea that most past believers were radically mistaken. And if Catholics retreat from some previous certainties about doctrine and scripture, he believes, then there will inexorably be a retreat from others, until ‘finally, quite a number of people have the abiding impression that the church’s faith is like a jellyfish.’
Like many Muslim and Eastern Orthodox Vatican-watchers, the new Pope regards the Catholic Church as suffering from a deep crisis. Theology, despite attempts at firm control from the centre, has been wandering in the direction of subjectivism. The prohibition of the Tridentine Mass and its replacement with assorted forms of worship in local languages has not only cut congregations off from a source of unity, from centuries of devotion and from a language unpolluted by modernity, but has opened the floodgates to trivial experiments which can make worship resemble a form of entertainment. As he frankly says, ‘One shudders at the lacklustre face of the post-conciliar liturgy as it has become, or one is simply bored with its hankering after banality.’ Sexual abuse by clergy, and subsequent cover-ups by bishops, have gravely damaged the moral authority of the church in many places (two out of every seven graduates of one American seminary have died of AIDS; major newspapers claim that half of American priests are homosexual; several US dioceses have filed for bankruptcy in the face of claims for compensation by molestation victims). In Europe, the number of priests falls by one percent every year. All this amounts, in Ratzinger’s eyes, to ‘a dark and tragic night which has fallen upon the Church.’ ‘Everything,’ he feels, ‘is in a state of disintegration.’
There are Muslims who regard this as an opportunity for Islam; and it is certainly the case that conversions from Catholicism have increased in recent years, although numbers are still small in historic terms. Yet it is far from clear that the ‘crisis’, as the pope sees it, of the West’s most significant moral and spiritual institution, will be helpful to Muslim progress. Europe is sinking into a mood of increasing liberal intolerance of traditional values, as was shown earlier in 2005 when EU commissioner Rocco Buttiglione was forced to resign when he refused to condemn Catholic teachings on homosexuality. If liberalism is excluding religious believers from high office, there is reason to expect that a more thorough-paced persecution will follow, with the hounding of all those whose consciences prevent them from accepting homosexualist, feminist or other liberal beliefs. Ratzinger writes well about the ‘agnosticism which no longer recognises doctrinal norms and is left only with the method of putting things to a practical test.’ While he does not agree with his predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, that the separation of church and state is a heresy, he is clear that the radical indifference of national governments to religiously-grounded morals may result in a slippage into tyranny. Terrorism was invented by the French Revolution; in Bonaparte’s anti-religious empire it became the political norm of the first European Union. The danger is that a deep-seated secular indoctrination of Europe may in the long term produce a similar result. For Ratzinger, as in classical Muslim thought, the religious scholar is not to be the ruler; but neither is the ruler to be immune from counsel by the scholar or from the ethics set forth in revelation. Muslims may be nervous that religious authority in Catholicism is highly centralised and, in principle, monolithic (the point on which classical Muslim and Christian political theory most obviously diverge), but will need to welcome Catholic endeavours to hold rulers accountable to timeless moral absolutes. Catholicism is clear that the separation of church and state does not mean that governments are not allowed to be religious.
Sacred politics is the kind of area in which Ratzinger’s interpretation of Islam will need to be more fully informed. Perhaps assuming that Islam will take as long as Catholicism did to accept the idea of democracy, he is sceptical about the authenticity of popularly accountable government in Muslim societies. Here, again, he would benefit from studying major cases such as Turkey and Indonesia, where Muslim theologians were at the forefront of the democratisation process and of opposition to authoritarian military regimes. There is certainly a difficulty in the idea, implicit in right-wing Catholic discourse, that Islam’s scholars operate in a democratic way to produce political authoritarianism, while the Church operates in an authoritarian way to support the idea and practices of political democracy. A reading of Noah Feldman’s study of Islamic discussions of popular sovereignty, After Jihad, would help the Vatican to resolve this apparent conundrum.
Ratzinger can also seem to be in the grip of a latent contradiction when he considers Islam’s powerfully conservative social instincts. In his book Salt of the Earth(1997) he notes that ‘Islam is opposed to our modern ideas about society;’ yet elsewhere he is famous for his insistence that Catholicism is itself radically opposed to many such ideas, and to the intellectual habits of modernity of which they are the expression. The same tension reappears where he writes, explaining the recent Islamic revival, that ‘in the face of the deep moral contradictions of the West and of its internal helplessness … the Islamic soul reawakened.’ His reluctance to speak at length about Islam, as opposed to holding private sessions with anti-Muslim activists, probably stems from a deep internal ambiguity about a religion which has conserved its liturgy and its family morality intact, which has no significant ‘gay lobby’, which is clear about the nature of men and women, and which reads scripture as an integral and authoritative whole in the way all Christians once did. If, as he suspects, the relativism in Christian theology, liturgy and moral practice which has become so prevalent is a sign of distance from God, then how is one to interpret Islam’s massive success on the same issues? Particularly disturbing, one may guess, is the realisation that whereas Catholic decision-making since the First Vatican Council has been authoritarian and top-down, a method hardly challenged by John Paul II, Islamic ijma’ is a result of egalitarian debate among scholars over centuries of the kind Ratzinger would call ‘congregationalist’; and yet the internal integrity of liturgy and doctrine which an ultramontane, authoritarian church was meant to defend seems to have been better achieved, in many ways, by the apparently chaotic mechanisms of Islam. Catholic intellectuals who, in the wake of René Guénon, have converted to Islam often offer precisely this reason to justify their choice. Could it be that Vatican neoconservatism is hostile to Islam because it is privately impressed by it, not because it is primarily exercised by issues of ‘integration’ and democracy?
If so, we may be able to untangle one of the great mysteries surrounding Ratzinger’s Islam-talk. Rahner and the other script-writers of Vatican II approached Islam in terms of those issues that matter most to Muslims themselves. ‘Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with favour,’ they said, and the reasons they gave concerned Islam’s self-identification with Abraham, its reverence for Jesus and Mary, its concern with the Last Judgement, and its life of prayer and fasting. It is noteworthy that Ratzinger has hardly engaged with Islam on these levels, preferring, instead, to pick up the current rhetoric about the ‘crisis of Islam’. This is odd, given that he generally deplores the reduction of religious discussions to issues of sociology and politics. Here, perhaps, is a suggestion that Islam’s intactness is too large a fact for him to be ready to address, although he may well be preparing himself for some future statement.
Whatever the reasons for the new conservatism, Muslims must seek allies. The disliked and impoverished Muslim minorities of Europe, resembling in many ways fugitive monotheists in Roman catacombs, cannot muster the strength to campaign for a greater tolerance of non-liberal values. It is therefore crucial for Muslim communities to forge ties with other defenders of traditional humanity, and to wish them well. The Catholic church differs from Islam on some moral issues, such as contraception and divorce, but generally it advocates the set of ethics which is normal to sacred societies, and which underpinned the greatest cultural achievements of medieval Europe, both Muslim and Christian. Like Islam, it is not only a matter of private faith and worship, but of rules fixed in revelation (the pope has spoken against ‘the view that the Decalogue on which the Church has based her objective morality is nothing but a ‘cultural product’ linked to the ancient Semitic Middle East’). With Ratzinger holding the tiller, the church is unlikely to accept further concessions to the values of the secular establishment, still less to the Jacobin and Hitlerian demand that ‘priests should not meddle in politics’. The challenge will be to convince Muslim communities that it is conservatives, not liberals, who are our most natural partners in the great task of guiding Europe back to God, and that Ratzinger’s criticisms are grounded in respect, perhaps even in something approaching envy; not in any kind of racism or populist chauvinism. Whatever some Muslims may claim, the fact that far-right parties benefit from the new Vatican language about Islam does not mean that the Church is seeking to retrieve its former popularity in Europe by riding the tiger of the new xenophobia.
European Muslims are thus faced with an interesting dilemma. Should we support the Vatican because it advocates those traditional values which are the foundation of social and political stability, and develop the cooperation on social issues that Muslim and Catholic leaders have achieved in the past (the 1994 UN Population Summit was one example)? Such a collaboration might provide support to embattled traditionalists in bodies such as the Church of England, apparently on the brink of validating homosexual practices. This is an attractive notion; yet should we not be wary of a man whose sense of Europe’s true identity substantially excludes us? After all, if Turkey cannot join Europe because of its Muslimness, how far can Turks in Hamburg be accepted as Europeans? Tariq Ramadan has criticised the Pope’s Christian definition of Europe, on the grounds that ‘we must recognise that all the monotheistic faiths are part of Europe’s roots.’ His understandable fear is that Ratzinger’s ideas about Semitic religions will comfort the growing legions of European chauvinists and Islamophobes. However it is by no means clear that a generic monotheism of the kind Ramadan commends will be sufficient to defeat relativism in Europe.
Does this mean that Muslims stand to benefit more in an officially Christian Europe? American Muslims, ruled by an effectively theocratic administration in which presidential speeches are intensely Biblical and the state provides massive funding for Christian social movements (but not Muslim ones) would probably resist this notion. An increasing number of American Catholic bishops denounce the ‘accommodationist’ Catholic politicians who do not follow the Church’s line. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, for instance, complains that ‘too many American Catholics – maybe most – no longer connect their political choices with their religious faith in any consistent, authentic way.’ Yet a larger alliance between Catholics and the politically-dominant Evangelicals, a scenario sometimes predicted by American Muslims, in reality seems unlikely. Support for a violent response to Saddam Hussein, for instance, was strongest in Bush’s Evangelical constituency; whereas the Catholic bishops opposed it. The theological tensions between the two large sects of American Christianity have been intensified by Dominus Jesus, and the cooperation in issues of religious politics (on the abortion issue, most notably) has probably progressed as far as it can.
Europe cannot be like America; and a strong religious presence here will not have the militaristic consequences which American Muslims have witnessed with such dismay. The Evangelicals in Europe are far weaker, and think differently on political matters. A Europe defined in Christian terms is more likely to take its guidance from Ratzinger than from any reformed thinker (there are few Southern Baptists here, and as for liberal Christian thinkers, these typically do not differ from the secular consensus on moral issues, and are hence irrelevant). Moreover, there is no reason to suppose that the continent’s current coldness towards the claims of Christianity is a permanent condition. The increasing witness of Muslims may ironically trigger a Christian revival, as the Belgian novelist Jacques Neirynck has forecast. In that situation, the continent’s ethico-political domination by the Vatican would probably enhance the sense of security of the majority population, and this can only be in the interests of Muslims, for whom the threat is not the Church, but the far-right movements which may claim Christian principles, but will, we may reasonably hope, always be kept at a firm distance by Curial institutions that can never decisively reject the rulings of Vatican II.
Many Muslims have been uncomfortable with Ratzinger because of his public statements about Islam. Yet we should be wary of emotional responses; and act in our interests, which are also those of a well-integrated, tolerant and successful Europe. Benedict XVI may not quite intend it, but on balance, his policies are likely to be good for Islam.