Muslims and the One God

Issue: Does the Catholic Church teach that Muslims adore the same God as Christians? Is the Muslim worship of God as efficacious as the Catholic worship of God? Are Muslims saved through their adoration of God?

Response: The Church teaches that the followers of Islam adore along with Catholics the one, living, merciful, and all-powerful God who is the Creator of heaven and earth. While subjectively adoration of God can be efficacious and a channel of God’s grace, objectively there are deficiencies and even errors in non-Catholic rituals that constitute impediments to salvation.

Discussion: The relationship between Christendom and Islam has been complex and often strained. Christians suffered when Mohammed conquered Arabia, yet for centuries were allowed to pilgrimage to holy sites in Jerusalem. In AD 800 Charlemagne obtained precious relics and the keys to the Holy Sepulchre from the caliph of Baghdad, but 200 years later another caliph ordered the Holy Sepulchre and all Christian establishments in Jerusalem destroyed. The Church, for her part, has sought both confrontation and dialogue. She has taught against error while proclaiming “rays of truth” reflected in Islam. One such ray of truth is belief in one God.

In the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the relationship between the Church and non- Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, the Council Fathers address Islam in this way:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and allpowerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They
also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.[1]

Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting from the Vatican II dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, states regarding the Church’s relationship with Muslims:

“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”[2]

The Church has long held that the one God is the object of Muslim devotion; this teaching is not a product of Vatican II. For example, in the year 1076, four centuries after the expansion of Islam into Christian lands, Pope St. Gregory VII sought to establish bonds of peace with the Muslim king Anzir. The pontiff acknowledged differences while emphasizing what the two religions held in common, including adoration of the same God: “We believe in and confess one God, although in a different way, Who we praise and venerate daily as Creator of the ages and Ruler of the same world.”[3] More recently, yet indicative of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Catholic thought, the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia states that “the God of Moses is no mere tribal deity. He is the Creator and Lord of the world.” It also affirms that “of Mohammedan Monotheism little need be said. The Allah of the Koran is practically one with the Jehovah of the Old Testament. . . . The influence of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, on Mohammedan Monotheism is well known.”[4]

Catholics can heartily agree with some of the Muslim monotheistic beliefs, which in some cases resemble those of the Jews. Obviously, there are numerous points of disagreement. The Koran explicitly denies such key Christian dogmas as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the Son being coeternal with the Father, and Jesus’ death on the Cross (see “The Qur’an on Key Christian Dogmas,” below). The question arises as to how, with such contradictions in key doctrines about the nature of God, the Church can state that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Will vs. Intellect

The Church carefully maintains a distinction between the object of worship (God) and understanding of that object (belief ). What the Second Vatican Council emphasized was that the object of Muslim devotion is the one God. Neither in Nostra Aetate nor in Lumen Gentium do the Council Fathers state that Muslim belief is correct.

This distinction between the object of devotion and the belief of the adorer allows us to utilize still another distinction: between will and intellect. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that devotion is an act of the will, whereas faith is an act of the intellect.[5] In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas speaks of devotion as

nothing else but the will to give oneself readily to things concerning the service of God. Wherefore it is written (Ex. 35:20-21) that “the multitude of the children of Israel . . . offered first-fruits to the Lord with a most ready and devout mind.” Now it is evident that the will to do readily what concerns the service of God is a special kind of act. Therefore devotion is a special act of the will.[6]

Aquinas teaches that the virtue of faith resides in the intellect, even though it is moved by both the will and the intellect:

Since faith is a virtue, its act must needs be perfect. . . . And this act proceeds from the will and the intellect, both of which have a natural aptitude to be perfected in this way. . . . Now, to believe is immediately an act of the intellect, because the object of that act is “the true,” which pertains properly to the intellect. Consequently faith, which is the proper principle of that act, must needs reside in the intellect.[7]

Monotheistic religions have as the object of their will through their devotions the God and Creator of all. Some, by not possessing the gift of the fullness of divine Revelation, may have a grievously flawed intellectual concept of God. The distinction between the intellect and the will is a way to understand how religions can fully direct their wills toward God in devotion without a full understanding of God. St. Paul uses this distinction in reaching the men of Athens. When Paul sees the altar dedicated to the “unknown god” he tells the Athenians, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). Here Paul affirms that even polytheists can direct their worship to God even when they have little understanding of Him.

The declaration Dominus Iesus, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000, expands this distinction by contrasting theological faith with non-Christian religious belief:

The distinction between theological faith and belief in the other religions, must be firmly held. If faith is the acceptance in grace of revealed truth, which “makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently,” then belief, in the other religions, is that sum of experience and thought that constitutes the human treasury of wisdom and religious aspiration, which man in his search for truth has conceived and acted upon in his relationship to God and the Absolute.

This distinction is not always borne in mind in current theological reflection. Thus, theological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself.[8]

In other words, people unaided by grace and divine Revelation still turn their will toward knowing and worshiping God. The Catechism teaches that man is by his very nature a religious being and is constantly groping for God:

In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being:

From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him- though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being.”[9]

Muslims, who accept some teachings in the Old and New Testament, have some benefit of divine Revelation to illuminate their search for God.

Is All Worship Equal?

The idea that they worship the one God raises the possible implication that Muslims can thereby be saved. In fact, the Church teaches that adoration is “the first act” of religion and that “worship of the one God sets man free from turning in on himself, from the slavery of sin and the idolatry of the world” (Catechism, nos. 2096-97). Thus, the ritual worship of God in non-Catholic religions can be efficacious. To quote again from Dominus Iesus:

Certainly, the various religious traditions contain and offer religious elements which come from God, and which are part of what “the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures, and religions.” Indeed, some prayers and rituals of the other religions may assume a role of preparation for the Gospel, in that they are occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God.[10]

While non-Catholic ritual can have beneficial elements, there are also deficiencies-some serious:

One cannot attribute to these, however, a divine origin or an ex opere operato salvific efficacy, which is proper to the Christian sacraments. Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that other rituals, insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors (cf. 1 Cor. 10:20-21), constitute an obstacle to salvation. [11]

Thus, the object of worship can be the same God while the content and effects of worship can vary greatly. In short, the question of whether Muslims adore the one God does not answer the question of whether Muslims, or peoples of any other non-Catholic religion, can be saved. The Church in Dominus Iesus states more than once that the truths found in other religions originate from Christ with a purpose of preparing these peoples for reception of the Gospel.[12] At the same time, the Church stresses that those outside the Church are objectively in a gravely deficient position compared to those within her.[13] Dominus Iesus cites the 1943 encyclical letter of Pope Piux XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, which addresses those “who do not belong to the visible Body of the Catholic Church”:

We ask each and every one of them to correspond to the interior movements of grace, and to seek to withdraw from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation. For even though by an unconscious desire and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church.[14]

Rays of Truth

The Church acclaims and reveres the truth wherever truth exists, because this is proclaiming Christ, the Truth. Even by a glimmer of truth a person can be led to the fullness of truth. Thus the Church declares in Nostra Aetate that

she regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.[15]

But further, the Church charges Catholics, who by their baptisms participate in the mission of Christ, to seek dialogue and collaboration with followers of other religions and to “recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.”[16] The Church further enjoins all Christians and Muslims “to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”[17]

The Qur’an on Key Christian Dogmas

There is one God

He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him. (112:1-4)

The Trinity

Say not “Trinity”: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is one Allah: Glory be to Him: (far exalted is He) above having a son. (004:171)

Divinity of Christ

Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) a messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His messengers. (004:171)

The Son eternally begotten of the Father

The similitude of Jesus before Allah is as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him: “Be.” And he was. (003:059)

Jesus’ death on the Cross

That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”; but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not. (004:157)

For Further Reading

Holy Bible (RSV-CE, Ignatius Press)

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate (1965).

Pope Pius XII, Encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ, Mystici Corporis Christi (1943).

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and of the Church, Dominus Iesus  (2000).

Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (1964).

Robert Spencer, “What Every Catholic Should Know About Islam,” Lay Witness magazine, Jul/Aug 2002.

——————-

[1] Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate (1965), no. 3, available online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_ 19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997), no. 841.

[3] Patrologia Latina, Ep. 21.

[4] Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), vol. X, p. 501.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 4, a. 2.

[6] Ibid., q. 82, a. 1.

[7] Ibid., q. 4, a. 2.

[8] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and of the Church, Dominus Iesus (2000), no. 7, available online at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html.

[9] Catechism, no. 28.

[10] Dominus Iesus, no. 21.

[11] Ibid., no. 21.

[12] Ibid., nos. 8, 12, 21.

[13] Ibid., no. 22.

[14] Pope Puis XII, Encyclical Letter on the Mystical Body of Christ, Mystici Corporis Christi (1943), no. 103, available online at http://www.vatican. va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/documents/ hf_p-xii_enc_29061943_mystici-corporis-christi_ en.html.

[15] Nostra Aetate, no. 2.

[16] Ibid., no. 2.

[17] Ibid., no. 3

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  • Private Revelation
  • If I Forget You O Jerusalem: The Truth About the Crusades
  • Trinity: Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  • Without the Church There is No Salvation
  • Attending Non-Christian Worship Services

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