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Religion and Society

The Man who changed our View on Islam

Pharmacist, dominican friar, scholar in Arab Philosophy, protagonist of islamic-christian diaologue. An excerpt from the book of Georges Anawati, L’ultimo dialogo. La mia vita incontro all’Islam [The last dialogue – My life: an encounter with Islam], (Marcianum Press, Venice, 2010).

When I arrived [at the noviciate], I went to see the superior, who told me, “Why did you join the monastery? What do you want to do?” I told him that I joined for the Islamic-Christian dialogue. Look, even then, and that was in 1933! I told him, “Islam is growing; studies are being undertaken and basic texts are being rediscovered. One day, Muslims will come and say, “Your intellectual life all comes from Averroes!” What do you plan to tell them? Do you want to say the usual things and that’s it! You should examine the question; compare things. I want to go deeper into Islamic philosophy and go to the public university. We will discuss with the professors and engage in dialogue.” Look, I said this in 1933. He replied, “It is a good idea. This is what the Dominicans do since our order was founded. We shall encourage you any way we can. But right now, you should focus on your theological studies, and the Lord will take care of the rest.



Did your interest in Islamic studies come by chance? Or, were there more general reasons related to the historical period?



It was in the air. Massignon influenced me a great deal. I read Maritain. Maritain is the philosopher of culture who said, We must open up Christianity to the world. In the same way that Saint Thomas took to Aristotle, we must take to Muhammad. This should not be done for apologetic reasons; it should be done so that we can be culturally open. Islamic culture exists in and of itself. I do not study Islamic culture to destroy it. Why destroy it? It is something beautiful in and of itself. We must value what is beautiful in others, whether it is Chinese, Taoist or something else. We must make the most of the true values that are in all men. That is the spirit of Saint Thomas. The sense of acceptance means recognising the values that are found in others, in every field, whether it is the art of China, Islam or others. Islamic culture opens an extraordinary field for dialogue. Muslims need us and Christians need Muslims because the two cultures are intermingled. It is not possible to understand Gothic art without understanding Muslim art. When one goes inside certain cathedrals, there are Qur‘anic words on Christian motifs. The same is true for Muslims, who were for four or five centuries in Spain. [. . .] This is what scares fundamentalists; they do not want to communicate.



Does philosophy play a positive role in explaining differences between religions?



Philosophy tries to understand these differences, to see whether they are real or formal. Let us take the principle of the One God. Christianity resolutely says there is One God. Islam does the same. So does Judaism. In fact, we could tell you for example that God in Christianity speaks through his Messengers and that Christ himself is the Word of God incarnate. He is the Word of God and, at the same time, a man. This is Christianity’s religious specificity. [. . .] The Gospel stresses the innocence of the spirit of man, the innocence of the spirit. God grants those children, for example, the chance of knowing him and denies it to arrogant scholars. Arrogance is the ghost of philosophy.



How did you, as an expert in pharmacology, a philosopher and a Christian clergyman, come to relate to Islamic philosophy? Why and how did you specialise in it? Would it not have been more natural for you to specialise in Christianity?



For me Christianity is the true religion. God sent us Christianity. However, we cannot deny that there are other religions and that these religions follow their own paths. You [Muslims], you say, “But if thy Lord had pleased, verily all who are in the earth would have believed together (Q, 10:99).” We say there are communities and God takes care of all of them. For us Christians, the man who says he loves God but does not love others is a liar.



Hence, you love Muslims because you love God.




Right! Exactly that.


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