Author: Samir Khalil Samir
Title: 111 Questions on Islam
Publisher: Ignatius Press, 2008
French Edition : Les raisons de ne pas craindre l’Islam
Publisher: Presses de la Renaissance, Paris, 2007
Published for the first time in Italian by Marietti in 2002, 111 Questions on Islam has been a notable publishing success: in addition to the recent translations into French and English, the text has also been published in Spanish with the title Cien preguntas sobre el Islam (Encuentro, Madrid 2003).
The reason for this success lies without doubt in the contemporary relevance of the subject and at the same time in the method of exposition adopted. Two specialised journalists pose to one of the most important Catholic experts in Islamic studies those questions which in a confused or explicit way are on the agenda today: who was Mohammed? What are the foundations of the Islamic faith? What really is a jihad? And so forth. The interviewers manage to condense those subjects which today are at the centre of the debate in the mass media into just over a hundred questions.
The author, for his part, does not steer away from provocations by digging in behind technical and philological ‘isms’, as, indeed, happens often in the academic world when burning questions are involved. Islam is one of those subjects in relation to which more grounding is needed to write a popular work than to write a hyper-specialised article. The point of view that is adapted is that of an Arab of Christian faith and Muslim culture. It is the author himself, almost en passant, who offers this surprising self-portrait when answering a question about European Islam: ‘I, an Arab Christian, am culturally Muslim’ (p. 123 of the Italian edition).
The volume is divided into five large sections. The first, ‘Foundations’, briefly examines the figure of Mohammed and the holy book of the Muslims, ending with a survey of the five pillars of Islam. Amongst the commonplaces that are discredited, reference should certainly be made to the one propagated today by a part of Western literature and by Islamic fundamentalist currents which has it that Allâh is the name of the Muslim God, on a par with YHWH in the Old Testament. The second and the third sections, which have the title ‘Can Islam Change?’ and ‘The Challenge of Rights’, addresses thorny questions such as religious authority, the jihâd, or the relationship with modernity. To summarise, the opinion of the author, which is for that matter near to the ideas expressed by certain Muslim reformists such as Muhammad Mahmud Taha, is that in the founding texts of Islam one finds passages that exhort to peace and concord in relation to the faithful of other religions but also passages with a much more bellicose and violent tone which, because they come afterwards in a chronological sense, are said to be more relevant at a legal level, at least according to current exegesis. Islam has not yet drawn up a unitary interpretation of these ¬passages and each group tends to support its own ideas by ‘throwing out verses’, giving value to one part of tradition to the disadvantage of another.
As regards European Islam, to which the fourth section is devoted, the author expounds his personal theory which we could define as the ‘mayonnaise’ theory: ‘As it was my turn in the kitchen, I had to prepare the mayonnaise for the community of Jesuits with whom I was living. As there were 150 people and because at that time there was no electrical appliance to help me, the matter was not at all simple…It was a demanding operation, whose success depended above all on the ability to amalgamate all the ingredients immediately to obtain a ‘hard core’ which would allow the subsequent assimilation of five litres of oil... The same happens in society: only if an initial ‘hard core’ is assured, a background of reference at an anthropological level, can foreign communi¬ties amalgamate’ (p. 154 of the Italian edition). The failure of multiculturalist policies is certainly an invitation to move our research in this direction.
Lastly, it is in the fifth section, on Islamic-Christian dialogue, that the reader finds made explicit the principle that inspires the whole of the text: no to dancing in masks, yes to love in truth. Despite grave difficulties and examples of incomprehension, it appears that this principle is by now established in the most recent initiatives for dialogue. Love for truth compels that both parties address uncomfortable subjects as well, but this can be done successfully only if it is done in a spirit of charity.