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Jordan Denari DuffnerMarch 03, 2023
Pope Francis shakes hands with Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque and university, after signing at an interreligious meeting at the Founder's Memorial in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 4, 2019. The pope has used his trips to strengthen the church's bonds with other religious communities, such as Muslims. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In his first days as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis said, “it is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam.”

The pope has more than lived up to that early goal he set for himself—engagement with Muslims has become one of the hallmarks of his papacy. Over the past decade, the pope has made dozens of visits to Muslim communities and Muslim-majority countries. He has forged bonds with leaders and ordinary believers, and he has repeatedly drawn attention to the presence of God in the experiences of Muslims and in many of the riches of their faith tradition.

From his many gestures, statements, trips and—most significantly—his personal encounters with Muslims, some profound lessons emerge. Here are just five:

1. Worshiping together “the One, Merciful God”

Stepping onto a small, red prayer rug in socked feet, Pope Francis folded his hands and bowed his head. He was visiting a mosque in the war-torn Central African Republic in 2015 and wanted to take a moment to pray in silence. The year before, in a visit to the famed Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, the pope asked the city’s Grand Mufti to pray for him. And in a later trip to Bangladesh, at an interreligious gathering, Pope Francis asked a Muslim individual—a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar—to offer up a prayer on behalf of the group. Later the pope said that the encounter brought him to tears.

In each of these prayerful moments, Pope Francis has put into practice the Church’s teaching—affirmed at the Second Vatican Council and echoed in the Catechism—that Muslims “together with us, adore the One, Merciful God.”

In each of these prayerful moments, Pope Francis has put into practice the Church’s teaching—affirmed at the Second Vatican Council and echoed in the Catechism—that Muslims “together with us, adore the One, Merciful God.” Though there are certainly doctrinal differences between what Christians and Muslims profess about God, this does not preclude us from acknowledging the similarities we do have or from coming together (along with Jews and even others) to praise and petition our common God. Having made God’s mercy an important theme of his papacy, Francis has purposefully drawn attention to the fact that for Muslims mercy is one of God’s most important attributes, too.

Francis is not the first pope to make statements or take actions like these—St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI also prayed publicly with Muslims in different capacities. In doing so, they all signal that Muslims’ prayers to God are valid and that they are directed to the same merciful God whom Catholics also strive to serve.

2. “Doing theology together”: Acknowledging the wisdom of the other

Toward the end of his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis wrote about the importance of developing a “sacramental” imagination—of seeing God in nature and in our fellow human beings. In making this point, the first source that the pope cites is not a Christian mystic, but a Muslim one. In the associated footnote, Francis points to Ali al-Khawas, a Muslim poet who wrote in the 16th century about perceiving God when “the wind blows, … flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted.” Though the footnote is buried in a long document, its inclusion in the encyclical is ground-breaking; this was the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that a non-Christian religious text was cited in an official teaching document.

Muslims were also instrumental in Francis’ 2020 encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” which centered around the theme of human fraternity. Francis writes that he was “stimulated” to write the encyclical by his friendship with Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar, a well-known Sunni Islamic university and mosque in Egypt. Imam al-Tayeb’s colleague, Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salem, then participated in the encylical’s formal release to the public. As America’s Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell has pointed out, it was unprecedented for a Muslim to inspire an encyclical and for a Muslim to take part in presenting it to the world.

Francis—and indeed the entire Catholic Church—has been positively shaped by Muslims and the wisdom expressed through their faith tradition.

Both encyclicals show how Francis—and indeed the entire Catholic Church—has been positively shaped by Muslims and the wisdom expressed through their faith tradition. They also demonstrate that the boundaries between our religious communities are more porous than we often realize. The history of the Catholic Church—including its formal teaching—has been shaped by active Muslim participation.

In an earlier unparalleled move, Pope Francis worked with Imam al-Tayeb to co-author the 2019 Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. In this original document, the pope and imam drew on their many shared theological and moral convictions to call for concrete actions that will further justice, peace and human flourishing in the world. Though retaining their own religious convictions, the two leaders composed the document as friends and equals; as Cardinal Michael L. Fitzgerald, M.Afr., a leader in Catholic-Muslim relations, put it, “they were doing theology together.”

3. Sitting with the “saints next door” or around the world

During his 2021 trip to Iraq, Pope Francis visited another major Muslim leader, this time from the Shia branch of Islam. The Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani is a globally revered leader, but despite his high profile, he lives in a modest home. Like Pope Francis, the elderly man is known for his humility.

There are few details about the pope’s time spent with al-Sistani, but Francis said afterward that “this meeting did my soul good. He is a light. These wisemen are everywhere because God’s wisdom has been spread all over the world.” Francis went on to frame al-Sistani as an “everyday saint,” one of the “saints next-door,” people who live out their values with coherence.

For Francis, interfaith encounters are ultimately not about big, theological ideas, but rather the real human individuals we encounter. Whether he is meeting with major leaders or ordinary people, he brings the same level of attention and care, cognizant that each person is holy and loved by God beyond measure.

For Francis, interfaith dialogue is most fundamentally about “sharing our joys and sorrows” with another.

This same outlook inspired Francis to make an impromptu visit to a Muslim family living in a housing project in Milan, Italy, in 2017. As they shared sweets and nuts, the children offered the pope colorful drawings and the father, Mihoual, showed him pieces of Islamic artwork. Afterward, Mihoual said that Francis’ presence felt like “having a friend in the house.”

For Francis, interfaith dialogue is most fundamentally about “sharing our joys and sorrows” with another. There doesn’t have to be any larger goal; being truly present and attentive to the fact that an individual is created in God’s image is all that is required.

4. “The other could be you”: Defending the dignity of all

Kneeling over a basin, Pope Francis poured cool water over a man’s feet and wiped them dry with a white towel. He was performing a Holy Week ritual that is usually reserved for Catholics, but he chose to include people of other faiths, including Muslims, as a gesture of universal solidarity. For Francis, dialogue spills over into acts of service.

During a decade marked by the mass migration of (and demonization of) refugees, many of whom are Muslim, Francis has been intent on meeting them in their suffering. His first international trip as pope was to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, where many refugees had landed after harrowing voyages across the sea. Francis’ commitment to the well-being of refugees has gone beyond gestures and words. In 2016, he personally helped resettle three Syrian Muslim refugee families in Vatican City.

Pope Francis has repeatedly called on Western countries to set aside anti-Muslim scapegoating and nativism, and many of his public comments have been a helpful corrective to the dominant global discourse on Islam.

When it comes to condemning religious bigotry and persecution, Pope Francis displays a moral consistency that is rare among world leaders. Just as he speaks up for Christians facing persecution, he also advocates on behalf of Muslims in the face of Islamophobia. His principled stance sends an important message to many corners of the Church, particularly in the United States, where concern about the persecution of Christians is often prioritized while the persecution of Muslims—both at home or abroad—is often ignored.

5. “It’s not fair and it’s not true”: Resisting stereotypes

Pope Francis has repeatedly called on Western countries to set aside anti-Muslim scapegoating and nativism, and many of his public comments have been a helpful corrective to the dominant global discourse on Islam.

For example, in a 2016 press conference, Francis urged his audience to resist the tendency to reduce the causes of violence committed by Muslims to religion. “It’s not fair to identify Islam with violence. It’s not fair and it’s not true,” he said, pointing out that when those of other religions (including Christians) commit violence, it is not typically attributed to their religious identity. While acknowledging that some fringe groups, like the Islamic State, claim an Islamic pedigree, he has drawn attention to what he sees as deeper root causes of so-called Islamic violence, including a loss of identity among young people and, as he said in a Holy Thursday homily, the arms trade and those who benefit financially from conflict. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Catholics haveresisted or pushed back against the pope’s nuanced approach.

Still, Pope Francis has sometimes fallen into some common fallacies and stereotypical tropes in discussing Islam, ones that contradict his better intentions. For example, at numerous points he has publicly called on Muslim leaders to condemn violence committed by their fellow Muslims. These calls can contribute to the misperception that Muslims are not already condemning terrorism—when, in fact, they are.

Following Francis

Francis’ special attention to dialogue with Muslims is natural outgrowth of his broader commitment to encounter with all people, particularly those who are most marginalized. In both his successes and his missteps, Francis offers us lessons not just about improving our relationships with Muslims, but with all those we might meet.

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