Most westerners assume that all religions are basically alike, not just in being oriented to the divine but in what they think that divine requires. (See here for more on this.) We take Christianity, and to a great extent Judaism, as the template. As Pope Benedict told Muslims in Cameroon in 2009, “genuine religion”Share
widens the horizon of human understanding and stands at the base of any authentically human culture. It rejects all forms of violence and totalitarianism: not only on principles of faith, but also of right reason. Indeed, religion and reason mutually reinforce one another since religion is purified and structured by reason, and reason’s full potential is unleashed by revelation and faith.This describes Christianity, the religion we know, but whether it describes other religions is a question. We believe in this idea of genuine religion because we believe that God has told us certain truths through his Scriptures and his Church. Those who believe he has said other things through other sources—Muhammad would be one—may wind up with very different beliefs. They may reject the idea that reason purifies and structures religion, for example. One legitimate response to Benedict’s definition is that if this is genuine religion, Islam is not a genuine religion.
A religion might assert dogmas that lead to violence, oppression, hatred, or an unjust social order. A religion may be a crazy religion. That Islam is a religion does not mean that it is a faith and life that recognizes human dignity and leads to human flourishing. It may do so imperfectly, partly, or not at all. If it does so, it may do so for some but not everyone, for the insiders but not the outsiders.
The Second Vatican Council gave us in Nostra Aetate an optimistic description of Islam that does not answer concretely the question of what it believes and where those beliefs go. Indeed that section of the declaration begins “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems,” not Islam. “They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself,” it says, but someone might adore the one God and mishear most of what he’s said. (Read more.)