Catholic-Muslim Relations

Often when certain Muslims–think the Islamic State right now–go rabid and kill a bunch of people and do all sorts of crazy things, it makes Catholics wonder about Catholic-Muslim relations.

Often when these things happen, we hear bishops and others talk about those “radical” Muslims and how not all Muslims are like this and how we should still maintain relations with Muslims. That’s good.

My question is, how does the Church judge what is “authentic” Islam to dialogue with and what is not authentic Islam on the basis of a supposed ability to interpret Muslim teaching? (Maybe I’m wrong.)

I ask because I’m confused as to how the Church is competent do determine what is and is not “authentic” Islam. It’s kind of like, “Muslims who adhere to the totality of Muslim teaching are ‘peaceful’ and the ones who are violent are Muslim radicals.” What I want to know is, how is the Church competent to determine what is “orthodox” Islam and what isn’t? I am not aware of any specific statements about the Church interpreting the “authenticity” of Muslim teaching–I don’t think this exists–but this is the kind of logic often proffered in popular explanations.

Now don’t misinterpret me. I don’t think the Church doesn’t have the authority to pick and choose with whom we have relations based on things like murderous radical-ness. That’s a prudential thing. However, I’m specifically focused on the, “Oh those radical Muslims are just weird and they aren’t following their own teachings properly.” Well, how do you know this? How is a non-Muslim competent to judge Muslim teaching? That’s funny, and I mean no un-charitable-ness in stating that. How do we assume that the Muslim radicals aren’t in fact doing just what Islam really teaches? Some people may say, “They are misinterpreting the Koran.” Well, how do we know that? “The Koran says…” What qualifies non-Muslims to be magisterial interpreters of the Koran?

Let’s extend this to the larger cultural issue of “Islamophobia.” Non-Catholics in the larger culture make the same arguments: that Muslim radicals are “heretics” in a sense and are not following authentic Muslim teachings. What I want to know is, how do they know that? Even scholars of Islam have no authority to interpret Muslim teachings… only Muslims do, naturally. People will say, there are plenty of Muslims who say that the radicals are wrong based on Muslim teaching. Well, what gives them the authority to state that? How do we know that, according to Islam, the non-radicals aren’t really the “heretics” and the radicals are the ones who are following Islam properly? Again I’m having a hard time accepting, “The Koran says…,” because I don’t understand how we have the authority to interpret the Koran and Muslim teaching, any more than secularist atheists have authority to say, “Slavery is in the Bible look Catholicism is ok with slavery!!!” 1. they are wrong but 2. they have no authority to interpret the Bible and Catholic teaching in the first place.

Note: again I accept that the Church has the authority to determine who we have relations with. It’s difficult and probably futile to have “dialogue” with murderers, which is what the radicals are, plainly. Also note that this is a thread on a discussion oriented medium of communication and that this is Catholic Answers, a Q&A type place, so please no one assume that I hate the Magisterium or think I have the authority to go against what it says or whatever etc. etc. etc. Please assume the best in my quest to learn and I will assume the best in your quest to discuss this topic. =]

Just to help the thread, imagine there were some Catholic radicals who were randomly killing non-Christians in some country. It would be easy to accept Catholics’ statements that these radical Catholics are wrong because we have a clear and universal leader who is widely known even in non-Catholic circles to be the supreme interpreter of Catholic teaching: the Pope. He would say these Catholics are wrong because they are. Islam does not have this.

I don’t consider myself the person to determine what is “true Islam” or not. I do know that while some Muslim people and groups are violent, murderous, hateful, bigots, others clearly are not. Therefore, it stands to reason that a person’s Muslimness does not make them evil. It is most likely that groups of evil Muslim get together and then use their faith to justify their actions. While it may be true that the tenants of the Muslim faith are more condusive to being interpreted toward violence and genocide then that of other faiths, the fact that there are many, many peaceful Muslims in the world is evidence to me that Islam does not invariably or inevitably lead to hatred and cruelty. So, the short version of the story is that some Muslims are good, others are bad, and you should keep an open mind until you determine which you are dealing with.

There is no central governing authority to decide who is a Muslim and who isn’t. Most peaceful Muslims would probably say ISIS aren’t Muslims. ISIS would say peaceful Muslims aren’t really Muslims. There seems to be a huge problem in the Muslim world with violence, and not just today but throughout its history. When peaceful Muslims say ISIS aren’t Muslims they are just sweeping the problem under the rug. Radical Muslims need to be confronted by peaceful Muslims and that isn’t happening. Just my 2 cents.

Go to New Age Islam, and if you speak as a universal Catholic, they will keep your post.

They are recognizing that one must penetrate the cultures there to be rid of militant Islam and they are working to restore reason within the teachings of Islam, and this is an international group of people who contribute.

I have one theory that may account for why the Church often says that “authentic Islam” is peaceful. And it is based in part on the very problem you’ve mentioned: there technically is no figure within Islam who has real and true authority to interpret Islam definitively. They don’t have the same authority structure that is built into Catholicism, and the authentic meaning of the Quran therefore cannot be set in stone by Islamic figures.

This is where I think the Church sees an opening. I think the Church is basically just saying, a violent interpretation is more harmful than a peaceful interpretation, and therefore less authentic. They aren’t making this judgment on the same grounds they judge interpretations the Bible, because the Quran isn’t the same kind of book. They are just saying that, inherently, if you implement any interpretation of a document that has a meaning not set in stone, and you do it violently, that is a worse way to act than to interpret it peacefully, and therefore less authentic to true human character and to the more peaceful traditions within Islamic history.

Does that make any sense?

BTW I just want to point out that the attempt to forge positive relations with Muslims is not a recent phenomenon.

As early as 1076 A.D. Pope St. Gregory VII wrote very friendly words to the Muslim king of Mauretania: “We and you must show in a special way to the other nations an example of this charity, for we believe and confess one God, although in different ways, and praise and worship Him daily as the creator of all ages and the ruler of this world.” (Pope St. Gregory VII, Letter to Anzir [Nacir], King of Mauretania)Another example of early, positive Catholic-Muslim dialog is evident in a book by Peter the Venerable which must have been written before his death in 1156. He wrote a refutation of Islam in which he explained that he was not speaking out of hatred but out of love: “I do not attack you, as some of us often do, by arms, but by words, not by force, but by reason; not in hatred, but in love.” “[We should debate] with peace…not with fury; with reason, not with madness; with tranquillity, not with iniquity.” “Loving, I write to you; writing, I invite you to salvation.” “Hear, therefore, for the time is nigh, to what you have consecrated your souls, your bodies, and your death. Hear whether you have placed your hope in a safe place, whether you have believed in a salutary doctrine, or in a true prophet and messenger of God.” (Peter the Venerable, The Refutation of the Sect or Heresy of the Saracens) Finally, before his death in 1464, Pope Pius II wrote to King Mohomatem II, saying: “We do not seek you out in hatred nor do we threaten your person, although you are an enemy of our religion and press hard on Christian people with your weapons. We are hostile to your actions, not to you. As God commands, we love our enemies and pray for our persecutors.” (Pope Pius II, Epistle Ad Mohomatem II) Modern efforts to dialog with Muslims have advanced considerably since this time, but we can already see the development of peaceful and positive grounds for dialog in these remarks.

Oh, this is brilliant–it’s like the Moslems who deviate the most from Natural Law are radicals, and that kind of gives us a basis on which to think about what’s happening in the Moslem world–thank you!

This is a great question.

From what I have learned, true Islam is radical and extremist, while there are those trying to find a more peaceful interpretation of it, both among the Muslims and outside their faith.

These days it is assumed that a religion in its true form is always peaceful, so there we have the assumption that true Islam is peaceful. The church is perhaps following the same line of thinking, in order to have good relations with them. Makes sense - it is a more practical solution.

I’m simply not convinced of the above assumption of the inherently peaceful Islam, even though I have met nice Muslim people who wish me no harm.

I think this may be connected to a certain self-hatred by the United States: when any minority whatsoever is bashed (except one), the US is all bald eagles, stars and stripes, missiles and Marines and Jack Daniels, but when it’s the Christians someplace who are in a rut, it’s 6 months or more until so much as the meekest of words quietly emanate from the halls of power.

I don’t think we can assume anything about other religions as Catholics OR as societies. (Of course in saying societies I assume the West still at least barely manages to eke out a miniscule droplet of Christian identity once every five years or so.) We should treat others charitably, but it is difficult to assume that this or that religion is “peaceful” in its “correct” form (correct according to its own teachings which is, as I’ve said, for many religions extremely difficult to understand).

A Muslim (or an atheist) could just as easily ask what it is that separates traditionalist Catholics from Westboro Baptist types. We both claim, after all, to speak for authentic Christianity. I can point to the Papacy but that won’t appease most Christians, who reject the Papacy; they can point to Scripture, but that won’t appease me because I reject that they are authentic interpreters of Scripture. Maybe the most that can be said from the outside is that it is plausible that either the Catholics or the Westboro Baptist Church truly represents authentic Christianity – but then most would agree that the Catholics, owing to numerical superiority and its historical prestige, have a better claim to it than Westboro does.

It wouldn’t do much good, either, to say, in defense of Christians against Westboro types, that “I know some Christians who are good people.” Because, after all, whether or not Westboro speaks as much for Christianity as Pope Francis does is precisely what’s in dispute. In other words, maybe it’s not the case that Westboro Baptists are bad people who happen to be Christians, maybe it’s the case that they are bad Christians who are also thereby bad people. Conversely, maybe it’s the case that I’m a good person whose goodness just happens to be independent of the fact that I’m a bad Christian (because I’m not a Westboro type).

Likewise, maybe, maybe Islam is truly a “religion of peace” as some claim and the fundamentalists are perverting it. But the historical evidence for that is scant compared to the “No god but Allah” camp. The most we can say is that “No god but Allah” is at least a plausible interpretation of the true “essence” of Islam – and that its relative superiority, both historically and today in numerical terms at least, means it’s probably closer to the truth of Islam than the relatively small, quiet, and new “religion of peace” camp.

The Westboro Baptist claims about the Bible’s authority devolve into circular reasoning. The Catholic claim about the Church’s authority doesn’t. (source and source) That’s a major difference.

True, but look at it from the outside. While there is an inner logic to Catholicism that no other religion can have today, it is very difficult to see that from the outside. Now, since reason is enough to lead one at least to some basic conclusions about God, we have that on our side. But that doesn’t mean that those conclusions won’t or can’t be perverted…

Islam is essentially wrong and Catholicism is essentially correct, but on a human level it can be difficult for a Muslim person not to see that he would be wrong to make the same arguments I’m making, except about Catholicism this time. I think that is sw85’s point, and he is right.

It is an unfettered good that God has given us a visible and high-profile leader, not as Catholics but as Christians. Whether a Muslim will choose to look to the Pope as the guarantor of Christian teaching or to the Phelps family instead is of course a choice he has to make in order to situate his judgements about Christianity, but I think if he is intellectually honest that won’t be too difficult… lol.


I think you make a good point that there doesn’t seem to a central authority in Islam to judge what is “authentic” or pure or a corruption. It’s like Protestantism in that way. Whose to say the West boro Baptists are not authentic Protestants, rather than the ELS?

I think it works like this though, when it comes to our bishops making statements about what is authentic or not: the leaders that are willing to engage in dialogue about their beliefs and engage in peaceful cooperation on joint efforts with Catholic bishops no doubt represent themselves and their followers to our bishops as authentic Muslims and explain why they are in such dialogues. Those considered not authentic do not even engage with us. As such, our bishops have nothing else to go on but the word of those who are not interested in persecuting Christians, but rather in peave–and so our bishops take the word of their friends as opposed to their enemies as to what is authentic and what is not.

It’s the same thing with protestantism, and it is even worse, they have the QUran which allows many different interpetations with many, many sects within itself like the wahabis, shias, sunnis…

Pope Francis have said: “Authentic Islam opposes to all foms of violence.”

But we must undertand first of all, that there is no parallell in the islamic world with the figure of Pope. The Pope in Catholicism has an image of AUTHORITY not just of representation, and even some higher Imams has no authority in the interpretation of the Islam which has a force of authority that all muslims have to obbey.

Now, my point is, and we MUST always have this argument in our kits everytime we debate pacific muslims everywhere. We must ask: “How you, a pacific muslim, can show that the Radical Muslims are wrong?” Simply like that, I mean, if it is all a case about their personal interpretations of the Quran, if they have no Authority voice (like the Magisterium or the Pope) and if we are honest to agree that the Quran is unclear in many things and many muslims disagree in their doctrine, how he can say he is wrong and it is not the true Islam? That’s a very problematic thing in islam i guess, and we must expose it to the pacific muslims.


So what I get from this thread is that the Pope and others are not really attempting to base relations with Muslims on a supposed “Muslim orthodoxy”–because the Church can’t do that in the first place–but rather, they are using this “authentic” business as a sort of motivational thing or as an extension of hope and good will. So instead of, “Johnny, don’t beat up your sister you pathologically messed-up cretin,” it’s more like, “Johnny, you have been a very good boy lately, I’m proud of you, let’s keep that streak up.”

I guess.


This is how I understand it.

I mean, the church has had a long history of relations with the Muslim world, and much of it involved Christian heads on spikes. I think the pope knows what he’s dealing with, he is not ignorant. But these days if he wants to engage in a peaceful dialogue these unpleasant things must be set aside and he must focus on the positives, whatever they are. It is really about politics.

I’m glad you mentioned politics. Sometimes I think we forget that much of ecclesiastics is sheer political shrewdness, which in many cases it has to be.

I agree that they shouldn’t do this. I most often run into this problem on this forum the other way round: people say that “true Islam” is violent, etc., and good people who are Muslims are being “bad Muslims” for not following the evil teachings of their religion. Clearly we as non-Muslims have no right to talk that way. But it doesn’t follow that we can do it the other way round, though of course that way is nicer and makes moderate Muslims happy.

We have no basis for calling one version of Islam “truer” as a form of Islam than any other. Of course some versions of Islam may be more similar to the earliest form than others, but that’s irrelevant. First of all, we can’t determine for sure what that earliest form was, and secondly, no religion feels obligated or should feel obligated to regulate itself by what outsiders think about its origins.

We can of course say that some versions of Islam are truer than others in an absolute sense. Thus “authentic” Islam would be the version of Islam closest to the Truth. But I myself would not use that language. It’s arrogant, even when well-meant.


It’s not just that we don’t have the right, it’s that we don’t have the competency or ability. I’m not worried a bit about arrogance, to me it’s more a matter of seemliness–in the sense of being clear–in relations to Muslims. No one but Muslims can determine what is true Islam vis-a-vis “true Islam,” as you say. Islam is also, as you say, essentially wrong; there are threads of Islam which are truer in an absolute sense, which we might call “authentic” if we mean it in a limited sense meaning what it really means, but there is not really an “authentic” Islam in an absolute sense, just more and less authentic threads of it in an absolute sense. But that issue is separate.

For someone to insist that there is a true from of Islam on its own terms is to recognize that Islam is the truth, which, of course, it is not.

Well said. Your attitude is very refreshing.

The problem, though, is that most of the people on this forum, and heck, most of the people in the world don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to sit down and exegete Qur’anic texts or to examine if the accusations they make have any truth in them. You’ll never see me calling catholics the same names they call me and my brethren, though.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit