Whether it’s same-sex marriage, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, deradicalisation programs or Islamic State (IS), academics and commentators have found a need to engage with religion. Some do so with an ease built from familiarity, others less smoothly.
The problems begin with a common view that those who study religion do so based upon faith requiring belief rather than scholarship. This misguided view encourages commentators who would otherwise hesitate to reach beyond their areas of expertise to weigh in on religion.
Yet the approaches used for the study of texts such as the Quran or Bible are no less rigorous than those employed in other legal and literary fields. Similar methodologies from anthropology, sociology and the political sciences are adapted to undertake research on religion.
But the allure to ignore this complexity appears too strong for some who borrow a few verses from the Quran to argue that Islam is a religion of peace or, vice versa, point to other verses suggesting it to be a religion of war. Others, upon hearing Pope Francis’ teachings on the environment, demand Catholic politicians’ adherence yet ignore the more authoritative teachings on abortion or same-sex marriage.
Left to the private sphere, as a spiritual belief, such mistakes would be the burden of the individual and the business of an imam or priest. But when public policy is being shaped it is incumbent upon public figures to be better versed. The below list responds to common mistakes that emerge when discussing Catholicism and Islam.
1) Quoting scripture in an effort to reinforce your argument. Scripture stands alongside Catholic Tradition as the means of transmission of the revealed truth – the latter is the Church Fathers, conciliar teaching or those rare instances when the pope speaks from the Chair of St Peter.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II promulgated the document Fidei Depositum, within which can be found the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This eight-year effort consolidated the church’s teachings from throughout the centuries.
If you choose to reference the Bible in suggesting that the church must adopt a particular path, then cross-check with the catechism that your interpretation of the verses is aligned with the church’s.
2) Referencing a pope’s encyclical as dogma for all Catholics. An encyclical is a teaching document written by the pope; it is not dogma. Suggesting that a political leader must adhere to the encyclical’s teaching is wrong.
Pope Benedict described his encyclical as offering “fundamental guidelines”, while the catechism suggests such teachings as being a source of “principles for reflection” or “criteria for judgement”.
3) Quoting the Old Testament as a reference for Catholic dogma. While the Old Testament has never been revoked, it is seen as “imperfect and provisional”. As such, it should be considered as only one part of the scriptures. This is reinforced by the saying:
The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.
Any desire to reference the Old Testament needs to be considered against the teaching of the New Testament as well as tradition.
4) Generalisations. There is a wide diversity of opinion in all religions. This makes the name of any religion such as Islam an umbrella term that covers multiple differences within it. This has led some scholars to use the term Islams instead of Islam.
Within Islam, the majority of believers adhere to various schools of Islamic jurisprudence and theology in addition to a variety of other religious traditions that acknowledge the evolution of thought in the understanding of Islam. A minority, the Salafists – including jihadi Salafists such as al-Qaeda, IS, Boko Haram and Abu Sayyaf – focus upon returning to the seventh century, ignoring centuries of scholarship and applying a literalist interpretation of scriptures.
It is not just the use of violence, but even the most basic tenets of the faith that are subjected to critique and different understandings by the various schools of thought in Islam. So, to make any sense, we need to first specify which Islam we are talking about before commenting on it.
5) Reading the text outside of the context. Islam’s holy text, the Quran, appeared in a certain historical and cultural context. It was compiled into a single text under the third Caliph, Othman, years after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad.
Subsequently, a variety of interpretations emerged and developed through the history of Islamic thought. Accordingly, understanding this text requires expertise in the field of linguistics, history, mythology, semiology and other disciplines.
The common mistake of both anti-religious groups and religious fundamentalists is simplifying the understanding of any holy text by separating the text from the wider discourse and ignoring the context.
6) Confusing ideology with religion. Religion is not necessarily an ideology. It can merely be a spiritual experience or a series of moral commitments based on a particular metaphysical view.
Much of the critical commentary against Islam is related to an adopted dogmatic ideology rather than anything spiritual. Human rights violations, discrimination, massacres and genocides are not unique to religious ideologues. Communism, fascism and even liberalism and capitalism have been known for inspiring actions against humanity.
Sufism, as a spiritual and mystical dimension of Islam that is widespread in the Muslim world, is largely devoid of any association with extremism and religious violence. While Islam does inspire some ideologies of violence, it also inspires ideologies of peace.
7) Talking in a vacuum. Any study or judgement about religion must be applied through a body that has agency. We cannot attribute a particular characteristic, whether positive or negative, to religion as religion does not have the ability to act. It is people that act in its name. This is especially true in Islam, as it is not an institutionalised religion.
There is no priestly system in Islam, which means no institute or organisation has the right to talk on behalf of Islam unless a group of believers come together and delegate such authority on their behalf. In such cases, it is the voice of that group of people only.
For commentators, it is therefore important to first pick a specific school or particular group within Islam, name them, and then critique their views.
Abiding by these basic pointers will, we hope, ensure that the quality of the discourse on religion improves and in turn leads to better policy.