111 Questions on Islam and the West. By Samir Khalil SAMIR, SJ. A series of interviews conducted by Giorgio Paolucci and Camille Eid. Edited and Revised by Fr. Wafik NASRY, SJ. Co-translator: Claudia Castellani. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008.
The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Afghan conflict, waves of migration and the presence of twelve million Muslims in the European Union have contributed to a growing interest in Islam, its culture and its followers. They awaken old and new questions about religious, cultural and political realities that 1.2 million people consider themselves to be a part of their lives.
Samir was born in Cairo Egypt on January 10, 1938. He is an Egyptian Jesuit priest, Islamic scholar, Semitologist, Orientalist, Syriacist and Catholic Theologian. Currently based in Lebanon at the Université Saint Joseph, he is a regular visiting professor of several academic institutions in Europe, the United States and the Middle East. His main interests are the Christian Orient, Islam and the integration of Muslims in Europe, as well as relations between Christians and Muslims.
The book goes far beyond basic introductions to the issues facing the world of Islam today (diversity), growing desire for human rights and participation in the political process (democracy) and the rapidity of change in all cultures throughout the world (modernity). These issues are faced by the entire world and each person who is alive whether they are believers or not. Father Samir is not only a recognized expert in his field and the founder of CEDRAC, a research center at St. Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon; he is an advisor to church leaders and politicians in Europe and the Near East, a counselor at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Washington, DC. He has taught priests about Islam and imams about Christianity.
If the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, the knowledge and breadth of Samir’s grasp of Islam and its relationship to Christianity and the geopolitical world is evident in his study of key areas of tension between Islam and the world today.
The author groups the first series of questions (1-17) around the foundations of Islam and the person of Muhammed (570-632), the revelations (sura) eventually incorporated into the official text the Qur’an about twenty years after Muhammed’s death and the Five Pillars of Islam (Faith in One God, Fasting and Almsgiving, Prayer five times a day, and the Pilgrimage to Mecca. )
Can Islam Change? is the second group of questions (18-35) that Samir answers concerning the unity, plurality, authority of Islam and questions like jihad (struggle—Spiritual struggle or holy war?) and tradition/modernity.
The third group of questions (36-65) examine the Shari’a (law) and human rights, the condition of women, religious freedom and apostasy and provocation/reciprocity. Group four: questions (66-91) entitled Islam Among Us looks into the political dimensions of Islam and such issues as European Islam or Islamized Europe, minarets in Italy, Request for Recognition, is a mosque a church?
Section five studies Islam and Christianity (q. 92-111) and issues such as Islam and other religions, Jesus and Muhammed: two prophets? no to masquerade, yes to the search for truth.
While I have not read extensively about Islam, I have read more than most priests or ecumenists and participated in dialogues, friendships and meetings with friends who are Muslims. I am surprised this book has not been given a wider audience. While some have pointed to Samir’s critic of Islam, I have found it even-handed and irenical. He is really trying to bring East and West together. He has dedicated his priesthood and a great deal of his life to being a complete scholar and dedicated bridge between the Middle East that he knows so well and from within and Christians from other parts of the world.
Samir gives a clear and accurate exposition of the basic beliefs of Islam and the differences that exist among various interpreters. He shows how it was possible until the twelfth century to have a greater diversity among Muslims than exists today. He also shows how clearly, as in other faiths, other issues such as politics and economics enter into the picture when the discussion about religion and culture, human rights and participation in the political process comes into play.
This work originally appeared in Italian in 2002. Its availability in English is very much appreciated and we hope other translations will continue to be made.