The Vatican, Christianity and Islam

The Vatican, Christianity and Islam

I feel lucky to have visited the Italian capital, one of the world’s most spectacular cities, about half-a-dozen times. Yet until the other day, I had never had the chance to see the Vatican Museum, which turned out to be a gem as amazing as Rome itself. 

Besides the breathtaking aesthetics, though, I noticed something else in the museum that gave me some food for thought: Openness. First, I noted, the Vatican is open to visitors from all faiths and persuasions. Muslims can freely walk in, along with atheists, Jews, Hindus or whomever. Secondly, the Vatican Museum is open to non-Christian traditions as well, in the sense that it has countless numbers of pagan statues dating from the pre-Christian Romans and Greeks. 

I well know that Christianity, particularly Catholicism, has in fact not been a very open religion for most of its millennia-old history, as the “heretics” or “witches” who were burnt at the stake well knew.
Moreover, there are still important liberal criticisms against the church, on issues such as gender equality and birth control. 

Yet still, the openness I saw at the Vatican led me, a Muslim believer, to some comparative thoughts. Unlike the Vatican, the holiest center of Catholicism, the three holiest sites of Islam (Mecca, Medina and the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) are closed to non-Muslims – so that you have to prove that you are a Muslim in order to enter these spaces. Moreover, I also cannot imagine a museum at these sacred sites, or any other Islamic shrines, which can host elements of non-Islamic cultures, especially pre-Islamic ones superseded by the Muslim faith. 

These are perhaps shallow contrasts. But other facts seem to consolidate what they suggest. Many conservative Muslims, for example, not only refrain from alcohol, but also refuse to enter places that serve alcohol, or ban alcohol in their surroundings. Similar divisions are there regarding the dress code, too. “The Islamic space,” if you will, seems to have very clear boundaries – perhaps a bit like those of Orthodox Judaism. 

So far, I am saying these as objective observations, not as a call for reform for opening the doors of the Islamic space. I simply don’t have the slightest religious authority to issue a fatwa and change Islamic verdicts. But I know that not all such verdicts come directly from the Quran. I also know that, about a thousand years ago, Muslim culture was much open than Christian culture, and that had made the Muslim world much more dynamic and creative than Christendom. 

In today’s super-dynamic and super-creative world, behind which we are already lagging, there is a risk for us, Muslims, if we go toward the other direction: The strict boundaries that supposedly protect our faith could turn into an obstacle to sharing it. If non-Muslims are unwelcome in the Islamic space, and if Muslims feel too alien outside of their boundaries, how can Islam (which, unlike Judaism, is a universalistic religion) reach out to world? 

Perhaps there is a hint in our own history: It is not an accident that the most successful evangelists of Islam have been the Sufis – the mystics who cared less about the law and more about the heart. Since they did not obsess about the purity of practice, they allowed syncretic movements that appealed to diverse communities. Since they found God in every place, in other words, they did not keep Islam in a closed space. Like Rumi, they rather said, “come, come, come, whoever you are.”