Pope Francis’ Encyclical and Solidarity with Muslims

By: David Hollenbach

October 14, 2020

Responding to: Fratelli Tutti and the Future of the Catholic Church

Pope Francis’ Encyclical and Solidarity with Muslims

One of the most remarkable statements in Pope Francis’ new encyclical Fratelli Tutti is the pope’s explanation of why he decided to write it. Francis states that the encyclical’s central themes of fraternity and social friendship have long been of concern to him. But near the beginning of the encyclical, the pope declares that his conviction about the high importance of these themes was encouraged by his interaction with the grand imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb (no. 5). Islam does not have a leader with a role just like that of the pope, but the grand imam of Al-Azhar is the most authoritative voice of Sunni Islam. The collaboration of the pope and the grand imam is, therefore, significant. Indeed, when the pope states that his encyclical was significantly influenced by a major leader of Islamic thought, this may be a breakthrough in both Catholic thought and in interreligious relationships. To my knowledge, no pope has ever before stated that a very important papal teaching has been directly influenced by a religious leader who is not a Christian. Francis’ reference to the influence of the grand imam may bring significant advance in Christian-Muslim relations in the long term.

Francis’ reference to the influence of the grand imam may bring significant advance in Christian-Muslim relations in the long term.

The pope’s stress on that fact that he has learned much about Christian-Muslim solidarity through his interactions with the grand imam is repeated elsewhere in the encyclical. He refers to the imam’s influence four more times in the document (nos. 29, 136, 192, and 285). Indeed, the encyclical’s conclusion is a rhetorically powerful series of quotations from the “Document on Human Fraternity” issued jointly by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Al-Tayyeb when they met in Abu Dhabi in February 2019. Drawing on this joint statement, Francis proclaims that efforts to overcome the world’s conflicts should follow the path dialogue, adopt a code of mutual cooperation, and follow a method of reciprocal understanding (no. 285). If the world’s religious communities were to follow this path, they would be living in fidelity to their own deep beliefs and simultaneously contributing to the peace and justice the world urgently needs.

The importance of Francis’ interaction with the grand imam in the development of the encyclical was also evident in the grand imam’s response to it. The imam declared that “My brother Pope Francis” highlights how “the vulnerable and marginalized pay the price for unstable positions and decisions” and “restores conscience to humanity.” The positive response of the Islamic leadership was also event from the fact that Dr. Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salem, an advisor to the grand imam, was one of the five people who presented the encyclical to the public and the press at the Vatican on October 4. Dr. Abdel Salem made his presentation side by side with the second highest ranking official of the Holy See, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. In an interview following the presentation, Dr. Abdel Salem observed that “The friendship between El Baba [Arabic for “the Pope”] and the Grand Imam is something exceptional, something that has not happened in modern history. It’s a chance to get their two religions closer, to bring the followers of their religions closer.” 

It would not be unwarranted, therefore, to see the development of the encyclical as a potentially transformative development in Christian-Muslim relationships and in larger interreligious efforts as well. Pope Francis’ dialogue with the grand imam exemplifies in action the encyclical’s central theme of solidarity and interreligious collaboration. Francis not only talks the talk about the importance of “fraternity and social friendship,” he walks the walk by actively pursuing these values though collaboration with Muslim leaders. 

The encyclical is a sign of hope that mutual understanding between great religious traditions is possible despite the violent divisions between faith communities we witness too frequently. Just as the pope and the grand imam have achieved a shared commitment to the common humanity of all people, the encyclical calls on Christians and indeed on all people to work for solidarity across the conflicts dividing today’s world, including religious conflicts.

The fact that Francis sees the pursuit of such interreligious cooperation as a Christian duty is evident in two of the document’s central religious reflections. Drawing on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the pope insists that the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves means not only loving those who are close to us in our family, ethnic group, or nation. It means loving strangers, especially when they are suffering. Just as the Samaritan reached across the religious and ethnic boundaries that separated him from a Jew wounded by the roadside, Christians and indeed all people are called to become neighbors to those who have been harmed. Francis sees Jesus’ parable as “highly provocative,” for it challenges us to “expand our frontiers” and to put love into action across both religious and national barriers (nos. 83-85). 

Just as the Samaritan reached across the religious and ethnic boundaries that separated him from a Jew wounded by the roadside, Christians and indeed all people are called to become neighbors to those who have been harmed.​

The pope also calls upon an event in the life of the man whose name he has taken, St. Francis of Assisi, to call for solidarity and friendship across the religious borders between Christians and Muslims. At the start of the encyclical, the pope recalls how St. Francis of Assisi, during a visit to Egypt in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, met with the Muslim sultan, Malik al-Kamil. Though Francis initially wanted to convert the sultan to Christianity, he came to see that Christian love called him put aside all differences. He discovered that fidelity to his identity as a follower of Christ called him “to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake,” including to “Saracens and unbelievers” (no. 3, quoting Francis of Assisi). Eight hundred years later, Pope Francis calls on this event in the life of his namesake to call Christians today to recognize that bonds of solidarity and friendship should link them to Muslims and to those from other traditions as well.

Pope Francis draws upon these reflections on the possibility of Christian-Muslim solidarity to address a wide range of the conflicts and injustices that mar the globe today. These include the rising nationalism that risks bringing war in its wake, the increasing economic inequality that victimizes the poorest, the forcible displacement of almost 80 million people by war and other crises, the environmental threats brought by global warming, and the inadequate national and global responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of these crises, the borders between people and groups are inadequate markers of the scope of our responsibility. Francis suggests how a new, transformative collaboration between Christians and Muslims might set a model of other forms of interreligious partnership. And the encyclical argues that such interreligious collaboration can be a model for wider forms of global cooperation needed today. 

The encyclical, of course, is not without flaws. Its most serious limitation is the title, Fratelli Tutti—All Brothers. The gender-exclusive quality of this phrase assures that a different title would have been adopted if the pope’s dialogue with women during document’s drafting were as close as his engagement with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. Nevertheless, one can hope that what Francis is doing on Christian-Muslim solidarity will not be overshadowed by the inadequacy of the title. 

Pope Francis recognizes that we live under dark clouds in a world where the borders between nations and between faiths are often sources of conflict. His encouragement of positive relations between Christianity and Islam is surely needed in a time when France has banned Muslim girls from wearing the hijab in school, and when President Trump has outlawed migration to the United States from a number of Muslim-majority countries. The pope’s interaction with the grand imam of Al-Azhar and the model of Francis of Assisi’s interaction with Sultan Malik al-Kamil are signs of hope. They show how commitment to one’s own tradition and faith can lead to respect for people who are different, provided tradition and faith are interpreted rightly. We can be grateful to Pope Francis for showing us that Christianity can help move us toward the solidarity and peace we long for.

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