The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch

The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch
(Dr. David Pinault, August 7, 2020)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

David Pinault received his B.A. in French literature from Georgetown University and his M.A.and Ph.D in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include comparative Christology and the status of Christian populations in Muslim-majority societies. Among the countries in which he has done fieldwork are Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia. A recipient of Santa Clara University’s Public Intellectual Award and the Brutocao Award for Teaching Excellence, he has served since 2007 as director of SCU’s interdisciplinary program in Arabic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies (AIMES). He is also involved in wildlife rescue and animal trafficking issues in Southeast Asia and is a member of the advisory board of ProFauna Indonesia.

About the book

His 2018 book The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch: A Christian’s Companion for the Study of Islam has an unusual perspective. It argues that a critically minded examination of Islam can help Christians achieve a deeper appreciation of the unique truths of their own faith. It draws on the author’s personal experiences living in Islamic countries and his fieldwork with persecuted Christian-minority communities, especially in Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, and Indonesia. It includes the author’s own original translations of Islamic texts in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, as well as primary-source materials in Latin that were written by Christian participants in the Crusades.

The author focuses on Muslim interactions with the Christian tradition. He examines and takes issue with the misguided approach of Christians like Hans Küng and Muslims like Mustafa Akyol, who in the interests of Christian-Muslim rapprochement, minimize theological differences between the two faiths, especially in the area of Christology. Such attempts at rapprochement, he writes, do a profound disservice to both religions.

Illustrating the Muslim view of Christ with Islamic polemical texts from the eleventh to the twenty-first centuries, the author draws on Hans Urs von Balthasar, and other theologians of kenotic Christology, to show how Islamic condemnations of divine “weakness” and “neediness” can deepen our appreciation of what is most uniquely Christian in our vision of Jesus, as God-made-man, who voluntarily experiences weakness, suffering, and death in solidarity with all human beings.

A book that is both timely and urgently needed, The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch invites readers to reflect on the stark differences between Christianity and Islam and come to a fresh appreciation of the Christian faith.

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Robert R. Reilly:


Welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director, and this is another of our continuing series of Zoom lectures during this peculiar time through which we are all living. I am particularly delighted today to welcome Dr. David Pinault, who is a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, where for twelve years he served as founding director of Santa Clara’s program in Arabic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies. Among the countries in which he has done field research are Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, and Indonesia.

Interestingly, he has also served as a volunteer at Wildlife Rescue Centers throughout Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. Dr. Pinault received his MA and PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. In his new book he focuses on Muslim interactions with the Christian tradition. Much of what is in this new book includes precious material that has not appeared before.

Dr. Pinault has translated from original sources in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, as well as primary source materials in Latin. I can only say that his explication of Qur’anic and biblical texts is all the more illuminating because of his linguistic mastery. His publications include the intriguingly titled Notes from the Fortune-telling Parrot: Islam and the Struggle for Religious Pluralism in Pakistan and The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community, as well as the novel Museum of Seraphs in Torment. Dr. Pinault will discuss with us his new book, The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch: A Christian’s Companion for the Study of Islam. David?

David Pinault:

What is Mecca’s front porch?

Thanks, Bob, very much for this introduction and also for the great honor of being able to be a speaker in your Westminster Institute series. I will begin by addressing a question that I am often asked by people who hear about the book, and one of the first things they say is so what is this about Mecca’s front porch? What is that anyways?

So let me reply by pointing out that that is my translation of a phrase from the Indonesian language, Serambi Mekkah, Mecca’s front porch, which actually is a geographic designation. What it refers to is the province of Aceh in the northwest tip of the island of Sumatra, which is one of the thousands of islands that make up the archipelago nation of Indonesia, which stretches some three thousand miles west to east along the equator.


Now, Aceh is that point in this Southeast Asian nation that lies geographically closest to the Arabian peninsula and the holy city of Mecca, and many listeners may already be aware of the fact that all Muslims are required if they can to make the pilgrimage at least once to the city of Mecca.

For centuries Aceh has served as the embarkation point for Muslims sailing from Southeast Asia to the Arabian peninsula, so it has been known, and has prided itself on that religious importance. The Acehnese, the inhabitants of Aceh, which has been overwhelmingly Muslim for many centuries, pride themselves on their devoutness, on their devotion to Islam.

Christians Under Sharia

In light of that, perhaps it is not surprising that out of all of the provinces of Indonesia, Aceh is the only one that has Sharia, Islamic law, as the law of the land. And I should note that the provisions of Sharia, including its most violent and brutal applications, also apply to its non-Muslim residents, that is the Christians and Buddhists who live in Aceh are also subject to Sharia. When I found out about that, I decided that I wanted to go there to Aceh to see how the non-Muslims, especially the Christians, in Aceh survive under Sharia.

When I was there, I had the opportunity to make contact with the local underground Christian community. And I recall distinctly one Sunday morning attending mass in an old, Dutch-era Catholic church from the colonial period, and I was standing in one of the pews and watching at the beginning of mass as the procession came up the central aisle towards the altar. There was the priest, server, holding the gospel, acolytes bearing candles, altar boys with the incense, but leading them all was a young girl, holding aloft a bronze crucifix. And when I saw that, how she was there, carrying the bronze body of Christ under those circumstances, lovingly, but defiantly, making the Christian presence known, I said to myself, “Yes, the ‘crucifix on Mecca’s front porch’, that would make a good title for the book.”

Hunger for the Transcendent

And I have also been asked questions about how did the book come about in general, which is sort of also a question asking about how does someone who is Catholic get involved with Islam? And there are there are many possible answers to that, but I would say that part of what my interest as a Catholic in this field involves is a lifelong fascination with archaeology, with history, with comparative religion, and also with what I would call a hunger for the transcendent.

And that hunger for the transcendent is something that I have found in all the cultures and all the religions that I have studied throughout the world. And I should mention that for myself personally, this interest in exploring the transcendent has manifested itself for me in both the non-fiction I have written and in the fiction as well, which gives me a chance to refer to, again, the novel that you referred to, Bob, and that is this novel right here, Museum of Seraphs and Torment. In it what I do is I make use of places that I have studied and worked in from my field research.

So the novel starts off at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and then the heroes make their way to the central highlands of Yemen, then back to the states to the Oriental Institute in Chicago, and then over to the deserts of the American southwest. And in fact, one of the inspirations for the novel (I cannot resist mentioning this) has to do with my colleague here, my research associate right here, and you will see if you read the novel that there are actually a couple of canine characters, who are inspired by this little creature right here, okay, so thank you, good.

Textual Work, Field Research, and Teaching

But back to the main feature today and that is the crucifix on Mecca’s front porch. And I want to mention that this book is the product you can say of three convergent elements. The first has to do with my textual work, and Bob referred to that already, that I have worked over the years with various primary sources that I have translated myself from Arabic, Persian, Urdu, also some Indonesian, and Latin material for the chapters having to do with the crusades. Additionally, what the book draws on is my field research in various countries, and I will talk about that in just a few minutes.

And the third element that converges in this book has to do with my teaching over many years courses on Islam that I have offered here in the United States, teaching on the east coast, in the Midwest, and also in California, and then in addition, occasional lectures that I have given public presentations in settings that range from Egypt to South Asia to places like Pakistan. Giving such lectures in public, as a tourist brochure would say, must be experienced to be appreciated. Quite high pressure makes the undergraduate teaching stateside seem very easy.

Field Trips to Mosques

Now, here is the thing with regard to my teaching students here in the United States, I am very aware of the fact that here I am, a Catholic Christian, teaching courses on Islam, so I am aware that the students are getting a very specific, non-Muslim perspective. So I make a point, of course, of having students read primary sources written by Muslims, but also every quarter I have made a habit of taking the students on field trips to local Islamic places of worship to mosques. And I make arrangements with the congregation leaders in advance and they are happy to have us come visit. In the course of any one quarter we go on several trips, so that they will be exposed to the Sunni denomination, to the Shia, Sufi mysticism, and sometimes even the Ahmadiyya, one of the more controversial minority sects in Islam now.

But there is a particular challenge that I have encountered in doing this over the years and that is this: even though I am very careful to explain to our Muslim hosts that this is an academic enterprise, that this is meant to be a scholarly, informational enterprise to acquaint the students with Muslim viewpoints, nonetheless, understandably perhaps, our Muslim hosts see this as an ideal opportunity to proselytize, to try to get the students to embrace Islam.

And because of the fact that they are aware that the majority of my students come from at least nominally Christian backgrounds, when we visit the mosques, our hosts will tend to try to minimize the differences between Islam and Christianity in a process as a well-known technique called taqrib, which literally means bringing closer together or rapprochement. And they do this, of course, with the idea of making it easier as they say for students to embrace the Islamic faith.

Taqrib and Christ

And they will often use as part of this taqrib a focus on the figure of Jesus Christ, so our Muslim hosts will point out, for example, that the Qur’an mentions Jesus almost one hundred times. Okay, almost one hundred times that the Qur’an mentions Jesus. They will point out that in the Qur’an, Jesus is revered as a holy man who is the son of the blessed Virgin Mary. They will point out that Jesus is referred to as a miracle worker in the Qur’an, who healed the sick and raised people from the dead. All of that is accurate as far as it goes even though the references tend to be very, very brief, but what these Muslim evangelists, what these Muslim missionaries omit, however, are the radical and vital differences between the two faiths with regard to Jesus Christ.

So one of the things that I set out to do in my book is to highlight these differences, these distinctions. And I do so because first of all, I believe that this taqrib, this business of rapprochement or diminishing the differences, does a disservice to both faiths because I view the distinctions as essential to the Christian faith that I value and love.

Now, it is important in this context to note the following concerning Islamic belief. First, Islam denies that Jesus is divine or the son of Bod. Islam denies that he is the member of any trinity. The Qur’an says do not call God three. And Islam denies that Jesus was crucified, and hence it also denies that Jesus rose from the dead, hence there is no Easter Sunday and no doctrine for the forgiveness of sins associated with any crucifixion or resurrection. And strangely, the Qur’an never describes Jesus as suffering or experiencing human anguish or sorrow.

Now I will let you in on something here that I have noticed in my own research over the centuries. Many educated Muslims, religious authorities, imams, authors of polemical works (by polemical I mean simply works that are written for the point for the purpose of attacking the views of one’s opponents) so scholars, polemicists, they have shown themselves often to be fully aware of the Bible as well as the Qur’an and fully aware of these radical differences between the Qur’an and the Bible with regard to Jesus Christ.

Now mind you Muslims in general are discouraged from touching or reading the Bible with one exception to prove that Jews and Christians are wrong in their beliefs. In my book I quote a present-day Muslim polemicist who states, “Remember it is no sin in Islam to examine the bible if the intention is to glean arguments to show non-Muslims where they are wrong.” In fact, there is a tradition stretching back many centuries of Muslim proselytizers and scholars reading and citing the bible to show how foolish and ridiculous christian beliefs supposedly are especially with regard to Jesus Christ let me give you just a few examples that I cite in my crucifix book there is an 11th century Iranian theologian named Abdul malik juani who quotes new testament passages showing Jesus in his passion being mocked insulted and ultimately crucified between two thieves while as juwani sarcastically knows Christ could do nothing about it joanie then says these claims by the christian evangelists diminish Christ’s rank and power and make one imagine that Christ was incapable of accomplishing any miracles at all close quote you can find similar arguments in other medieval Muslim theologians such as and Ahmed who likewise quote from the four christian gospels to make fun of the idea that Christ could possibly have been divine or the son of god Ghazali points to the portrait of Christ he finds in the christian gospels that is so different from what you have in the Qur’an and Ghazali notes disapprovingly what he calls quote the existence of a human nature in Christ susceptible to lower appetites fatigue exhaustion and weakness hunger thirst and the need for sleep and suffering according to what the Christians say on a cross all these things says ali refute the notion of godhood close quote now in addition to these medieval Arabic texts that I translate in the crucifix book I have also discovered in my research among Arabic texts that attacks on the christian vision of Christ have continued right up to today among 21st century Muslim authors. Let me give you a couple of quick examples. There is a book published in Egypt a few years ago by a Muslim named Muhammad Mahmoud and he quotes the gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke describing Jesus’s agony in the garden you will recall that on the night before the crucifixion Jesus goes out to the garden of gethsemane with some of his disciples now the disciples are tired they are exhausted they conk out they fall asleep so Christ is there basically praying on his own and you may recall that in his prayer Christ says father if it be your will let this cup pass well here is how Muhammad assayed describes this moment quote Jesus clearly and explicitly expressed his anguish fear terror and lack of satisfaction at the prospect of being crucified or killed pleading that he not die on the cross close quote all of this in Isaiah’s mind showing that Jesus could not possibly have been divine now of course a christian might say in reply yes of course Jesus did in fact feel fear at the prospect of a violent death just as any human would but in his prayer in the garden Jesus also prayed not my will but your will be done in obedience to his father’s will we will come back later to this christian belief in the fully human as well as divine nature of Christ and I will provide you one more example here of something I explore in my book, a text by another 21st century Muslim author. This one named who cites the gospel passages concerning Christ on the cross where Christ says I thirst I am thirsty and he has given something to drink before he dies this is how the Muslim author sha’aban attacks this gospel portrait quote how could someone who had had the patience and endurance to master thirst and hunger for forty days and forty nights in the desert wilderness then turn around and show neediness and expose himself to his enemies as an object of humiliation and contempt on account of merely one day’s thirst this is something not even the lowest and least significant person would ever do how could such a thing be done by someone who is one of the elite prophets or someone who as Christians claim is the divine lord himself close quote this kind of talk to me shows a misplaced preoccupation with issues of reputation social standing and competitive hierarchy rankings very much at odds I would say with what Christ himself emphasized in his own teachings to my mind such polemical passages by Muslim authors show not only a persistent misunderstanding of the christian gospel message but also the radical differences between Islam and Christianity in their understanding of Jesus and what it meant for Jesus to be fully human now in my book I explore why I think it was that the Islamic prophet Muhammad denied key doctrines of Christianity concerning the fully divine and fully human natures of Jesus to understand this it is important to know that Muhammad viewed Jesus as a fellow Muslim and fellow prophet preaching the word of Allah Islam is a religion of triumph in this world as well as the afterlife you see unlike Jesus Muhammad never said my kingdom is not of this world Muhammad looked at Jesus through the mirror lens of Muhammad’s own triumphant political life of conflict and conquest since Muhammad was victorious in his own lifetime and crushed his political and religious enemies Muhammad lee apparently could not accept the idea of Jesus as a political loser suffering the humiliating death of a criminal undergoing capital punishment on the cross thus for example the Qur’an has Allah state deliver our prophets and those who believe both during life in this world and on judgment day in fact if you want to understand how Muhammad himself viewed the idea of crucifixion, you should note that the Qur’an recommends and mandates crucifixion as a punishment for those accused of, “Waging war against Allah.”

Another factor to note here is that from the Islamic point of view, worldly defeat for Allah’s messengers would mean defeat for Allah himself, but Islam emphasizes god’s worldly power far more than the Christian gospels do. Now, the Qur’an does describe Allah as gracious and merciful that is true but it also gives Allah the following names the avenger the conqueror the one who is harsh in punishment the one who is quick to punish the one who has no need of us the one who is free of all needs so two key differences between Islam and Christianity emerge here for us I think one in Christianity we believe in a god who is willing to become vulnerable and expose himself to the risks of the human condition he undergoes this vulnerability through the incarnation when the son of god because of his intense love for us voluntarily takes on human flesh and enters our world and becomes part of our human condition with all of its joys and terrors two in Christianity we also believe that Jesus Christ this god-made man fully experiences our human condition to the point of actual suffering and he loves us so much that he freely exposes himself to death on the cross and the humiliation of apparent defeat in the eyes of the world out of solidarity with us in our created existence this willingness to suffer and be in solidarity with us was a characteristic of Christ even before his incarnation that is why the bible describes Jesus as the lamb that was slain even before the foundations of the world thus the Jesus of the christian gospels experiences the human condition in full he knows what it is like to undergo temptation and feel weakness he knows what it is like to get thirsty and feel tired from journeying on foot all day under a scorching sun he knows what it is like to feel so sad at the death of a friend that he cries and sheds tears so that witnesses nearby say see how he loved him.

Now that I have pointed out some of these important differences between Christianity and Islam with regard to Jesus you might ask okay why do these differences matter well for me they matter first of all because I see the death of Christ on the cross as a gift of love that offers us the path of salvation but second the christian emphasis on Christ’s authentic suffering is a comfort and a source of strength for me personally whatever hardships I go through in life I know that Christ has been there before me as a pioneer in suffering so stretched out upright and exposed on the blood-stained horizon of our life we can know that we are not alone in our individual afflictions like Saint Paul we can say I have been crucified alongside Christ and like dismissed the good thief instead of focusing on my own sorrows and my own grievances and irritations I can look over at the man nailed right beside me on that good Friday hill and say lord remember me when you enter your kingdom like dismiss and like Paul I can know I am not alone in what I go through in life Christ as a source of strength I have been reminded of this reality every time I have worked overseas with persecuted christian communities in various Muslim majority countries Egypt is one of those countries that I describe in my book now Egypt is a place I first became acquainted with back in the early 1980s when I was studying Arabic as a graduate student. Every Friday I would attend Coptic worship services in Muslima old Cairo, the ancient Christian neighborhood in Egypt’s capital city. Coptic is the designation for Egypt’s indigenous Christian population. It comes from the word Aegyptus or Egypt and from a hieroglyphic word before that you see Egypt has the largest surviving minority population of christians in the near east but as in other Islamic countries Egypt’s Christians are under pressure by Islamist militants who use violence and intimidation to try to force the cops either to convert to Islam or to flee their country but Coptic Christians justifiably regard themselves as those Egyptians with the deepest ancestral history they trace their language and their ancestral roots right back to the original Pharaonic inhabitants of the Nile Valley over four thousand years ago while they point out that the Arab people and the Islamic faith are relatively recent imports which arrived a mere 14 centuries ago in the 7th century a.d right now Egypt’s Coptic Christians are catching it on two fronts from Islamic state terrorists funded by overseas sources who plant bombs in their churches and from Egyptian Muslims sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood who are furious at Egyptian.

You may remember that in 2013 Sisi ousted Muhammad Morsi, who had been sympathetic to the Brotherhood. Many Egyptian Islamists take out their frustration with Sisi on the Copts, claiming that Sisi favors and gives special protections to Egypt’s Christian minority, so throughout Egypt Islamists harass the Copts, beat them, and attack their places of Christian worship. Copts that I have interviewed tell me that they are taunted with cries to the effect of, ‘Get out. Egypt is reserved for Muslims now,” but the nation’s Christians draw strength from a long tradition of martyrdom. They have told me ancient stories, which I mentioned in the book, ancient stories of Egyptian Christians killed for their faith; the Theban legion, Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara of Heliopolis. As one Coptic informant told me, “We are ready to be martyrs. We are ready to be with Christ, to live with Christ,” and as another Coptic Christian told me, “We have been here forever. We are true Egyptians. We belong here.”


Now, another country discussed in my book is Yemen located in the heart of the Arabian peninsula Yemen is the Arab world’s most impoverished nation and one of the most conservative. When I worked there, I was struck by how precarious the situation is for Christians in Sana’a, the capital, where I was based. No churches are allowed. I met secretly for prayer services with the local house church community.

Now, extreme care has to be taken at these gatherings. Christian missionary work is outlawed. Muslims who convert to Christianity are subject to Sharia legislation that stipulates the death penalty for apostates, for those who leave their Islamic faith. What I found was that such punishment for apostates seldom reaches the law courts in a tribal-oriented society like Yemen, where personal faith and individual identity are subordinate to and intertwined with family. The father and brothers and uncles of any would-be convert are swift to punish any attempt to leave Islam or the family. All this is made worse these days with Yemen’s ongoing civil war. A persecution watchdog group called Open Doors USA notes that relief supplies in Yemen are locally-distributed by mosques and anyone judged to be a religious misfit will be refused aid of any kind.

Islamic Defenders Front in Indonesia

Now with regard to Indonesia, I have already mentioned my experience with Christians in Aceh, elsewhere in Indonesia, on the island of Java. I have had several close-up encounters with an organization I regard as the single greatest threat to the nation’s long-standing tradition of pluralism and tolerance for religious diversity. I have in mind here a group that calls itself Front Pambela Islam, the Islamic Defenders Front, whose goal is to impose sharia law throughout Indonesia. Its members are notorious for frequent attacks on christian churches and for beating and stabbing local Christians who attempt to gather for prayer.

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

A fourth country where I have worked with local Christians is Pakistan. One of the greatest threats confronting non-Muslim minorities in that country is Ordinance 295 b-c, more commonly known as the blasphemy laws, which mandate life imprisonment for desecrating the Qur’an and the death penalty for dishonoring the prophet Muhammad. And I can assure you that these notions of desecration and dishonoring are interpreted very loosely. In my field research in Pakistan I was startled to discover how enormously popular the blasphemy law is. Now why is that? Well, when I put this question to Muslim informants, they told me hey, the law is necessary to protect Pakistan’s collective, Islamic identity. This was surprising to me given that the country’s population is over 97 percent Muslim, but Pakistani Muslims told me they felt overshadowed by their giant neighbor, India, which is majority Hindu.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law is so popular, in fact, that the nation’s law courts seldom get to punish individuals accused under this law. Just last month an Ahmadi Muslim (who happens to be an American citizen) was charged under the blasphemy law and put on trial in Pakistan. I should note here that the Ahmadis are officially characterized as heretics and kaffir unbelievers in Pakistan, but the trial was never completed. The defendant was shot dead in the courtroom by a Muslim zealot.

Javid Anjum

I also recall the case of someone named Javid Anjum, an 18-year-old Pakistani Catholic who was abducted one day by Muslim students at a madrasa or Muslim seminary in the Punjab in Pakistan. These seminary students tried to force Javed to recite the shahada, the Islamic statement of belief. He refused. He clung to his faith in Christ and they felt he had thereby insulted their religion and their prophet, so they tortured him for five days and he died as a result. When his body was found, the local priest discovered that only a cross and a prayer book were found in his pockets. When he died, the local bishop praised him as, “the youth who was killed for refusing to deny Christ.”

Hearing stories like this brings home the reality of what Saint Paul tells us, “I have been crucified alongside Christ.” There are many more stories I could share from Pakistan, from Indonesia, from various other countries where I have worked. Many of these stories you can find in my book Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch. So I will pause here and turn things back over to Bob Reilly and say thank you very much for listening.


Robert R. Reilly:

David, thank you very much for that talk. Your concentrating on Indonesia brings to mind the largest Muslim organization in the world, which is Indonesian, with which I am sure you are very familiar, Nahdlatul Ulama, that is famous in some instances of sending its members to surround Christian churches which are under threat by the Islamists. Can you give me your assessment of that organization, and are you aware of its efforts to play a larger role in the Muslim world outside of Indonesia in terms of sponsoring the tolerant version of Islam that eschews the kind of religious persecution of which you have been speaking?

David Pinault:

Yes. Thank you for mentioning the Nahdlatul Ulama or the NU [as] it is sometimes referred to as, as an acronym. First of all, they are a long-standing organization which is known for its tolerance, Bob, as you rightly said. And they are certainly a powerful force for moderation. Now, one of the things that I mentioned in the book is that traditionally Indonesia is associated with a greater degree of religious pluralism than you find just about anywhere in the Islamic world. In recent years, some people have described it as sort of the last holdout and the last hope for religious pluralism in the Islamic world.

This has to do with a number of factors. It has to do with the fact that when, well, first of all, that before Islam ever arrived, there was long-standing cultural influence from several historical strata. First, what you could call an early animist substratum, which is still active today, which is linked to what sometimes people refer to as nature worship. I talk about this in the book as well. And then [there was] also influence from waves of immigrants, bringing with them the Hindu and the Buddhist traditions.

When Islam made an appearance in the course of [history], especially the 13th through the 16th centuries, in Indonesia, the type of Islam that was especially congenial to Indonesia was various forms of Sufism, and it was the Sufi form of Islam – listeners may be aware of the fact that Sufism is especially associated with ecstatic forms of the faith and with an emphasis – if someone were to say okay, Sufi mysticism, what do you mean by mysticism? I am talking about that form of religion that has to do with an individual person’s direct, immediate, and personal experience of the divine in this life without having to wait for the afterlife. And so, that Sufi stratum blended quite well with the animist forms of the faith. Okay?

And I think that NU, Nahdlatul Ulama, really has, to its credit, been able to accommodate these various strains of the faith. I think that the one way that you could define the struggle that is going on today within Indonesia is between the moderate forms of Islam, that are represented by groups like the NU, the Nahdlatul Ulama, and the Sufi and even animist influence forms of the faith on the one hand, and what I would call as the opportunistic funding that is being provided from outside to groups like the Front Pembela Islam, the Islamic Defenders Front, that I mentioned.

I encountered individuals, [and] I described this in my book. I encountered Islamist individuals who are preaching a Salafist/Wahhabi, Saudi-influenced form of the faith, which is extraordinarily intolerant and tone deaf to the kinds of Islam that have allowed Indonesia to flourish. And a lot of Saudi money has come into the country. Who is going to win? It is too soon to say, but I do think that the NU, the Nahdlatul Ulama, is playing an important role to try to moderate Islam, and as you say, to help protect minority groups such as the Christians.

Robert R. Reilly:

I do recall the extreme resentment that was expressed by Gus Dur, who had been the spiritual leader of NU, and of course, the first president of a democratic Indonesia, at the Saudi export of Wahhabism into Indonesia. He was very resentful about that. And from what you have been saying, it continues to make inroads. Is that correct?

David Pinault:

Yes, I think so, and part of the reason why is because of the attractiveness, the kind of prestige that accrues to people in Indonesia. How to put this? I guess one way to summarize this is as follows. Indonesia, like a lot of other countries, feels itself under pressure in terms of its collective identity, that is there had been a mistaken idea in the 1990s, that the internet and greater telecommunications would bring us all together, diminish differences or at least make us appreciate each other’s differences. Instead, what happens is that the internet and the flood of advertising that comes with it, social media, makes people acutely aware of the temptations posed by the outside world, especially temptations that are associated with what for shorthand we can call ‘the West.’

In the face of that, all over the Islamic world there has been an inclination then to say let us emphasize something that has its origins indisputably not in the West, namely, Islam. And then the question is okay, so what kind of Islam are we going to emphasize? Let us emphasize a kind of Islam that has conspicuous identity markers. For example, the way one dresses, and that is associated with the language and the culture of the homeland of Islam. We are talking about the Arabic language, of course, and Saudi Arabia. So, Saudi Arabia has played on those home court advantages, and of course, they have plenty of oil money or at least they have had [oil money].

And so, for example, in the book, I talk about how I met family surviving family members of the so-called Bali bombers. You may recall that in 2002, a pair of brothers had masterminded a bomb attack on a discotheque on the island of Bali. Ultimately, the two brothers were caught, and they were executed. It turns out that their burial site on the north coast of Java became a kind of pilgrimage site visited by young Islamist militants.

Well, when I heard about this, I went there with a Javanese friend, spent some time hanging out there and interviewing people, and I wound up meeting the family members of the deceased, who invited me back to their village to interview the family members of the two Bali bombers, so I went there with my friend. He himself was not too sure this was a good idea, but I figured this was an opportunity not to be missed, okay.

And it turns out that we had a very long conversation on a very hot, waterless Ramadan afternoon, and I figured, okay, if you are going to interview these folks, get right to the point, and so I asked them [for] their opinion about this terrorist bombing that two of their family members had engaged in that killed over 200 people at the discotheque, including dozens of Muslims as well as foreigners.

You know, I thought that the family members would deny this, I thought that they would say, oh, no, the two brothers, they were innocent. Just the opposite, they said, oh, yes, they did it. We are proud of them, and in fact, I am going to show you, they said, a photo album of pictures that we took at the celebration party to celebrate their entrance into paradise when they were executed. They flipped through the photos, and I recognized some of the people in the pictures who were members of groups such as Jamaa Islamiyah, the Islamic group, this militant organization.

So, after all of that, okay, right, so they did not deny that their family members had done this. They were proud of this. They felt that they had earned paradise that way. And when I asked them, so what do you do for a living, one of the older brothers told me (this is so interesting) that he and another surviving brother make their living as mosque preachers and as Hajj guides. Every year they act as guides to take local Indonesian pilgrims on the Hajj to Mecca.

And it is financed, they told me, by charitable sources in Saudi Arabia, which cover the expenses. [These sources] also cover the expenses for people to study fiq, you know, Islamic law, while they are in Saudi Arabia. And these quote-unquote ‘charities’ in Saudi Arabia also provided the funding for the madrasa, for the pesantren, they call it in [Bahasa] Indonesian, the Islamic boarding school, complete with a big minaret, all of this looking quite dazzling in this tiny village on the north coast of Java. So, yes, I would say that the Saudi presence is there, and you can see the prestige associated with it, the temptations of money, the temptations of what I would call conspicuous Islam, Islam as collective identity politics.

Robert R. Reilly:

From what you have said, David, I would presume that you would agree with those who say that there probably is not going to be any fundamental reform movement within Islam that would allow the elements of modernity like democratic, constitutional government based upon the equality of all people unless it takes place in the Arab world. It cannot be exported to the Arab world because they would not acknowledge the legitimacy of it since it is not Arabic. Would that be fair to say?

David Pinault:

Well, I think that that is definitely fair to say. Of course, you and I know from long experience that making predictions is a very dicey business, okay, but I would tend to agree. I think that the optimal situation would be one in which change originates within the Arab world for reasons of cultural prestige that you have just mentioned, but you and I could be surprised. I mean experiments in Islamic thought are taking place, [and] I mean a lot of thinkers, for example, in places like the U.S.

One thing that I have found by visiting mosques in the United States is that many Muslims tell me that they would rather be a Muslim in the United States than anywhere else in the world. And I do not know if the viewers listening to this are surprised, but when you stop and think about it, you know, thoughtful Muslims again and again have said to me Islam, like any religion, needs space in which to be able to think freely. That is why Pakistan is in such trouble.

As I mentioned in the book, Muslim intellectuals that I have interviewed in Pakistan have said to me the blasphemy law is bad, not just for the non-Muslims, but for the Muslims because it induces a kind of intellectual paralysis because it becomes impossible to think aloud any questions with regard to the Qur’an or the life of Prophet Muhammad, so it is a serious challenge.

Robert R. Reilly:

I recall one Muslim from Syria, who is now resident in Morocco, telling me that he thought he was in a theological prison and that he could not get out, and that Arabic was part of the prison until he learned French. He could not, but [he] finally did [break out of the prison]. The upheavals in the Middle East over the recent decades has been extraordinary [and] unpredictable. It is certainly led to expressions of hope as people would take to the streets in the Arab Spring, that finally these kinds of changes are coming to the Middle East, but it does not seem that the underlying cultural changes have taken place that would allow for those developments. I remember one Egyptian telling me there is a very simple reason why there Is no democracy in Egypt, it is because there are no democrats in Egypt. He left Egypt, by the way.

I think the underlying presupposition of democratic, constitutional rule has to be the principle that all people are created equal. Do you see a possibility that that principle could be accepted within Islam?

David Pinault:

Well, this is a great challenge. What I would like to talk about in terms of possibilities for more liberal forms of thought in the contemporary Islamic world is the example offered by two scholars from Sudan, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha and his student, Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim. And their controversial approach to the issue of Islam in the contemporary world is derived in part from a distinction between what are called the Meccan and the Medinan verses of the Qur’an. The Meccan verses are the chronologically earlier verses in the Qur’an, dating from between the year 610 and 622 in the Prophet Muhammad’s career. The Medinan verses, chronologically later, date from 622 until shortly before Muhammad’s death in 632.

Now, traditional tafsir or Qur’an interpretation whenever there seems to be any kind of conflict in interpretation, tends to prioritize the chronologically later verses over the earlier [verses], but what Taha proposed is prioritizing instead the Meccan verses because those are more universalist, he said, whereas the Medinan verses are more provisional and because the fact that during the Medinan period, Muhammad was engaged in warfare and conflict with his opponents, there tend to be, let us put it this way, more verses that can be interpreted along the lines of intolerance in the Medinan period, so Taha chose to emphasize the Meccan [verses].

And then extrapolating from that, what his student an-Naim has done is to say it is time for us to try to reconcile Sharia, Islamic law, with the United Nation Declaration on Universal Human Rights, and so what an-Naim has said is that wherever Sharia law conflicts with the UN Declaration on Universal Human Rights, then those aspects of the Sharia should be abrogated, done away with. And he identified three areas that need to be addressed in the Sharia: the status of women, the status of non-Muslims, and the status of slaves because as you may be aware, technically, slavery is still permitted under Sharia.

And I have met some Muslims who say, well, it does not really matter because there is not going to be any slavery today. Well, if you know anything about الدولة_الإسلامية ad-dawlat Islamiya, otherwise known as the Islamic State, it was precisely by appealing to the Sharia that Islamic State justified its enslavement of Yazidi women and other minorities during their so-called caliphate, so this is something that matters tremendously, but this idea that the Sharia has to be made to harmonize with what some Muslims dismiss as a merely Western document is quite controversial.

And in fact, both Taha and his student an-Naim were arrested in Sudan. Taha was arrested and hanged as an apostate in Khartoum in Sudan in 1985, and his student an-Naim was imprisoned. And after ultimately being released from jail, an-Naim emigrated to the United States and ultimately became a professor of Islamic Law at Emory University in Georgia. And I had the great privilege of bringing him to Santa Clara University to talk about these reforms on our campus. And I should mention that I invited members of the local mosques where I have done field trips with my students to come attend. [There was a] very mixed reaction from people in the mosques. In fact, one prominent local Muslim leader came up to me afterwards, and I said to him, hey, what would you think? And he said to me, why did you have to go and embarrass us Muslims by having someone come and talk about all these controversial topics, anyways? So, it is an uphill struggle. I guess that is the way I have to describe it.

Robert R. Reilly:

Speaking of controversy, David, how has your book been received by any Muslims of whom you are aware?

David Pinault:

Well, yes, so I have gotten a variety of responses as you can imagine. First of all, [there is] the controversy. Let us put it this way. Let me talk first about the controversy with regard to Muslims, and then the controversy in regard to non-Muslim readers. Right, okay, with regard to Muslims, I have encountered, received responses from some Muslims who have expressed fascination, who have been kind enough to say there is a lot of material in there that they did not know about, and they were grateful to me for bringing it to light, and making the material accessible to them, so that is good. I mean [there were] some good conversations, and then there were some other people who told me that they were frankly offended, and then they added but [they] did not expect much to begin with because you say right up front that you are a Christian.

In a way what has been more interesting has been the reaction from fellow Christians or non-Muslims, okay. And of course, there have been some Christian readers, many I would say, of a conservative tendency who have expressed tremendous appreciation for the book, and I have been very, very happy to get that response. But there have also been some individuals, particularly some colleagues of mine, who have basically expressed embarrassment and have said things like, you know, [through] this whole enterprise of yours, you are making Islam look bad. When I press them on this, it turns out that many of them have not gotten much past the cover or the title, but they are simply uncomfortable.

One of them when I pressed him said, you know, what you are saying in your book sounds too much like a defense of the crusades, for example. And I said, well, I think that that topic deserved revisiting because I do not think, as I indicate in the book, I do not think that the crusade should simply be dismissed as some kind of early colonialist enterprise. So, I have met a certain amount of controversy from Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but on the other hand, to paraphrase an earlier controversialist, the only thing worse than being criticized is not being talked about at all, so I do not have any real complaints.

Robert R. Reilly:

Can I ask you what are the ramifications of all of this for inter-religious dialogue, of which there seems to be a fair amount, including within the Catholic Church in the United States sponsored by the Bishops Conferences, and of course, by the Vatican as well?

David Pinault:

Yeah, well, okay, and I guess I do have strong opinions about that. First of all, I believe that this business of takhrib is really not workable. Remember takhrib is this idea of theological rapprochement, trying to bring the two faiths together in terms of agreement on doctrine, trying to diminish the differences. I think that is counterproductive, I think that that does a disservice to both Islam and Christianity, and I have attended all too many [of] what I would call interfaith hand-holding sessions that are not willing to address any real differences at all. I think that instead it is much more important that yes, we listen to each other as we talk about what is important to each of us in our own faiths, and I think that that kind of frankness is needed because when you get down to it, I think that there are certain radical differences, and they are not going to be reconciled.

You had mentioned in your introduction the fact that I have done a fair amount of volunteer work overseas in Southeast Asia in places like Indonesia with regard to wildlife rescue, and I am mentioning it in this context for the following reason. In a way, that kind of volunteer work may wind up being the best form of interfaith dialogue. And what I mean by that is instead of arguing points of theology, which can never be honestly reconciled, I think that what is needed is for people to have the opportunity simply to be able to become acquainted with each other.

I mean that is one reason I have done the field trips. An awful lot of my students have never set foot in a mosque, and by the way, since I also have Muslim students in the classes I teach, it turns out that many of my Sunni students have never set foot in a Shia mosque, and vice versa, so the kind of diversity that we need here also extends within a given faith.

So, one of the things that I say when people press me on the issue of interfaith dialogue is interfaith dialogue consists not just discussions of theology, it also is a question of simply encountering people of other backgrounds and finding projects that you can work on together. And the nice thing about the wildlife rescue is that all of us were there together, trying to help the animals, and it was refreshing not to have to be arguing theology at the same time.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, I in my own experience I have found that the Christians on one side of the dialogue do not even possess a rudimentary knowledge of Islam, and that also often leads to [the Christians] not even understanding what the Muslims are saying to them. And it also, I am afraid, leads them into attempting dialogue with exactly some of the Muslims with whom they should not be speaking, and excluding the many Muslims with whom you could really have a dialogue, but who are not part of some of the, let us say, the Muslim institutions, particularly in the United States that have been dominated by just one strain of well-financed Islam.

David Pinault:

Yes, and in fact, your saying [of] that reminds me of another point that I think is important to make. If one is interested in what I call interfaith encounters, to use the broadest term I can, it is so important to have some real acquaintance with one’s own faith because an awful lot of the people that I have met, and I am thinking here of fellow Christians, an awful lot of the fellow Christians who I have met on the interfaith dialogue circuit, have little knowledge of the tenants of Christian faith and also surprisingly little interest. In fact, to be frank, what I have often encountered is that among many of the well-intentioned, well-meaning non-Muslims on the interfaith dialogue circuit, their interest in Christianity is summed up in two words, social justice.

They do not know much about doctrine, but they also do not really want to know, and so what it consists of is them saying, well, we are interested in social justice, and you Muslims must be too, so we have got something to hold hands together on. But to me a religion consists of much more than that. Religion also has to do with a whole way of seeing, experiencing the transcendent, and for me, and this is something that I really emphasize in the book, if you decide that you are going to live in Muslim countries, then what is going to happen is you are going to be challenged as to your worldview.

And if you say to someone, yeah, I am Christian – and believe me, within five or ten minutes of meeting someone, this has happened to me repeatedly in one Muslim country after another – you know, you get invited to a cup of tea, you sit down, within five minutes, bam, ‘So what religion are you?’ Right? That comes up pretty fast and just because you are not that much interested in the fine points of theology does not mean that the other person is not, and so going back many decades, I found that my experience of living in Muslim countries really challenged me to think hard and educate myself as to what is the content of Christian faith? What does it mean to be a Catholic? And so, actually, my experience of encountering Islam has sharpened and strengthened my own sense of myself as a Catholic. And I say that because, to summarize the applicability to your question, Bob, I think that if one is going to engage in any kind of interfaith dialogue, they need to educate themselves first in their own faith.

Robert R. Reilly:

Great! Dr. David Pinault, thank you very much for this very interesting lecture today and for joining us at the Westminster Institute.

David Pinault:

You are very welcome. It has been an honor and a pleasure.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you again.