RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Even though Islam and Christianity account for nearly two-thirds of religious believers in the world, the lack of communication between Muslims and Christians has often led to conflict. We're going to hear now from one Catholic priest who has devoted his life to bridging that divide. Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald served as the Vatican's delegate to the Arab League and as a papal diplomat in Egypt. Now he's teaching a course on the Quran to Catholic University students in Cleveland. NPR's Tom Gjelten sat in on a class.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Archbishop Fitzgerald has lived and worked among Muslims in Tunisia, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt. Now retired, he's urging Christians to acquaint themselves with Islam and its holy book, the Quran.
ARCHBISHOP MICHAEL FITZGERALD: In our ceremonies, we read the Scripture, the Gospel is read. In Islamic prayer, it is not read; it is recited. The imam has to know the Quran, so it is very good to become...
GJELTEN: At John Carroll University, a Jesuit school, about 20 students take Fitzgerald's class on the Quran.
FITZGERALD: Hafiz - a hafiz of the Quran - someone who knows the Quran by heart.
GJELTEN: In his class, Fitzgerald notes the different ways Sunni and Shia Muslims see the Quran. The Shia, he says, say the text is understood best by the so-called purified imams, the ones loyal to the lineage of the Prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law, Ali.
FITZGERALD: The purified are the people of the house, Muhammad's own household and the imams who came from that.
GJELTEN: Among the students, a Muslim girl, Ghada Abu-Shaweesh, a biology major, the daughter of Palestinian-Americans. Her background is Sunni. She is serious about Islam, and she respects the archbishop's expertise.
FITZGERALD: We'll come back to that. Yes?
GHADA ABU-SHAWEESH: Do you mind if I ask you a question about that?
FITZGERALD: No, by all means.
ABU-SHAWEESH: So those who don't come from Ali and, like, Prophet Muhammad's lineage, even if they're imams, but they don't come from that, like, family line, then that means they're not purified?
FITZGERALD: They can be purified for other purposes. But they don't have this - this particular gift to help them to understand the Quran.
GJELTEN: That's the Shia view, he says. The first time Archbishop Fitzgerald lectured on Islam to Muslims was at a university in Uganda more than 40 years ago.
FITZGERALD: I said to the students, I'm not here to teach you anything. I'm here to help you to learn and to understand your own religion better, if you like. And I said, you don't have to agree with me. But if you contest what I'm saying to you, then you have to have good arguments, not just, oh, our parents have always said this. That's not enough.
GJELTEN: So what larger purpose was served by that, would you say?
FITZGERALD: Well, I think the more you understand a religion, the better it is, whether it's Christians who are studying Islam or Christians studying Christianity or Muslims studying Christianity. I think this helps in your relations afterwards.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSLIM CALL TO PRAYER)
GJELTEN: In his class this day, the archbishop plays the Muslim call to prayer and then translates it - God is great, the greatest. And there is no God but God, chanted twice, he explains.
FITZGERALD: And then bearing witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God, Rasulullah; that's twice also. And then it says, hayya alas salah, come to prayer. But the interesting thing is...
GJELTEN: Fitzgerald decided as a 12-year-old boy in England that he wanted to be a missionary in Africa. He did his theological studies in Tunisia, where he learned Arabic. His whole ministry has been devoted to interfaith understanding. In teaching Catholic students about Islam, he suggests they look for commonalities with their own religion.
FITZGERALD: Why is it that the Quran is so important, I would say, for Muslims, and would there be anything comparable to this in, let's say, Catholic Christianity? Can you think of anything? Yes?
SAM WEINANDY: I - when I was reading about this earlier, I thought something along the lines of the Eucharist because this is their direct word from God. And like the Eucharist is God for us...
WEINANDY: ...The Quran is God for them.
FITZGERALD: Yeah. The Quran - in a way, it's a sacrament, isn't it? It is a sign of the presence of God. I wanted...
GJELTEN: Sam Weinandy, the student who likens the Quran to the Eucharist, the Catholic communion sacrament, says he became interested in Islam when his family had a Muslim exchange student. Ghada Abu-Shaweesh says she's blown away with happiness to see non-Muslims wanting to learn about her religion.
ABU-SHAWEESH: I mean, they chose to take this class, first of all. Second, the amount of questions and comments and just, like, some people just being astonished by the verses. And a lot of them will say, these are so beautiful, like, this is so beautiful. I never knew that this was - you know, because the media focuses on such negative things instead of focusing on everything else.
GJELTEN: Some Muslims may object to a Christian ever teaching on Islam. But Archbishop Fitzgerald has impressed even Muslim scholars with his grasp of their religion.
ZEKI SARITOPRAK: What is important here is knowledge.
GJELTEN: Zeki Saritoprak, who holds a Ph.D. in Islamic theology from a divinity school in Turkey, directs Islamic studies at John Carroll University. Here, as at other Catholic schools, the mission of teaching about Islam falls almost exclusively on Muslim scholars. But Saritoprak has known Archbishop Fitzgerald for more than a decade and sees no problem with his teaching.
SARITOPRAK: A well-informed Christian can teach Islam better than an ill-informed Muslim. I would rather have Muslims learning about Islam from a Christian like Archbishop Fitzgerald than from an organization like ISIS.
GJELTEN: ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State. To support his argument that Muslims can learn from Christians, Saritoprak cites the Prophet Muhammad, saying Muslims should seek wisdom no matter where it comes from.
SARITOPRAK: He says in one of his sayings, the Prophet Muhammad says seek knowledge, even if it is in China.
GJELTEN: A long ways from Arabia. Did the Prophet mean Muslims should seek knowledge even from Christians? Not all Islamic clerics are accommodating. And Archbishop Fitzgerald acknowledges there were some unpleasant moments when he served as the Vatican's representative in Egypt.
But his main message for Christians is that Islam is a religion worthy of their respect, just as Christians want Muslims to respect their faith. His colleague Zeki Saritoprak says people have animosity toward whatever they are ignorant about. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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