The World

Diego Sarrió: "Muslims leave grateful for the Church's effort for authentic dialogue."

Diego Sarrió is the rector of the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. In this interview with Omnes, he talks about the origin of this institution and the relations between Muslims and Christians.

Hernan Sergio Mora-November 30, 2023-Reading time: 9 minutes

Diego Sarrió

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, part of the world Islamic felt the need to distance itself from jihadism and the fundamentalist ideology that sustains it. This led to a number of statements such as the Amman Message 2004which was followed by others up to the ".Document on human fraternity for world peace and common coexistence", signed on February 4, 2019 in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, and which was one of the sources of inspiration for the encyclical "Fratelli tutti".

This was indicated during an interview granted to Omnes by the current rector of the "Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies" (PISAI), Father Diego Sarrió Cucarella, 52 years old, a Spaniard from Gandia (Valencia) with a friendly and jovial character, who studied at PISAI and later worked there as a teacher, until he became its director. "The Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, based in Rome since 1964, was founded in 1926 in Tunisia by an intuition of the Society of the Missionaries of Africa, better known as the 'White Fathers' because of the color of their habit," explains Father Sarrió.

He adds that "the first objective was to train missionaries who were preparing to work in North Africa, in direct contact with the Muslim population. To this objective was later added the promotion of a new type of relationship between Christians and the followers of the second most numerous religion in the world, overcoming mutual prejudices and stereotypes of various kinds through the study of each other's religious tradition".

How did PISAI come about?

It was born out of a very practical, missionary need of the White Fathers. It is one of the many congregations that were born at a time of great missionary fervor, in the second half of the 19th century, like the Comboni Missionaries, the Consolata, the Spiritans, etc., all with the missionary charism as it was understood at that time, that is, to announce Christ and implant the Church in territories where it was not yet present.

Who founded the White Fathers?

The founder was the French Cardinal Charles Martial Lavigerie, a brilliant young man who in 1867 was appointed Archbishop of Algiers. We are in the midst of Europe's colonial expansion and France considered Algeria an integral part of its territory. It was also the time of exploration of the interior of the African continent (suffice it to recall Livingston).

In this historical context, the founder of the White Fathers had the inspiration to create a male and a female congregation for the evangelization of the African continent. Thus, the White Fathers were born in a country with an Islamic tradition. Our first mission country was Algeria and then Tunisia, which in 1881 became a French protectorate and where Lavigerie was appointed Archbishop of Carthage in 1884.

When was PISAI born?

It was born later, in 1926, in Tunisia, because with the experience of the mission they began to see the difficulties: it was not the "triumphal" apostolate that some expected, as was happening in other parts of Africa. On the other hand, in the Maghreb they encountered a lot of resistance when they announced the Gospel. Among other reasons, because Islam had developed over the centuries its own argumentation against Christianity. Little by little, they realized that in order to work in a Muslim environment, the classical studies of philosophy and theology that the priests received were not enough, but that a solid knowledge of Islamic culture and religion was also necessary.

Only for the White Fathers?

In 1926, the White Fathers opened in Tunis a house of studies initially intended for the formation of those who were preparing to work in North Africa, initiating them in the study of the language and the local religious culture. The house operated as a boarding school and the studies lasted two or three years. The teaching staff consisted of the White Fathers and external teachers, Tunisians and Europeans living in Tunisia. The house soon opened its doors to other religious congregations present in North Africa and to interested diocesan clergy.

In other words, training for those who were preparing for the apostolate?

Yes, but let us not forget that mission theology was evolving. Already at the beginning of the 1930s, the team of White Fathers working in the formation house developed a new type of activity while continuing the study program. Remember that this was the time of the so-called "colonial bubble", a European society that often lived on the margins of Tunisian society, each on its own. Those in charge of the training house, which by then had been renamed "Institut des belles lettres arabes, IBLA", sought to bring these two communities closer together by creating the Tunisian Friendship Circle (Cercle des amitiés tunisiennes, 1934-1964), with cultural programs, lectures, excursions, etc. They also opened the IBLA library to Tunisians and began publishing the IBLA magazine in 1937, which still exists today.

What happens when you expand the scope of the mission?

Over the years, the house became too small for the dual activity of the Institute (on the one hand, a center for Arabic and Islamic studies and, on the other, a place of cultural contact with Tunisian society), so in the late 1940s it was decided to move the boarding school section to La Manouba, then a suburb of Tunis. With the physical distance and the specific activity of each house, they ended up working separately. The study center in La Manouba continued to develop into the present-day PISAI. An important moment was its recognition by the Holy See in 1960 as the Pontifical Higher Institute of Oriental Studies. The term "Oriental" and not "Islamic" was used for reasons of discretion. The aim was to prevent anyone from asking: what are these European Catholics doing here, in a Muslim-majority country, independent since 1956, dealing with Islam? In 1964, the nationalization of agricultural land in the hands of foreigners decreed by the Tunisian government affected the land in La Manouba where the Institute was located.

Does expropriation force them to emigrate?

The possibility of moving the Institute to Algiers or France was considered. However, these options were discarded in favor of Rome, where the Second Vatican Council was taking place. On May 17, 1964, Pentecost Sunday, Paul VI had instituted a special department of the Roman Curia for relations with people of other religions, known at first as the "Secretariat for Non-Christians," later renamed the Pontifical Council (now the Dicastery) for Interreligious Dialogue. The Holy See asked the White Fathers to bring the Institute to Rome. In the Eternal City there were professors from the Gregorian or other institutions who knew about Islam, but there was no Islamology curriculum as such.

The transfer of the Institute to Rome also entailed a change of name to avoid confusion with the already existing Pontifical Oriental Institute, dedicated to the study of the Christian East. Thus, in October 1964, the Institute officially changed its name to Pontifical Institute of Arabic Studies. It would be necessary to wait until the promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia ChristianaIn April 1979, in order for the Institute to receive its present name of Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies.

What did it mean for PISAI to be based in Rome?

Coming to Rome meant for PISAI first of all a broadening of horizons, the need to place itself at the service of the universal Church and not only of the Church of North Africa. The presence in Rome also meant progressively integrating lay students.

What image has been constructed in the Christian world about Islam throughout history?

Over the past few years, I have personally become quite interested in how Christians and Muslims have written about each other and in the image of the other that this tradition has conveyed to Christians and Muslims today. Arguably, most of what Christians and Muslims have written about each other has been polemical in nature. Although on rare occasions the religion of the other has been described without prejudice, the "default" attitude has been one of suspicion and antagonism. Those who tried to overcome stereotypical characterizations of the other were exceptions on both sides. Polemic is the right word to describe this type of literature. It comes from the Greek noun "pólemos," meaning "war." In effect, it was a "war of words". The authors of these writings saw themselves as taking part in a great battle fought by scholars and princes alike. They were unable to dissociate their writings about each other from the broader competition for political and cultural hegemony, not to mention control of the world's wealth and economic resources. One of the great problems today is that both Christians and Muslims are heirs to a very negative image of the other.

How to develop the dialogue then?

When we speak of Islam-Christian dialogue, we must first of all remember that it is not religions that are in dialogue, but real people, flesh and blood, living in concrete situations, very diverse from every conceivable point of view. Let us think that Christians and Muslims together represent today more than half of the world's population. Just as the Christian world is very diverse internally, so is the Muslim world. This makes it very difficult to speak of Islam-Christian dialogue in the abstract. Islam-Christian relations do not advance at the same pace in all parts of the world. What is possible here and now is not possible elsewhere, so it is important not to generalize. Jihadist fundamentalism is a drift that the vast majority of Muslims reject. In recent years we have seen a succession of Islamic declarations in favor of dialogue and peaceful coexistence, beginning with the Amman Message in 2004. It is interesting to note that these declarations represent an exercise in Islamic "ecumenism" in that they have been signed by Muslim leaders of various traditions and currents.

Is it possible to overcome the past of controversies and wars?

The Nostra Aetate declaration on the relations of the Church with non-Christian religions, promulgated in 1965, which recognized that over the course of the centuries there have been many disagreements and enmities between Christians and Muslims, exhorted all to "forget the past and strive together for and promote social justice, moral good, peace and freedom for all" (Nostra Aetate, 3).

Some commentators have considered this invitation to "forget the past" somewhat naïve. It is true that it is difficult to forget the past, but on the other hand we cannot allow the past to determine the present and condition the future. It is not a matter of forgetting but of overcoming. As often happens in interpersonal conflicts, one side or the other tells the story from the moment they felt victimized. The same is true between Muslims and Christians. If one wants to find a justification for rejecting efforts of Islamo-Christian dialogue, one can certainly always find a historical or current example, real situations, in which Christians or Muslims are victims of discrimination or violence. If we have to wait for everything to be perfect in order to dialogue, then why dialogue at all? There is no magic recipe for Islam-Christian dialogue, no model that can be applied in all situations. We must not forget that Christians and Muslims are human beings, subjects of multiple identities, among which the religious component is one of many other elements: cultural, political, geographical, etc. Everything comes into play when a Christian meets a Muslim.

What relations does PISAI have with the embassies of Islamic-majority countries to the Holy See and other Islamic institutions?

PISAI frequently receives visits from diplomats from countries of Islamic tradition accredited to the Holy See. They are often surprised to discover that in the heart of the Catholic world there is an Institute, dependent on the Holy See, expressly dedicated to Islamic culture and religion; an Institute that is interested not only in Islam from a geopolitical, strategic or security point of view, as is the case in other universities and centers of study, but in the properly religious heritage of the Islamic tradition. This interest is wonderfully reflected in our library of just over 40,000 volumes, specializing in the various branches of Islamic sciences (theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, Koranic exegesis, Sufism, etc.). These diplomats, as well as other Muslims who visit us, especially university professors, leave grateful to note the efforts of the Catholic Church to prepare people for an authentic and profound dialogue with Muslims, which cannot be based solely on good will, but on a scientific and objective knowledge of the other's tradition.

How many students are currently studying at PISAI?

It is a very specialized Institute, so the number is relatively small. We offer only the undergraduate and doctoral programs. This means that to study at PISAI one has to have already completed a first university cycle or three-year degree, which can be in theology, philosophy, missiology, political science, history, language and literature, etc. Some are trained to become teachers or researchers; others come with the motivation, matured in an ecclesial context, to prepare themselves to work in the field of Islam-Christian relations.

In recent years, the average number of students in the degree program is about 30, to which about 8 doctoral students must be added. Unfortunately, the Institute cannot accept a larger number of doctoral students due to the specialized nature of the studies and the difficulty of finding qualified professors to supervise doctoral theses. The academic degrees currently conferred by the Institute are the BA and PhD "in Arabic and Islamic studies", i.e. Arabic is an essential element in our field of study, as is the case with the knowledge of biblical languages for specialists in Sacred Scripture. A specialist in Islam cannot do without Arabic, which is the language of the foundational texts of Islam: the Koran and the Sunna.

Currently, the two years of the PISAI degree program are preceded by a preparatory year that initiates students into the study of Classical Arabic on a solid foundation. One could spend a lifetime studying classical Arabic, not to mention the many different colloquial Arabic languages. The student who completes our degree program acquires a good overview of the Islamic tradition, but cannot be said to be an "expert" in Islam. The PhD, on the other hand, allows one to deepen one's knowledge of a particular area of Islamic studies, opening up important perspectives in all sectors.

The authorHernan Sergio Mora

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