Do Muslims need a Pope Francis of their own?

Do Muslims need a Pope Francis of their own?
Pope Francis is confronting some of the most challenging contemporary issues facing the world, and Muslim world could use a figure like him, argues Mohammad Ali Musawi.
6 min read
29 Jul, 2015
Pope Francis has called for inter-religious collaboration. [Getty]

Just two years into his papacy, Pope Francis has shown that he wants to effect a significant shift from some of the policies and edicts of his predecessors.

Since his election to the highest position in the Catholic Church on 13 March 2013, the pope’s sometimes controversial actions and statements have generated much debate and discussion.

The Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose Francis as his papal name in honour of Saint Francis of Asisi, the 13th century Italian Catholic friar associated with humility, compassion and championing the poor. He explained his decision as being due to the “poverty and peace” that Saint Francis represented, adding that he wished to see a “poor Church, for the poor”.

The new Pope also chose to reside in a more modest Vatican guesthouse instead of the plush Papal Apartments in the Apostolic Palace, the usual papal residence, in addition to favoring simpler garments instead of the ornamental vestments associated with the position.

     He has adopted positions that at times challenged the mainstream views held by the Church and the Catholic faithful.

While some conservatives within the Church saw these actions asa worrying break from established tradition, others saw them as refreshing signs of an approachable Church more attuned to the lives and needs of its 1.2 billion adherents.

Issues that matter

However, it is not Pope Francis’ personal behaviour that most significantly distinguishes his papacy from others, rather it is his approach to the most important global challenges of our time: global security, violence, poverty and climate change. He has adopted positions that at times challenged the mainstream views held by the Church and the Catholic faithful.

A case in point is this: in 2013 Pope Francis wrote an apostolic exhortation, which is a letter of guidance to the Church, in which he discussed the responsibility of Christians towards the poor, their duty to establish and maintain just economic, political and legal orders; and he also attacked the structural causes of inequality.

But the most notable part of the document was the Pope’s statement on the erroneous, and often malicious linkage made by some between violence and Islam.

The Pope's view on this was direct as he wrote: “Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence.”

This statement is a far cry from the remarks made by Pope Benedict XVI, in which he quoted an obscure 14th century text that described Islam as inherently flawed by fanaticism.

Further, “Francis unequivocally undercuts the position or assumption of millions of Catholics and other Christians that the Quran and Islam, whatever one might say about the goodness of particular Muslims, are intrinsically violent and therefore evil and unreformable,” according to James Ball, an associate professor of theology at Saint Mary’s University in San Antonio.

The Pontiff reiterated his point about not equating violence with Islam after a visit to Turkey last November, saying: “You just can’t say that, just as you can’t say that all Christians are fundamentalists. We have our share of them. All religions have these little groups.” He also called for inter-religious collaboration against poverty, which "drives conflict and aids the recruitment of terrorists", Reuters reported.

The Pope has also described inequality as “the root of all social ills" and weapons manufacture and proliferation as un-Christian. He has regularly addressed the environmental, social and political effects of climate change. And he has not shied away from collaborating with non-Catholic people, even secular thinkers, on these issues, such as his invitation to social activist Naomi Klein to join his campaign against climate change.

Those who doubt the impact of the Pope’s statements and his work on social justice and environmental issues need only look at the reactions of American politicians heavily influenced by multinational corporations and other special interest groups. For example, in repose to the release of a papal document on how to deal with climate change, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a US presidential hopeful and Catholic convert, quipped: “I don’t go to Mass for economic policy or for things in politics."

Other climate change deniers have leveled stronger criticism.

A Muslim Francis?

In light of the poverty, violence and environmental degradation that plagues large swathes of the Muslim-majority parts of the world, Muslims are in dire need of a figure such as Pope Francis, someone who is willing to courageously address the most pressing issues of our time and mobilise social and political action to combat them.

We need a strong leadership that is willing to build bridges with other communities of faith and even those of no faith, and to guide and unite efforts to confront the confluence of the historic challenges we currently face. Religious-based violence, poverty, inequality and climate change are all problems that can be solved with the existence of a genuine will to tackle them.

     The potentially disastrous impact of climate change on Muslim societies and the world as a whole has yet to be adequately addressed by any notable Muslim religious authority.

However, unlike the fairly cohesive global Catholic population over whom the Pope presides, the world’s Muslim population, at 1.6 billion, is largely divided and does not adhere to a unified religious authority. Followers of the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia, receive their religious guidance from various centres of Islamic learning and a plethora of authorities and clerics. Various schools of thought also exist within the two branches.

Another major problem is the corrosion of Islamic religious authority as a result of loss of independence, cooption by governments and the politicised competition between the centres of religious learning. For example, after being forced to toe the Egyptian government’s line and losing out to better financed centres of learning in Saudi Arabia, gone are the days when al-Azhar in Cairo is seen as the main legitimate representative of Sunni Islam.

The rare Muslim religious figures that do champion religious and sectarian tolerance have unfortunately been marginalised on political grounds or are only heard by a minority of Muslims. Islamist groups have used issues such as the structural causes of inequality as a political platform, thus making them unappealing. The potentially disastrous impact of climate change on Muslim societies and the world as a whole has yet to be adequately addressed by any notable Muslim religious authority.

Pope Francis is in the unique position of leading the world’s largest Christian community. Despite the Catholic Church’s numerous and sometime grave problems, the Pope has managed to use his position to reorient the Church towards tackling the most serious challenges humanity faces.

At the very least he has raised awareness of these challenges amongst 1.2 billion people. If you doubt that Muslims need such a figure, you only need to look at Mecca, the very birthplace of Islam, which some say has been transformed into a capitalistic theme park, funded with diminishing and unsustainable fossil fuel revenue, and built by an underclass of underpaid and poorly treated poor guest workers -– a veritable tableau of all that is wrong with the world.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.