In 1952 Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote that Mary, Our Lady of Fatima, was the key to converting Muslims. Bishop Sheen believed that the devotion Muslims already had toward Mary would eventually lead them to her divine Son. Moreover, our Lady of Fatima would have a special appeal to Muslims because she appeared in a town that was named after the daughter of Muhammad, who according to her father, “has the highest place in heaven after the Virgin Mary.”
Judging by subsequent events, Bishop Sheen may have been overly optimistic, but those subsequent events also seem to suggest that nothing short of a heavenly intervention will turn Islam away from its goal of conquering the planet. Fulton Sheen may have underestimated the difficulty of converting Muslims, but the strategies for moderating Islam proposed by current world leaders border on the delusional. All the efforts of secular leaders to appease Islam have only made Islam stronger and the West weaker. Many Christian leaders seem to suffer from the same delusions about Islam. Despite all their efforts to “dialogue” with Islam, to declare “solidarity” with Islam, and to join the fight against “Islamophobia,” persecution of Christians by Muslims has accelerated dramatically. The position of Christian vis-à-vis Islam has deteriorated so badly since 1952 that it may well require a miraculous intervention to set things right.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Bishop Sheen’s thesis. The first question that comes to mind was raised by Msgr. Charles Pope in a 2012 article. He asked, “Do Muslims today still manifest the reverence to Mary that Sheen described in 1952?” The answer is “probably not.” Although it’s difficult to come by statistics, there are reasons to believe that the Islam of Sheen’s era is no longer with us. Sheen lived at a time when the militant side of Islam was kept firmly in check by secular rulers. Islam’s forward momentum had come to a halt, and the power of the imams was greatly reduced. According to Ali Allawi, a former Iraqi cabinet minister:
At that time, the 1950s, secularism was ascendant among the political, cultural, and intellectual elites of the Middle East. It appeared to be only a matter of time before Islam would lose whatever hold it still had on the Muslim world.
If the upper classes were free to embrace secularism, the common people were freer to explore other religions. Under the circumstances, it’s likely that many Muslims may have cultivated a devotion to Mary. In many parts of the Muslim world, folk-religion forms of Islam flourished—syncretic blends of Islam and other faiths. This was particularly true in Africa and India—the two regions cited by Sheen as evidence of Muslim devotion to Our Lady.
But times change. The situation that prevailed in Sheen’s time is rapidly disappearing. It now appears that the Islam Sheen was familiar with was an aberration—a brief departure from the path laid down by Muhammad: an interregnum followed by a revival of militant, supremacist, intolerant Islam. Judging by the harsh treatment accorded to Christians in the Muslim world today, Muslims who display a devotion to Mary might well be putting themselves in danger.
But isn’t Mary held in high esteem in the Koran? As Bishop Sheen pointed out, there are more references to Mary in the Koran than to any other woman. In sura 3: 42 of the Koran, the angels say “O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee—chosen thee above the women of all nations.”
The Koran’s respectful treatment of Mary seems promising. But there are a few difficulties to take note of. From the Islamic point of view Mary, like Jesus, was a Muslim, not a Jew or a Christian. She is important because she is the mother of a Muslim prophet. Most significantly, she is not the Mother of God. In fact, the suggestion that she is, is, from an Islamic perspective, a blasphemy of the highest order. Tellingly, the Koranic description of the Annunciation and the birth of Jesus is followed by an admonition: “Such was Jesus son of Mary. That is the whole truth, which they [Christians] still doubt. God forbid that He Himself should beget a Son!” (19:34-5).
So, the tribute to Mary is capped with a slap-down of Christian beliefs about Mary and Jesus. Why then, is Mary in the Koran? As I’ve suggested elsewhere, it’s probable that she is there for the same reason that Jesus is in the Koran—namely, to deny the divinity of Jesus. Muhammad included stories from the New Testament and the Old Testament in the Koran because he wanted to attract Christians and Jews living in Arabia to his new religion. But it was also necessary for him to discredit the Christian claim that Jesus is divine. Why? Because if Jesus is who Christians say he is, then there is no need for a new revelation and a new prophet. In short, there is no need for Muhammad. Thus, when Jesus speaks in the Koran or is spoken of, it is often for the purpose of establishing that he was just a man.
In the Koran, Jesus is almost always referred to as “Jesus son of Mary.” This is not done in order to elevate Mary, but to demote Jesus. It is a reminder that Jesus is not the Son of God, but simply another prophet. Here’s a typical passage: “Christ, the Son of Mary, was no more than a Messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him” (5: 75). This passage is followed by another dig at Christians: “See how Allah doth make his Signs clear to them [Christians]; yet see in what ways they are deluded away from the truth!” (5: 75). Many Catholics see the similarities between Christianity and Islam as a sign of hope for peace between the two faiths. Yet, the similarities are there because Muhammad had no qualms about borrowing stories from the Gospels and then claiming them as part of the revelation he received from Allah. It seems that Muhammad’s main motive for including Jesus and Mary in his religion, was to co-opt them for his own purposes.
Does this mean that Mary is to play no role in the conversion of Muslims? No. In fact, it appears that Mary has already been active in the battle to resist the advance of Islam. In 1571, in one of the great naval battles of history, Catholic forces decisively defeated a larger Muslim fleet, and thus prevented an Islamic invasion of Europe. The victory at Lepanto is often attributed to Mary‘s intercession. Prior to the battle, Pope St. Pius V asked all Europeans to pray the rosary for victory. And on board the Christian ships every fighter was given a rosary. The flagship of Don Juan of Austria carried a banner with an image of Christ crucified; Gianandrea Doria, one of the admirals, carried an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. October 7, the date of the Christian victory, was thereafter declared the Feast of “Mary, Queen of Victory.”
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe entrusted to Admiral Doria was one of five copies that were touched to the original tilma. The image itself recalls a verse from Revelations: “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” (Rev. 12: 1).
The moon in the image is actually a crescent moon—the symbol of the serpent god Quetzalcoatl who was worshipped by the Aztecs. Mary’s foot resting on the moon is a symbol of her victory over the pagan god. Up until the revelation of the image to Juan Diego, the Aztecs had been highly resistant to conversion. In the ten years following, some nine million converted to Christianity.
The crescent moon is also, of course, the chief symbol of Islam. When Admiral Doria carried the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe into battle, he undoubtedly understood that the image could also be interpreted as a symbol of victory over Islam.
“Our Lady of Victory.” The title reminds us that spiritual battles can have a physical component. The victory at Lepanto can, in a sense, be considered part of a larger spiritual battle, yet it came at great physical cost. More than 40,000 men lost their lives—more than in any other battle in history (it should be added that 15,000 Christians—galley slaves of the Ottoman Turks—were freed).
I bring up the Battle of Lepanto because in reading Fulton Sheen and others with a similar outlook, one can get the impression that the conversion of Muslims will be a gradual, almost painless process. Consider this excerpt from The World’s First Love:
Missionaries in the future will, more and more, see that their apostolate among the Moslems will be successful in the measure that they preach Our Lady of Fatima… Because the Moslems have devotion to Mary, our missionaries should be satisfied merely to expand and develop that devotion, with the full realization that Our Blessed Lady will carry the Moslems the rest of the way to her Divine Son.
Living as he did in the sleepy-time-Islam era of King Farouk and the Shah of Iran, it’s understandable that Sheen might have underestimated the difficulty of the task. What is less understandable is that many of our contemporary sleepy-head prelates still live mentally in that bygone era when Islam and Christianity seemed so much closer to each other than they really are. These clerics seem to think that Muslims can be made to see the light through a painless process of interreligious dialogue. Some seem to think that Muslims already have the light and are therefore not in need of conversion.
But the message of Our Lady of Fatima is all about the necessity of conversion. And, unfortunately, Muslims seem almost as resistant to conversion as the Aztecs were prior to the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe. When asked her name by Juan Diego, the Lady’s response in the Aztec language included the words “te coatlaxopeuh” which is variously interpreted to mean “one who crushes the head of the stone serpent,” or “she who has dominion over serpents.”
The words remind us of God’s words to the serpent in the Garden of Eden:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3: 15)
In the image, the head of the stone serpent is symbolically crushed by Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is in the business of crushing serpents and releasing people from religions of blood sacrifice. Mary’s work is still cut out for her. The fastest growing religion in the world today is a religion that demands blood sacrifice, and its symbol is a crescent moon. We can comfort ourselves with the thought that Muslims practice a religion similar in some respects to Christianity, or we can concern ourselves that they are caught up in the coils of a dangerous belief system. I suspect that the view from Heaven is closer to the latter perspective.
Mary will need some help, of course. Catholics ought to pray for the conversion of Islam just as they once prayed for the conversion of Russia. Catholics also need to inform themselves. If Muslims are ever to be converted away from Islam in large numbers, Catholics will need to gain a more realistic perspective on Islam. I have suggested that Bishop Sheen was overly optimistic about the prospects for Muslim conversions, but he was also a realist—far more realistic about Islam than many of today’s bishops. Consider this passage from his chapter on “Mary and Moslems”:
At the present time, the hatred of the Moslem countries against the West is becoming a hatred against Christianity itself … there is still grave danger that the temporal power of Islam may return and, with it, the menace that it may shake off a West which has ceased to be Christian, and affirm itself as a great anti-Christian world power.
“Hatred against Christianity,” “menace,” “anti-Christian world power.” Very few bishops today would dare to use that kind of language about Islam. Yet, today there is a much greater warrant for that view than there was in Sheen’s day. Sheen was optimistic about the chances for Muslim conversion, but he also had fears about Islam’s return as an anti-Christian power. At this point in time, it looks as though his fears are being realized. Some of the blame for that rests on the shoulders of Catholic leaders who have adopted an attitude of wishful thinking about Islam. If Sheen’s hopes are ever to be realized, they need to discard their gauzy view of Islam and replace it with a realistic perspective.
They could start by focusing less on the supposed similarities between Islam and Christianity, and more on the differences. They might, for instance, concentrate on the fact that, for a growing number of young Muslim men, the only virgins they are devoted to are the seventy-two that Allah has reserved for them in paradise.
This article originally appeared in the February 8, 2017 edition of Crisis.