Grace Urankar, staff writer

When does personhood begin? More significantly, how do our religious beliefs dictate the answer to this question?

These questions and many others were examined during the semi-annual Bread of Life dinner, held February 26 in the Oak Room of South Dining Hall. Sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Culture, the Bread of Life dinners have provided a venue for contemplation of beginning-of-life issues since spring 2009. Gabriel Reynolds, Director of Undergraduate Studies and professor on “Muslim and Catholic Views on the Beginning of Life.”

“I never formally studied Christian theology,” Reynolds shared in an e-mail interview. “I never went to Catholic school, and I did my PhD in Islamic Studies. For some strange reason Notre Dame’s Department of Theology hired me anyway—and so I have had the amazing opportunity to learn theology from my colleagues and my students over the past 10 years.”

Reynolds began his reflection by recalling a conversation with a Muslim colleague, during which Reynolds suggested a joint Muslim-Christian conference addressing pro-life activism. Much to his dismay, his colleague quickly dismissed the idea, remarking that Muslims and Christians do not agree on pro-life matters.

Reynolds went on to explicate these differences in his discussion. The Qur’an, one of Islam’s sacred texts, describes very distinct stages of fetal development: Reynolds translates some of these as a drop, clot and piece of flesh. The Islamic faith also has specific teachings on the concept of ensoulment; that is, a fetus receives a soul 120 days after conception. Accordingly, it is unacceptable to kill a fetus once it is ensouled and therefore a person. This strikes a slight discord with Catholic doctrine, which asserts that ensoulment and personhood happen and begin at conception.

It is important to note that this Islamic teaching on ensoulment is not found in the Qur’an, but rather in hadith. While the Qur’an is considered to be revelation given to the prophet Muhammad by God, hadith are a collection of Muhammad’s own sayings and teachings. Reynolds further noted that while Muslims might pray using the Qur’an, they would not do so with hadith. Nevertheless, both writings are central and dogmatic to Islamic faith and tradition.

Reynolds also noted that while the United States prides itself on separating church and state, some Middle-Eastern countries are Islamic republics. In some countries, such as Mauritania, this simply represents an Islamic majority in the population. However, other countries, particularly Afghanistan and Iran, use mandates that closely incorporate sharia law, or the moral code of Islam.

Reynolds ultimately concluded that Muslims may not consider themselves pro-life, but they are certainly not pro-choice. The Islamic faith, like Christianity, asserts that the body is something to be preserved and maintained.

“I think this dinner was unique because it was on a topic that is not as frequently discussed within the pro-life movement,” said Erin Stoyell-Mulholland, a sophomore undergraduate assistant at the Center for Ethics and Culture who facilitated the evening’s discussion. “I think Professor Reynolds was right to point out the necessity in finding common ground with others… part of this is understanding what views they hold.”

The evening’s discussion covered more than a comparison of life issues. Reynolds invited participants to ponder the significance of religious revelation as a valid source of civil law. Is this beneficial or detrimental to citizens? Recognizing that both the Bible and Qur’an are texts of revelation, should our pro-life arguments be centered in faith, reason or a combination?

Students and faculty responded to these questions while posing their own in the question-and-answer portion of the dinner. Many acknowledged that a balance between faith and reason is required in spreading the pro-life message. This balance must be especially creative when working with more secular groups. Furthermore, participants noted that all areas of life involve faith and reason. For instance, in seeking a spouse, we must decide if it is better to marry a devout person of another religion, or someone who is apathetic to a shared faith tradition.

Many students benefitted from a more personal encounter with interfaith dialogue at their dining tables.

“I was fortunate to have Professor Reynolds and two students from the Muslim Student Association at my table,” said sophomore Dougie Barnard. “Our discussions about the legality of abortion in Bangladesh, Pakistan and America were healthy and informative for all parties.”

Stoyell-Mulholland sat at the same table as Barnard. “[The Muslim students] told us that abortion is a very taboo topic in their countries and they were not even sure what the laws of their countries were. They thought it was interesting that abortion was such a controversial topic in the U.S. [since] this was the only place they have ever heard it discussed.”

Overall, the dinner and dialogue were considered successful in promoting interfaith dialogue and enhancing pro-life conversation. “My first Bread of Life dinner was eye-opening and provided life-giving discussion,” Barnard shared.

“I think that many students find the events that the Center puts on to be intellectually challenging and helpful to their growth as students outside the classroom,” said Stoyell-Mulholland.

“It is important to encourage one another,” added Reynolds. “The pro-life cause is a question of civil rights, and as with all civil rights struggles we must work together.”

Grace Urankar is a junior Religious Studies major at Saint Mary’s College. Involved in yet another theatrical endeavor, she uses these few lines to give a shout-out to her beloved Favorite cast. Contact her at