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Saturday, October 27, 2007

"A Common Word" and Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Muslims have conveyed in a letter to Pope Benedict what they describe as an "Unprecedented Muslim call for peace with Christians" (Reuters, Oct. 11, 2007)
More than 130 Muslim scholars from around the globe called on Thursday for peace and understanding between Islam and Christianity, saying "the very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake".

In an unprecedented letter to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders, 138 Muslim scholars said finding common ground between the world's biggest faiths was not simply a matter for polite dialogue between religious leaders.

"If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world's inhabitants," the scholars wrote.

"Our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake," they wrote, adding that Islam and Christianity already agreed that love of God and neighbor were the two most important commandments of their faiths.

The letter -- "A Common Word Between Us and You" -- was accompanied by an official website, which lists the signatories and recipients of the letter, along with a compilation of Jewish and Christian responses.

The full text of the letter is available for download in .pdf format in English, Arabic, French, Italian and German.

A Reluctance to Dialogue?

According to John Allen Jr., Islamic scholars involved in the propogation of the letter to the Pope have expressed disappointment at what they perceive to be a reluctance to dialogue on a more substantial level:

The charges came from Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a noted Iranian Muslim scholar at George Washington University, and John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Both men spoke at a Washington press conference yesterday to present a letter from 138 Muslim clerics and scholars to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders.

Hossein charged that the Vatican has rebuffed attempts to engage Muslims in theological conversation, instead concentrating on the diplomatic level.

“Muslims thought of choosing a small team of 4-5 people, leading Islamic thinkers, to be able to have a dialogue on the deepest theological issues with the Vatican, including the pope himself,” in the wake of controversies over Regensburg, Hossein said. “At least, that’s the condition I put down. Nothing came of that, there was no response from the Vatican.”

Esposito said he too was aware of a high-level attempt to open a new channel of dialogue with the Vatican by Muslim leaders after Regensburg that was rebuffed.

“Most of the response that has come from the Vatican, after the Islamic protest and all of these things, has been diplomatic, not theological,” Hossein said. “The very first meeting in the Vatican [after Regensburg] was with Muslim ambassadors. These are people appointed as ambassadors, many of whom know nothing at all about Islamic issues. What is being evaded all the time are those underlying differences in belief that then cause the political and social differences to manifest themselves on the surface. We have to be honest enough to tackle that, and not to hide it in the closet.” [...]

“When you look at Regensburg, what you see is a diplomatic response,” Esposito said. “For that, you could have the Secretary of State or the Minister of Foreign Affairs respond. You do not see a theological response. Some people are beginning to wonder, is the position of the Vatican going to be that one deals with the Muslim world in terms of diplomacy, but does not deal with Islam and with Muslims in terms of theological dialogue?”

“I think that you do have a strong school of thought in the Vatican which does not seem to believe that there can be a theological dialogue with Islam. It’s based on what I regard as an old theological position. In those days, the whole approach was that because Islam says that the Prophet is the final prophet and has the final revelation, therefore there can’t be any theological dialogue. It seems to me we’ve moved beyond that, at least we ought to move beyond that. But this is one of the questions that has arisen, and it has not been answered during this papacy.”

The Catholic Response

From Asia News, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, SJ provides his analysis of the letter, describing it as "a first positive step towards dialogue, which however needs to become more universal and more concrete. As Samir notes, this letter was put forth as an extension of the first letter, a reply to Benedict's Regensburg Address, sent exactly one year ago. The same date was chosen for its publication (13th October 2007), which this year coincided with the end of Ramadan. That the signatories to the letter have arisen from 38 to 138, encompassing religious leaders and scholars; not only Sunni and Shiite but "smaller groups, sects and even diverging trends" -- which, Samir hopes, "shows a concerted move towards a certain consensus."

Fr. Samir's analysis brings out much in the letter that those unfamiliar with Islam might overlook, and I recommend reading it in full. In his report on Catholic reactions to the letter, John Allen Jr. provides a helpful summary of Samir's observations, among them:

  • The letter does not depend upon any particular view of the status of Muhammad, but instead focuses on God and neighbor;
  • The text uses a Christian vocabulary, signaling a clear desire for dialogue. For example, Samir writes, the term “neighbor” is not used in the Qur’an in anything other than a geographic sense. Likewise, the Qur’an does not refer to the “love” of God so much as “obedience” or “adoration”;
  • Samir underscores the importance of the letter’s fundamental argument, that love of God and neighbor represents the common core of the two faiths: “This is the real novelty, which has never before been said by the Islamic world,” he writes;
  • The letter takes for granted that the Christian Bible is the Word of God, something theoretically affirmed by the Qur’an but in practice often contested by Muslims. In particular, the authors cite St. Paul, even though many Muslims view Paul as a traitor who corrupted the original “Islamic” message of Jesus. (Samir notes that one popular anti-Christian work in the Muslim world is titled precisely, “Unmasking Paul!”);
  • The letter cites a Qur’anic verse to the effect that God could have commanded everyone to belong to one religion, but instead he has permitted diversity, so that followers of different creeds may “vie with one another in good works.” Samir notes that this is the penultimate verse in the Qur’an in chronological order, so that it cannot be understood as abrogated. He calls it “a beautiful choice for ending the letter”
(Samir also offers some criticisms as well -- for instance, where the letter invites Christians to “consider Muslims not as being against them, but with them, on the condition that Christians do not declare war," he reminds Muslims that problems in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan are a political issue involving the United States, not the "Christian West":
Muslims tend to see the West as a Christian power, without ever realising the point to which the West has been secularised and far from Christian ethics. This line of thought strengthens the theory of a clash of cultures (or religions), right at a time when steps are being taken to fight such a theory!
Likewise, it is an open question as to how the Muslims will respond:
... considering that priests continue to be kidnapped, apostates persecuted, Christians oppressed? Up until now there has been no comment from the Islamic side. But I think that with time this document could create an opening and a greater convergence.
According to, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has promised a response to the letter:
“We shall certainly respond,” [Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran] said in an interview to Vatican Radio, “because it is a positive signal sent to Christians. As I have said before there are some new elements. For example, when they mention Jesus they quote the New Testament, not the Qur’an. The text itself is not polemical and contains many positive aspects.”

“There is a willingness to collaborate on peace through religion,” the prelate added. “The letter says that Muslims and Christians represent 55 per cent of the world’s population and this has great potential to contribute to peace in the world. The positive elements in this message must be taken up.”

Cardinal Tauran was interviewed recently by the French daily La Croix. He welcomed the Muslim letter with appreciation. Zeniw News reports:
Cardinal Tauran called the letter a "positive initiative, insofar as the text proposes cooperation based on common values: acknowledgement of one God, love of God for all mankind and the necessity to love one's neighbor."

"One aspect that struck me in a particular way is that, perhaps for the first time, the text signed by the Muslims presented Jesus of the Gospel with citations from the New Testament, and not from citations of the Koran," he added.

The cardinal also praised the appeal as "an eloquent example of a dialogue among spiritualities." He noted that the text was signed both by Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and "demonstrated that with good will and respectful dialogue, we can rise above prejudices." [...]

at the same time noting some impediments to fruitful dialogue:
The president of the dicastery said, however, that theological dialogue with Muslims would be difficult: "Muslims do not accept that one can question the Quran, because it was written, they say, by dictation from God. With such an absolute interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the contents of faith."
(Cardinal Praises Muslims for "Eloquent" Letter: Says Good Will Can Help to Overcome Prejudices Zenit News October 18, 2007).

Lastly, in an interview with Il Foglio, Cardinal Scola expressed high hopes:

[W]hat is of note is the number and quality of those who have signed the document. This is not only a media event, because consensus is for Islam a source of theology and law. . . . even if those who have signed avoided a juridical formulation to the document, it is still true that no text produced by the most extremist salafi groups has ever been able to claim a consensus equal to that witnessed by the 138 signatures at the bottom of the open letter."
while reminding the reader of its preliminary nature:
"One cannot ask of this document more than it can give. It is only the prelude to a theological dialogue, which, in an atmosphere of greater reciprocal esteem, proposes to investigate the contents of the two pillars (love of the one God and love of neighbour) in the two religious traditions."

Some Personal Thoughts

Reading the letter, I suppose it depends on how the reader receives the following:

. . . as Muslims, and in obedience to the Holy Qur’an, we ask Christians to come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions … that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God … (Aal ‘Imran, 3:64).

Let this common ground be the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us, for our common ground is that on which hangs all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:40).

Naturally Muslims and Christians will derive different meaning from the Scriptures and the sayings of Jesus. After all, Jesus' citation of the Shema ("the LORD our God, the LORD is one") and admonition to "love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength" -- will undoubtedly be read and understood by Jews and Muslims in a different light than our own.

According to the London Times (October 11, 2007):

The first reaction to the letter, from the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, a leading Anglican expert on Islam, appeared to be critical.

Dr Nazir-Ali, who was born in Pakistan, welcomed the Muslim scholars' deisire for a dialogue, but said that the appeal was based on the Muslim belief in the oneness of God.

"What I would say to that is that Christians uphold belief in one God vigorously but our understanding of the oneness of God is not the Muslim understanding," he told The Times. "We believe in God as source from whom everything is brought into being. Jesus is God's word and presence for us but is also human."

He added: "One partner cannot dictate the terms on which dialogue must be conducted. This document seems to be on the verge of doing that."

So, is this document to be understood as a call to conversion and an embrace of Islam? (The alternative being, what, the sword?)

Or, is this a call to move past diplomatic niceties and engage in serious interreligious dialogue, to increase and deepend our knowledge of each other and our religious convictions -- and yet, in spite of our fundamental theological disagreements, to:

". . . let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.
It is notable that the document concludes with a recognition -- a theological affirmation -- of religious pluralism:
And unto thee have We revealed the Scripture with the truth, confirming whatever Scripture was before it, and a watcher over it. So judge between them by that which God hath revealed, and follow not their desires away from the truth which hath come unto thee. For each We have appointed a law and a way. Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ. (Al- Ma’idah, 5:48)

Further Reactions to "A Common Word"

Muslim Responses to Benedict's Regensburg Address

Further sources in Christian-Muslim Dialogue

  • Bishops endorse Christian-Muslim dialogue, provide guidelines for improvement Catholic News Agency. October 15, 2007:
    An association of various national bishops' conferences in western Africa has issued a communiqué encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue as "the only way that we can truly cultivate respect for each other. [...]

    The letter states that Muslims and Christians share similar "fundamental religious values," which include belief in the uniqueness of God, the need for prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage. The bishops cited similar sexual morality as a ground for dialogue, since both faiths share belief in the dignity of the family and both condemn promiscuity, homosexuality, prostitution, and abortion.

    St. Francis and Christian-Muslim Relations Zenit interview with Lawrence Cunningham. March 29, 2006.

  • "Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Interreligious Dialogue" Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's talk to the Muslim Council of Wales on June 9 at the University of Cardiff.

  • Christian Muslim Dialogue - A Survey of Recent Developments, by Msgr. Michael L. Fitzgerald, M.Afr. April 10, 2000. A survey of recent developments between Christians and Muslims in the last 30 years.

  • "Deeper Ecumenism": An Approach to Inter-Spiritual Dialogue, by Stratford Caldecott. Oasis :
    In order to clarify the approach of the new pontiff to this dialogue between religions, there are at least two types of wider ecumenism which need to be distinguished from each other: let us call them "deep" and "shallow". Deep ecumenism is an engagement with what might be termed "difference in identity". In this case the believer approaches another religion in full fidelity to his own distinct religious identity, but with the willingness to seek a truth that transcends us all, aspects of which may be revealed in the other. Shallow ecumenism, by contrast, glosses over difference for the sake of superficial or pragmatic friendliness. Instead of difference in identity, it seeks diversity in equality. Though better than nothing, it is an approach which tends to bracket the real differences between self and other (perhaps out of a fear of facing them) along with the question of ultimate truth. At its extreme, this becomes a "least common denominator" ecumenism that concentrates only on what is common and discards all that distinguishes Christianity from other religions.
  • Christian-Muslim Relations in the 21st Century by Cardinal Francis Arinze. Talk given at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Georgetown University, Washington D.C., 5 June 1997.

  • The Challenges in Christian-Muslim Dialogue Bulletin 44, May 1992: - Fr. Elilas Mallon offers some food for thought concerning an over-emphasis on Muslims as an ally in the "culture war":
    As religions which are accustomed to being culturally and even politically dominant, Islam and Catholicism can look upon the Catholic–Muslim dialogue as a type of alliance against a third party. Whether that third party be atheism, communism, secular humanism, etc., the purpose of the dialogue becomes strategic. The dialogue becomes a subtle or perhaps not so subtle “you and me against them”. In a “you and me against them” situation, it is not important that I know who you are or that you know who I am. What is important is that both of us know whom we are against. This attitude, even in its subtlest forms, is fatal to interreligious dialogue as envisioned in all the documents published by the Roman Catholic Church and in the writings of Muslim intellectuals such as Mohammed Talbi, Mohammed Arkoun and others, as well as the work done by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue ...
    and the importance of understanding Islamic jurisprudence:
    A very important and long-term challenge to the Catholic–Muslim dialogue can be found in the attempt to understand each other’s theological methodologies. Although the term sounds particularly, if not peculiarly, Western, its import should not be overlooked. Through the centuries both Roman Catholicism and Islam have developed highly sophisticated methods of handling religious questions and of articulating their respective faiths. Disciplines such as exegesis, philosophy, moral reasoning and jurisprudence have enjoyed long histories in both traditions. It would be disastrous, however, to think that both traditions use and understand these disciplines in the same way. Islamic disciplines such as fiqh, kalam and tafsir are highly developed sciences with their own internal laws and logic, and which may or may not correspond without remainder to Roman Catholic Jurisprudence, theology and exegesis. Although this may seem somewhat academic, it has important consequences for the catholic Muslim dialogue, especially in the area of morality.

    It has been the case recently that Roman Catholics and Muslims find themselves on the same “side” in public discussions on matters of sexuality. Given a particular moral question, Roman Catholics and Muslims often arrive at similar or identical conclusions. It is mistaken, however, to believe that both Catholics and Muslims have arrived at the conclusion in the same way. It is of the utmost importance that both Catholics and Muslims understand how the other tradition theologizes. If there is not a thorough understanding of how the dialogue partner arrives at religious/moral conclusions, the stage is set for disillusion and a sense of betrayal. Without an understanding of how the dialogue partner theologizes, Catholics and Muslims become perplexed when, after having arrived at the same conclusion regarding one question their different methodologies lead them to radically different conclusions on other questions. Abortion, birth control, divorce, capital punishment and war are cases in point.

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