Update on the “Common Word” call for Muslim-Christian dialogue

January 22, 2008

a-common-word-2.gifJust because an issue has disappeared from the headlines doesn’t mean nothing’s happening with it. The “Common Word” appeal by 138 Muslim scholars for a dialogue with Christianity kept us busy late last year. It looked like the issue would rest until a Muslim delegation goes to visit the Vatican around March. But more comments keep coming up that add to the debate.

On the Muslim side, more scholars continue to sign the appeal, bringing the total up to 221 so far. More statements of support have come in from Christians as well. Three Christian responses stood out this month and highlight some potentially difficult points to discuss:

Church tower and mosque minaret in AmmanFr. Daniel Madigan S.J., a leading Catholic expert on Islam not heard until now on the appeal, has published “some initial reflections” in a new online journal called Thinking Faith. A few excerpts:

…A Common Word forms part of a larger project, focused in Jordan, to develop an authoritative consensus on what it means to be Muslim in our time. … In media terms, such reasoned and scholarly voices may be no match for the sabre-rattling diatribes that make for good television, but they deserve to be taken seriously and given the widest possible diffusion…

… the letter does open itself to a reductionist reading-one that Christians might want to examine more closely-when it says in part III, “Thus the Unity of God, love of Him and love of the neighbour form a common ground upon which Islam and Christianity (and Judaism) are founded.” There has been a slide from the unexceptionable affirmation earlier in the paragraph that the obligation to love God and one’s neighbour is a common element in the sacred texts of our traditions, to the more questionable claim that the dual commandment of love is the foundation of all three…

…Christians are assured in Part III that Muslims “are not against them and that Islam is not against them.” Then come the conditions (stipulated in Q 60:8): “so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.” … The letter’s reassurance that Islam and Muslims are not against Christians entails a fairly major conditional clause. This is surely an important focus for our continuing dialogue with the group of 138 and other Muslims…

Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.Another Catholic expert on Islam, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J., seems to get more critical about A Common Word the more he reads it. His latest analysis, called “Benedict XVI’s improbable dialogue with 138 Muslim scholars,” examines statements made since his initial positive reaction to the news of the appeal. Some excerpts:

…between February and March, personalities of the Vatican curia and of the Islamic world will meet in Rome to establish the procedures and subject matter of this dialogue. But it’s possible that all this work will go right down the drain. It seems to me, in fact, that the Muslim personalities who are in contact with the pope want to dodge fundamental and concrete questions, like human rights, reciprocity, violence, etc, to ensconce themselves in an improbable theological dialogue “on the soul and God”…

…(Prince Ghazi ibn Talal) reaffirms his commitment to collaboration on the theological and spiritual level. And there is an ambiguity here: Islam, more than Christianity, blends the theological with the political, and even with the military. And here they claim to speak only of the theological. …But honestly, this distinction cannot be made: the human and social consequences of theological positions cannot be avoided…

…In the modern state, the common foundation is expressed with the universal declaration of human rights, of freedom of religion, etc . . . In dialogue between Christians and Muslims, too, these must be taken as the basis of dialogue; otherwise we will achieve nothing. In the past, many Muslim theologians have rejected the universal declaration of human rights, and have drafted an “Islamic” declaration, accusing the “universal” one of being only “Western”. But this denies that there can be universality, and therefore denies that we can have common principles. This is the foundation of the conflict between the Islamic world and the West, or the rest of the world…

Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Mohammad bin Talal at a conference of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 4 Sept. 2007…the letter of Prince Ghazi seems to say, instead, that human rights are not important, and are only a political question. Only theological dialogue is of interest. But what good does it do to talk about the one God, if I do not recognise that man has an absolute dignity in the image of God? That freedom of conscience is sacred, that the believer has no more rights than the non-believer, that man has no more rights than woman, etc?…

It must be affirmed that man comes before religion: respecting man comes before respect for religion. This is the Christian approach…

On the Protestant side, R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has criticised U.S. Christian leaders for welcoming A Common Word with a full-page ad in the New York Times that asked for forgiveness for the Crusades. Some other evangelical leaders have also criticised the ad.

Pope Benedict and Mufti Mustafa Cagrici pray at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, Nov. 30, 2006Mohler says about the letter:

…I think it is confusing. Now, I want to be very clear: We should have nothing against a conversation. But I don’t think this is the way to get into the conversation. I didn’t sign the letter because I don’t understand how you apologize for the Crusades. I am sure that all kinds of sin went on with the Crusades on both sides. But I am not going to apologize for the Crusades because I am very thankful that the Muslim effort to reach a conquest of Europe was unsuccessful…

…We [Christians] understand God to be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We understand God to be a Trinity of three co-eternal persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we understand that Islam’s first statement about God is that He is one and that He has no Son. So, you can’t talk about the same god… The disagreement over Jesus Christ is no small thing…

As for more detailed Muslim reactions, Fr. Samir says: “I have seen just a few articles in Arabic, in the Arab and Islamic newspapers. None of these analysed the content of the letter of the 138.

Is there any discussion going on in the Arabic-language press or elsewhere in the Muslim world? Can anyone point us towards a serious discussion of the issues there?

3 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

The starting point of any dialogue must be that respect for man and associated core values is the first principle. The second principle should be that relegion is a purely private matter. The third principle is that reason is only way forward in a multicultural world and the reason should be consistent with core values.
If there is no agreement on these basic issues any dialogue is futile.

Posted by oioi | Report as abusive

Certainly reciprocity, violence, and human rights should be discussed as fundamental for peaceful co-existence.The Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation, and the exact status of Holy Books are however issues fundamental for Christianity. Should Muslims apologise for their invasion of Palestine, North Africa, Spain, and France a thousand years ago then Christians could apologise for their counter attack in the Crusades.

Posted by Realist | Report as abusive

The comments by “Realist” make it clear why this effort to facilitate peace is an almost impossible uphill struggle.

One can expect to get absolutely no where by insisting that leaders of another religion accept uniquely Christian doctrines such as the Incarnation and Trinity at the beginning, middle, or end of the discussions.

Sincere apologies for wrongs done are not a quid-pro-quo deal. You do something wrong, they you should own up to it and apologize, period. That is not contingent on someone else apologizing for something you think they did wrong.

Focusing so much on past events and actions is not productive to moving forward peacefully into the future. Finding common ground, values, goals, hopes is crucial.

Posted by Asinus Gravis | Report as abusive

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