FaithWorld » common word Religion, faith and ethics Thu, 03 Nov 2016 13:40:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Pope Benedict wins over German Muslims in first meeting since Regensburg speech Fri, 23 Sep 2011 13:35:43 +0000

Pope Benedict XVI (2nd L) talks with professor of Islamic theology Ali Dere (R), during a meeting with representatives of the Muslim community at the Papal Nuncio in Berlin September 23, 2011. The Bavarian-born pontiff is on a four-day visit to Germany, his third visit to his homeland since he took over as head of the Catholic church. REUTERS/Wolfgang Radtke

Pope Benedict told German Muslims in Berlin on Friday they can expect cooperation and support from Roman Catholics as long as they respect Germany’s constitution and the limits it sets on pluralism. Meeting representatives of the country’s four million Muslims, he said the constitution drawn up in post-war West Germany was solid enough to adapt to a pluralistic society in a globalised world and make room for new religions as well.

It sounded like the Bavarian-born pontiff was making a veiled reference to a debate in Germany over the past year over Muslim integration in Germany and whether  Muslims wanted sharia here, an issue discussed mostly on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Muslims last year that Islamic law had no place in Germany. “What applies here is the constitution, not sharia,” she declared. When he took office in March, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said the idea that “Islam belongs to Germany” — first mentioned by President Christian Wulff last year — “is not substantiated by history at any point.” A recent book “Richter ohne Gesetz” (Judges without Law) argues that Muslims are setting up a “parallel legal system” that is undermining German justice.

Muslim leaders didn’t hear it that way.  They  praised the pope for confirming through the meeting that Islam was now a part of German society and pointing towards new and expanded cooperation between Catholics and Muslims. But they said their loyalty to the constitution, a main point in his speech, was never in question. “As Muslims in Germany, we have always said that we see the German constitution as a good basis for peaceful life together,” Bekir Alboga, head of interreligious dialogue for the Turkish mosque association DITIB, told Reuters after meeting the pope.

“He was stressing that the constitution guarantees religious freedom and this applies to all,” said Mouhanad Khorchide, professor of Islamic studies at Münster University. “The Muslims who say they want sharia here are a very small minority and nobody takes them seriously. That is not our concern. ”

Alboga said the pope’s short address also represented a change from his controversial 2006 speech in Regensburg, where his use of a medieval emperor’s quote about Islam being violent and irrational sparked heated protests across the Muslim world. “The pope has now chosen a new approach in his meeting with Muslims,” he said. “I think one must look to the future and see where the possibilities for good cooperation are.”

(Pope Benedict XVI (2nd L) meets with representatives of the Muslim community at the Papal Nuncio in Berlin September 23, 2011S/Wolfgang Radtke)

Here is how Benedict presented his ideas about the constitution:

Many Muslims attribute great importance to the religious dimension of life. At times this is thought provocative in a society that tends to marginalize religion or at most to assign it a place among the individual’s personal choices.

The Catholic Church firmly advocates that due recognition be given to the public dimension of religious adherence. In an overwhelmingly pluralist society, this demand is not unimportant. Care must be taken to guarantee that others are always treated with respect. Mutual respect grows only on the basis of agreement on certain inalienable values that are proper to human nature, in particular the inviolable dignity of every single person.Such agreement does not limit the expression of individual religions; on the contrary, it allows each person to bear witness explicitly to what he believes, not avoiding comparison with others.

In Germany – as in many other countries, not only Western ones – this common frame of reference is articulated by the Constitution, whose juridical content is binding on every citizen, whether he belongs to a faith community or not.

Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, told reporters after the meeting: “My impression was that the pope wants to launch a new era of dialogue with Muslims. He made it clear that what Christians and Muslims have in common is greater than what separates us. Our mission now as Catholics, as Muslims is to give new stimulus to inter-faith dialogue in Germany, our country.”

During the meeting, Professor Khorchide delivered the Muslim address to the pope. He noted that the Vatican had founded a Catholic-Muslim Forum in 2008 with signatories of the Common Word manifesto on dialogue between the world’s two largest religions. “The Catholic-Muslim Forum, launched in 2008, stresses love of God and of one’s fellows as the central binding link between Islam and Christianity,” he said. “Expressed in Christian terms as love, and in Islamic terms as mercy, God therefore reveals Himself in love and mercy experienced and lived here and now in this world.” After quoting the Evangelist John and the Prophet Mohammed, he said to Benedict: “I wish to see Muslims and Christians growing in mutual understanding and in God’s love and mercy, and I would like to wish to you, Your Holiness, God’s blessing on this path.”


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Christian-Muslim crisis response group to defuse religious tensions Thu, 04 Nov 2010 21:24:19 +0000 wcc 1

(Photo: Christian and Muslim leaders at Nov 1-4, 2010 Geneva conference/WCC – Mark Beach)

Christian and Muslim leaders agreed on Thursday to set up “rapid deployment teams” to try to defuse tensions when their faiths are invoked by conflicting parties in flashpoints such as Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt or the Philippines. Meeting this week in Geneva, they agreed the world’s two biggest religions must take concrete steps to foster interfaith peace rather than let themselves be dragged into conflicts caused by political rivalries, oppression or injustice.

Among the organisations backing the plan were the World Council of Churches (WCC), which groups 349 different Christian churches around the world, and the Libyan-based World Islamic Call Society (WICS), a network with about 600 affiliated Muslim bodies. They would send Christian and Muslim experts to intervene on both sides in a religious conflict to calm tensions and clear up misunderstandings about the role of faith in the dispute.

“We call for the formation of a joint working group which can be mobilised whenever a crisis threatens to arise in which Christians and Muslims find themselves in conflict,” the leaders said in a statement after their four-day meeting.  “Religion is often invoked in conflict creation, even when other factors, such as unfair resource allocation, oppression, occupation and injustice, are the real roots of conflict. We must find ways to disengage religion from such roles and reengage it towards conflict resolution and compassionate justice,” said the statement issued in Geneva.

wcc 2Jordan’s Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought and the Common Word group of Muslim scholars promoting interfaith dialogue also backed the plan, which the scholars have been discussing with several Christian churches for the past two years.

(Photo: WCC Secretary General Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at the Nov 1-4, 2010 Geneva conference/WCC – Mark Beach)

“Rapid deployment peace teams are clearly needed today in light of the tragic recent conflicts in Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt and the Philippines, to name only a few countries,” said Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Kalam Research and Media centre in Dubai.

Religious clashes are frequent where Nigeria’s Christian south and Muslim north meet. Sunday’s Baghdad church bloodbath that killed 52 worshippers and police was the worst Islamist attack on Christians in Iraq’s seven-year sectarian war. Egypt’s Coptic Christians say they face growing intolerance from the Muslim majority. In the southern Philippines, Muslim guerrillas have been fighting for four decades for a homeland separate from the majority Catholic country.

Nayed, who participated in the Geneva meeting, said small teams of Muslim and Christian experts would be chosen to fly into a conflict region based on the influence they could have on their coreligionists among the rival parties.

“If the Anglicans are strong in one country, we would send in Anglicans. If Catholics are strong in another country, we’ll send in Catholics,” he said. Muslims would also be chosen for the links they might have with the local Islamic community. On-the-ground support for these missions would come from the WCC, which groups most non-Catholic Christian churches around the world, and the WICS, which has extensive contacts in Africa and Asia.

wcc 3The meeting condemned Sunday’s attack on the Baghdad church, saying it “contradicts all religious teachings” and “aimed at degrading Iraqi people, regardless of their religious affiliation, and defiling Christian and Islamic sacred places.”

(Photo: Speakers Farid Esack and Aref Ali Nayed at the Nov 1-4 2010 Gebeva conference/WCC – Mark Beach)

The meeting’s final declaration said the Christian and Muslim organisations agreed to “counter discrimination, abuse of laws and unjust legal restrictions on matters related to religious identity” and refuse “to allow religious or spiritual authority to justify discrimination and exclusion.”

It called for “relevant and balanced education about the religion of ‘the other’ at all levels and in appropriate formats, in curricula and text books and the training of religious and community leaders, teachers, lecturers and researchers, ideally provided by an adherent of that religion.” That would include “an interfaith resource book and joint teaching tools on Islam and Christianity for the use of religious teachers, imams and clergy, and their translation and dissemination worldwide.”

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Why did the U.N. proclaim World Interfaith Harmony Week? Fri, 22 Oct 2010 16:15:24 +0000 unga 1

(Photo: United Nations General Assembly hall, 23 Nov 2006/Jérôme Blum)

The United Nations General Assembly passes a stack of resolutions every year and many of them go all but unnoticed.  One such document just approved in New York established a new World Interfaith Harmony Week. High-minded resolutions put most news junkies to sleep, so it’s probably no surprise this one got such scant media coverage (see here and here). But there’s more to this one than meets the glazed-over eye.

muslims at synodThe resolution, accepted by consensus on Wednesday, urged all member states to designate the first week of February every year as the World Interfaith Harmony Week. It asked them to “support, on a voluntary basis, the spread of the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship during that week based on Love of God and Love of the Neighbour, or based on Love of the Good and Love of the Neighbour, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions.”

(Photo: Mohammad Sammak, secretary general of Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, addresses Vatican synod of bishops, 14 )ct 2010/Osservatore Romano)

Amid the standard legal wording of U.N. resolutions, that phrase “Love of God and Love of the Neighbour” stands out both as a rare example of religious belief in an official document like this and an unmistakable hint at the authorship of this text. Readers of this blog will recognise it as a trademark phrase of the Common Word group, the Muslim scholars who have been pursuing better interfaith understanding through dialogue with Christian churches. They’ve held a number of conferences with different churches and two of the manifesto’s signatories last week became the first Muslims to address a Vatican synod of bishops. Now the group is pursuing its mission on the diplomatic stage with an appeal to governments to help foster interfaith contacts.

king abdullah jordan

(Photo: King Abdullah at the United Nations, September 23, 2010/Jason Reed)

Jordan’s King Abdullah proposed the idea to the General Assembly on Sept. 23: “It is … essential to resist forces of division that spread misunderstanding and mistrust, especially among peoples of different religions. The fact is, humanity everywhere is bound together, not only by mutual interests, but by shared commandments to love God and neighbour, to love the good and neighbour … What we are proposing is a special week during which the world’s people, in their own places of worship, could express the teachings of their own faith about tolerance, respect for the other and peace.”

Before the vote on Wednesday, Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal presented the resolution to the General Assembly. In his speech (full text here),  Ghazi, who is coordinator of the Common Word group, provided details on the thinking behind this initiative. “Our world is rife with religious tension and, sadly, mistrust, dislike and hatred,” he said. “The misuse or abuse of religions can thus be a cause of world strife, whereas religions should be a great foundation for facilitating world peace.”

“Much good work has already been done towards this,” said the prince, who is the king’s personal envoy and special advisor. “Yet the forces inciting interreligious tensions (notable among them being religious fundamentalisms of various kinds) are better organised, more experienced, better coordinated, more motivated and more ruthless. They have more stratagems, more institutes, more money, more power and garner more publicity such that they by far outweigh all the positive work done by the various interfaith initiatives. The sad proof of this is that religious tensions are on the rise, not on the decline.”

pope and princeThe idea behind the resolution is to give religious leaders and thousands of interfaith groups around the world a common date to orgnise around. Ghazi described it as “harnessing and utilising the collective might of the world’s second-largest infrastructure (that of places of worship — the largest being that of education) specifically for peace and harmony in the world …”

(Photo: Prince Ghazi (R) and Pope Benedict in the King Hussein Bin Talal mosque in Amman May 9, 2009/Tony Gentile)

Then came an interesting part. The prince said the aim of the week was “permanently and regularly encouraging the silent majority of preachers to declare themselves for peace and harmony and providing a ready-made vehicle for them to do so … if preachers and teachers commit themselves on the record once a year to peace and harmony, this means that when the next interreligious crisis or provocation occurs, they cannot then relapse into parochial fear and mistrust, and  will be more likely to resist the winds of popular demagoguery …”

amman mosque churchThis is the same idea behind the Common Word manifesto, which aims to give a voice to a silent majority of Muslims who oppose religious extremism but don’t have a ready network to make their declarations heard. Around the world, there are countless groups and projects promoting dialogue and understanding among all sorts of religions, but their message isn’t always heard. Some of these dialogues are well organised, while many are simply local meetings that pass unnoticed outside the group of participants. At the same time, the opponents of interfaith harmony are, as Ghazi put it, “better organised, more experienced, better coordinated, more motivated and more ruthless.”

(Photo: Half-crescent of mosque and cross of Orthodox church in Amman, December 2, 2001/Ali Jarekji)

By launching World Interfaith Harmony Week, this little-noticed resolution aims to give those working for understanding and  dialogue a stronger voice as well. It’s a modest first step and we won’t know until next February (and the following February, and the Februarys after that) how much of an effect it will have. But at a time when the forces of religious intolerance are on the rise, as many headlines in our news service show, we can’t forget the many voices preaching the opposite message.

What do you think of this initiative?

interfaith group

(Photo: New YorkMuslim, Jewish, Christian and civic groups support a planned Muslim cultural center near the World Trade Center site, August 25, 2010/Lucas Jackson)

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GUESTVIEW: The Qur’an cannot be burned! Sun, 12 Sep 2010 17:12:19 +0000 The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Aref Ali Nayed is Director, Kalam Research & Media, Dubai.


By Aref Ali Nayed

Years ago, in Toronto, I read on the concrete walls of a highway bridge the following bold and sacrilegious message: “God is dead! Signed: Nietzsche,” and under it “Nietzsche is dead! Signed: God!”

(Photo: A woman reads the Koran in Srinagar , India, September 11, 2009/Fayaz Kabli)

Silly as the street message may be, it brings home a simple fact: God cannot be killed! Even as all else, including Nietzsche, dies, God remains. This is because for all theists, to put it starkly: God is God. God lives. Man dies.

Some human beings, through their hateful infidelity, may wish not to “let God be God,” as Karl Barth puts it. However, despite all such arrogance, God will indeed always be God! Similarly, His very Speech, the Qur’an, will always be His very Speech.

It is a Sunni Muslim central doctrine that the Qur’an is the eternal Speech (Kalam) of God. As an eternal divine attribute, the Qur’an cannot possibly be burned, no matter how hard Terry Jones and his likes may try. There cannot be a “Burn the Qur’an Day,”because, to put it simply:  The Qur’an cannot be burned!

koran 2Yes, the bound, handwritten or printed volume (Mushaf) expresses, indicates and signifies God’s very Speech (the Qur’an), and is, therefore, Sacred and Holy. That is why Muslims everywhere are deeply disturbed by the mad campaign of Terry Jones. They are deeply hurt and insulted because that which is most sacred to them is being targeted for such desecration and insult.

(Photo: Boys read the Koran in Mathura, India, August 23, 2009/K. K. Arora)

However, burning even a thousand Mushafs, which is of course physically possible, will not achieve the senseless goal of burning of the Qur’an. As an Attribute of God Himself, the Qur’an, for the Muslim, is eternal (qadim) and everlasting (baqi).

But what Terry Jones’s irresponsible and hateful stunt will certainly achieve is a worsening of communal relations at a time when we all should be striving for peace. Already, his inflammatory rhetoric and theatrics are communally undermining the advocates of such peace-making initiatives as ‘A Common Word,’ and making angry youth even more susceptible to the Manichean recruitment arguments of terrorist groups.

As sincere Muslims, Christians and Jews strive to ”build bridges”, Terry Jones has already started to burn them. He has already managed to deeply hurt ordinary, compassionate and law-abiding Muslims all over the world, because the Qur’an is so central to their lives. The momentum Jones has unleashed is further marginalizing a Muslim community that is already facing a colossal stigma in the West due to ever growing hate and victimization.

koran 4Burning or desecrating sacred scriptures and sacred symbols is as irresponsible and hurtful as tampering with nuclear materials. Religious symbols and sacred scriptures are the core spiritual fuels of the lives of millions of faithful men and women, of all world religions. Such symbols and scriptures should always be treated with respect and care. One cannot claim to respect the dignity of human beings and at the same time undermine the dignity of their religious symbols and scriptures.

(Photo: A man reads the Koran in Srinagar, September 16, 2008./Fayaz Kabli)

Although, as God’s very Speech, the Qur’an is safe from any attempt to burn it, our communities are not. There is a need to protect our communities, and especially America, from the danger of degenerating into the fires of hateful and resurgent and repackaged neo-Nazism, and irrational reactions to it.

Let us never forget that on April 6th, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit” that called for a literary purge of cleansing (Säuberung) by fire. Soon after, on May 10th, 1933, university students burned more than 25,000 volumes of “un-German books”. Soon after that, the burning of actual human beings, our Jewish brothers and sisters, began, in the horrific fires of the Shoah (Holocaust).*

koran 3

Stopping Terry Jones is not about saving the Qur’an from being burned. The Qur’an cannot be burned, no matter how hard Jones may try, for its preservation is divinely guaranteed. It is about saving America and the world, from a neo-Nazism that is now clearly on the rise, having repackaged itself by re-focusing its hateful wrath onto Islam and Muslims, and that works in a deeply worrying mirroring dynamics with its counterpart: terrorist groups that distort and abuse Islam to justify their criminal designs and actions.

(Photo: Pilgrims read the Koran near Mecca, Saudi Arabia,  December 7, 2008/Ahmed Jadallah)

In addition to anti-terrorism efforts, there is also an urgent need for a fresh “denazification” campaign, through which Jews, Christians, Muslims and all men and women of good faith, expose neo-Nazism for what it is: criminal, and dehumanizing hate that hides behind such high values as “free speech.”

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Muslim scholars recast jihadists’ favourite fatwa Wed, 31 Mar 2010 18:29:29 +0000 magnifying koran

An Indonesian Muslim uses magnifying glass to read Koran verses printed on lamb parchment, Jakarta, July 27, 2005/Beawiharta

Prominent Muslim scholars have recast a famous medieval fatwa on jihad, arguing the religious edict radical Islamists often cite to justify killing cannot be used in a globalized world that respects faith and civil rights.  A conference in Mardin in southeastern Turkey declared the fatwa by 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyya rules out militant violence and the medieval Muslim division of the world into a “house of Islam” and “house of unbelief” no longer applies.

Osama bin Laden has quoted Ibn Taymiyya’s “Mardin fatwa” repeatedly in his calls for Muslims to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and wage jihad against the United States.

Referring to that historic document, the weekend conference said: “Anyone who seeks support from this fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation.  “It is not for a Muslim individual or a Muslim group to announce and declare war or engage in combative jihad … on their own,” said the declaration.  Click here for my full report on it.

mardin 6

Habib Ali Al-Jifri, Director, Tabah Foundation, Abu Dhabi (L) and Abdullah Omar Naseef, President of the World Muslim Congress, Saudi Arabia (R), 27 March 2010/Sohail Nakhooda

The declaration is the latest bid by mainstream scholars to use age-old Muslim texts to refute current-day religious arguments by Islamist groups. A leading Pakistani scholar issued a 600-page fatwa against terrorism in London early this month. Another declaration in Dubai this month challenged the religious justification for violence used by Islamist rebels in Somalia and calling for peace and reconciliation there (more on that here).

Fatwas may not convince militants, but they can help keep undecided Muslims from supporting them, the scholars say. Because Islam has no central authority to define the faith in all its details, militants who hijack it by twisting texts for their own purposes need to be confronted by moderates who cite chapter and verse to refute them.

Outside the Muslim world, declarations like these risk the fate of trees that fall in the forest when nobody’s listening. This conference was held in Mardin, a medieval town near the Syrian border, and the media present were mostly Turkish and Arabic speakers. It got good coverage in the Turkish press and Al-Jazeera television ran extensive footage in Arabic.  But getting the message out to the rest of the world, including the majority of Muslim who speak neither Arabic nor Turkish, means getting it out in English.

Mustafa Akyol, an Istanbul journalist and blogger known to readers of this blog, was there writing in English for the Hürriyet Daily News. And one of the main speakers was Aref Ali Nayed, another name regular FaithWorld readers will recognise, whose Kalam Research & Media theological think tank provided the quick English translation of the final declaration. They helped complement the basic information provided by the conference organisers.

Akyol explained the significance of Ibn Taymiyya’s famous fatwa like this:

The way Ibn Taymiyya denounced the Mongol rulers of his time, who claimed to be Muslim but fell short of implementing the Islamic Shariah, has provided justification for some radical groups to denounce Muslims they view as less strict as ‘apostates’.

mardin 8 ceric

Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, 27 March 2010/Sohail Nakhooda

“The jurist’s division of the world into the ‘Abode of Islam’ and the ‘Abode of War’ – and his view that a place is not really a part of former unless it implements Shariah – have also inspired fundamentalists dedicated to establishing ‘Islamic states’ in predominantly Muslim countries.”

He also quoted Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia, on the conference theme of the need for a new interpretation of old texts. “Most ulema [Islamic scholars] have a problem,” he said. “They know the classical texts very well, but they don’t know the contemporary world that much.” During Ibn Taymiyya’s time, there was no concept of international law based on human rights. 

“Today the world is so different. The Bosnian Muslims who took refuge in European countries such as Sweden found there the rights and privileges that they would not exactly find in Muslim countries… There is no such thing as an Islamic state. There are only states that provide justice, freedom and security and those that do not.”

Nayed, who like Ceric is a leading voice in the Common Word group for Muslim-Christian dialogue, developed this theme of the new world context for Islam in his address “Duties of Proximity: Towards a Theology of Neighbourliness” (PDF here). It ‘s an eloquent refutation to militants who dream of Islamising western countries or recreating a caliphate: “Islam must never be conceived of merely geographically, because it is beyond geography…We must never reduce the abode of peace to a worldly dar al-Islam, conceived of as merely a geographically distinct empire or state.”

mardin 14

Kalam Research & Media Director Aref Ali Nayed (L) and Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah. Director of Global Centre for Renewal and Guidance, 28 March 2010/Sohail Nakhooda

Rather than vilifying life in the West, Nayed said, Muslims must realise that “it is a fact that today many liberal environments are actually more conducive to Muslim living and worshiping than many so-called ‘Muslim countries’. As a matter of fact many Muslims today are actually forced to move to non-Muslim countries because of political or economic insecurity. At least up to 9/11, and in many places, even after it, many ‘non-Muslim’ countries fare quite better than many so-called ‘Muslim countries’, and even ‘Muslim states’, in allowing Muslim living.”

“We must not see secular liberalism as hostile to Islam. We must help secularisms mature to become more and more accepting of religious values in life. Much has been lost because of the lumping together of all sorts of secularism under the negative generic rubric of ‘almaniyya’ (Arabic for secularism). A great deal of discernment and wisdom is called for in this regard.”

What do you think of this declaration? Will it make a difference?

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POLL: The world’s top 500 Muslims? Read and vote Tue, 17 Nov 2009 22:10:33 +0000 500-most

If you’ve ever been confused by Muslim names you read in the news or unsure who’s important in the Islamic world, help is near. A new book entitled “The 500 Most Influential Muslims – 2009″ lists prominent Muslims from different fields — politics, religion, women, media, even radicals — with informative short biographies explaining who they are. It starts with an overall “top 50″ list and then surveys the most prominent Muslims in their fields. Here it is in PDF.

The book, edited by Professors John Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin at Georgetown University in Washington, is the first in what is planned to be an annual survey of the top Muslim personalities around the world. It’s a joint effort by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Amman and Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Esposito is director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center and Kalin is spokesman for the Common Word dialogue initiative we’ve written about on this blog before.

As the editors say in their introduction: “Influence in the Muslim world is particular to its context. There is not a clear hierarchy or organised clergy for Muslims to identify a leader, such as a patriarch for Orthodox Christians or a pope for Catholics.” They took a mix of factors into account in working out their top 50 list and have even asked readers to send in suggestions for next year’s list. You can vote for your candidate for “most influential Muslim” in the poll at the bottom of this post.

(UPDATE: The online poll has been closed after more than 1.8 million votes but comments are still open. See the results below.)

abdullahSo who are the world’s most influential Muslims, according to this book? Here are the top 10:

1. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, king of Saudi Arabia, custodian of the two Holy Mosques
2. Grand Ayatollah Hajj Sayyid Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran
3. King Mohammed VI, king of Morocco
4. King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
5. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of the republic of Turkey
6. Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id al Sa’id, sultan of Oman
7. Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hussein Sistani, Marja of the Hawza, Najaf
8. Sheikh Al Azhar Dr Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, grand sheikh of the Al Azhar University, grand imam of Al Azhar Mosque
9. Sheikh Dr Yusuf Qaradawi, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars
10. Sheikh Dr Ali Goma’a, grand mufti of the Arab Republic of Egypt

(Photo: Saudi King Abdullah, 17 Nov 2009/Philippe Wojazer)

A few initial comments about these 10 andthe other 40 (check the PDF for the full list):

— Lots of kings and sultans crowding the top of the full list, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan the highest elected politician (5th). “Influential” is clearly interpreted broadly here, including political, religious and other types of influence.

— The first solely religious leader is Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (7th), and even he has political power behind the scenes.

Fethullah Gülen, who won an Internet poll on “the world’s top public intellectuals ” in Foreign Policy magazine last year apparently thanks to a click-in campaign by his supporters, still comes a strong 13th.

— The heads of Hezbollah (Seyyed Hasan Nasrallah, 17th) and Hamas (Khaled Mashaal, 34th) are also listed.

— The highest-ranking American (and highest-ranking convert, it seems) at 38th place is Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, founder of the Zaytuna Institutein Berkeley, California. Right after him comes the highest-ranking European, Sheikh Mustafa Ceric, grand mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

aqkhan— Even Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist behind Islamabad’s nuclear program who sold nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, gets ranked (46th).

(Photo: Abdul Qadeer Khan, 28 Aug 2009/Mian Khursheed)

Beyond the top 50, there are chapters on leading Muslims in different fields but no ranking. So Osama bin Laden is there under “radicals,” Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) under “arts and culture” and microcreditor Mohammad Yunus under “development”. There are short essays on Islam and the Muslim world. All in all, an excellent reference work.

What do you think? Who is the most influential Muslim in the world? To give us your own view, enter the name of your choice into the box below. The poll will automatically tally the answers and produce a top 10 according to the number of votes each person receives.

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“Common Word” aims for “common deed” for peace Wed, 07 Oct 2009 23:29:56 +0000 20091007commonword3

(Photo: Common Word conference with (from left) former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Georgetown University Professor John Esposito, Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik and former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, 7 Oct 2009/Georgetown University – Phil Humnicky)

Will a common word lead to a common deed? That’s the challenge that the “Common Word” group of Islamic scholars has posed at its fourth major Muslim-Christian dialogue conference now underway at Georgetown University in Washington. The group, which next week marks the second anniversary of its launch, has broken the ice with Christian leaders and fostered a lively and fruitful interchange with them. But it always said its goal was not simply to have more harmonious conferences among theologians. They want to make a real impact lessening tensions between Christians and Muslims out in the real world.

blairFormer British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, clearly endorsed this aim at the opening session on Wednesday. “The single most important thing is the translation of words into deed,” he told about 600 people attending the conference. “We’ve got to show — not by a dialogue among the elites, although it is very important that the key people come together — but actually building bridges among people.”

(Photo: Tony Blair, 14 May 2009/Jason Reed)

Blair reminded his audience that many people think religion is not a solution but rather the problem in conflicts around the world. To counter this, he said, people of faith must not only foster understanding among believers but also refute the critics of faith.  “If we show by our actions that we are engaged in understanding and respect and justice, that is how we will succeed,” he said. “And that is what will overcome not just the extremism within religion but the cynicism outside of it.”

Readers of this blog may remember our reporting from the Middle East last May, when we pointed out that the same Pope Benedict who had hinted at a deep suspicion of Islam in his 2006 Regensburg speech had changed his tune and was borrowing the Common Word group’s arguments to argue for deeper Christian-Muslim dialogue. That was no small achievement itself — just ask yourself: how many Catholic theologians were able to change Cardinal Ratzinger’s mind? — but the group has higher ambitions.


(Photo: Prince Ghazi and Pope Benedict at the Jesus Baptismal Site on the River Jordan, 10 May 2009)

Our present conference is not idly – I hope! – entitled ‘A Global Agenda for Change’,” Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed, chief architect of the Common Word project, said in a message to the conference. “Rather, its purpose is to examine and chart out some concrete, practical, and, more importantly, actionable ideas that we can bring to fruition based perhaps on the principles of ‘A Common Word’ and the Two Greatest Commandments. In other words, we want to move, God Willing, from ‘traction’ to ‘trickledown’, and we want to start this here.”

Reviewing the first two years of the Common Word initiative, Prince Ghazi noted, on the positive side, “the apparent thaw in relations between Muslims and the Vatican, coupled with H.M. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s interfaith initiative, and President Obama’s Cairo Speech on June 4th 2009 – all this being reflected in the latest Pew polls which show a slight lessening of animosity between Christians and Muslims globally.” He also praised initiatives by supporters of the Common Word such as London Church of England Bishop Richard Chartres’s St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation or Miroslav Volf’s Reconciliation Program at Yale University. He said a Common Word “sub-office” had opened in the Pakistani capital Islamabad to promote Muslim-Christian understanding in a country where the Christian minority is under attack.


But he added that “Muslims and Christians as a whole still harbour deep and dangerous animosities and prejudices towards each other. Moreover, even if we were to agree that the situation is better in Iraq now than two years ago, we must admit that it is worse in Afghanistan and that a new war has opened up in Pakistan, which in turn has been manipulated to commit murders against the native Christians there, such as recently happened in Gojra.” In the southern Philippine province of Mindanao, he said, the collapse of a planned peace deal had led to renewed fighting with thousands killed and around a million refugees or displaced people. “In short, we are still a long way away from where we could and should be,” he said.

(Photo: Pakistani Christians bury victims of attack by Muslims in Gojra, 2 Aug 2009/Mohsin Raza)

What do you think? How can Muslims and Christians use interfaith understanding to foster practical steps towards peace in the world?

Click here to watch the video of the first session, with addresses by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Georgetown University Professor John Esposito, Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik and former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, as well as a Q&A session.

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Will the Nobel Peace Prize go to a religious leader this year? Tue, 06 Oct 2009 11:32:36 +0000 nobel-ceremony

(Photo: Nobel Peace Prize 2008 award ceremony, 10 Dec 2008/Ints Kalnins)

The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Oslo. What are the odds that a religious leader will win? I checked with our bureau in Oslo for the latest buzz.

“The Peace Nobel is basically a guessing game,” chief correspondent Wojciech Moskwa warned. A total of 205 individuals and organisations were nominated this year and a record number remained on the secret short list late last month, he learned in an interview with Geir Lundestad, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute. Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, French-Colombian politician and former hostage Ingrid Betancourt, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do and various U.N. organisations have gained traction as possible nominees, but Lundestad firmly declined to comment on the speculation.

prio-logoBy contrast, the independent International Peace Research Institute (PRIO) in Oslo publishes its own picks and it named Colombian peace activist Piedad Cordoba, Jordanian interfaith dialogue pioneer Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal and Afghan human rights activist Sima Samar as its favourites. “PRIO does not appear to have any special inside track, but they have on occasion been right,” said Moskwa.

Readers of this blog will recognise the name of Prince Ghazi, author of the interfaith dialogue manifesto “A Common Word Between Us And You.” That document, initially signed by 138 Muslim scholars and addressed to the leaders of all main Christian churches around the world, marked a fresh approach in interfaith dialogue by stressing two common core principles in Islam and Christianity. As the group says on its website: “Simply put, it is about the Two Golden Commandments: Love of God and Love of Neighbor, and it is an invitation to join hands with Christians on such a basis, for the sake of God and for the sake of world peace and harmony.” In an unusual departure, the document based its argument on quotes from both the Bible and the Koran, opening a new path for the world’s two largest faiths to communicate with each other.

Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of the Common Word initiative, 29 July 2008/Tom HeneghanThe Common Word group, by now expanded to 305 signatories, has held several conferences with Christian leaders and theologians to explore this new path. One is taking place this week at Georgetown University in Washington. Perhaps the most notable example of its influence was the way Pope Benedict spoke about Islam during his visit to the Middle East last May. His 2006 Regensburg speech, which implied Islam was a violent and irrational faith, so upset and angered the Muslim world that 38 Muslim scholars addressed an initial letter to him in October 2006 correcting some misinterpretations and requesting a dialogue. When no response came from the Vatican, they issued the Common Word document in October 2007 with 138 signatories. They held a successful conference with the Vatican in November 2008 and, in May 2009, Pope Benedict essentially embraced their approach and used their arguments in appealing for more Christian-Muslim dialogue.

(Photo: Prince Ghazi at a Common Word conference at Yale University, 29 July 2008/Tom Heneghan)

“Interfaith dialogue is certainly part of the “bridge building” that the Nobel committee cherishes so much,” Moskwa told me. “They may also like to award a moderate Islamic scholar, especially one whose initiatives are referred to as a ‘theological counter-attack against terrorism.’ Since 9/11, the list of Nobel laureates clearly shows a bigger focus by the Nobel committee on the Muslim world. Prince Ghazi is an interesting candidate, although his name has not been widely mentioned in the Nobel context before PRIO published its picks.”

The other religious leader mentioned is Venerable Thich Quang Do, Patriarch of the outlawed United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, who seems to have been nominated several times since 2000.  The Rafto Foundation of Norway, which sometimes anticipates the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded him its annual human rights prize in 2006. Quang Do has long been held under house arrest in his monastery near Ho Chi Minh City, accused of possessing state secrets. He denies that charge and Hanoi denies he is under house arrest or that it represses religion. Now 80, he was first arrested by the Communist authorities in 1977 and has been in and out of jail several times for protesting against restrictions on religion and the forced unification of Buddhist groups into a state-run church.  He was put under his present house arrest in 2001.

thich-quang-doThich Quang Do seems to get attention as a Nobel candidate year after year, but it’s not clear if the committee would pick another Buddhist leader after the Dalai Lama won in 1989. Two decades is usually not that long, in Nobel time,” Moskwa said.

(Photo: Thich Quang Do in a 1 April 1999 file photo)

Father Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo was the last person of cloth to get the prize in 1996, when he shared it for peace work in East Timor, Moskwa added. Other religious laureates include Bishop Desmond Tutu in 1984, Mother Teresa in 1979, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, Dominican Georges Pire in 1958 and Quaker groups (The Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee) in 1947.

Another Reuters Nobel watcher in Oslo, our Environment Correspondent Alister Doyle, has been checking out the prospects of a “green” winner but the fact that environmentalists won in 2007 (Al Gore and the U.N. Climate Panel) and 2004 (Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai) might work against another one now.

But the uncertainty continues. “There is no rotation (of themes), as there is no rotation as far as geography is concerned,” Lundestad told Reuters.

What do you think? Do you have a favourite religious leader you think deserves the Nobel Peace Prize? Has he or she been nominated — and if not, why not?

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GUESTVIEW: Obama speech not historic, but could become so Thu, 04 Jun 2009 21:52:41 +0000 obama-speaks1

(Photo: President Obama speaks at Cairo University, 4 June 2009/Larry Downing)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Miroslav Volf is director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and a theology professor at Yale Divinity School, where he co-teaches a course on faith and globalization with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A native of Croatia and member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., he has been involved in international ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, most recently in Christian-Muslim dialogue.

By Miroslav Volf

I am tempted to say that in Cairo President Obama delivered an historic speech on relations between “the United States and Muslims around the world.” Speeches aren’t historic when they are delivered, however; they become historic after they’ve shaped history. What is certain even now, mere few hours after the speech, is that it was brilliant — visionary and practical, deeply human and political, moral and pragmatic, all at the same time. These wise words, beautifully crafted and compellingly delivered, have the potential of becoming seeds from which a new future will sprout and flourish.

The perspective that pervades the whole speech was signaled when the President recognized his own Christian faith, while at the same time noting that his father came from a family that includes generations of Muslims. Thus, in his own biography, the President embodies what his speech was ultimately about: relations between the United States and Muslims around the world should not be defined simply by “our differences” but by “overlaps” and “common principles” as well. This point is crucial. In encounter with others, if we see only differences, the result is exclusion; if we see only commonalities, the result is distortion. Only when we see both-undeniable differences that give others a peculiar character and commonalities that bind us together-are we able to honor both others and ourselves.

Yale Divinity School Professor Miroslav Volf, 25 July 2008/Tom HeneghanEspecially since September 11th, many in the West deny that there are commonalities between Christianity and Islam or between Western Judeo-Christian and Islamic civilizations. They see only differences, envisioning the West as bathed in soft welcoming light and Islam enveloped in forbidding darkness.

Photo: Professor Miroslav Volf at Yale, 25 July 2008/Tom Heneghan)

It is then no surprise that they speak of clashes: Yahweh vs. Allah, reason vs. violence, human rights vs. tyranny, religious freedom vs. persecution. Now, the differences are undeniable, and we can certainly point to cases in which they take the form of immoral practices. Yet a denial of commonalities is born out of fear, and rests not on truth but on distortion. And with distortions it is as with violence: as the President said, engaging in them is “not how moral authority is claimed, [but] how it is surrendered.” While we must honor differences and decry abuses of rights when they occur; in order to be truthful, we must affirm commonalities and, where appropriate, praise the virtues of others.

Martin Luther — not the Martin Luther King of the “beloved community,” but the fierce and uncompromising Protestant reformer from the sixteenth century — was well known for his unsparingly dysphemistic language. Muslim Turks, and not just Catholics, Jews, and Anabaptists, were often his target. Yet he praised not only the obvious intellectual and cultural achievements of the Muslim world, but also its moral virtues. Even as the armies of the mighty Suleiman the Magnificent were laying siege to Vienna, Luther wrote that, as far as “good customs and good works” were concerned, “the Turks are far superior to our Christians.” It took courage and honesty to state the truth.

What we need in relations between Muslims and Christians today more than ever is the courage be truthful — about positive as well as negative things. Early on in the speech, the President committed himself to speaking the truth as best he could. At least one prominent Muslim wrote to me saying that the President succeeded — his speech was “fair.” But truth was not the only concern of the President. He ended the speech with the call that we follow the Golden Rule — “that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” That rule itself is an expression of care for others, of benevolence and beneficence toward them. Truth is an indispensable foundation upon which the bridge between estranged people can be built. But truth is not yet that bridge. To build the bridge, you need to seek actively the good of others as you would want them actively to seek your own good.


(Photo: Palestinians in Hebron watch President Obama’s speech, 4 June 2009/Nayef Hashlamoun)

The “Common Word” initiative, which originated in Jordan under leadership of HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, has at its core the affirmation that the love of God and neighbor is not only central for both Christianity and Islam, but that the joint affirmation of this commonality is the key to peace between Muslims and Christians. It is a bit unfortunate that the President did not mention this initiative in his speech, especially since he made reference to Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s “Interfaith Dialogue” and Turkey’s leadership in the “Alliance of Civilizations.” For the thrust of the final remarks in his own speech read like an echo of the “Common Word” — an initiative which is very much in tune with deep religious sensibilities of both Muslims and Christians, and which recognizes differences while centering on commonalities.

Both the “Common Word” initiative and President Obama’s speech have much to offer a world seeking religious reconciliation and peace. For people of different faiths to repair their relations and to live in peace, it takes “love” for the neighbor and “doing to others as we would have them do unto us,” not just pursuing our own interests. With this in mind, I would suggest a threefold agenda for improving relations between Muslims and Christians in the coming years:

(1) offer compelling arguments for and disseminate widely the idea that, notwithstanding the undeniable differences, there are significant overlaps in theological and moral convictions of Muslims and Christians;

(2) show that one of these significant overlaps is that both these faiths, properly understood, teach their adherents to love their neighbors of whatever faith these neighbors may be;

(3) promote joint engagement in service, so that the love of neighbor may find concrete expression.

These agenda items do not, of course, address directly any of the practical problems which the President named in his speech and which bedevil relations between the United States and Muslims around the world-extremist violence, war in Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian relations, or equality of women, to name only a few. But progress on these items would create a solid platform on which workable solutions could be found.


(Photo: President Obama’s speech seen in Tel Aviv electronics shop, 4 June 2009/Gil Cohen Magen)
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Pope Benedict slowly learns how to dialogue with Muslims Thu, 14 May 2009 17:21:09 +0000 pope-in-dome

(Photo: Pope Benedict with Muslim leaders in Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, 12 May 2009/Osservatore Romano)

“Branded an implacable foe of Islam after his landmark Regensburg speech in 2006, Pope Benedict has shown during his current Holy Land tour that he is slowly learning how to dialogue with Muslims.

“While media attention has focussed on Jewish criticism of his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Benedict’s speeches to Muslims have used classic Islamic terms and new arguments that resonate with Muslims and ease the quest for common ground.

“This new tone may not erase the memory of the Regensburg speech many Muslims took as an insult, because it implied Islam was violent and irrational. But Islamic, Jewish and Catholic clerics told Reuters it marked a shift in his thinking that could help the world’s two largest faiths get along better…”

My analysis for the Reuters wire (read the whole article here) will sound familiar to readers of the blog because I already flagged the ideas here in the posts At Dome of Rock, Benedict uses Muslims’ argument to Muslims and Benedict’s “anti-Regensburg” speech in Amman mosque. But turning these reporters’ observations into an analysis for Reuters requires more than just my observations. So I spent a few hours yesterday calling interfaith dialogue experts to hear their reactions to Benedict’s speeches.

There were a few interesting observations I couldn’t squeeze into the wire story because of the strict length limitations we have there. For example, Fr. Roucou felt that Benedict’s speech at the Dome of the Rock was “a bit too philosophical” because it didn’t have anything specifically Christian in it. “It’s too bad in the speeches to the Muslims that there were no references to Jesus and the Gospels,” he said. “It’s all about the Creator God. That’s fine — I don’t want to get the Gospels in there at any price. But in his speeches to Jews, Benedict quoted the Psalms.”

Noting the way Benedict seemed to be connecting with Muslims but having a harder time with Jews, especially Israeli public opinion, Imam Hendi said: “The fact that the Holy See can talk to Muslims doesn’t mean it can’t talk to Jews. I want Jews and Muslims and Christians around the table for dialogue. It can never be complete if Jews aren’t part of the dialogue.” The way that Benedict built upon the Common Word appeal for dialogue “creates a wonderful momentum. I believe he’s doing the right thing and I believe we can move forward”.

Given the seven-hour time difference between Jerusalem and New York, I first emailed Rabbi Visotzky to ask when was the best time to call. In addition to setting a time for our talk, he also sent along an interesting observation about how important it is in interfaith dialogue to use terms the others know or define terms so they can understand them: “One must learn the language of “the Other” in order to enter dialogue. It helps in a variety of ways, not the least of which is to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. To wit, when I was meeting with a group of Saudi Imams, the U.S. State Dept. translator gently explained to me that although I knew what I meant when I used the term Zionist (and it was a positive thing), they heard it as a very negative term. Once I defined it to them, we were able to move on…”

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