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A Common Word wins the Eugen Biser Award

In the Name
of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

May Peace
and Blessings be upon the Prophet Muhammad

Eugen Biser
Award Ceremony Speech

22/11/2008

Ghazi bin Muhammad

“A Common
Word Between Us and You”:

Theological
Motives and Expectations

Professor
Dr. Eugen Biser; Your Highnesses, Eminencies and Excellencies; dear
friends; ladies and gentlemen,

Al-Salaamu
Alaykum, Pax Vobiscum;

In
the middle of the eastern Jordanian desert, in a place called Safawi,
miles away from anything, from any landmark or any human traces, there
stands a unique, solitary tree. This tree is around 1500 years old and
there are no other trees to be seen for dozens of miles in any direction.
Despite its age and breadth, it is only about 6-8 meters tall. It is
a butum tree, a kind of pistachio tree to be found in our part
of the world. I will come back to the significance of this tree in a
few moments, God Willing, but for now I want to say that it was in fact
under this tree that A Common Word was born. For in September
2007, one month before the launch of A Common Word, I had the
privilege to visit this tree twice, once in the company of a number
of the scholars behind the Common Word initiative (including Shaykh
Habib Ali, who is here today), and it was under this tree that we prayed
to God (or at least I did) to grant A Common Word success.

I
have been asked now to speak about “A Common Word Between Us and
You”: Theological Motives and Expectations. So let me address
these three elements in order, starting with an explanation and a review
of “A Common Word Between Us and You”, then discussing the
Theological Motives behind it, and finally revealing our expectations
in issuing it.

(Part
I) “A Common Word Between Us and You”:

A Review
One Year On.

Over
the last year since the A Common Word initiative was launched,
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say it has become the world’s
leading interfaith dialogue initiative between Christians and Muslims
specifically. It was launched on October 13th 2007 initially
as an open letter signed by 138 leading Muslim scholars and intellectuals
(including such figures as the Grand Muftis of Egypt, Syria, Jordan,
Oman, Bosnia, Russia and Istanbul) to the leaders of the Christian Churches
and denominations of the entire world, including His Holiness Pope Benedict
XVI. In essence it proposed, based on verses from the Holy Qur’an
and the Holy Bible, that Islam and Christianity share, at their core,
the twin ‘golden’ commandments of the paramount importance of loving
God and loving one’s neighbor. Based on this joint common ground,
it called for peace and harmony between Christians and Muslims worldwide.

Since
its launch in October 2007, over 60 leading Christian figures gradually
responded to it in one form or another, including His Holiness Pope
Benedict XVI; His Beatitude Orthodox Patriarch Alexi II of Russia; Archbishop
of Canterbury the Very Reverend Dr Rowan Williams, and the head of the
Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Mark Hanson (see: ‘Christian Responses’
at www.acommonword.com). On November 2007, over 300 leading
US Evangelical leaders also responded to it in an open letter in the
New York Times, and over the course of 2008 the Muslim Scholars
signing the initiative swelled to around 300, with over 460 Islamic
organizations and associations also endorsing it. It has led to a number
of spontaneous local grass-roots and community-level initiatives all
over the world in places as far apart as India, Bangladesh, Canada,
the USA, and Great Britain (see: ‘New Fruits’ at www.acommonword.com), and we keep hearing informal reports
of other activities based upon it in various parts of the globe. It
has been the subject of major international conferences at Yale University,
and at Cambridge University and Lambeth Palace, and has been studied
in such gatherings as the World Economic Forum in Spring 2008 and the
Mediterranean Dialogue of Cultures in France in November 2008. It was
also the basis for the historic First Annual Catholic-Muslim Forum held
recently at the Vatican, in November 2008. Moreover, it was the
central impetus of the Wamp-Ellison Resolution of 2008 in the U.S. House
of Representatives. It also received the UK’s Association of Muslim
Social Scientist 2008 Building Bridges Award, and today it receives
Eugen Biser Award of 2008.

There
is an equal barrage of activity planned for 2009, including a major
documentary film, three books that we know of so far (Yale, Georgetown
and perhaps Oxford University Press); a joint Christian-Muslim sensitivity
manual, an important political conference planned at Georgetown University,
Washington DC; a large religious conference planned in Malaysia and
possibly a third in the Philippines. Also planned are two high-level
meetings between Muslims and the Orthodox Churches, and between Muslims
and the World Council of Churches; a multi-lingual Muslim-Christian
‘recommended reading list’ joint website with Yale, Lambeth Palace
and possibly also the Vatican (to serve as a voluntary basis for school
and university curricula); a Muslim Theological Press Conference in
Spain; a major European-based global Christian-Muslim peace institute
with A Common Word ensconced in its charter; a University campus-based
Common Word student initiative in the USA; a joint-design Common
Word Muslim-Christian string of Prayer-beads; a number of ‘trickledown’
projects to try to bring the Common Word to Churches and Mosques all
over the world; and finally the continuation of the practical work planned
at the meetings in Yale, Cambridge/Lambeth Palace and the Vatican. In
short, I think one may fairly say that in its first year A Common
Word achieved—by the Grace of God, Al-HamduLillah, historically
unprecedented ‘global traction’, and is hoping in its second year—with
the Will of God, in sha Allah—to achieve historically unprecedented
‘global trickledown’. God is Bounteous! Allah Karim!

(Part II)
The Theological Motives behind A Common Word

Exactly
one month after His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial Regensburg
lecture on September 13th 2006, an international group of
38 Muslim Scholars and intellectuals (including the three of us assembled
here today) issued an Open Letter to His Holiness in what we
thought was a very gentle and polite way of pointing out some of His
Holiness factual mistakes in his lecture. We did not get a satisfactory
answer from the Vatican beyond a perfunctory courtesy visit to me, a
month later, from some Vatican officials. So exactly a year after our

first letter (and a thus a year and a month after the Regensburg lecture)
we increased our number by exactly 100, to 138, (symbolically saying
that we are many and that we are not going away) and issued, based on
the Holy Qur’an, “A Common Word between Us and You”. To
ensure a more favorable response this time and to set the proper tone
and appropriate momentum we hired a Public Relations firm and co-ordinated
with a number of our important Christian friends to publicize some early
positive, Christian responses from them. This led, by the Grace of God,
to all that I have just mentioned.

We
had honestly—as is evident from the genesis of this story, and as
is evident I believe in the very text of A Common Word itself—only
one motive: peace. We were aiming to try to spread peace and harmony
between Christians and Muslims all over the world, not through governments
and treaties but on the all-important popular and mass level, through
the world’s most influential popular leaders precisely—that is to
say through the leaders of the two religions. We wanted to stop the
drumbeat of what we feared was a growing popular consensus (on both
sides) for world-wide (and thus cataclysmic and perhaps apocalyptic)
Muslim-Christian jihad/crusade. We were keenly aware, however, that
peace efforts required also another element: knowledge. We thus aimed
to try spread proper basic knowledge of our religion in order to correct
and abate the constant and unjust vilification of Islam, in the West
especially.

I
need hardly go over all the factors leading us to believe in a Muslim-Christian
global ‘Clash of Civilizations’, since the collapse of the Soviet
Union in 1990. These include: (1) Jerusalem and the Palestine question,
(2) Discontentment with US Foreign Policy (especially the war in Iraq),
(3) terrorism, (4) fundamentalism and fundamentalist propaganda (on
both sides), (5) missionary activity (also on both sides), and (6) deeply
rooted, historical, cultural and racial, misunderstanding, suspicion
and even loathing. Thus now, according to the results of the largest
international religious surveys in history (as outlined in a recently-published
seminal book by Professor John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed), 60% of Christians
harbour prejudice against Muslims and 30% of Muslims reciprocate. Quite
clearly the grounds for fear of war and religious genocides—as the
Grand Mufti of Bosnia here today will personally attest—are starkly
real.

Having
said what our motive was, I want to emphasize what our motives were
not, in view of some of the strange suspicions and speculations
we have read about on the internet. I repeat some of my words at Yale
University:

1.

A Common Word was not intended—as some have misconstrued—to
trick Christians or to foist Muslim Theology on them, or even to convert
them to Islam.

2.
A Common Word was not intended to reduce both our religions to an
artificial union based on the Two Commandments: indeed in Matthew 22:40
Jesus Christ the Messiah (‘alahi Al-Salaam) was quite specific
(“On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

(Matthew 22:40): “Hang” not “are
(reduced to)”. It was simply an attempt to find a theologically correct
pre-existing essential common ground (albeit interpreted perhaps
differently) between Islam and Christianity, rooted in our sacred texts
and in their common Abrahamic origin, in order to stop our deep-rooted
religious mutual suspicions from being an impediment to behaving properly
towards each other. It was, and is, an effort to ensure that religions
behave as part of the solution, and are not misused to become part of
the problem. Indeed, the Two Commandments give us guidelines and a concrete,
shared standard of behaviour not only to what to expect from the other
but also to how we must ourselves behave and be. We believe
we can and must hold ourselves and each other to this shared standard.

3.
A Common Word was not intended to deny that God loved us first,
as some Christians have opined. The knowledge that God loved man before
man loved God is so obvious in Islam that we did not think we had to
make it explicit. It is obvious because God obviously existed before
His creation of the world and man. It is also evident in the very sacred
formula that starts every chapter in the Holy Qur’an but one, and
that begins every single legitimate act of any Muslim’s entire life—Bism
Illah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim, In the Name of God, the Compassionate,
the Merciful. Indeed, there is a hadith qudsi (a ‘holy
saying’1), wherein God says that His Name is Al-Rahman

(the Lovingly Compassionate) and that the word for ‘womb’ (Al-Rahm)
comes from His Name, and thus implying that God created the world out
of an internal overflowing of love. Indeed, creation out of Rahmah
(Loving Compassion) is also seen in the Holy Qur’an in beginning in
the Sura of Al-Rahman, which says:

Al-Rahman
/ Hath Taught the Quran / He hath created Man / He hath taught
him speech. (Al-Rahman, 55:1-4)

In
other words, the very Divine Name Al-Rahman should be understood
as containing the meaning of ‘The Creator-through-Love’, and the
Divine Name Al-Rahim should be understood as containing the meaning
of ‘The Saviour through Mercy’.

4.
A Common Word was not intended to exclude Judaism as such or diminish
from its importance. We started with Christianity bilaterally simply
because Islam and Christianity are the two largest religions in the
world and in history, and so in that sense, Islamic-Christian dialogue
is the most critical: for there are about 2 billion Christians in the
world and 1.5 billion Muslims and only 25 million Jews. But this does
not preclude our having as Muslims other conversations with those of
any other faith, bilaterally or multilaterally, or even with those of
no faith at all. Moreover, Muslims do not object to the idea of a Judeo-Christian
tradition (even though all 3 religions share the same Abrahamic origins
and traditions), and do not object to not being invited to all the Jewish-Christian
dialogues, so there is no need for Jews to feel excluded by a Muslim-Christian
conversation. For that matter there is no need for Christians to feel
excluded by a Judeo-Islamic dialogue. We can all, however, understand
Jewish fears about this dialogue, and note that there have been Jewish
observers invited at the conferences in Yale and Cambridge.

On
the other hand, I would like to say also that A Common Word does
not signal that Muslims are prepared to deviate from or concede one
iota of any their convictions in reaching out to Christians—nor, I
expect, the opposite. Let us be crystal-clear: A Common Word
is about equal peace, NOT about capitulation.

Indeed,
some have suggested that framing our extended hand in the language of
“love” is such a concession, but I assure you that this is not at
all accurate, nor is it a ‘concession’: rather, it has been a particular
pleasure to be able to focus in our initiative on this frequently underestimated
aspect of our religion: the Grand Principle of Love. Indeed, we have
over 50 near-synonyms for love in the Holy Qur’an — English does
not have the same linguistic riches and connotations. If Muslims do
not usually use the same language of love as Christians in English,
it is perhaps because the word ‘love’ for Muslims frequently implies
different things for Muslims then it does Christians.

Our
use of the language of ‘love’ in A Common Word is simply
then a recognition that human beings have the same souls everywhere—however,
corrupted or pure—and thus that the experience of love must have something
in common everywhere, even if the objects of love are different, and
even if the ultimate love of God is stronger than all other loves. God
says in the Holy Qur’an:

Yet
of mankind are some who take unto themselves (objects of worship which
they set as) rivals to God, loving them with a love like (that which
is the due) of God (only) – [but] those who believe are stauncher
in their love for God…. (Al-Baqarah, 2:165)

šÆÏBur Ĩ$¨Z9$# `tB ä‹Ï‚­Gtƒ `ÏB Èbrߊ «!$# #YŠ#y‰Rr& öNåktXq™6Ïtä† Éb=ßsx. «!$# ( tûïɋ©9$#ur (#þqãZtB#uä ‘‰x©r& ${6ãm °! 3

(البقرة 165).

(Part III)
The Expectations behind A Common Word

Despite
our prayers for success—in truth I remember praying to God to grant
success beyond ‘what can possibly be imagined’ for the initiative—we
had no expectations whatsoever, only some hope in God’s generosity,
and we were all resolved to accept a complete failure. This prayer itself
was a gift from God, for it is not within man’s power to achieve sincerity
and detachment if God does not grant them to him—with man this
is impossible, with God all things are possible. However, I have
to say, Praise God, Al-HamduLillah, that I am continually astonished
by the spectacular way God has answered the prayer that was His gift
in the first place. I suppose that is one of the great wonders of God’s
love for man: He rewards human beings for gifts he has given them in
the first place. He keeps giving and giving, and all that He requires
from us is to accept! Subhan Allah! Glory be to God!

* * *

Now I want to return to the tree that
I mentioned at the start of my talk, the tree under which prayers were
offered for A Common Word. Despite today being in a completely
desolate place, there lay until the last century not far from this tree
the clear remains of an ancient Roman Road and of a later but also ancient
Byzantine Monastery. And according to the earliest Islamic historical
sources, some 1400 years, on one of the caravan roads from Arabia to
Syria, a nine-year-old Meccan boy named Muhammad bin Abdullah from the
clan of Hashem (may peace and blessing be upon him) travelled with his
uncle Abu Talib to Syria from his home in Eastern Arabia. A cloud hung
over him wherever he went, and when he sat under a tree in the desert,
the tree too lowered its branches to shield him from the desert heat.
A local Christian monk named Bahira, noticed these two miracles
from a little distance, and summoned the caravan and the boy, and after
courteously examining and speaking to him, Bahira witnessed the
boy as a future Prophet to his people. The monk had a book with him
that led him to expect a Prophet among the Arabs, who were descended
from Ishmael the eldest son of the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him).
Perhaps it was the Torah, for Genesis 49:10 and Deuteronomy 18:15 seem
to predict a prophet that is not the Messiah and not Judah but from
the ‘brethren’ of the Jews, but we do not know. Howbeit, what is
most important here is that the selfsame blessed tree underneath which
A Common Word was born, also itself gave rise, 1400 years ago to
the first harmonious contact between the founder of Islam and Christianity!
Indeed, it is immensely significant that God draws a direct analogy
between a good word and a good tree (and both their fruits) in the Holy
Qur’an as follows:

Seest
thou not how God coineth a similitude: A good word is as a good tree,
its root set firm, its branches in heaven, / Giving its fruit at every
season by permission of its Lord ? God coineth the similitudes for mankind
in order that they may reflect. / And the similitude of a bad word is
as a bad tree, uprooted from upon the ground, possessing no stability.
/ God confirmeth those who believe by a firm saying in the life of the
world and in the Hereafter, and God sendeth wrong-doers astray. And
God doeth what He will. (Ibrahim, 14:24-27)

* * *

Finally,
I would like to say something about what you are all doing here today,
as I see it. You are honouring strange people, whom you do not know,
from far parts of the world that you have never been to, and from a
religion that has always been considered by your own to be heretical
at best. You have each taken much effort, time and money to do this
and to be here today. You are giving them your treasure, the treasure
of the Eugen Biser Fundation, that is to say its award. And since
where your treasure is, there will your heart be also
(Matthew, 6:21), I know that you are giving something from the
heart, for indeed you are not obliged to do so. You are meeting our
open hands with even more open hearts, for you all know there may be
many other Christians who will criticize you for doing this, yet you
do so anyway out of conviction. This applies to everyone here starting
with their excellencies Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Federal Minister
of the Interior; Bavarian State Minister Eberhard Sinner; and Mayor
of the City of Munich Christian Ude (who have all taken time out of
their busy schedules to be here today); to His Royal Highness the Duke
of Bavaria and Her Highness the Countess Rose Von Konigsdorff, who have
supported this prize; to the companies who have sponsored it; to the
journalists who seek to promote it; to the guests who have generously
come to share this joy with us, and most of all to Professor Dr. Eugen
Biser himself; and to his colleagues working with the Biser Foundation:
Professor Dr. Paul Kirchhof; Professor Dr. Richard Heinzmann; Dr. Heiner
Köster; Madame Marianne Koster; Bishop Dr. Johannes Friedrich; Bishop
Dr. Hans-Jochen Jaschke, and all those others who volunteer their time
and efforts to make this event possible. I personally witnessed these
intentions in the discussions with the friends from the Biser Foundation
who came to my house in Jordan a few months ago to discuss the award.
I thus say to you all that you have all, today at least, loved the
neighbour as yourselves as called for in the Gospel2

by Jesus Christ (may peace and blessings be upon him) and have even
loved the stranger as thyself as called for in Leviticus
(19:34). You have today fulfilled the law spoken of by St. Paul
in Romans (13:8), and you have accepted the Common Word between Us
and You called for by the Holy Qur’an. So may God bless you as
peacemakers and reward your beautiful intentions. Jazakum Allah kulli
Khair. Wal-Salaamu Alaykum wa Rahmat Allah wa Barakatuhu.

Thank-you.

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