November 4th will be historic not only because the U.S. will elect its first black president or its first female vice president, but also because Pope Benedict XVI will convene the most important interfaith conference in recent history.
Responding to his controversial 2006 speech at the University of Regensburg — in which he seemed to imply that Islam is inherently violent and irrational — 138 Muslim leaders sent an open letter to Benedict and the heads of other Christian denominations titled “A Common Word Between Us and You.” The letter said, in effect, “We need to talk.” The Vatican subsequently announced the formation of a new Catholic-Muslim Forum. Its first meeting will be held on Election Day.
Islamica magazine explained the letter’s significance from a Muslim perspective: “All eight schools of thought and jurisprudence in Islam are represented by [its] signatories. In this respect the letter is unique in the history of interfaith relations.” According to the “A Common Word” website, “138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals have unanimously come together for the first time since the days of the Prophet to declare the common ground between Christianity and Islam.”
For better or worse, absent in Islam are the established hierarchies found in Christian religions. As a result, many in the West have complained that it’s impossible to know where the Muslim middle stands on any given issue. The fact that representatives of a broad swath of Islam will come together for the first time to speak to Christianity with a unified voice is, at the very least, encouraging.
While there are countless similarities among the Abrahamic faiths, there are also important differences. Without a basic understanding of these differences productive interfaith dialog can’t happen, and common solutions to taming religious extremism will remain elusive.
Both Islam and Christianity hold that God is immanent; that he exists within humanity as he exists within everything he created. They differ fundamentally however on one key aspect of his nature. Islam holds that God is absolutely transcendent. He is so great he exists beyond humanity’s capacity to comprehend him. Christianity holds that God is all knowing and all powerful, but that he is also interactive, that man can come to know God, even if imperfectly.
Christian scholars have at times argued that because Muslims believe that God is transcendent there’s no place for reason in the practice of Islam. To wit, Australian Cardinal George Pell has declared: “In the Muslim understanding, the Koran comes directly from God, unmediated. Muhammad simply wrote down God’s eternal and immutable words as they were dictated to him by the Archangel Gabriel. It cannot be changed, and to make the Koran the subject of critical analysis and reflection is either to assert human authority over divine revelation (a blasphemy), or to question its divine character.”
Islamic scholars argue that although Muslims don’t interact directly with God, they do interpret his perfect word and apply it in their daily lives in different ways. An overwhelming majority of Muslims read the Koran fully. In the case of the Koran’s various references to jihad, they believe it is both an ongoing spiritual struggle for the eternal soul and a physical war that is justifiable only in self-defense. Their belief that God is transcendent in no way precludes reasoned faith.
Modern Islamic scholars interpret the Koran through an historic lens that takes into account the language, the customs, the society, and even the archeology and geology of the time. There is a rather large rift within Islam between forward-looking progressives who accept the Koran as God’s perfect word but believe it must be interpreted in context, and backward-looking fundamentalists who believe the word of God as conveyed to Muhammad in the 7th century and recorded in the Koran is, as Cardinal Pell said, “eternal and immutable”. This rift is proving to be difficult for Muslims to reconcile.
Benedict knows full well that Islam is neither inherently violent nor irrational, that most fundamentalists, or strict literalists as some have called them, are peaceful. When read fully the Koran offers more than enough scriptural evidence for the Muslim middle, progressives and fundamentalists alike, to know that Islam is first and foremost a religion of peace.
Among Islamic fundamentalists however are extremists who are both violent and irrational. They teach a selective version of the Koran, and they use the concept of God as absolutely transcendent to fend off anyone who might question them. What Benedict seems to find most troubling is that those doing the twisting are among Islam’s learned — its clergymen, scholars, professionals and the like.
The extremists’ pitch goes something like this. The Koran contains God’s perfect word. Violent jihad is a sacred duty. God is unknowable. To question his perfect word is blasphemous. Do as he has [we have] commanded and heaven will be yours. The extremists cherry pick the parts of the Koran that support their violent cause — a cause that many think is more political than religious — and ignore the parts that don’t. Benedict no doubt finds these sophists to be entirely unreasonable.
Seven years after the 9/11 attacks, most Muslims are still in a quandary. They are angry that their peaceful religion has been co-opted by a small number of violent extremists. They are fearful because these extremists have shown a willingness to kill anyone who opposes them. And they are frustrated because they’ve been forced to defend their religion to Westerners who have condemned it without first attempting to understand it.
In the middle of a war they did not start and have no desire to participate in, peaceful Muslims are caught in the crossfire. The instinctive human reaction when faced with such a threat is to duck. Having done so, the peaceful Muslim majority has lost its voice.
If in the upcoming forum a broad cross section of Muslim leaders can be self-critical, if they can condemn the extremists, not for being un-Islamic as they have often done, but for using the Islamic belief that God is transcendent to sell their twisted interpretation of the Koran as his unquestionable will, Christians will embrace them.
Benedict is singularly positioned to lead all people, despite their important differences, to agreement on what it means to be faithful to the God of their choosing. The world will be well served to follow his lead.
Michael Gonyea is a freelance marketing writer. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.