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As Eye See It : England: Only two cheers for Muslim letter from Bishop of Rochester

Only two cheers for Muslim letter from Bishop of Rochester

Times Online and CEN
October 24, 2007

The Bishop of Rochester makes the case for a more reserved reception to the Muslim Letter of Peace in this week’s Church of England Newspaper

Lingering questions about the Muslim letter: Bishop Nazir Ali

Peace between Christians and Muslims is presented as conditional: it is only for those Christians who do not ‘wage war against Muslims’. What does this mean? Does it mean, for example, that any action against any Muslim nation or group, whatever the threat, will be regarded as abrogating peace between Muslims and Christians as a whole? The writers also need to repudiate those parts of their tradition which seem to sanction violence against People of the Book and others, unless they submit to Islam.

Apart from Pope Benedict and a few others, most of the addressees are Eastern church leaders. This is to be welcomed but the letter does not mention the harassment, persecution and murder which Christians are experiencing in so many Muslim lands today. It does not refer to the need for a common commitment to fundamental freedoms of thought, expression, belief and changing one’s belief. It says nothing about how particular interpretations of the Shari’a are significantly affecting the lives of women, religious minorities and others, and whether Shari’a can be interpreted differently.

I welcome this letter as an opening move in a dialogue which is urgent and necessary but, at the moment, I can raise only two cheers for it.

Read the whole article below.

The ‘open letter’ signed by a large number of Muslim leaders and scholars, to the Pope and other heads of Christian churches, has received a rapturous welcome in the Western media. This is the kind of ‘moderate’ Islam we can deal with, the editorials and the broadcasters seem to be saying. But is the reality what the appearances make it out to be or should we be at least a little bit cautious about what is in the letter?

Whilst the media and some church leaders have been enthusing about the letter’s call to peace, justice and generosity, this is not actually the core of the letter. A materialist West must not misinterpret Islam at this point. The letter is intensely and mainly concerned about a particular understanding of the unity of God. Christians and Jews are called to dialogue on the basis of such an understanding, having set aside their errors of ‘ascribing partners with God’ . The centre-piece of the argument is a verse from the Qur’an which urges the People of the Book to come to a common mind with the Muslims about the nature of God and to agree not to have any other ‘lords’ besides God (3:64).

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable request to make of Christians and Jews, until we remember parallel verses which accuse Jews and Christians of taking Ezra and Jesus as Sons of God, and Christians are specifically charged with calling Jesus ‘Lord’ (9: 30-31). The Trinity is repeatedly misunderstood and denied, and the Blessed Virgin Mary is thought of as one of the members of it, according to Christian belief (5:119). But what the Qur’an condemns, we do not believe.

Christians will, of course, wish to uphold monotheism with vigour but their understanding of the unity of God is quite different from the Muslim. Once again, the Qur’anic verses quoted in the letter about God’s unity have been thought to have had an anti-Christian purpose. The Surah Al-Ikhlas,for instance, is known to contradict the Christian belief in the eternal generation of the Son. Christians believe the Father to be the Source of all there is and the Son, or Word, the one through whom the world came into being. The Divine Spirit renews and refreshes God’s creation. No one can claim to understand Jesus without acknowledging his deep sense of oneness with the Father. No one can understand the Church without knowing about the deep work of the Spirit. The letter writers are theologically serious and Christians owe it to them to respond with equal seriousness. The letter distinguishes between those of the People of the Book who are in agreement with Muslim views of God, and others who may have views which are quite different. The question is: into which category do the writers place present-day Christians and churches? Without such clarification, a call to dialogue, even on these terms, is meaningless.

The point of departure for dialogue, as set out in the letter, is unprecedented. Until now, dialogue has been understood to respect the integrity of each faith. It has been about mutual listening and learning, as well as witnessing within its context. It simply cannot be conducted on the terms of one partner alone. But this seems to be the theological rationale of the letter.

The call to peace and harmony is certainly a very moving part of this letter and it has struck a chord with those in the West who are getting tired of the daily fear of terrorism. Again, however, peace between Christians and Muslims is presented as conditional: it is only for those Christians who do not ‘wage war against Muslims’. What does this mean? Does it mean, for example, that any action against any Muslim nation or group, whatever the threat, will be regarded as abrogating peace between Muslims and Christians as a whole? The writers also need to repudiate those parts of their tradition which seem to sanction violence against People of the Book and others, unless they submit to Islam.

Apart from Pope Benedict and a few others, most of the addressees are Eastern church leaders. This is to be welcomed but the letter does not mention the harassment, persecution and murder which Christians are experiencing in so many Muslim lands today. it does not refer to the need for a common commitment to fundamental freedoms of thought, expression, belief and changing one’s belief. it says nothing about how particular interpretations of the Shari’a are significantly affecting the lives of women, religious minorities and others, and whether Shari’a can be interpreted differently.

As the letter recognises, Christianity and Islam are the two largest faiths in the world today and this is because each of them is missionary in its own way. It is vitally important to understand that the question between them is not just the old one about Islam and the West. There is a new world out there with Muslims and Christians living cheek by jowl with one another. It is to such a fast-changing world that we need to address ourselves.

I welcome this letter as an opening move in a dialogue which is urgent and necessary but, at the moment, I can raise only two cheers for it.

+Michael Nazir-Ali is the Bishop of Rochester

http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=6948

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