In response to Pope Benedict XVI’s well publicised 2006 Regensburg address in which some mildly critical observations were offered in relation to Islam, 138 Muslim religious and political leaders at the end of Ramadan last year sent out a remarkable open letter, entitled A Common Word between Us and You. The letter was addressed to the Pope, 20 Orthodox Patriarchs and Leaders of all the main Protestant groupings. According to those knowledgeable, while some of the signatories are known for their moderation and peaceful intentions, others are Wahhabists, Deobandists and members of the Muslim brotherhood.
The following month, a rather enthusiastic response from 300, mainly Protestant, leaders both liberal and evangelical, took the form of a full page advertisement in The New York Times entitled “Loving God and Neighbour Together”.
A Common Word begins by stating that since Muslims and Christians account for more than half the world’s population, “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians”. The letter then draws attention to what is said to be held in common between Christians and Muslims – the Unity of God and the necessity of love for Him and neighbour, all of which is supported by quotations drawn from the Koran and the Bible. These three matters are said to serve as the basis for their invitation to Christians “to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us”.
From the responses to date it is clear that, during the course of 2008 and beyond, there will be discussions between groups of Muslims and Christians. Thus the Vatican’s response has been to invite representatives of the 138 Muslim scholars to a meeting with the Pope but is otherwise subdued, noting as a fact that differences between Christians and Muslims cannot be “ignored or downplayed”.
This caution on the part of the Vatican is appropriate for it is quite clear that the Muslim’s explication of the Unity of God and the Koranic texts selected to illustrate the doctrine can be read as a classic example of Islamic mission (da’wa) – in this case addressed to the topmost echelons of the world wide Church of Jesus Christ!
In other words, the letter from the 138 Muslim scholars and leaders is an invitation to the Church’s leaders to become Muslims, and will be read as such by knowledgeable Muslims generally. No one should be in any doubt on this point, least of all those proposing to meet with these scholars. The lack of response of the Orthodox Patriarchs to A Common Word, because of the long and bitter experience of the Eastern Church living under militant Islam, rather underscores this understanding of the Muslims’ letter.
However, it is still good that Christian leaders should, with open eyes, accept the letter at face value, as a genuine call to dialogue with a view at the very least to reducing tensions between Christians and Muslims. This certainly is owed to those moderate Muslims who have signed A Common Word, and who are unlikely to press the call for submission.
In the second place, Christian leaders for their part, out of loyalty to Christ and His Church must make clear their own adherence to the far richer revelation of the triune God given through Scripture and in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. To do otherwise would be a betrayal.
Then too, importantly, there will be opportunity to press issues such as the right of both Muslims and Christians anywhere to worship freely and to proselytise, even the right to proselytise persons of each other’s faith, the right of non Muslim minorities together with their religious institutions to share fully in an unhindered way, in the life of their respective nations as well as the right of persons to change their religion without fear of interference, persecution, or death at the hands of the State or other persons, including family members.
This is an issue of reciprocity since Muslims living in the West already enjoy these rights.
But how easy will such discussions be?
Quite apart from the issue of getting some uniformity of agreement from internally disparate groupings of Muslims and Christians, itself a major issue, the difficulties at the Muslim Christian divide are considerable.
In the first place agreeing on what the unity of God means is impossible and should not be even attempted, even for those Christians who might wish to affirm that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
The second difficulty concerns the Islamic understanding of terms used in A Common Word, terms which would be understood quite differently by Christians. For example, the meaning of “freedom of religion” for a Muslim means freedom to practice Islam alone. As previously noted, the term “unity of God” constitutes a rejection of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Also problematic is the Islamic use of “devotion” as a synonym for “love”.
The immutability of the Islamic sacred texts represents a third difficulty. These texts contain many alarming things for Christians and persons of other faiths. The classic example is Sura 9.29 which reads, quoting from the Noble Koran translation of Dr Hilali and Dr Khan, published by Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, “Fight against those who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islam) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued”. The Noble Koran adds a footnote to the effect that the jizya is a tax levied from the non Muslim people (Jews and Christians), who are under the protection of a Muslim government.
Aside from Islamic teaching, the history of Muslim Christian relations clearly tells us that Islam has never been at peace with Christianity. As Bernard Lewis (in The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror), renowned authority on Islamic affairs points out, “the presumption is that the duty of jihad will continue, interrupted only by truces, until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule”.
Therefore, getting Muslims to move on issues such as the status of Christians and Jews as second class citizens (dhimmis) in Islamic society and the treatment of apostates (Muslim converts to Christianity) will be extraordinarily difficult.
A fourth difficulty concerns the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya.
Whereas for Christians, lying is considered a sin, the use of taqiyya in Islamic jurisprudence and theology, as a precautionary deception and keeping one’s convictions secret from unbelievers, is regarded as a virtue and a religious duty. And “unbelievers” is precisely how Muslims consider the Pope and other Christian leaders.
A major problem, that will frustrate Muslims, concerns the issue of what it is that the Muslims are seeking and this issue is allied to the implied fallacy in A Common Word that Christian leaders can speak for Western nations. This is an understandable confusion for Muslims as Islam is as much a political ideology as a religion in a way that Christianity is not, the Crusades notwithstanding.
This coalescence of religion and political ideology in Islam helps explain why true freedom of religion remains so foreign to it. By issuing this challenge to Christianity, Islam in fact challenges itself to recognise the religious neutrality of the state and therefore religious freedom for all its citizens regardless of their particular religious beliefs.
So, what are Muslims seeking?
One answer has already been suggested – the conversion of the Church’s leaders, beginning with the Pope. This can be no more than a fond hope, even for the most conservative Muslim.
Arguably, the main objective for the Muslim political leaders signing A Common Word must be to gain the assistance of Church leaders in bringing the war on terror, or in Muslim eyes the war on Islam, to a speedy end. In this they will be disappointed. The disappointment will not be with the words and actions of church leaders, who with few exceptions will willingly comply, but rather with the discovery that the church leaders’ voice will count for so little in determining the course of the war on terror.
While it would be foolish in the extreme to expect any significant doctrinal accord between Muslims and Christians, yet on the basis of our common humanity and for the sake of the approximately one in ten Christians facing persecution in the world today, much of it from Muslims, we should by all means possible seek mutual understanding and civility in relationships across the Muslim Christian divide. This, I suggest, would be a profoundly Christian thing to do, even if in effect all that is achieved is a truce for a limited time.