WATERTOWN – Some events deserve much more attention than they receive. That certainly holds true of the letter “A Common Work Between Us and You,” sent last October by 138 Muslim leaders and scholars to the pope and other leaders of Christian churches.
This initiative has come from a wide array of Muslims, including both Shia and Sunnis, government and religious officials, and residents of countries all around the world. This diversity, representing groups often at odds with one another, gives the letter special force.
And in addition to the pope, a large number of other Christian leaders received this letter: the archbishop of Canterbury; many patriarchs; and the secretary of the World Council of Churches.
As if to include everybody, the senders of the 29-page letter conclude their list with the phrase “and to Christian leaders everywhere.”
At the start, the writers call attention to the place of Islam and Christianity in the world of today. Christians and Muslims, they observe, account for 55 percent of the world’s population.
The authors of “A Common Word” call this demographic reality “the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world.” They add: “If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace.”
Even more emphatically, they state, “The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.”
Surprisingly, the signers do not speak to any of the issues that make for conflict between the two great faith traditions. Instead, they focus on the beliefs that bind the two together.
The body of the letter makes three points.
The first point is that both Muslims and Christians believe in, love and honor the same one God. To show this, they present dozens of citations from the Qur’an and the Bible. In citing the latter source, they include the Jewish community.
Secondly, the letter recognizes how both traditions, along with Judaism, proclaim the love of neighbor as vital. In both, this love flows from the love of God, and the love of God is regarded as false if it does not include the love of neighbor.
The third point draws on the two earlier ones. If Muslims and Christians have so much in common, they must act together in harmony. Here, some basic differences are acknowledged but these, they say, should not offset shared beliefs.
The writers reject the idea that Christianity is against Islam. Rather, Christians have solid reason, anchored in the words of Jesus, to be allied with Muslims. This approach provides the basis for mutual dialogue between the two faiths.
They conclude with the following appeal: “Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual good will.”
It all sounds like an inspired way to defuse tensions between the members of the two communities, Muslim and Christian.
That would seem to be the view of Pope Benedict who replied in the same spirit and welcomed dialogue. He also issued an invitation to the Muslim leader who conveyed the letter to the Vatican, and to some of his colleagues.
Another response to the Muslim initiative, this one more detailed, came from a group of some 300 American Christian theologians and other scholars who responded in a public letter of their own. The members of this group, organized by Yale Divinity School, declared themselves “deeply encouraged and challenged” by what they called an “historic letter” and “courageous.”
They also praise the letter for representing “every major school of Islamic thought.” As such, it deserves a response that moves beyond a “polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders.”
Incidentally, the New York Times refused to run information about the Yale-led response except as a paid ad.
I asked one of the signers, Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, for his appraisal of the Muslim initiative. In his view, “It’s historically virtually unprecedented. They drew on their tradition the way we drew on ours.”
For the letter to make a difference over the long run, however, Cox stresses the need of follow-up. “There must be both local and regional conversations,” he says.
I also conferred with Ali Asani, a scholar who is a Muslim, about the likely impact of the letter upon Muslim-Christian relations. For him, the acid test will be “how people on the ground will look at it.” It’s one thing for the Islamic elite to embrace Christian leaders as sharers in the same faith in the one God. But will ordinary people endorse that movement toward mutual understanding?
He sees these relations as being clouded over by colonialism and European imperialism. These have made Christian missionaries branded as a threat to the societies where they have gone. A search is going on in the Muslim world for a new way of looking at the world but this new view has not yet taken hold.
“A Common Word” offers hope that someday it will.