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‘A Common Word’ in the News

INTERVIEW FOR OASIS WITH SOHAIL NAKHOODA

1.  After three months, what’s your impression about the letter of the 138?

The worldwide response to the Common Word has been tremendous. The document was sensitively written and was the result of a sincere effort by Muslim clergy, theologians and leaders to open a path of dialogue and cooperation with Christian communities worldwide.

There is no doubt in my mind that this initiative is one of the most significant in Muslim-Christian relations and it has the potential to enable both communities to move from polite rapport to mutual respect and cooperation.

Responses to the Common Word have come from Church leaders across the various denominations such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams; the Secretary of State of the Vatican, Cardinal Bertone; Cardinal Angelo Scolia; The Ukrainian Orthodox Archbishop of New York, Rev. Mykhayil Javchak Champions; the World Council of Churches; and also from leading theologians such as Professor David Ford (University of Cambridge), Professor Ian Torrance (Princeton Theological Seminary) and the faculty staff at the Columbia Theological Seminary, and many others (see www.acommonword.com). One of the most significant developments, however, was the publication of a full-page advert in the New York Times newspaper (Nov 18, 2007) of a letter of support for the Common Word signed by 300 leading Christian scholars. Many of the signatories were leading Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, and particularly Evangelical leaders. This heralded the opening of new channels of dialogue between Muslims and Christians previously unexplored. And that wasn’t all, the initiative has now taken its own momentum and in December 2007 the same Muslim signatories also issued their first Christmas message to Christian churches and also thanked the Yale Divinity School faculty for their efforts in gathering signatories to support the Common Word.

High level talks between the Muslim leaders and Church leaders and academic centres are already underway and so are preparations for future conferences, workshops, and common action in North American, Europe, and the Middle East, to explore the issues the Common Word document raises and work on key issues of mutual concern.

It is still early to fully assess the impact of the Common Word initiative, but judging from these early responses and the sheer energy behind it from some of the most unlikely of sources, it certainly has the potential to build solid interfaith foundations for lasting dialogue between both faith communities. And that, for me, is the only way we can begin resolving some of the most intractable problems, real or perceived, between the followers of the two faiths. The Common Word document definitely caught people by surprise, particularly the naysayers in both religions who prefer to keep complete theological distance to legitimize their polemics. An example of this is the Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester in the UK, whose remarks about the British Muslim community often display careless and unfounded generalizations that simply feed Islamophobic attitudes. Sadly even the Vatican curia has such voices, some of whom, unfortunately, also advise Pope Benedict XVI on Islamic affairs. Attitudes of this kind are not uncommon but we pray that, with the passage of time, and through hard work in building lasting understanding and friendship between Muslims and Christians, that such views will become marginalised.

2.  Is the debate going on? Is it going on all over the world or only in some places or cultural situations?

I would say that discussion and dialogue is already happening, rather than debate, in several regions of the world and at several levels. Debate is between adversaries and it is framed in the language of conflict, and that is something we need to move away from. In a debate there can be winners and losers, but in discussion and dialogue both sides gain understanding and work out a solution.

The Common Word was first published in English and Arabic and so naturally the initial response came from constituencies that shared these languages. Translations have since been published in several languages and the document is making an ever-widening engagement with Muslim and Christian communities around the world. It has been particularly critical in areas where Muslims and Christians live side by side, and also share geographical and socio-cultural frontiers.

The Common Word document has generated dialogue within and between communities. Firstly, within the Muslim community it has brought a realization of the importance of interfaith dialogue and a need to re-articulate and retrieve a compassionate theological, hermeneutic, and spiritual heritage that is respectful of their Christian brethren. The same debate has begun within Christian communities regarding their attitudes about Muslims, and the Common Word document has been felt to be both respectful and also challenging in its theological rigour and clear in its assessment of our shared values. Within both religious traditions there are enough scriptural and moral precedents for a respectful and inclusive attitude to the Other. It is not the aim of the Common Word document to whittle away differences in doctrine or, say, soteriology, but it is more about a recognition that we need to retrieve and learn to appreciate shared history and shared theological axioms. The Common Word document highlighted two fundamental principles that are fundamental in both the Qur’an and the Old and New Testaments, namely: the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour. It is there in our prophetic history and in our sacred scriptures and spiritual and moral injunctions. Recognition that we both share these two most important theological principles that breathe life into our relationship with God and to our compassion and charity and selflessness for fellow human beings. It opens up countless interpretative possibilities that could potentially enrich Muslim-Christian understanding and co-operation. We have to move beyond simply “tolerating” the Other to actually “respecting” them.

Interestingly, I looked at the traffic statistics to the official Common Word website, and individuals from Muslim countries are using the website just as much as those from other countries. We have had individuals from almost 130 countries visiting the Common Word website since its launch! This is a good indication that the message is making inroads in all key constituencies.

Secondly, the Common Word document urges Muslims and Christians to make a more sustained effort to initiate dialogue and interfaith action between both religious communities. Interfaith dialogue and co-operation has so far not been a high enough priority for most congregations who have let global geo-political events and the negative media coverage of religion dictate their attitudes to one another. The Common Word document is helping communities to see that such isolation from each other is not going to benefit anyone, and is in fact likely to be the reason for an escalation in future conflict. If conflicts in human history never moved beyond angry words that would not be so bad, but often they go on to trespass boundaries of disagreement and inevitably descend into violence. That is something we must try to avoid, or at the very least restrain.

3. Why?

There are various reasons why differing contexts lend to degrees of response. It may be extreme theological mindsets that vilify all those that do not share one’s particular confessional perspective; or actual violence and hurt committed by a particularly group against the other; it could be historical antecedents and friction that have survived to the modern period through a community’s traditions and narratives; it could be a lack of moderating clergy and activists on either side of the conflict who could help create a middle ground of sanity and safety so that warring parties could talk to one another about their problems; it could be poverty, social taboos, or even local media that could exacerbate the fear of difference or conflate perceived threats. There are many, many reasons, and the source of disputes and anxieties can only be probed if there are opportunities for Muslims and Christians to talk and listen to each other without fear of recrimination. The Common Word document can make such initiatives possible because it can allow positive communicative initiatives to be build on firm theological grounds. Building inter-religious dialogue on anything other than on theological grounds would ultimately lead to failure.

4. What are the aspects of the letter and of the debate that you think are new and unusual?

What is significant, and seminal, about the Common Word is that it starts from unity and moves to difference, rather than from difference to unity. Most interfaith initiatives between the two faith communities have begun with difference and aimed at arriving at some form of unity, or mutual convergence of ideas and values. So the early dialogues would have themes such as “The Notion of God in Islam and Christianity”, “Christ in Islam and Christianity”, etc. It did not generate much understanding about one another because each side was more interested in explaining why they were different than to explore ways in which they actually shared common historical landscapes and theological and spiritual narratives. It was hoped that talking about difference would eventually lead to some form of fussy unity. That never happened, neither did the various dialogue initiatives around the world have any trickle-down effect to the ordinary adherents of each of these traditions, nor did it lessen conflict in any way. More importantly, though, it led to a certain distrust of the whole dialogue enterprise from ordinary people because they saw it more as a means of withering away their religious identities and commitments, which they felt passionately about, into some form of new age and politically-correct form of unity and syncretism. Most people did not want this.

The Common Word initiative was very different in approach, and this explains its breathtaking success. It began with unity, that is, with what both communities shared deeply. That unity, or sharedness, was to be the basis for difference. This is an altogether different way of approaching the problem of intercultural relations and of plurality; it preservers their religious and cultural identities; it enables each to come together on solid theological grounds whose basis are in their own scriptures and which both share. They may disagree, and naturally they will, but when dialogue is based on the dual principles of love of God and of neighbour, it will ensure that they always leave as friends and that their disagreement does not escalate into all-out conflict. The Common Word helps each Muslim and Christian understand that we have a shared provenance and shared responsibility for one another and for the world. Muslims and Christians share the same problems as anyone else. One’s identity, in such a dialogue setting, is not threatened but deeply respected and that will provide the seeds for mutual cooperation and an understanding of the humanity of our co-religionists.

When the Common Word was drafted Muslim scholars were sensitive to the fact that denominational differences did exist in both religious communities and that for the document to have any fruitful impact that it would necessarily have to trigger inter-denominational discussion and consensus. They were not interested in speaking only to Catholics, or the Protestants, or the Orthodox, but to the whole Christian communion. We see that already happening. The letter was signed by Muslim scholars and leaders from across the 8 schools of law, and I have heard from many Church leaders that the Common Word document would make it possible for discussions within the various Church groups to form consensus on relations and attitudes to Islam and Muslims.

I don’t believe that we can subsume dialogue into the wider categories of mission and dawah. Both religions, being universal in their purview and therefore also missionary, may inevitably succumb to this from time to time, but all sides must be ever-vigilant that it does not raise its ugly head. A missionary mindset would not allow for an honest engagement with the Other. It would be better suited for a debate than for dialogue. It would lend to insincerity on the part of each; promote mistrust and fear of ulterior motives by the dialogue partners; and the missionary mindset would restrict the ability to really listen to the Other. Dialogue can be a way of witnessing one’s faith, but it cannot be a place for missionary zealots to proselytize!

Part of the problem in human communication is that we need to learn the art of listening and allowing others to speak what is of deep significance to them. Dialogue requires an environment of trust and transparency in which each party comes ready and willing to listen and learn.

5. Do you think that the letter and its proposal are known in the Islamic countries? And in the “West”?

The important thing to remember is that because the Common Word document is endorsed by leading Muslim authorities who carry street-following as it were, the proposals of the letter have reached many in the Muslim world. It has already received considerable coverage in the Muslim press and international press and encouraging discussion at local and institutional levels. The same is true in the West, particularly on the US, UK, Germany, Italy and other European countries. The hits on the Common Word website from residents in the Middle East are as many as those from Europe. This media blitz, as it were, ensured that the international public was made aware of this initiative.

Many leading religious leaders, theologians, academics, political leaders have come out in support of the Common Word in these countries and we can see from daily media responses that its message is reaching the citizens of various countries. The efforts of these exchanges between established religious figures will ensure the wider appeal of the message. But these are still early days and a lot of public awareness and education initiatives will have to be established in order not to lose momentum.

6. Do you think that this text is going to change the relations between Christians and Muslims?

I truly hope so. Whether it can be a catalyst for change will depend on how passionate Muslims and Christians are in making this possible. Certainly, given the response from Muslims and Christians to the Common Word and the joint initiatives being planned in various countries between Muslim authorities and the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches, the impact is already there. Leading Muslims and Christian leaders do realize that they have to work towards improving relations. Through the various exhanges and theological rapport, I am confident that it will lead to concrete and practical outcomes that can be implemented in the theological, educational, political, social and economic spheres.

What is significant, though, is that the Muslim signatories to the Common Word really do come from a broad section of the Muslim ummah. They come from over 40 countries and include leaders from all the eight schools of law of the Sunni, Shi‘a and other schools. This consensus gives the initiative a veritable authority that has the power to make systemic changes in Muslim theological and social discourse. No other, and I repeat, no other dialogue initiative has ever been able to form such a Muslim coalition of authorities who really carry weight in their constituencies. Church leaders complained for decades that it was impossible to engage in substantive dialogue with Muslims because the latter lacked a Magisterium, or a unified voice. This is not the case any more. Muslims scholars are now articulating a unified message, responding collectively to events and issues. This is only going to grow in scope. They are beginning to speak with a single, and resolute, voice about how they can play their part in promoting peace, stability and justice in the world.

7. The letter received many answers. What’s your favorite answer form the meaning and the ideas?

There have been many official endorsements but those that have struck me were the simple yet poignant messages left by ordinary Muslims and Christians on the Common Word’s website. One particularly moving response was: “You have planted a seed, a great seed, out of which may spring the tree of peace. May all of us water and tend that seed, and draw others to us to help as well. Thank you for your great act of faith and courage.” — Sue Brown [www.acommonword.com, 07/11/07]

This typifies the strength of conviction that many feel for the Common Word. I am certain than the Common Word can help heal deep wounds accumulated over centuries of strife, stereotypes and misunderstandings.

8. Are the 138 people who signed the letter satisfied in your opinion of the result of their proposal?

I think they are. They are aware of the developments and the official website of the Common Word (www.acommonword.com) has been meticulous in its documentation of all endorsements and reactions – both positive and negative – to the letter. The website is assessed by scholars and lay people alike and fulfills an important role in archiving the proceedings of this historic. The 138 scholars are not interested in ignoring criticism. I think they are all aware that the path to dialogue will not be easy and it is part and parcel of the process to raise issues that are difficult to tackle, reconcile or even understand. It will have to be done in a spirit of humility and compassion but with the aim to resolve issues that have for too long been obstacles to Muslim-Christian cooperation.

9. They are very different for their story and nationality. Do you think that this common word united more also the 138 among them?

Certainly joint efforts such as the Common Word provide a platform for greater intra-religious dialogue and unity. The Common Word is actually an extension of a more recent intra-Muslim ecumenical effort which began with the promulgation of the Amman Message (see www.ammanmessage.com). The Amman Message, launched in 2004, was the catalyst for the development of consensus and unity in the Muslim world. The Amman Message defined what Islam was and what it was not and what actions represent it and what do not and was endorsed by over 500 Muslim clerics and leaders — a monumental ecumenical achievement! Other than the Common Word, it led to the joint Muslim declaration on the Danish cartoons and a declaration on te sanctity of life. More importantly, I should stress, the Amman Message and all the subsequent initiatives which emanated from its consensus is in fact a part of the process by the Muslim mainstream, that represents the moderate and majority voice of Islam, to reassert its authority at a time when the world is rapidly falling victim to extremism of the religious and political kinds. Men and women who believe and love God and who care and love for their neighbours can and must work together for a future that respects the sanctity of life – a future whose leitmotif does not become violence and terrorism. And God knows best. [end]

Sohail Nakhooda is Editor-in-Chief of Islamica Magazine. He studied Government at the London School of Economics and studied Catholic and Protestant theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquina (Angelicum) in Rome, and at the University of Nottingham in the UK. He specializes in Christian theology, interfaith relations, and philosophical and theological hermeneutics. He is of Indian origin, and is a dual Portuguese and Jordanian national. He lives in Amman, Jordan. Islamica Magazine is available online at www.islamicamagazine.com

 

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