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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Muslim Challenge Spurs Inter-Faith Dialogue

On October 13, 2007, 138 Muslim scholars and clerics, representing
every major school of Islamic thought, issued a declaration entitled “A
Common Word between Us and You,” challenging Christians to come
together with them in dialogue.

The phrase “common word” comes from the Qur’an where Allah declares: “O
People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you”
(3:64). Included in “People of the Book” are Jews and Christians, and
the meaning of “common word” for them is the love of God and love of

The Muslim leaders insist that “empathy and sympathy for the neighbour
are not enough. They must be accompanied by generosity and

The authors of “A Common Word” also make it clear that another part of
love of neighbors is respect for their beliefs and their freedom of
religion, because, as the Qur’an states, “There is no compulsion in
religion” (2:256).

The first response to “A Common Word” was from the Yale Divinity
School. Just as 142 additional Muslim religious leaders have signed
their original statement, hundreds of Christians continue to sign the
Yale declaration “Loving God and Neighbor Together.”

Miroslav Volf, the director of Yale’s Center for Faith and Culture,
praised the Muslim statement as “historic, courageous, and marked by
deep insight and generosity of spirit.”

The Yale document begins with an acknowledgment that Christians have
not always loved their fellow Muslims: “In the past (for example, in
the Crusades) and in the present (in excesses of the “war on terror”)
many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim

The Yale signatories were hopeful that even “undeniable differences and
the very real external pressures that bear down upon us can not
overshadow the common ground upon which we stand together.”

The second major response to the Muslim challenge was a conference at
Cambridge University that 17 Muslim and 19 Christian theologians
attended October 12-15.

Aref Ali Nayed, a senior advisor to the Cambridge Inter-Faith
Programme, said that “to have top Muslim theologians become personal
friends of top Christian theologians [will have] a monumental effect.”

This was the first time that Muslim and Christian religious had
actually sat down and studied each other’s scripture together,
correcting mutual misconceptions in the process. The conference
participants agreed that it was imperative to produce educational
materials that will spread these new understandings far and wide.

Despite initial objections from his own advisor on Islamic relations,
Pope Benedict went ahead with a conference with Muslim clerics at the
Vatican on November 4-6. Pope Benedict addressed the group urging
Muslims and Christians to “overcome past prejudices and to correct the
often distorted images of the other.”

Christian critics of “A Common Word” choose to emphasize differences rather than common ground.
One evangelical scholar maintains that the Qur’an focuses on the fear
of, rather than the love of God. He also claims that Muslims are not
commanded to love their enemies.

But there are many instances of “fear of the Lord” in the Old
Testament, and Martin Luther’s catechism contains the phrase “fear and
love God” on every page. The Qur’an contains 192 references to God’s
mercy, but God’s wrath is mentioned only 17 times.

Loving one’s enemies is a radical command that most Christians don’t
practice, but here is what Muhammad said after being attacked by the
people of Ta’if: “The most virtuous behavior is to engage those who
sever relations and to forgive those who wrong you.”

Christian critics of the Common Word document are correct in pointing
out its many references to the unity of God and that Allah has no
“associates.” This of course is an indirect attack on the Trinity and
the common Muslim charge that Christians are polytheists.

Most recently Saudi Arabia sponsored a two day conference at the UN on
religious dialogue. Most countries sent only low ranking
representatives as a sign of protest.

Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, supported the
boycott saying that Saudi Arabia “is the world headquarters of
religious oppression and xenophobia.” The Saudis prohibit the public
practice of non-Islamic religions, and they also promote Wahabi
theology, a very conservative school of Islam favored by Muslim

Fundamentalists of every faith will always stand in the way of
interfaith dialogue, but we should all thank the moderate Muslims of “A
Common Word” for initiating the most important dialogue of the 21st

Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for
31 years. Read his other columns at www.NickGier.com. Read draft
chapters of his book on the origins of religious violence at