In Jordan, at the Catholic Muslim forum, reference was made to the “ecumenical” episode, when Muhammad invited the Christians of Najran to pray in his mosque, before engaging in dialogue with them
“Even the prophet Muhammad invited Christians to pray in a mosque before meeting with them.” Among the many words spoken during the three days of the second Catholic Muslim Forum – gathered in recent days in Jordan at the Site of the Baptism of Jesus (a Christian holy site re-launched in these years by a Muslim government) – this phrase spoken by the Jordanian prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, was probably the most surprising. The quote refers to an episode narrated by the Sunna which sees as protagonists the Christians of Najran, an oasis in the Arabian peninsula. The quotation was used in the context of an meeting that was also attended by representatives from countries in which a gesture of this kind today, would unleash real uproar.
Forty-eight individuals present – half of them Catholic, the other half Muslim – at the meeting in Jordan viewed as the continuance of the first gathering, held in Rome in November 2008. A Forum born on the threshold of the route undertaken a year earlier, by a letter on the theme of dialogue with the Christian world, entitled A Common Wordand signed by 138 Islamic personalities. On the Catholic side, the delegation in Jordan was led by Cardinal Jean-Luis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The delegation also included representatives from some churches of the Middle East and North Africa (among them, the Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, the Bishop of Constantine in Algeria, Paul Desfarges, the Apostolic Vicar of Saudi Arabia, Paul Hinder) and a large group of Islamic scholars and Christian philosophers. For the Muslim side, too, the delegation – led by Prince Ghazi, the host – was of an international nature: other well known figures included the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Guma’a, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia Mustafa Ceric, the Saudi sheikh Abdulla bin Bayyah, the Libyan intellectual Aref Ali al-Nayed and Professor Abdulaziz bin Uthaman Altwaijri, Director General of Isesco in Morocco.
The topic chosen for the second Muslim Catholic Forum, was “Reason, faith and the human person: Christian and Muslim perspectives”. A strictly philosophical theme, on which the declaration made at the end of the discussions was based. The brief text was split into five points, which affirmed that “God has given man reason in order to recognize the truth” and that he who is faithful to the Lord, has in his center a pure heart in which “faith, reason and compassion meet in the adoration of God and in love for his neighbor.” For this reason, “the dignity bestowed by God on human beings must be respected by all and protected by law” and the relationship among believers must be animated by “reciprocal compassion and respect.” While the dialogue between Christians and Muslims must continue as “a way to promote mutual understanding and to promote the common good of all humanity, especially its thirst for peace, justice and solidarity.”
These are high aims, which nevertheless address very concrete concerns in the Middle East today, shaken by the wind of the Arab spring, as the participants were also able to emphasize, in the encounter they had during discussions with the King of Jordan, Abdallah II. It is in this context that the words spoken by Prince Ghazi, referred to at the beginning of the article, are of particular interest. The words he used in relation to the question of places of Christian worship touched a raw nerve in some Muslim countries. Underlining the fact that the Site of Jesus’ Baptism (where the Forum met in these past days) is “a holy place, developed, nourished and protected by Muslims for Christians,” the exact words used by the first of the letter’s 138 signatories in his introductory greeting were: “perhaps our Christian colleagues are not aware of the fact that we Muslims have learned to behave in this way, from what we read in the Sunna about the prophet Muhammad, who invited the Christians of Najran to pray in his mosque before undertaking an interreligious dialogue with them.”
One might ask whether it is only their “Christian colleagues” who are not aware of this. And whether that precise reference to the Sunna – which for the Sunni Islamic world is the most important source after the Qur’an – was not perhaps addressed primarily to someone else. Because the historical precedent according to which the Prophet is supposed to have permitted some Christians to gather and pray inside a mosque, is unknown to the vast majority of Muslims. It must also be noted that the Christian community of Najran in Muhammad’s time, was the most important Christian community in Arabia. And the mosque in which he invited them to pray, was the Medina Mosque. The historical episode in question, is therefore complex. It is true that immediately after the gesture recalled by Prince Ghazi, an agreement - the treaty of Najran - was signed. In this agreement, Muhammad said “the Christians are my citizens” and “their churches must be respected.” But it must also be recalled that it did not last long: since they had begun “resisting” the preaching of Islam by the time Caliph Omar rose to power, the Christians of Najran started to be expelled from the Arabian peninsula, in name of the holiness of Mecca and Medina.
The fact remains, however, that the recitation of Christian prayers in mosques – flanked by those to be said in five churches (Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Russian Orthodox and Anglican) currently under construction in Jordan, in the location where Jesus’ Baptism took place, sounds like favouritism towards Christian places of worship, both in and outside Jordan. At this point, it would be very interesting to know what the Saudi wahhabites think.