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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Seeking Common Ground between Muslims and Christians

Note: The author will moderate a discussion with three Jesuit panelists
on the topic “Muslims and Christians: Where Do We Stand?” at 7 p.m.
Wednesday, Nov. 19, at The Bunn Intercultural Center Auditorium,
Georgetown University. Go here to register.

Establishing religious and cultural accord is difficult anywhere in
the world. This is especially true for the long and checkered
relationship between Islam and Christianity. Islam’s rise to the stage
of world history in the 7th century when Christianity was struggling
both in Europe and in the East created a sense of rivalry and urgency
among Western Christians. Islam’s claim of restoring Abrahamic
monotheism and rejection of the Christian Trinity was received as a
theological challenge. Its rapid expansion into areas that were once
under the Byzantine rule led to a heightened sense of political and
military threat. Finally, the dominance of Islamic culture and
civilization after the 10th and 11th centuries was a cause of alarm to
many Christians in Europe. Periods of peaceful co-existence in places
like Andalusia, Baghdad and Istanbul have provided some brilliant
examples of peaceful co-existence. Yet, the perceptions and attitudes
of exclusion and hostility have survived and continue to shape the
current views of Islam and Muslims from the pulpits across the US to
media outlets and policy circles.

addition to numerous interfaith initiatives, a large group of prominent
Muslim scholars, intellectuals and community leaders has been working
over the last two years to address some of these issues. In October
2007, an open letter called “A Common Word Between US and You,” signed
by 138 Muslim signatories, was sent to Christian leaders and
communities around the world to open up new lines of communication
between Muslims and Christians. This was a follow up to “An Open Letter
to the Pope” sent in response to Pope Benedict’s controversial
Regensburg Speech in 2006. The open letter responded to the
Regensburg’s two claims that Islam was unable to develop a rational
discourse about its religious tenets and thus invited its followers to
“submit” to God rather than to think about or love Him. Furthermore,
Islam spread through violence, which is an extension of its irrational
nature. On both counts, Christians, the Pope seemed to imply, cannot
have theological dialogue with Muslims

Taking its cue from the two commandments of the love of God and love
of the neighbor, the Common Word asserted that there is a ground for
theological engagement between Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews)
while religious differences are to be admitted as part of a genuine
dialogue and ethics of co-existence. At another level, this is a call
for the acknowledgment of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. In
addition to the intricacies of Christian and Muslim theology, there are
also grounds for practical cooperation between the two largest
religious and cultural communities of the world. After all, one does
not have to have uniformity to seek common ground. The challenge is to
create an ethics of co-existence and cultivate a sense of respectful

So far, the Common Word led to three high-level meetings. The first
was at the Yale Divinity School last July where Muslim and primarily
Protestant theologians took up the two themes of the Common Word. A
highly significant letter signed by three hundred prominent Protestant
theologians and scholars was published in New York Times. The second
meeting was hosted by Cambridge University in October ending with a
meeting with Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the
Lambeth Palace. Prior to the October meeting, Dr. Williams wrote a
detailed and profound response to the Common Word, reiterating its main
points but also expanding on it to further the relations between
Muslims and Christians. The third meeting took place at the Vatican in
Rome on November 4-6, 2008 as the first Seminar of the Catholic-Muslim
Forum with the participation of about 60 Muslim and Catholic religious
leaders and scholars from around the world. (Go here
for the texts of the Vatican meeting as well as the Common Word.) The
fourth meeting will take place at Georgetown University next year.

Interfaith engagements raise the question of whether one should
concentrate on practical issues and avoid theological debates. Many
engaged in interfaith dialogue prefer to deal with practical issues
with the hope that this would produce concrete results. Interreligious
dialogue, however, cannot function in a “beyond-the-truth” kind of
attitude because, for one, all religions lay a claim to the truth
(regardless of how one understands it). One has to take these claims
seriously. Secondly, one is expected to remain loyal to one’s tradition
in broad outlines while reaching out to the other(s); otherwise a
dialogue without a center would be without meaning and substance. Plus,
it will have no representation and thus no impact on the larger

Differences do not obviate serious intellectual engagement. The
current global problems call for a dialogical conversation between
Christians and Muslims as well as others. As religions have to learn to
live in an increasingly pluralistic world, they are bound to listen to
one another more attentively. Muslims and Christians need to mobilize
their resources to address the spiritual crisis and social problems of
our day and age. It is encouraging to see that the Catholic-Muslim
Forum has agreed to “explore the possibility of establishing a
permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to
conflicts and other emergency situations”. Such measures could prove to
be vital to diffuse communal tension and misunderstanding. But much
more work remains to be done in order to close the theological and
historical gap between Christians and Muslims.

(Read Jesuit Aloysious Mowe’s analysis of the dialogue.)

Ibrahim Kalin is a Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at
Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and The Prince Alwaleed Bin
Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is founding
Director of the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social
Research based in Ankara, Turkey, and among the signatories of the
Common Word, a major initiative to improve Muslim-Christian relations.

Posted by Ibrahim Kalin on November 19, 2008 10:23 AM