A call to evangelicals to respond to a significant Muslim overture.
Muslim leaders who represent a broad spectrum of communities around the world have issued an open letter inviting Christians to work toward peace based on core teachings in our respective faiths: the unity of God, love of him, and love of neighbor.
The Bible not only instructs us to be witnesses (Acts 1:8) but also to be peacemakers as part of our witness (Rom. 12:18). This is the most important reason we have to take the letter seriously. My experience has been that Muslims want to engage with evangelicals—even on the hard issues—if we start where we agree. The Muslim leaders who wrote and signed “A Common Word Between Us and You” have taken the initiative in doing just that.
The invitation’s importance also lies in the breadth and influence of its 138 signers. Coordinated by the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute of Islamic Thought in Jordan, the letter includes a large number of Grand Muftis, Fiqh Council members, and others responsible for Islamic law and its interpretation. The major branches of Sunni, Shi’ite, and Sufi Islam are represented. Particularly significant is the inclusion of the whole spectrum of positions—not only liberals, but the president and a dean of the most prestigious Sunni institution, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and also Shi’ite Ayatollahs and even the peaceful Islamist Salim Falahat, the director-general of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan (militant members from another branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia indoctrinated some of the 9/11 terrorists). Major university professors such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr and broadcasters who influence youth and public opinion also signed. Never before in modern times has such a “Who’s Who of the Muslim World” signed such a document.
While recognizing genuine differences in our beliefs, the invitation seeks to base our relationship on identifiable common ground in our sacred texts rather than on undocumented platitudes. As such, it goes beyond the open letter from 38 Muslim leaders to the Pope a year ago (see “Can We Dialogue with Islam?“), which based the need for dialogue more on what it cited as misunderstandings of Islam.
The Muslim leaders derived their statements on the Christian basis for dialogue from Jesus’ response to a scribe’s question about the first commandment:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:29-31, quoting from Deut. 6:4-5; Lev. 19:18).
The Muslim basis for belief in one God—and the injunction to cite this as a source of common ground with Jews and Christians—is noted in the Qur’an:
Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we should ascribe no partner to him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God (3:64).
The open letter significantly affirms that “justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part of love of the neighbor.”
Another reason for the importance of the invitation, as the Muslim letter notes, is that Christians represent over one third of the world’s population and Muslims over one fifth, and thus combine to be half of the people on the globe. Consequently, our relationship has a tremendous impact on the possibility of peace in the world.
The invitation is especially important to evangelicals—although they are not specifically included in the long list of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline Protestant leaders addressed—because evangelicals, including Pentecostals, are the fastest growing segment of the church and are the most in contact with Muslims around the world. Also, in past consultations and in more recent talks following the October 13 letter, Muslim leaders have repeatedly expressed a special interest in interacting with evangelicals to members of the Yale Reconciliation Program and others.
The leaders noted the increased importance of evangelicals in the world, but also their lack of understanding toward Islam. Evangelicals, they pointed out, take their Scriptures seriously, as do Muslims—a characteristic the Muslim leaders had not found among some more liberal Christians.
An Evangelical Christian Response
How can we best respond? On the national and international level, evangelical leaders can join with other Christian leaders in signing a response written by members of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture (http://www.yale.edu/faith/abou-commonword.htm) and having it published in one or more major newspapers where Muslims will see that, despite the genuine differences between our faiths, Christians do not consider them enemies.
Signers would reasonably include leaders of national organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, international mission organizations who see the need for peacemaking as part of our witness, major evangelical publications like Christianity Today, and evangelical academic institutions like Fuller Theological Seminary. Those willing to sign could contact the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
In addition, consultations jointly sponsored by Christian and Muslim institutions or organizations should be held both in the West and in Muslim countries to study our scriptures to determine where we really agree and differ, establish resources for cordial relations and peacemaking, and set guidelines for cordial witness (which both Muslim and Christian scriptures require) without the misuse of disparity of power in various contexts. Yale, Cambridge, Georgetown, Fuller, and the National Association of Evangelicals all have had fruitful experiences with such consultations. Certainly evangelicals should take a prominent role in sponsoring and participating with Muslims in such endeavors.
The same kind of discussions needs to be fostered on the local level between churches and mosques. The Conflict Transformation Program at Fuller Seminary and the Salaam Institute (headed by Muslims) at the American University has developed some materials that have been used in this way. Muslims have taken the first step through this open letter to Christians. Let us not miss this opportunity to respond humbly.
J. Dudley Woodberry is professor of Islamic studies at the School of Intercultural Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, and served in the Muslim world for many years..