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‘A Common Word’ in the News

The Common Word for a Common Humanity: The Underlying Essence of the Message as Rooted in the Holy Scriptures of Islam and Christianity

Introduction

“Say: O People of the Book! Come to a
common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and
that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall
take others for lords beside God.” (The Holy Qur’an, 3:64)

In this study, the author will firstly examine The Common Word initiative and its formative roots. Secondly, he will overview some of
the subsequent reactions from religious leaders and academic scholars in both the Christian and Muslim communities. While acknowledging that negative responses to The Common Word have arisen, the author will rather focus on the perceptions of the majority which reflect more favourably on the impact of the initiative. Finally, the author will suggest that it is possible to view The Common Word initiative as having been derived from the basic essence of both the Qur’anic and Biblical teachings in regards to the building of one’s social conscience through pluralism, humanism and universalism.

The author contends that the initiative and others of similar origin can prove revolutionary in impact, thus aiding in the bid to bridge the divide – through better understanding – which has unfortunately been ever-widening since the horrific events of 9/11. In this way, perceptions about the current situation being a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ can be transformed, instead recognising the problem faced as more so a ‘Clash of Ignorance’. His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Shia Ismaili Imam, alluded to this in an address at the Tutzing Evangelical Academy, in which he stated:

When people speak these days, about an inevitable “Clash of Civilizations” in our world, what they often mean, I fear, is an inevitable “Clash of Religions.” But I would use different terminology altogether. The essential problem, as I see it, in relations between the Muslim world and the West is “A Clash of Ignorance.” [1]

With adherents of the Christian and Muslim faiths today accounting for almost half of the world’s entire population, interaction – good and bad, positive and negative – between the peoples of both faiths is inevitable. In a world of increasing diversity and globalisation, inter-faith relations between the religions of Christianity and Islam and its peoples will naturally be on the increase. As with all dialogue, there will exist people on both sides of the fence: Those who may subscribe to Huntington’s thesis of the undeniable ‘Clash of Civilizations’ [2], explicit in its understanding of Islam as an inherently violent religion which is thus at loggerheads with the ‘Christian’ values which form the foundation of ‘Western’ civilisation, and those – referred to as ‘Muslim apologists’ – who argue that there is no conflict between Islam and the West, and indeed they are, in their fundamental essence, more alike than they might believe; but what of the middle ground? The
common ground; As Heck states:

‘Christianity remains Christianity and Islam remains Islam: There are insurmountable differences. But there are also ways for believers of diverse faiths to enlighten one another’. [3]

So can we, as the Qur’an requests in the
verse quoted above, arrive at ‘a common word’ in order to build a better
future for society, finding the similarities in both which could pave
the way towards appreciating ‘a common humanity’? In light of this we
can call upon the following Qur’anic verse in which God proclaims that
it is He, the ‘Lord who created. Created man from a clot… who taught man
what he did not know’ (Qur’an, 6:1-2, 5). The verse espouses this
notion of commonality, implying that humankind is part of one
brotherhood and one community – the human community (Qur’an, 21:92).

The Birth of The Common Word

The Common Word initiative took
shape as a response to comments made by Pope Benedict XVI in his
Regensburg lecture on 12th September 2006. In the address, the Pope
quoted the words of a medieval Byzantine Christian emperor who was
strongly critical of the Prophet Muhammad, suggesting that the religion
of Islam and violence go hand in hand. Having not specified that this
was not his personal opinion, unsurprisingly, responses to the statement
from the Muslim world were ardent in their disapproval. It was the
reaction to this statement, after initial correspondence, which gave
birth to The Common Word initiative, prompting authorities in
the Islamic world ‘representing all denominations and schools of
thought… to deliver an answer to the Pope in the spirit of open
intellectual exchange and mutual understanding’. [4]

‘An Open Letter and Call from Muslim
Religious Leaders’ dated 13th October 2007, and signed by one hundred
and thirty eight leading Muslim scholars, clerics and authorities
entitled ‘A Common Word Between Us and You’ was issued to
representatives of the Christian world, calling them to open exchange
and interfaith dialogue in a bid to foster harmonious relations between
two of the world’s largest faiths. The intention, H.R.H. Prince Ghazi
bin Muhammad notes, was not only to ‘avoid a greater worldwide conflict
between Muslims and the West’ but ‘simply to try to make peace and
spread harmony between Muslims and Christians globally’. [5]
This act of extending the hand of Islam to that of Christianity, in
order to seek common ground, was – on the whole – met with hugely
positive support, receiving ‘encouragement at the highest levels of
religious authority and political power’. [6]

Reaction to The Common Word – Bridging the Gap Towards Better Understanding and Paving the Way for a Better Future

The initiative has been viewed by many as
a vital and necessary first step towards fostering better relations
between the Muslim and Christian world; Kalin also suggests that, unlike
other calls for open dialogue which tend to avoid a focus on debate
with a grounding in theology, ‘A Common Word puts forward serious theological propositions and invites Muslims and Christians to reflect upon them’. [7] Below, we shall look at two separate responses from the Muslim and Christian perspectives, which subscribe to this view.

1. His Grace Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury – A Common Word for the Common Good, 14th July 2008

In reaction to The Common Word
initiative, the Archbishop of Canterbury, formed a response with
backing, as he mentions, from Christian colleagues and most notably from
those who attended a ‘Consultation of Church representatives and
Christian scholars in June 2008’. From analysis of the letter, we can
see the reaction as resoundingly positive. The letter notes that ‘…the
appearance of the A Common Word [Open Letter] of 2007 was a landmark in
Muslim-Christian relations and it has a unique role in stimulating a
discussion at the deepest level across the world’ [8] with the Archbishop commending the step taken by the Muslim community as one of courage and good intention.

In his introduction there is also the
important acknowledgement that, in no way is the initiative seen as
suggesting that both Muslims and Christians should ‘immediately affirm
an agreed and shared understanding of God’, but rather that people of
both faiths should recognise that ‘on some matters, [they] are speaking
enough of a common language… to be able to pursue both exploratory
dialogue and peaceful co-operation with integrity and without
compromising fundamental beliefs’. [9]
The Archbishop’s response was seen as reciprocating the hand extended
by the Muslim World and was widely acknowledged as an extremely
encouraging one; one which could continue to keep open the lines of
communication for peaceful exhortation which the Qur’anic scripture
calls for.

2. “The Common Word Dossier”, Islamica Magazine, Issue 21 (2009)

This dossier comprises a number of articles written by various personalities on both The Common Word and general interfaith relations between Muslims and Christians in a broader sense. “The Promise of a Common Word” [10]
has been authored by Aref Ali Nayed who obtained a Ph.D. in
Hermeneutics from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. He went
on to found Kalam Research and Media (KRM) based in Tripoli and has been
an ardent supporter of interfaith initiatives which is evidenced by his
position as one of the original one hundred and thirty eight
signatories of The Common Word.

In his article, Nayed reflects upon The Common Word
as a ‘landmark document’ outlining ten reasons as to why the initiative
is ‘of immense importance’. Among these reasons are the reality that
the voices which have spoken for Islam and the voices to which they are
being spoken in Christianity, are representative of their respective
faiths, as leaders who ‘guide and influence millions’ of believers in
each community; The strength of the initiative lies in its firm
grounding in the theological roots of both the Islamic and Christian
Holy Scriptures; its invocation of verses from the Torah also goes some
way to promoting a sense of inclusivity and ‘healing relations’ with the
Jewish community. Nayed acknowledges that although being only the first
step towards healing relations between Islam and Christianity, the
initiative can be hailed as a truly monumental one.

The Essence of The Common Word as Derived from the Divinely Inspired Message

Having outlined responses to the
initiative from both Muslim and Christian perspectives, we can now
proceed to establish the validity of our statement that the underlying
essence of the initiative itself can be interpreted as having been
founded upon the fundamental and essentially pluralistic teachings of
the Qur’an and Bible.

The notion of open dialogue in a bid to
foster harmony between Islam and Christianity is a necessity; it is
vital, and even more so, essential for world peace as stated in the open
letter. The claims that, ‘without peace and justice between these two
religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world’,
and that, ‘the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and
Christians’, are immensely powerful. They bring about a realisation that
neither religion will wipe out the other; and thus, the future peace of
human civilisation may hinge upon the successful discourse and seeking
of common ground between Islam and Christianity; ‘…the very survival of
the world itself is perhaps at stake.’ [11]
This notion, that neither Muslims nor Christians can force the other to
submit to the other’s theological viewpoints, is summed up in the
following Qur’anic verse:

“There is no compulsion in religion.” (Qur’an, 2:256).

Bearing this in mind we must acknowledge
that in order to realise peace among nations and the world, peace
between Islam and Christianity may prove to be the solution. In addition
to accepting that there can be no compulsion in matters of faith and
that one cannot ‘compel’ another to believe (Qur’an, 10:99), the Qur’an
goes further by acknowledging that there is no necessity to believe in
particular creeds because essentially, the plurality of the Divine
message is part of God’s plan. He has willed that His religion be
manifested in the different ‘paths’, in the guise of ‘different’
religions through which He has called upon humanity to recognize His
Lordship over all creatures.

“We have assigned a law
and a path to each of you. If God had so willed, He would have made you
one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has
given you, so race to do good…” (Qur’an, 5:48)

It is thus acknowledged that God has
given mankind different paths upon which to tread, implying that there
is no monopoly on salvations by adherence to a certain religion as they
are all merely different expressions of the same essence. The outward
form of God’s religion may differ but each contains the same
unchangeable immutable truths. One can also interpret the ‘race to do
good’ as a request for mankind, irrespective of faith to act piously and
righteously. But it is this acceptance that there is no ‘right’ or
‘wrong’ in an individual’s relationship with the Divine that allows us
to ask the next question: “How do I reconcile the belief of the ‘other’
with that of my own in order to maintain peaceful co-existence?” The
author proposes open dialogue, void of polemic or hidden agendas, as
being the only viable solution.

From the outset, it was stated that the purpose of The Common Word
was to establish an open line of communication between the Muslim and
Christian communities, in a bid to promote better understanding. This
concept of peaceful dialogue and debate is evidenced by the following
Qur’anic verse:

“[Prophet], call
[people] to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good teaching. Argue
with them in the most courteous way…” (Qur’an, 16:125).

Once established, the founders of the
initiative called for mutual understanding on the basis of two key
themes which are to be found in both the Qur’an and Biblical teachings
of Christianity – namely, ‘love of the One God, and love of the
neighbour’. [12] To evidence this, the open letter issued by The Common Word calls upon the following verse from the New Testament in which Jesus Christ states:

“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 neighbour as yourself.’ There is
no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark, 12:28-31).

As regards the concept of co-existence
between peoples of different faiths, traditions, belief systems etc. we
can see evidence for peaceful co-existence in the following verse of the
Qur’an – a verse which also alludes to this idea of a common humanity
as noted in the introduction to this work:

“People, We created you
all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and
tribes so that you should get to know one another [not despise one
another].” (Qur’an, 49:13).

The Good Samaritan: A Biblical Narrative

As regards The Common Word’s decision to take the initiative in extending the proverbial ‘handshake of religious good-will, friendship and fellowship’, [13]
we can take heed from the example of the Good Samaritan in the Biblical
narrative who assisted the injured stranger. In the narrative, the
Samaritan, a foreigner – who would in contemporary terminology be
representative of the ‘other’ – moves beyond this simplistic box
definition, reaching out across the cultural and ethnic divide, in order
to aid the fallen stranger at the wayside. The story illustrates how,
by assisting the stranger, the Samaritan made an active and positive
choice to disregard what separated him and made him ‘different’ from the
stranger, and acted with the spirit of good humanitarian values.
Regardless of the stranger’s creed it was the simple fact that he was a
fellow human being worthy of support, which compelled the Samaritan to
act. This Biblical story exemplifies the underlying humanistic essence
of The Common Word initiative.

In this way, The Common Word can
be seen as similar in nature; one could call it a manifestation of this
very same concept of the benevolence and humanitarianism which should
be inherent in mankind; a manifestation of the Divine will that in order
to progress as a race, as a human race, we must work together to forge
links in order to build a better and brighter future for ourselves, a
better humanity. This humanistic and universalist spirit manifests
itself in the story of the Good Samaritan, in The Common Word initiative, and also in verses from the Old Testament:

“You shall not hate
your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbour, and
not bear sin because of him… you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I
am the Lord.” (Leviticus, 19:17-18).

A (Common) Word to the Wise

The Common Word initiative can
thus be interpreted as an expression of the fundamental essence of the
Qur’anic message. The initiative was founded with the objective of
building bridges and strengthening Muslim-Christian relations and the
author believes, in concurrence with the reaction from a vast number of
influential Muslim and Christian religious leaders and academics, that
the initiative was ground-breaking in many respects. The initiative is
recognised as a milestone not just on the inter-religious level but also
at the intra-religious level within the Islamic tradition, and has been
noted as being ‘the first time since the days of the Prophet [that]
Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals [from all the Islamic
traditions] have unanimously come together…to declare the common ground
between Christianity and Islam’. [14] We can therefore view The Common Word
initiative as a hugely positive step towards bridging the divide
between Christians and Muslims. The essence upon which the initiative
has been founded is essentially derived from the fundamentally
pluralistic nature of both the Islamic and Christian Holy Scriptures. In
this regard, although founded by Muslims, derived from an
interpretation of Islam’s essence as being an all-embracing and
universal one, a conclusion can be reached that this essence is the very
same essence upon which Christianity was founded; the Divine essence
which aspires for us as human beings to live together peacefully in
order that we may become consciously aware of our common heritage, and
consequently, our common humanity.

Date article posted: Friday, March 16, 2012.

Copyright: Nadim Pabani, 2012.

________________

Notes:

[1]
Aga Khan IV, “Address by His Highness the Aga Khan to the Tutzing
Evangelical Academy Upon Receiving the ‘Tolerance’ Award”, 2006. For
PDF, click The Institute of Ismaili Studies

[2] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, 72, 3 (1993): 22-49.

[3]
Paul L. Heck, Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious
Pluralism (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009): 4.

[4] The Official Website of “A Common Word” – click A Common Word.

[5]
Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington. A Common
Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor (Michigan: Wm.
B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010): 8.

[6] Heck, Common Ground, 1.

[7]
See Ibrahim Kalin “Seeking Common Ground between Muslims and
Christians” in John Borelli and John L. Esposito, “A Common Word and the
Future of Christian-Muslim Relations”, Occasional Papers published by
the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding,
Georgetown University.

[8] His Grace Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury,A Common Word for the Common Good”, 14th July 2008 – click Archibishop of Canterbury.

[9] Ibid., 1,2.

[10] Aref Ali Nayed, “The Promise of a Common Word” in “The Common Word Dossier” Islamica Magazine, Issue 21 (2009), 49-79 – click The Promise of a Common Word .

[11] “A Common Word Between Us and You: Summary and Abridgement”, October 13th 2007 – click A Common Word – Summary.

[12] The Official Website of A Common Word.

[13] Volf, Muhammad, and Yarrington, A Common Word, 8.

[14] The Official Website of A Common Word.

Bibliography

- Abdel-Haleem, M.A.S. trans. The Qur’an (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

- “A Common Word Between Us and You: Summary and Abridgement”, October 13th 2007. See note [11] above.

- “A Common Word” Official Website – click http://www.acommonword.com.

- Heck, Paul L. Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009).

- His Grace Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury,A Common Word for the Common Good”, 14th July 2008. See note [8] above.

- His Highness the Aga Khan,
“Address by His Highness the Aga Khan to the Tutzing Evangelical
Academy Upon Receiving the ‘Tolerance’ Award”. See note [1] above.

- Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, 72, 3 (1993): 22-49.

- Kalin, Ibrahim, “Seeking Common Ground between Muslims and Christians” in John Borelli and John L. Esposito, A Common Word and the Future of Christian-Muslim Relations, Occasional Papers published by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University.

- Nayed, Aref Ali. “The Promise of a Common Word” in “The Common Word Dossier” Islamica Magazine, Issue 21 (2009), 49-79. See note [10] above.

- Volf, Miroslav, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington. A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010).