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‘A Common Word’ in the News

The Vatican’s encounter with Islam

historic step was taken in Rome last week. The first seminar of the
Catholic-Muslim Forum was held on Nov. 4-6 at the Vatican with the
participation of about 60 Muslim and Catholic religious leaders and
scholars from around the world.

participants discussed the love of God, love of the neighbor, human
dignity and mutual respect in the two traditions of Islam and
Christianity. On Nov. 6 the delegation was received by Pope Benedict
XVI inside the Vatican where Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia
and Herzegovina, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a world-renowned scholar of
Islam, spoke on behalf of the Common Word delegation.

religious and cultural accord is difficult anywhere in the world. This
is especially true for the long and checkered relationship between
Islam and Christianity. On top of this, Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg
speech had come as a shock to many in the Muslim world because it
reiterated the old misconceptions of Islam as an irrational and violent
religion. The Regensburg speech claimed that the Islamic faith left
little or no room for human (“natural”) reason and asked its followers
to blindly follow a capricious and mostly rule-driven god. Furthermore,
Islam spread violently, bringing a message that was nothing but
“subhuman and evil.” On both counts, the pope implied, Christians
cannot have religious dialogue with Muslims. The problem with these two
arguments is not only that they are based on a very shallow and
distorted reading of Islamic history. One can also easily use them
against Christianity. This is what the Enlightenment did to
Christianity, marginalizing it as a living spiritual tradition in the

The Common Word letter, out
of which the first seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum came, addressed
these and other issues to open up new lines of communication between
Muslims and Christians. Taking its cue from the Quran, it claimed that
there is a ground for theological engagement, while religious
differences are to be admitted as part of a genuine dialogue. There are
also grounds for practical cooperation between the two largest
communities of the world. The Vatican meeting tackled both theory and
practice, with much work to be done. (For the main texts as well as the
history of the Common Word, see www.acommonword.com.)

Vatican meeting showed that one does not need uniformity to seek common
ground. The theological and historical differences between Islam and
Christianity are major. A strong and exclusivist Christology is a major
obstacle for Muslims and other non-Catholics. Both traditions emphasize
love as an essential quality of the divine but assign different
functions to its application in human life. While the Christian notion
of unconditional love is central, Islam also stresses mercy (rahmah)
and justice (‘adl). The experiences of the two religions with modernity
and secularization have followed different trajectories. Modern
Catholic theology seems to have a love-hate relationship with
Enlightenment European thought. From Jacques Maritain to Pope Benedict
XVI, Catholic theologians have embraced the basic values of secular
modernity on personalism, human rights, social ethics, etc., to secure
a breathing space for the Christian faith in an increasingly
secularizing and materialistic world. The Vatican’s concept of the
dignity and inalienable rights of the person resonates well with the
broad outlines of Kant’s post-Christian metaphysics. But it also comes
close to erecting a secular anthropocentric humanism, which brought
Christianity to its knees in the first place. As a result, the church
has a claim and relevance as a social institution, not as a spiritual
and intellectual force.

There are
also differences in the understanding of religious freedom. While
Christians insist on freedom of religion and conscience as a universal
human right, which the majority of Muslims accept, missionary
Christians interpret it as a license to proselytize in Muslim
countries, which Muslims reject. This is where Pope Benedict’s view of
mission and dialogue as the two sides of the same coin enters in. While
it is true that every religion is missionary in the sense of witnessing
one’s faith, there are worlds of differences in the way religious
communities make their message (and witnessing) available to others.
Many in the Muslim world see the aggressive missionary work of the
European and American churches and religious organizations as part of
the Western power structure.

the painful memory of European colonialism and the political realities
of the current world order, by countries that are predominantly
Christian, albeit nominally, it is not possible to speak of religious
freedom in the abstract.

of conflict, mistrust, violence and rivalry will not be resolved over
several meetings. But the Common Word initiative and Pope Benedict’s
positive response to it represent a major step toward a “historical
reconciliation” between Islam and the West. The pope had already shown
some goodwill gestures before meeting with the Muslim delegation on
Nov. 6. His open stance against the Iraq war, his call for a just
solution to the Palestinian problem and his positive messages during
his visit to Turkey should be seen as important steps in the right
direction. But much more work remains to be done.