A Common Word: Bearing Fruit

The “A Common Word Between Us and You” initiative was the subject of a major conference at the Yale Divinity School last week. The conference brought together over 150 Muslim and Christian scholars, intellectuals, academics and religious leaders to talk about the state — current and future — of Muslim-Christian relations. Focusing on the two themes of the Common Word, love of God and love of neighbor, the conference is potentially the beginning of a historic process for Muslim-Christian relations in the 21st century.

The Common Word initiative began last year when 138 Muslim scholars from around the Islamic world sent a letter to Christians and called upon them to start a process of historic reconciliation between the two communities. Driven by an agenda of peace, the letter noted that Muslims and Christians make up 45 percent of the world’s population and that there will be no peace in the world unless there is peace between the two communities. The Common Word document highlighted the two themes of love of God and love of neighbor as the foundation for serious theological debate and engagement between Islam and Christianity. The two themes are also the two great commandments of Jesus Christ, binding Muslims and Christians together around a set of theological and ethical principles. The full text of the Common Word letter, a list of original signatories and later endorsements and a selection of global Christian responses can be found at www.acommonword.com.

Last week’s conference provided a venue for Muslim and Christian theologians and scholars to discuss the various dimensions of the love of God and what it means for respecting and living with those who are different from us. In his keynote address, Senator John Kerry underlined the need for world leadership and venues to deal with difficult and vital issues surrounding inter-religious relations. The Yale conference provided both leadership and a venue, opening up new channels of communication between the members of the two communities. More importantly, the conference offered a chance to Muslim and Christian participants to sit together in workshops and address issues related to their faith traditions, communities and constituencies.

On the Muslim side, the Common Word initiative represents a major consensus. It is signed by the most prominent figures in the Muslim world, Sunnis and Shiites, and Arabs, Turks, Persians, Indians, Americans and others. On the Christian side, the response to the Common Word has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging, pointing to a need to further dialogue and engagement at the religious, theological, ethical and social levels. What makes this initiative unique is the fact that there are substantial documents on which Muslims and Christians agree. As the initiative travels around the world, it generates additional documents, taking on a life of its own.

Agreement, however, does not mean glossing over differences. As Prince Muhammad Ghazi ibn Talal of Jordan, the architect of the Common Word initiative, stated in his speech, this is not an attempt to foist one religion upon another or create artificial unions. There are important differences between the Islamic and Christian traditions, and they cannot be brushed aside for dialogue. To the contrary, the meaning of dialogue and engagement is to state one’s differences so that we can talk to one another with a clear conscience and sincerity. Any attempt to reduce differences to one single level is bound to fail because there are levels of understanding in each tradition. There are points of convergence and divergence between Islam and Christianity at different levels. Reducing multiple levels down to one single level, such as theology or law, undermines the possibility of multiple understandings. Furthermore, each tradition has to have a degree of exclusivism to maintain its integrity. But it also has to have the ability to go beyond one’s particular discourse and reach out to a level of universality accessible and acceptable to the non-initiate.

The Common Word conference at Yale University provided an excellent venue to tackle some of these issues with an open mind. Many were surprised to find commonalities where they had expected collision. Many felt challenged in places where they had thought they had a clear understanding. In any case, the result is a salutary one: All participants gained something from engaging each other.

The Common Word initiative is already bearing fruit and giving rise to a new level of engagement between the two traditions of Islam and Christianity. This is very similar to what the Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars were doing in 10th century Baghdad, 11th century Alexandria, 12th century Harran, 13th century Cordoba, 14th century Granada, 15th century Isfahan, 16th century İstanbul and many other great centers of the classical Islamic civilization. These encounters were among the greatest achievements of world history. They can very well be replicated today.