There have been four high-profile cases in recent years where the media in both the West and the Middle East have not been helpful in how they have reported the religious issues involved: these were the incidents of the Danish cartoons, The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Sharia Law lecture, the issue of whether Muslim women in Europe should be permitted to wear headscarves, and Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address. In such cases the media tend to “over-dramatise the conflict and to under-research the complexities of lived religious traditions in the modern world... In each of these cases, with polarisations between blasphemy and freedom of speech, secular enlightenment and religious prejudice, it was almost impossible for Westerners to discover the full range of Islamic (especially Arabic-speaking) views, with the result that there is a repeated widespread perception that Muslims are stuck in the Dark Ages. Likewise it was almost impossible for Arabic speakers to discover the full range of Western views, with the result that there is a repeated widespread perception that Europeans are irremediably decadent and morally corrupt.” From Nurani
Ironically, one of those incidents initiated a response from the Muslim world that may yet prove to have been the catalyst for building a greater respect and understanding between the two most powerful and influential religions, Islam and Christianity than has ever been seen, and that the world has long been crying out for and so desperately needs.
A Common Word was born out of the address made by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2005, Faith, Reason and the University — Memories and Reflections, given at the University of Regensburg where he had once been Professor of Theology. Part of this Regensburg address was taken as provocative and insulting by certain parts of the Muslim community, and sparked mass street protests in many Islamic countries. Pakistan called on the Pope to retract what they called “this objectionable statement.” The Pope apologised to Muslims and assured them that the passage quoted did not reflect his own views. Relations between Muslims and Christians at that time were stormy and deteriorating. Into this climate a letter was launched, printed in The New York Times in October 2007, signed by 138 leading Muslim intellectuals and scholars. It extended a hand to the leaders of the World’s Christian churches and denominations, including His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, in a call for peace and harmony between the two religions worldwide. The letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” outlined the basis of this offering, in the spirit of the shared doctrine of love of God and love of neighbour on which dialogue could be opened.
The handshake was symbolically returned within just over a month, in a letter known as the Yale Response, also published in The New York Times, (accompanied by the release of an Arabic translation in the United Arab Emirates). Written originally by four Christian scholars, it was endorsed by more than 500 Christian theologians and leaders, representing many hundreds of millions of Christians across the globe. This exchange of handshakes has produced astonishing results. From these exchanges has grown an organisation, based on the expressed purpose to find common ways, in Christianity and Islam, to work together for the social good of all. Grievances are recognised on both sides of the faith divide, it is acknowledged that there are some irreconcilable differences of interpretation on both sides, some difficult questions to deal with, but nonetheless the initiative seems to be making a great impact.
“The response, in which the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme has been deeply involved, has been phenomenal. To name just a few initiatives:
H.H. Pope Benedict XVI and sixty other leading Christian figures have responded to the document in the two years following its issue.
A Common Word has been the subject of major international conferences at Yale University, the University of Cambridge – facilitated by CIP, Lambeth Palace and Georgetown University.
Over 600 Articles—carried by thousands of press outlets—have been written about A Common Word in English alone. Over 200,000 people have visited the Official Website of A Common Word. Over 6000 people have ‘fully endorsed’ A Common Word online alone.”
And it is now all in a book, A Common Word, perhaps one of the most important books of our time. All Christians and Muslims should know about this initiative.