“A Common Word between Us and You”
by the staff members of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) of Rome
An Open Letter and Call from Muslim Religious Leaders to leaders of different Christian Churches as a festive message on the occasion of the ending of the fast of Ramadan 1428/2007, and on the first anniversary of the 2006 Open Letter of 38 Muslim Scholars to H.H. Pope Benedict XVI is a highly significant event that we cannot fail to notice and must accentuate its importance. Accordingly, as members of staff of the Rome Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI), concerned particularly with relations between Christians and Muslims, we believe it is our duty to express our viewpoint on this document.
In an attempt to enter with an open mind into the dynamic of this event just as it appears, we would like to register all that we appreciate in the presentation and content of these pages. We are convinced of the good faith of those who produced it, purified by their lengthy fast during Ramadan. Our long and diligent association with the cultural and religious patrimony of Islam, as well as our regular contacts with members of the Muslim community enables us to take note of the originality of this gesture and entitles us to draw the attention of non-Muslims to it qualities.
Firstly, we were impressed by the broad scope of this text. Its breadth at the level of the signatories, one hundred and thirty-eight Muslim personalities from numerous countries of every continent, whose religious affiliations demonstrate a great variety. There was breadth also at the level of the addressees, all leaders of different Christian Churches, including twenty-eight named explicitly.
In the same line of observation, we highlight the extent of the area under consideration: Muslims, Christians, Jews and people worldwide. The authors of the letter do not seek refuge in a convenient one-sided protest on behalf of theumma, but on the contrary, place themselves as partners within humanity. For it, they offer their way of perceiving its foundations and principles, accepted also by other communities, in view of its survival in an effectual and general peace.
The broad sweep of its perspectives is also a noteworthy feature of this text. Admittedly, its authors are interested in the fate of the present world, at stake here and now, but also in that of the ‘eternal souls’, a destiny determined elsewhere and in the future. This dual aim, at once immanent and transcendent, runs a strong and liberating current throughout this discourse.
Naturally, we are equally struck by the fundamental character of the issue in question: God and humankind. It is much easier to confine oneself to ideas that are all the more generous for being vague and general, than to call attention in this way to the urgency of God’s rights and those of humanity that demand continual awareness and an active and concrete love from each individual.
We are also keenly aware of the special treatment that the signatories of this letter give to the supreme point of reference that undergirds “the other” as Jew or Christian, namely, the dual commandment of love of God and neighbour in Deuteronomy and in Matthew’s Gospel. This willingness to acknowledge another person in the deepest desire of what he or she wants to be seems to us one of the key points of this document. Only this can guarantee success in a genuine relationship between culturally and religiously diverse communities.
At the same time, we appreciate the way the authors of this text, as Muslims, see the proper definition of their own identity in these two commandments. They do so not by compliance or by politicking, but truly, solely on the basis of their proclamation of divine uniqueness, (al-tawhîd), the pivot of Muslim belief. Indeed, we acknowledge that the radical acceptance of divine uniqueness is one of the most authentic expressions of love owed to God alone. In addition, as faith always goes together with good works, as the Koran never fails to repeat, (al-ladîna âmanû wa ‘amilû al-sâlihât : al-Baqara 2, 25), love of God is inseparable from love of neighbour.
We are grateful to those who challenge us, thus underlining the agreement over the essential that underpins our diverse communities of believers, nonetheless keeping a realistic and bold vision in place. In effect, on the one hand, they do not erase the differentiation of our Christological options and on the other, they do not disregard the problem of religious freedom (lâ ikrâha fî l-dîn : al-Baqara 2, 256), which they consider a crucial issue.
This realism does not prevent them from having a positive view concerning obstacles and differences that remain between us. This means that faithful to the Koranic tradition that inspires them, they only see in it an opportunity for competition in the pursuit of the common good, (fa-stabiqû l-hayrât : al-Mâ’ida5, 48).
Undoubtedly, this positive view of problems enabled them to avoid controversy, to surpass themselves, to shoulder and ignore their disappointment to a response that did not rise to their expectations in the outcome of their letter of 2006 addressed to H.H. Pope Benedict XVI.
Reading this document, we notice on their part the presence of a new and creative attitude relative to the Koranic text and that of the Prophetic tradition. This is in reference to certain historical interpretations, marked by particular situations that made access relatively restricted as far as the consideration of non-Muslims was concerned. In particular, we have in mind the general application they give to the Âl ‘Imrân 3, 113-115 verses, relative to ‘a staunch community who recite the revelations of God in the night season, falling prostrate,’ that many commentators had up to then considered only in relation to Christians on the point of converting.
We are pleased to see that the biblical and Gospel quotations used in this document come from the sources and that explanations given are on occasion based on the original languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. This is evidence of deep respect and genuine attentiveness to others, while at the same time of a true scientific spirit. In this respect also, we note the emergence of a new attitude.
In conclusion, we wish to insist on the a priori positive attitude of the writers of this text in their interpretation of the three parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels. They could have chosen a much more restrictive and minimalist exegesis with which the Christian tradition would have provided them without difficulty and of which they were surely aware. Inspired by their attitude, we also would only hold to the maximum interpretation according to which the texts of the Koran and the Prophetic tradition do not only restrict to members of the umma the benefits that any good Muslim may lavish on his neighbour, for the sake of his faith in God and in his exclusive love for him.
Differences in our languages and in our hues, (ihtilâf alsinati-kum wa alwâni-kum : al-Rûm 30, 22), that is, our deep cultural differences, will be far from engendering suspicion, distrust, contempt and dissension in us, as it often turned out in the history of our relations and still is the case in the world today. Such a document encourages us to pursue our commitment with determination, so that these variations will be seen as signs for those who know, (inna fî dâlika la-âyâtin li-l-‘âlimîna), that is, as the mercy of Our Lord.
Rev. Fr. Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, Rector
Rev. Fr. Etienne Renaud, Dean of Studies
Rev. Fr. Michel Lagarde, Professor
Rev. Fr. Valentino Cottini, Professor Rev. Fr. Felix Phiri, Professor
Rome, 25th October 2007
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