I AM AMONG those religious persons and Christians who believe it’s possible to be firmly and deeply grounded in my own faith and also to be tolerant of other faiths and traditions. I’m able to affirm my commitment to Jesus Christ without suggesting you are damned if you don’t hold that commitment.
I would go further: Having seen the way that contemporary secularists often dismiss and even demean all faiths, I suspect that the most fertile ground for religious tolerance and respect is found among those who have deep religious commitments and so can appreciate the similar, if different, commitments of others.
Given these convictions, I take great hope in the recent letter from 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals, “A Common Word Between Us and You.” (acommonword.com). These Muslim leaders represent all denominations and schools of thought within Islam, as well as all the Islamic countries and regions of the world.
Noting that believers in Christianity and Islam account for 55 percent of the world’s population, the Islamic leaders urge that the leaders of the two religions urgently seek common ground and dialogue. For, “if Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace.”
Is there common ground between these two great faiths? Islamic scholars and leaders are unequivocal in asserting that there is. Moreover, the common ground is not at the periphery of either religion; it lies in the central tenets of each. Both Muslims and Christians hold the dual commandment to love, love of God and love of neighbor, as core to their faith.
“Common Word” is devoted in great part to study and interpretation of Quranic and biblical texts that focus on the centrality of love of God and love of neighbor. Without denying or minimizing the differences between Christianity and Islam, the document highlights this significant common ground and calls upon religious leaders, people and communities to build relationships upon it.
The Islamic leaders also affirm that it’s possible to be a good Muslim and respect persons of other faiths. They cite the Quran to this effect: Religions “are not all alike. They believe in God and the Last Day, and enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency, and vie with one another in good works. These are the righteous and whatever they do will not be rejected of them.”
Islamic leaders build on such teachings to say to Christians that “we are not against them and that Islam is not against them — so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.”
A Christian response to “Common Word” has been developed by faculty members at Yale Divinity School and its Center for Faith and Culture (yale.edu/faith). They write: “That so much common ground exists — common ground in some of the fundamentals of faith — gives hope that undeniable differences and even the very real external pressures that bear down upon us cannot overshadow the common ground upon which we stand together.”
Some will find it easy to be skeptical of such efforts. Others, as a scan of the Internet will confirm, are already busy denouncing “Common Word” as an orchestrated Islamic campaign of deception.
It’s noteworthy, however, that such a document from Islamic leaders is unprecedented. Equally important is its affirmation that it’s possible to hold one’s own faith deeply and seriously and yet respect and tolerate those of other faiths.
It may be that those best equipped to understand the importance of a neighbor’s different faith are those who know how significant their own faith is to them.
In his important book “The Dignity of Difference,” British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks maintains, “A new paradigm is urgently needed in our complex, interconnected world.” That new paradigm holds that “the more passionately we feel our religious commitments, the more space we make for those like us” — that is, persons of faith, though their faith is different than our own.
“Common Word” reflects this new paradigm, one that combines deep commitment and deep tolerance. May their tribe increase!