Commemorating the 5th anniversary of A Common Word Between Us and You.

Commemorating the 5th anniversary of A Common Word Between Us and You – expectations, engagements and fruits of an interfaith document and the importance of transnational projects.

Regina C. Saschowa

Two important anniversaries for interfaith engagement took place in the middle of October 2012. One is the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council which was opened on October 11th, 1962 and out of which the declaration Nostra Aetate came. Nostra Aetate represented an opening of the Roman Catholic Church towards the faithful of other religions, including Muslims who it regards with “great esteem“. The other one is the anniversary of a document called A Common Word Between Us and You (in the following ACW) which was published on October 13th, 2007 and which celebrated its fifth birthday with a variety of initiatives including a conference held at Oxford about ’Love in the Abrahamic Religions’ and a relaunch and redesign of its website. Since the latter and its subsequent fruits can be seen as one of the most contemporary engagements in the field of transnational and transcultural communication, the following essay intends to focus on the efforts of the ACW and takes a closer look at the genesis, hermeneutic approach, fruits and perspectives of the document.

Genesis of ACW

ACW’s official starting point was in 2007 when it was signed by 138 Muslims, inviting Christian leaders to dialogue on the basis of two commandments common to each faith; love of the one God and love of the neighbour. Due to the diversity of its signatories, ACW is to be understood as a Muslim initiative, however its author was the Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, the chief adviser for religious and cultural affairs and the personal envoy to Jordan’s current King, Abdullah II. According to Ghazi, ACW has become “the world’s leading interfaith dialogue initiative between Christians and Muslims specifically, unprecedented in its importance, scope and global ‘traction’.“[1] This statement is confirmed by leading Christian authorities and scholars; the Director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, Prof. David Ford calls it an “historic statement” which “gives the right keynote for relations between Muslims and Christians in the 21st Century.”[2] The outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, further pointed out in his response that the initiative could  “suggest a way in which religious plurality can be seen as serving the cause of social unity and acting as a force for the common good”[3] – a very important aspect concerning the effect of religion throughout time and history.

The genesis of the initiative can be traced back to incidents rooted further in the past than 2007. The tense state of global Christian-Muslim relations has escalated since the turn of the millennium, with events such as 9/11, the Bali Bombings of 2002 (which sadly also just had its 10th anniversary on October 12th), the Beslan Massacre (Russia) in 2004 or the London terror attacks in 2005 highlighting a new urgency for interreligious communication and the dangers caused by misinformation, stereotyping and ignorance. Especially today we face the problem of constant provocation by either words, cartoons or recently even films, and some parties seem to take a special interest in provoking the masses into responding negatively to the “Other“ as the foreigner, the unknown and – due to religion – the one with another faith.

It is not only these aspects that have led to an initiative like the ACW. Important to mention is another initiative which was the direct predecessor to ACW and which set the precedent for large-scale interfaith dialogue on an international level. Following the Pope’s controversial lecture in Regensburg (Germany) on September 12th 2006, a group of 38 Muslim scholars sent a letter to the Vatican responding to this lecture. On October 13th 2006 the so-called Open Letter of the 38 was published and signed by Muslim leaders and scholars, responding with some polite yet clarifying statements to the Pope’s lecture and proposing an interfaith dialogue. The aim of this first open letter was an elaborate explanation of how reason and faith are indeed inseparable and yet still compatible with Islam. This document may also be seen as a contemporary and broadly unifying reaction to an unfortunate state, in which extreme or radical beliefs abuse and misrepresent faith through calling on the name of God in order to justify their actions.

The Open Letter of the 38 met with a disappointing response from the Vatican, which motivated its initiators to think bigger. One year and one hundred signatories later, ACW was launched, this time addressed not only to the Pope, but to the leaders of all Christian Churches. ACW succeeded in getting the attention of the Vatican as well as many Christian religious leaders, ambassadors and other representatives interested in a harmonic and deepened friendship between the world’s two largest faiths.

The hermeneutic relevance of ACW

ACW tries to combine not only different Islamic traditions but also the Christian and – even if not explicitly – the Jewish religion under the main tenet of love: On the one hand through the love of God, on the other hand through the love of the neighbour. Who exactly is intended by ’neighbour’ is made clear from the context and quotations used, but less so from the language; in the context of the verses cited in the text, ’neighbour’ is to be understood both literally (person next door) as well as symbolically representing one’s fellow human beings. Linguistically however this is not as clear. Whereas in English there is only one word to describe both our physical neighbour and our fellow human, Arabic (and other languages such as German) can differentiate between the two. This is relevant because the Christian scriptures use the word qarīb to describe neighbour (the one who is close to me, i.e. a brother), whereas the Islamic tradition uses another word, jār, the geographical neighbour.[4] Indeed, the difference may lead to questions, but it also highlights the importance of hermeneutics and tolerance, two components which are crucial for the appreciation of every dialogue as well as for documents originating in Jordan and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, for a good and open dialogue it is important not only to stress common ideas or positive factors, but of course to bear in mind the differences and meet each other in productive and respectful discussion and exchange.  In the understanding of ACW and its fruits it is therefore helpful and necessary not to make sensitive and controversial topics taboo as long as both sides involved see and accept themselves as partners of a greater project. To agree on differences may even be seen as an indicator of or good evidence for true and honest communication between faiths and opinions.

Obviously this concept can also be applied to innerfaith dialogue. Apart from the two common tenets between Islam and Christianity (and other faiths), the document implies an inner-Muslim consensus of a number of people, including notable religious leaders, theologians, diplomats and academics interested in establishing and deepening the understanding between Christians and Muslims. A remaining question is how, by whom or even whether this document has successfully achieved a consensus which can be accepted as legally binding[5] in such different cultural worlds and realities. The fact that the signatories as well as the addressees have completely different circumstances and do not necessarily have common practices in their daily faith makes a consensus even more interesting, especially from the perspective of cultural studies. A study focusing on this aspect in more detail would be very worthwhile and interesting.

Fruits of ACW

Important academic fruits of ACW have been the conferences held in Yale (2008), Cambridge (2008), Lambeth Palace (2008) and Georgetown (2009) as well as the establishment of the Catholic-Muslim Forum, which meets every three years (2008; 2011). The biggest fruit of ACW in terms of practical engagement in interfaith dialogue may be the World Interfaith Harmony week (WIHW), which was adopted by the UN in 2010. The first week of February has been set aside to commemorate interfaith harmony with events being held in solidarity all around the world[6].

Although ACW was the main impulse behind the WIHW, it can also be seen as a fruit of another dialogue initiative which originated in Jordan prior to ACW, and which has a direct bearing upon ACW’s fruits. In 2004 King Abdullah II of Jordan released a press statement called the Amman Message in order to clarify and stress what Islam is and what it is not and so to encourage and facilitate dialogue amongst Muslims. This press release and its condensed Three Points were adopted by a number of Muslim associations in 2005. One could view the WIHW as the final impulse in a three-phase dialogue initiative beginning with Islam: Firstly, Muslims are encouraged to talk amongst themselves, as a second step they search for dialogue with their Christian brothers and finally they encourage dialogue amongst all faiths. In fact, the ACW document as well as the official engagement of others, be it the Vatican, many protestant Churches, Evangelicals and Islamic Scholars throughout the world and from different traditions have had a history of exchange which is not only a result of unpleasant and even threatening factors, but also of inspiring and valuable moments between the largest religious communities in the past decades. Sources like literary works or letters between the people of the book and words of appreciation for the other are considerable references for respect and engagement in learning from each other throughout history.

Interfaith relations and the global status quo

Nevertheless, these days it is unfortunately not always the righteous and the most reasonable initiatives which attract attention and gain prominence. So too, it often seems easier for the negative and provocative voice to insult the hearts of the religious. It obviously isn’t easy for small countries such as Jordan to step out of the shade of its mighty neighbours and come up with initiatives and proposals in order to create and strengthen the bond between the Abrahamic religions and engage in religious exchange based on the fundaments of all faiths. A dialogue with Judaism is naturally made all the more difficult through the political association of Judaism with Israel and that country’s precarious existence amongst its Arab neighbours. Jordan is further in a unique position to initiate dialogue as it maintains peaceful relations with Israel and has a native Christian population who are integrated into society and well represented in public life. Of course it should be possible to initiate and engage in interfaith dialogue everywhere in the world. It is of increasing value for every country and every community to focus on the ideas, voices and achievements that have become more visible, audible and important in terms of inner- and interfaith dialogue throughout the last few years.

In initiatives like ACW and the WIHW the potential offered by different understandings, opinions and viewpoints become visible and need to be seriously considered and investigated. Studying differences instead of searching for similarities and addressing problematic issues can possibly lead to a better understanding of not only the Other but one’s own beliefs and religious concepts. These actions of coming together in conferences and workshops are crucial as the aim for peace can no longer be postponed; it is not an illusive meet and greet but an engagement in knowledge, applied religious studies and common human concerns, without only relying on compromises.

Only time will tell whether or not this aim has been or may possibly be achieved. So far we may congratulate the ACW initiative for its 5th anniversary and conclude by saying: May your seeds sprout and may the tradition of dialogue and interest in each other be remembered as a value of decoding part of the world and as greatly beneficial to our own lives.

[1]    HRH Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, ’A Common Word between us and You’: Two years Summary, Oct. 2007 – Oct 2009.

[2]    David Ford, A Common Word Between Us and You. A Response by David Ford, p 1.

[3]      Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury: A Common Word for the Common Good, 2008, p. 14.

[4]    Cf. Samir Khalil Samir SJ, The Letter of 138 Muslim scholars to the Pope and Christian leaders (2007).

[5]    arab.: ijmā’, consensus; one of the four sources of Islamic jurisprudence next to the Quran, Ahadith and Qiyas

[6]    see for more details