Comment: Muslim Plea Well-Meaning But Flawed

Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent of The Times

The intentions of the 138 leading Islamic scholars who today wrote to Christian leaders urging reconciliation, are praiseworthy – who among us does not want world peace? – but I fear that the theological analysis underpinning their intervention might not light many candles in the Christian world.

Unfortunately, the road to misunderstanding is paved with good intentions.

Among the first to respond to the letter today was the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, a leading Anglican expert on Islam. Dr Nazir-Ali, who was born in Pakistan, told me he welcomed the fact that so many Muslim leaders want to enter a dialogue with Christians.

“But what I would stress is that dialogue between partners must be conducted in the integrity of each faith,” he said. “One partner cannot dictate the terms on which dialogue must be conducted. This document seems to be on the verge of doing that.”

For Dr Nazir-Ali, the document appears to be calling for dialogue on the basis of Muslim belief in the unity of God. He said: “If that were the case, we would all be Muslim. I would say, we need mutual witness and learning as well as witness to faith. I am quite happy for Muslims to witness to me. But it is not a one-way street.”

The bishop criticises parts of the document, which goes in great detail into Koranic passages emphasising the unity of God. “One thing the document implies is that Christians have compromised their monotheism. It does this by implication, with all the business of saying we must agree that God is only one and not associated with partners, that we must not take others for Lord. It refers to various verses in the Koran which accuse Christians of taking Jesus and others as their Lord besides Allah.”

The verse the entire letter is based on, Dr Nazir-Ali says, is Koran 3:64. “Say, ‘O followers of the scripture, let us come to a logical agreement between us and you: that we shall not worship except GOD; that we never set up any idols besides Him, nor set up any human beings as lords beside GOD.’ If they turn away, say, ‘Bear witness that we are submitters’.”

He said: “This verse says that if we are going to talk it must be on the basis that you [the Christians] are no longer associating others with God. What I would say to that is that Christians uphold belief in one God vigorously but our understanding of the oneness of God is not the Muslim understanding.

“We believe in God as source from whom everything is brought into being. Jesus is God’s word and presence for us but is also human.”

In fact, the document does emphasise the humanity of Jesus, in line with Koranic teaching. Dr Nazir-Ali said: “That is fine, but he is also God’s presence for us. We believe in one God but how we believe in one God is not the same as how Muslims believe in one God. There is an implicit assumption here that what Muslims believe is normative, and everyone else has to fall into line.”

Dr Nazir-Ali is right to welcome the scholars’ call for dialogue on the issue of peace, although he points out that there are many other important areas of dialogue that this letter does not mention. My fear is that this letter betrays a fundamental lack of understanding about Christianity.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has responded. He says: ‘The letter’s understanding of the unity of God provides an opportunity for Christians and Muslims to explore together their distinctive understandings and the ways in which these mould and shape our lives.’

I imagine Pope Benedict XVI will be more forthright if he ever gets around to replying to this letter, which warns him that the very “survival of the world” is at stake if Muslims and Christians cannot learn to live together. We can only hope that he doesn’t quote any more 14th century Byzantine emperors, as he did in his ill-starred Regensburg address last year.