Commentary: Muslim Outreach

In what can only be described as a historic event, prominent Muslims from around the world extended an olive branch to Christianity on the eve of the Eid, the Muslim holy day marking the end of Ramadan.

In an open letter to the heads of all Christian churches — including Pope Benedict XVI — and to all Christians around the world, 138 of the world’s most senior Muslim leaders, including several prominent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, stressed that “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

“Everybody thinks they have a historic event,” said John L. Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University and director of the center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. “But if you look at the history of Islam and the Muslim world, this is really the first time in history that we have an initiative where Muslims have collectively come together and agreed to what binds them to Christians,” said Mr. Esposito.

This is truly an unprecedented global initiative by Muslim leaders in reaching out to the Christian world. This overture comes while relations between Islam and the West remain particularly strained.

Tension between Islamist extremists and the West kicked into high gear following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and a slew of other attacks by Islamists in Madrid, London as well as several other cities around the world. The riots that followed the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper caricature only accentuated that tension and deepened the schism between Islam and the West. The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. and coalition forces did nothing to abate that tension.

“This is a dramatic and groundbreaking display of international solidarity,” said a communique issued on behalf of Muslim leaders.

Mr. Esposito and other experts emphasized that Muslims and Christians share the same belief in the principles of love of one God and love of the neighbor. The Georgetown scholars pointed to a number of similarities between the Holy Koran and the Holy Bible.

Despite language differences between the Hebrew old testaments, the original word of Jesus Christ in Aramaic, and the actual transmitted Greek of the New Testament, the three versions have the same command; to love God fully with one’s heart and soul and to be fully devoted to Him. The Muslim holy book, the Koran, carries the same message.

“Everyone is interested in political and economic contentions, difficulties, struggles, wars,” said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University at a Thursday press conference marking the event.

The differences between Christians and Muslims say the theological experts, is a difference of theology rather than of politics. “Without a theological solution, without a certain sense of accepting the other… all other solutions are expediency and sooner or later they wither away,” said Mr. Nasr.

“Post September 11, a common question is ‘where are the moderate Muslim voices?’ ” said Mr. Esposito. “This historic document is a crystal-clear message of peace and tolerance from 138 Muslim leaders from across the Islamic world,” said Mr. Esposito.

The letter’s authors believe that with more than half of the world’s population consisting of Muslims and Christians, meaningful world peace can only come from peace and justice between those two faiths.

The signatories of the document, who include some of the world’s most influential Islamic leaders and thinkers, call for tolerance, understanding and moderation. This approach is unique not only in the fact that Muslims have extended and opened their arms to Christians; it also marks “a historic achievement in terms of Islamic unity.” It is significant that this initiative groups Muslims right across the spectrum, Sunnis and Shi’ites and different schools of thought within those two branches of Islam.

The driving force behind this and a previous letter a year ago has been the Royal Academy of Jordan, an international and nongovernmental Islamic institute headquartered in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.