Common Word Game

One year ago Pope Benedict XVI quoted a 14th-century emperor: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman.” The pope did not endorse the quote, but without regard to context or intent, Islamic communities promptly erupted in violence, burning churches and murdering Christians on the street.

Not all Muslims reacted so poorly. A group of 38 leaders from various schools of Muslim thought and practice issued an open letter to the pope seeking reconciliation. Amid the swirl and headlines of violence, that benevolent gesture drew little attention.

Now, a year later, the group of peace-seeking Muslims has added more than 100 leaders to its ranks and issued a second letter—this addressed to Christian scholars and clerics of every denominational stripe. A Common Word between Us and You seeks to promote harmony among Christians and Muslims on the basis of shared theological truths.

Quoting proof texts extensively from the Old and New Testaments and the Quran, the letter states that “the Unity of God, love of Him, and love of the neighbour form a common ground upon which Islam and Christianity [and Judaism] are founded.” The letter derives its name from a passage in the Quran instructing Muslims on how they are to approach Jews and Christians: “Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God.”

How should Christians respond? Can worship of one God rightly operate as a source of Christian-Muslim unity, given the inescapable theological reality that the triune God of the Bible is expressly different in character and identity than Allah in the Quran?

Many Christians, eager to foster goodwill, have welcomed the reconciliatory letter wholeheartedly. David Coffey, president of the Baptist World Alliance, called the document “a groundbreaking initiative which could make a major contribution to a better understanding in Christian-Muslim relations.” Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), praised “this invitation and the careful articulation of the Qur’anic and biblical ideas underlying it.”

On a broader scale, scholars from Yale Divinity School published a detailed response in The New York Times, complete with signatures from Christians across the theological and denominational spectrum. Rick Warren, John Stott, Leith Anderson, Bill Hybels, and Jim Wallis are among the 300 endorsers of a statement that affirms—without distinction or qualification—a common call in Islam and Christianity for singular worship and allegiance to one God. The response further affirms that this monotheistic devotion should provide the basis for all future interfaith dialogue.

Miroslav Volf, a Yale theology professor and principal author of the response statement, says the document does not intend “to minimize differences which are undeniable and profound, and touch the very heart of what Christians believe.” But he also contends that the theological common ground is significant and that this exchange between Muslim and Christian leaders could be “one of the most hopeful developments in interfaith relations in recent decades.”

Indeed, A Common Word presents a welcome divergence from Muslim hostility and violence. But some of the letter’s signatories raise questions of credibility. Tariq Ramadan, president of the European Muslim Network and nephew and disciple of the founder of the radical Muslim Brotherhood, recently added his name to the list. Thomas Haidon, a prominent advocate for moderate Islam, names Ramadan among the “false moderates” who “have managed to win the trust of non-Muslims and influential policy makers with their smiles, Western style suits, and promises of ‘dialogue.’”

Other signatories, such as Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayeb of Al-Azhar University in Cairo and Sheikh Izz al-Din Ibrahim, advisor for cultural affairs of the prime ministry in the United Arab Emirates, have previously elevated suicide bombers to the status of “martyrs.”

To the extent A Common Word represents a departure from such positions, it offers an opportunity for the world’s two dominant religious groups to grow in mutual understanding. But can Christians and Muslims admit that the theological common ground is narrow, yet the need to live in peace, with religious liberty for all, is vast?