An unprecedented Muslim appeal to Christianity to underpin world peace
The letter sent by more than 130 Muslim scholars to the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Christian leaders around the world is as unprecedented as it is welcome. Rarely have Muslim leaders from all the main sects and theological schools in Islam and representing so many countries joined together in an appeal to non-Muslims. Rarely, indeed, has the Muslim world spoken out so clearly on the need for global peace or addressed Christianity in such terms of respect and acceptance of common beliefs.
The scholars note that Muslims and Christians make up half the world’s population. An understanding between these two global religions is therefore essential if peace is to be built on the principle of mutual tolerance between neighbours – a precept that they say is as intrinsic to Islam as it is to Christianity. Their letter insists that polite dialogue is not enough: “With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before; no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Our common future is at stake.” The tone, as well as the timing, is important. The letter, issued on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the great Muslim feast that marks the end of Ramadan, is clearly designed to rally Muslim moderates at a time when extremists often appear to have hijacked the faith for political purposes. It comes as religious zealotry has been driving conflict all along the borders between Islam and Christianity, from Nigeria to Chechnya, in the Balkans, Sudan and Indonesia. In itself, the letter will not stop fanaticism or allay age-old suspicions. But it will make it harder for those who thrive on a narrow, militant interpretation of Islam to pose as the true guardians of the faith. And the respect with which the muftis and ulema, the scholars whose word carries weight in a religion that has no formal hierarchy, address Christian leaders does much to heal the bitterness engendered by the Pope’s remarks on Islam last year. At the least, it gives no cover to those seeking to exploit the misunderstanding to portray a Christian West as the enemy of Islam; at best it will underpin the dialogue that the Vatican, the Orthodox and Anglicans are eager to promote.
Nor should the importance of this within Islam be underestimated. Muslims are appalled by the fallout from Iraq, Afghanistan and conflicts where Islam is not only pitched against the West but where ancient divisions between Shia and Sunni, between the Sufi and the more puritanical Salafi sects have been exacerbated. A letter signed by senior scholars in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as well as by Muslims living in the West will have a strong influence on the growing theological debate within Islam.
Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, gave an immediate welcome to the letter, of clear relevance to a city so diverse, which has itself suffered the effect of religious extremism. He said, rightly, that such a move deserves a serious response by Christian leaders. He also made the important point that in any dialogue Judaism, the third pillar of the three monotheistic religions, should not be marginalised. By quoting the Torah as well as the New Testament, the signatories imply the debt of Islam, as well as Christianity, to Judaism. More explicit acknowledge-ment would do much to further world peace.