At first sight, it was not the most auspicious trigger for a dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
In a speech at Regensburg University 13 months ago, Pope Benedict XVI quoted the medieval Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeogus as telling a Persian interlocutor: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
The quotation was condemned by civilian and religious authorities across the Islamic world as a misunderstanding of their religion, but it also led to the publication of an open letter to the Pope by 38 leading Muslim figures that carefully refuted the emperor’s contention and called for “peace, mutual acceptance and respect” between the two religions.
Yesterday saw the publication of a sequel to that missive, signed by 138 scholars and addressed to the heads of all the main Christian denominations, among them the Pope and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The authors, who represent the Sunni, Shia and Sufi strands of Islam, state that peace between Christianity and Islam holds the key to world peace and remind us that the commandment to love God and one’s neighbour is common to both faiths. “So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us,” they write. “Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works.”
In an age when Islamic extremism, with its call for lethal revolution, appears to be making the running, it is deeply encouraging to hear a large group of Muslim leaders advocating peaceful coexistence with Christians.
We hope that those addressed in yesterday’s letter, following the lead given by Dr Williams and Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, will respond promptly and warmly; and that the exchange will develop beyond general expressions of goodwill to consider such thorny subjects as the issuing of fatwas, the proper definition of jihad, relations with Judaism and the treatment of religious minorities, whether in the West or East.
If handled sensitively, the scholars’ initiative could mark the overdue turning of the tide against a depressingly narrow and intrinsically violent interpretation of one of the world’s great religions.