How The Church Of Rome Is Responding To The Letter Of The 138 Muslims

For now, only the experts are speaking, while the official response is studied. But meanwhile, cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran and Libyan theologian Aref Ali Nayed are exchanging a series of messages. Here are the complete texts

ROMA, November 2, 2007 – They began a year ago, 38 of them, with an open letter to Benedict XVI one month after his lecture in Regensburg. They soon grew to 100.

Last October 11, they were 138, and they wrote a second letter to the pope and to the other heads of the Christian Churches.

Now they are 144, from 44 nations, belonging to the different currents and schools of Muslim thought – Sunni, Shiite, Ismaili, Ja’fari, Ibadi.

The latest signature came on October 26. It was that of Tariq Ramadan, the most controversial Islamic thinker in the West. He resides in Geneva, is president of the European Muslim Network in Brussels, and teaches at Oxford. But he is also the nephew and disciple of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, historically a foundry of fundamentalism.

Among the scholarly Muslims who signed the second letter to the pope, Ramadan is not the only one who provokes alarm. There’s the rector of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayeb; there’s the sheikh Izz al-Din Ibrahim, founder of the University of the United Arab Emirates; and there are others like them who exalt as “martyrs” the terrorists who blow themselves up in a market, on a bus, in a school.

It is a strident contrast with a letter that aims to make the love of God and neighbor the “common word” between Muslims and Christians.

But the task facing the leaders of the Church of Rome is to look at the effective novelties and the positive elements of the Muslim initiative, and to prepare an adequate response.

While after the letter from the 38 in October of 2006, no response came from the Vatican – to the great disappointment of the Muslims who had written it – after this next letter from the 138, there immediately came authoritative signals of appreciation.

The first came from cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue.

The second came from cardinal Angelo Scola, patriarch of Venice and founder of a study center and of a magazine in multiple languages, including Arabic and Urdu, “Oasis,” both dedicated to the Christian Churches in Muslim-ruled countries.

Tauran announced over Vatican Radio that the letter “will certainly receive a response.”

But the experts have already moved into action, in anticipation of the official response that will be released in a few months, not by Benedict XVI himself, but by the ad hoc Vatican office headed by cardinal Tauran.

The PISAI – Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies – has begun planning a conference with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars, and on October 25 it published its own commentary on the letter by the 138, signed by its president, Fr. Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, and by four of the institute’s professors: Frs. Etienne Renaud, Michel Lagarde, Valentino Cottini, and Felix Phiri.

Two other in-depth commentaries on the letter have been written by two Jesuit scholars of Islam who have pope Joseph Ratzinger’s great attention and respect: Samir Khalil Samir, from Egypt, and Christian W. Troll, from Germany.

Both the analysis by Fr. Troll and the commentary by the PISAI scholars emphasize, among the letter’s virtues and original features, the fact that it also addresses the Jews amicably, especially where it says that the love of God is the first commandment, not only in the Qur’an and the Christian Gospel, but also “in the Old Testament and the Jewish liturgy.”

But what most attracts the attention of the Church authorities are the new developments within the Islamic camp. Never before have Muslims of such different tendencies found themselves in agreement, and moreover on the mine-strewn terrain of relations with Christians.

The initiative began in Amman, with Jordan’s King Abdullah and above all with Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, president of the Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, a well-educated Muslim who is married to a Hindu and who, according to Jesuit Fr. Samir, displays “today’s Islam at its best.”

Also from Jordan is Sohail Nakhooda, director of “Islamica Magazine,” a periodical read by Muslim professors in the universities of England and America.

Two other prominent members of the brain trust are the sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, director of the Zaytuna Institute in California, and Libyan theologian Aref Ali Nayed, a professor at Cambridge University, and previously an instructor at the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.

And then there is Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, the only Italian to sign the letter of the 138, a scholar who together with Nayed acts as a representative with Vatican authorities.

The initial objective of the Amman committee was to reinforce doctrinal and practical consensus in the Muslim camp, especially between Shiites and Sunnis. In 2004, a document of agreement on three points was endorsed by more than 500 Islamic leaders, some of them on opposite ends of the spectrum, including the anti-Khomeini grand ayatollah al-Sistani, Sheikh Tantawi of al-Azhar University, the ideological leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaradawi, and even Iranian president Ahmadinejad.

Then, on September 12, 2006, came Benedict XVI’s stunning lecture in Regensburg. And the committee attempted the great step of extending a friendly hand to the pope and to his thesis on faith and reason.

The endorsements of intolerant Muslims were left to fall by the wayside. But with the two letters of the 38 and of the 138, a new and daring road has been opened, one never before taken, with unforeseeable developments around the bend.

This road also has its obstacles, as shown by the following synopsis.

The first roadblocks

On Sunday, October 21, Benedict XVI was having lunch during a visit to Naples. Sitting with the pope was one of the signatories of the letter sent to him from the 138 Muslims, Sheikh Izz al-Din Ibrahim, of the United Arab Emirates. But there was also the head rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger. And only the presence of the pope restored the peace between the two, after the first difficulties flared up.

But that afternoon, after Benedict XVI left to return to Rome, the sheikh and the rabbi resumed their quarreling, this time in public, at the inaugural forum of the interreligious meeting organized by the community of Sant’Egidio. Rabbi Metzger accused of duplicity those who talk about peace, and at the same time remain silent about Iran’s threats to wipe Israel from the face of the earth. Sheikh Ibrahim rebutted by turning the accusation back against the enemies of “peaceful” Iran, and first among them “the puppet state” of Israel, crammed full of “weapons of mass destruction.”

But behind the scenes of the meeting in Naples lurked another controversy, which would come back to bite the Vatican authorities.

It was sparked by a statement from cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, in an October 18 interview with the French Catholic newspaper “La Croix.”

This was the cardinal’s statement: “We can have theological discussions with some religions. But not with Islam, or at least not for now. Muslims do not accept that the Qur’an can be debated, because it was written, they say, at the dictation of God. With such an absolute interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the content of their faith with them.”

Having read this statement, some of the signatories of the letter of the 138 –including Aref Ali Nayed – drafted a statement of their own in which they criticized not only cardinal Tauran, but also Benedict XVI himself, from whom, they emphasized, “Muslims are still awaiting a proper response.”

And they wrote: “Dialogue is not about imposing one’s views on the other side, nor deciding oneself what the other side is and is not capable of, nor even of what the other side believes.”

Nevertheless, not all the Muslims consulted were in favor of publicizing such a polemical statement. Some of them objected that it would chill the dialogue it was hoped would follow the letter of the 138. In the end, the statement was given to the community of Sant’Egidio, which entered it among the proceedings of the meeting in Naples, without publicizing it:

> A Communiqué by Muslim Scholars…

But Nayed came back to this issue in an interview on October 31 with Cindy Wooden of “Catholic News Service,” the agency of the United States’ bishops’ conference. The interview has been published in its entirety by “Islamica Magazine”:

> Aref Ali Nayed Interview with CNS

The central portion of the interview includes an extensive, complex explanation of the Islamic interpretation of the Qur’an, placed beside the Catholic interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures. In Nayed’s view, the Islamic interpretation of the Qur’an not only does not clash with modern Catholic exegesis of the Bible, but it preceded and nourished this. And therefore the dialogue between Muslims and Christians should not be limited to the principles of natural ethics, but should be “theologically and spiritually grounded.”

As for the possibility for Muslims to “debate the Qur’an,” the views among the leaders of the Catholic Church are more nuanced than cardinal Tauran’s statement implies.

At the meeting in Naples, cardinal Walter Kasper, in an address about the Scriptures in the monotheistic religions, said that “interpretation and adaptation to new historical and cultural situations, without discarding the essential content of the Qur’an,” is an open rather than a closed question in the Muslim camp.

And this is also the thought of Benedict XVI, both before and after his lecture in Regensburg.


A reminder on names, events, documents

In the interest of reviewing, at the origin of the first public letter written to a pope by a group of scholarly Muslims is Benedict XVI’s lecture in Regensburg, on September 12, 2006.

The text of the papal lecture is on the Vatican website:

> Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections

The letter of the 38 scholarly Muslims, who later became 100, addressed to the pope one month after the lecture in Regensburg, in mid-October of 2006, is reviewed on this page of www.chiesa:

> The Regensburg Effect: The Open Letter from 38 Muslims to the Pope (18.10.2006)

An extensive debate took place in the months following the release of these two texts. A number of contributions were written for www.chiesa by, in particular, the Muslim theologian Aref Ali Nayed, one of the signers of the letter to the pope, and Alessandro Martinetti, a Catholic scholar of metaphysics:

> Two Muslim Scholars Comment on the Papal Lecture in Regensburg (4.10.2006)

> The Church and Islam: A Sprig of Dialogue Has Sprouted in Regensburg (30.10.2006)

On October 11, 2007, one year after the letter of the 38, a second letter was addressed to Benedict XVI and to the other heads of the Christian Churches, initially signed by 138 scholarly Muslims and released in English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, and Arabic.

The complete text of the letter is on the website dedicated to it:

> A Common Word between Us and You

This is the list of the 138 signatories, each one identified by his role and nationality:

> Signatories

And these are the other signatures that the letter has drawn among Muslims since its publication:

> New Signatories

On one of these additional signatures, that of Tariq Ramadan, see on www.chiesa:

> Tariq Ramadan’s Two-Faced Islam. The West Is the Land of Conquest (19.1.2004)

It must in any case be remarked that the letter of the 138 was not prompted solely by Benedict XVI’s lecture in Regensburg. It has an even more important precedent, entirely within the Muslim world.

This precedent is the “Amman Message,” launched in 2004 in the capital of Jordan by the Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought.

The genesis of the “Amman Message,” its objectives, its complete text, and the list of the more than 500 signatories who endorsed it are on the website for the letter of the 138:

> The Amman Message

Returning to the letter of the 138, so far three notably in-depth and authoritative commentaries have been produced by Catholic scholars of Islam.

The first is by Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit and an instructor at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut. It was released on October 17 by the international agency “Asia News”:

> The Letter of 138 Muslim Scholars to the Pope and Christian Leaders

The second, from October 22, is by another Jesuit scholar of Islam, Christian W. Troll of Germany:

> Towards a common ground between Christians and Muslims?

The third is the commentary from the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, released on October 25 with the signature of the institute’s head, Fr. Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, and of four of the institute’s professors:

> Appreciation of An Open Letter and Call from Muslim Religious Leaders…

But that’s not all. During the same days when the letter of the 138 was being released, there was another important parallel form of correspondence taking place between the Catholic Church and the Muslim world.

This is described here below.

Ramadan 2007. The message of the Church of Rome, and the response from Aref Ali Nayed

The end of the month of Ramadan did not bring only the publication of the letter from the 138 Muslims to the pope.

There was also another message that went in the other direction, from the Church of Rome to the Muslim world.

It was one of the messages that the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue addresses to Muslims each year, on the occasion of the feast of ‘Id al-Fitr.

This year the message, signed by cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, was released in 22 languages. And it contains strong wording on the obligation to assure religious freedom and to condemn terrorism without reservations.

The complete text is on the Vatican website:

> Dear Muslim Friends…

This message received a response from one of the crafters and signatories of the letter of the 138, Aref Ali Nayed.

Born in Libya, and the director of a technology company headquartered in the United Arab Emirates, Nayed studied the philosophy of science and hermeneutics in the United States and Canada, took classes at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and taught at the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. He is a consultant for the Interfaith Program at the University of Cambridge. Nayed is an observant Sunni Muslim, and describes himself as “of the Asharite school in theology, Maliki in jurisprudential tendency, and Shadhili-Rifai in spiritual leanings.”

Over the last year, Nayed was one of the most actively engaged commentators on Benedict XVI̵#8217;s lecture in Regensburg, in texts that he published on www.chiesa.

And it was to this website that he entrusted his response to the message from the Church of Rome for the end of Ramadan.

It is a response of exceptional interest. Nayed recognizes that “the true teaching” of the Qur’an has been obscured, in part, by “forces of inner decay and stagnation” within the Muslim world, which have produced “the advent of legalistic, overly politicized, and spiritually-poor distortions of Islam.”

Among these distortions is the current unleashing of terrorism in the name of religion, which “each one of us is especially, theologically and morally, responsible to condemn and repudiate.”

On the positive side, Nayed upholds the full respect of religious freedom and freedom of conscience: a freedom he describes as “divinely ordained.”

And as for dialogue with men of other faiths or with non-believers, the Muslim Nayed writes:

“There is an urgent need, for all of us, to reconcile revelation-based affirmations of rights and duties with the more recent, but popular, affirmation that come from the notions and vocabularies of the French Revolution and British liberal teachings.

“Indeed, we are all called upon to retrieve, rehabilitate, and rearticulate the true compassionate teachings of our traditions regarding the divinely ordained value of human personhood and its associated rights, duties, and freedoms. We need to work on these issues with not only religious colleagues, but also with philosophers and jurists who invoke ‘natural’ grounds for personhood and rights. Islam does have notions of a primordial covenant and an original make-up (fitra) that can engage such discourses as those of natural law and liberalism.”

Here is the complete text:


by Aref Ali Nayed

In the Name of God, Merciful, Compassionate

His Eminence, Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, President,
His Excellence, Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata, Secretary,
Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue,
Dear Catholic Friends,

Thank you!

As one of the billion “Muslim Friends” you kindly address, this is to express heart-felt thanks for your kind message of greetings on the occasion of ‘Id al-Fitr 1428 H. 2007 C.E.

Our Feast is Your Feast!

‘Id al-Fitr is indeed a Muslim feast, but it is also a feast of humanity in which we gratefully acknowledge and joyfully celebrate God’s unbounded compassion towards all of humanity.

Through a month of fasting, prayer, recitation, remembrance, contemplation, and compassionate living with others, we respond to God’s compassion by living in compassion towards His creatures. We do so in love and imitation of His ultimate Prophet and gifted-compassion Muhammad (peace be upon him), and of all previous Prophets (peace be upon them), including the Messiah Jesus son of Mary (peace be upon him).

On ‘Id days we live in utter joy and mutual goodwill and forgiveness. ‘Id is a great time for repairing all that is ruptured, and healing all that is ailing. Thus, your message of goodwill and peace comes at a most opportune time. May God (exalted is He) grace you with His peace and compassion.

The teaching of peace and compassion that you kindly proclaim in your message is one that pertains to the very essence of Islam, and is therefore dear to the hearts of Muslims. I cherish you and thank you for sharing it.

God is the source of all compassion and is most compassionate (al-rahman al-rahim). He has sent to humanity a sequence of compassionate Prophets, in loving manifestation of His own compassion.

Some of these Prophets came to humanity with heavenly books of guidance and compassion (hudan wa rahma). The ultimate of these heavenly books is the Qur’an, the book of light, guidance, and compassion.

These Prophets (peace be upon them all) preached total love and devotion to the One True God, and love and compassion towards His creatures, our neighbors.


In our Muslim tradition, there is a revered tradition of transmitting Prophetic utterances from one teacher to another in a chain that authentically links us with the Muhammad, the Prophet of Compassion (peace be upon him).

There is also a tradition of transmitting and receiving the very first hadith one learns from one’s teacher. This is called the ‘chain of first-ness’ (al-musalsal bil awaliayh).

The first hadith I learned from my Sheikh al-Sayyid Muhammd al-Alawi al-Maliki (mercy be upon him), with a continuous chain all the way back to the Prophet (peace be upon him) is amazingly foundational in Islam: “The compassionate shall be shown compassion by The Compassionate (blessed and exalted is He). Have compassion upon those on earth, and the One in heaven shall have compassion upon you.”


For generations the compassionate teachings of Muhammad (peace be upon him) were successfully transmitted in Muslim communities through a revered and balanced tradition that combined doctrine (aqida covering iman), jurisprudence (fiqh covering islam), and spirituality (taswuuf covering ihsan).

The institutions of transmission, that traditionally safeguarded the compassionate and true teaching of Islam, unfortunately suffered multiple attacks first by the forces of inner decay and stagnation, then by colonial powers and then by secularizing nationalist ideologues and rulers.

The confiscation of religious foundations (awqaf) also led to the loss of the independent economic base for these institutions. The advent of legalistic, overly politicized, and spiritually-poor distortions of Islam have all further weakened the traditional institutions of compassion and wisdom transmission.

Today, there is an urgent need to repair, rehabilitate, and maintain the scholarly and spiritual institutions that preserve and grow compassion in the hearts of youth. This is a challenge that is faced by all traditional communities striving to preserve their wisdom in the midst of an increasingly, and viciously, cruel and materialistic world. Dialogue with other religions and philosophies is key in keeping open enough to grow and flourish healthy institutions.


As in the case with all religions, the wholesome and compassionate teachings of the true Islamic tradition were sometimes distorted, and warped. In some cases malignant theological mutations resulted in grotesque actions.

Just as the peace-loving teaching of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) was sometimes warped and invoked to unleash cruel actions, the peace-loving teaching of Muhammad (peace be upon him) was sometimes also warped and invoked to unleash cruel attacks on fellow human beings, such as in the grotesque terrorist attacks of recent times.

When it comes to crazed cruelty against God’s beloved creatures, no tradition is immune from distortion. We must all be on vigilant guard against abusive and distorting mutilations of our traditions.

We must all unite in condemning all cruelty against even a single soul of God’s creatures, for that is equivalent to attacking all of humanity. We must unite in compassion against all cruelty, wherever it comes from, and whoever happens to practice it.

However, each one of us is especially, theologically and morally, responsible to condemn and repudiate all cruelty perpetrated in the name of his or her religious tradition.

When it comes to theological mutilations and distortions, we humans tend to be very good at detecting them in others. It is very easy for all of us to fall into self-righteous and judgmental modes. Here it is important to point out that, as a Muslim, I do take to heart, with utter respect, the following passages from Christian Scriptures, of which we should all be constantly reminded (Matthew 7):

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?”

One of the key gifts of dialogue is that it can help us keep each other honest. The Prophet (peace be upon him) says that ̶#8220;the believer is the mirror of his fellow believer”. By being mirrors for each other, we keep each other focused on the true and sincere service to the One God, and help each other cure the eye-troubles that impair our spiritual sight.


As a Muslim, I readily share with you the insistence on the importance of respecting religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Such freedom is divinely ordained into the very personhood of human beings through the original divine breath, and primordial covenant. This doctrine is rooted in the Qur’an itself.

Here are some key verses:

“If it had been Thy Lord’s will, They would all have believed,- all who are on earth! wilt Thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!.” (10:99)

“Let there be no compulsion In religion: truth stands out Clear from error: Whoever rejects evil and believes In God hath grasped the Most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. and God heareth and knoweth all things.” (2:256)

“It is true Thou wilt not be able to guide every one, whom Thou lovest; but God guides those whom He will and He knows best those who receive guidance.” (28:56)

Now, that being said, of course, Muslim communities everywhere do face the challenge of living up to the Qur’anic imperative, just as other religious communities face their own challenges. The complex issues of balancing human rights, human duties, and communal integrity and wellbeing are in need of urgent studies and discussions. Accumulated and normative juridical rulings, from different ages and different circumstances must be addressed, engaged, and updated. Such a task demands tremendous work and fresh juridical striving by all concerned. Dialogue is key to this important work as well.

However, these issues are faced by all religious traditions, and there is an urgent need, for all of us, to reconcile revelation-based affirmations of rights and duties with the more recent, but popular, affirmation that come from the notions and vocabularies of the French Revolution and British Liberal teachings.

Indeed, we are all called upon to retrieve, rehabilitate, and rearticulate the true compassionate teachings of our traditions regarding the divinely ordained value of human personhood and its associated rights, duties, and freedoms. We need to work on these issues with not only religious colleagues, but also with philosophers and jurists who invoke ‘natural’ grounds for personhood and rights. Islam does have notions of a primordial covenant and an original make-up (fitra) that can engage such discourses as those of natural law and liberalism.


Your insight into the importance of education for peace and compassion, and its potential role in ending the spiral of conflict, in which humanity is caught today, is very much appreciated.

The most important element of such a wholesome education is the teaching of forgiveness. Most cruelty today is practiced in the name of justice based on grievances, often real, sometimes only perceived, and conveniently supported by false logics of “reciprocity”, and even “justice”, that often drag us down into endless spirals of vengeful tit-for-tat.

Our two traditions both clearly value forgiveness. Alas, we humans are often not very good practitioners of it. Sadly, our two communities often fail in this important regard. Here is what the Qur’an tells a Muslim to do:

“Repel evil with that which is best: we are well acquainted with the things They say.” (23:96)

“Nor can goodness and evil be equal. repel (evil) with what is better: then will He between whom and Thee was hatred become As it were Thy friend and intimate!” (41:34)

“Let them forgive and overlook, do you not wish that God should forgive you? for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” (24:22)

Here is what the Bible tells the Christian to do (Matthew 5):

“You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

Compassion and forgiveness are key to the breaking the stranglehold of cruelty in our world today. Our mutual accusations and self-righteous demands just make things worse. The stereotyping of the other, and the non-hearing, or hearing-but-ignoring of good gestures coming from the other are all ways in which we humans often serve our own arrogant egos, but definitely not our beloved and compassionate Creator (Exalted is He).


Let me conclude this long note of thanks for your kind ‘Id Message, by invoking two Qur’anic prayers:

“Moses prayed: “O My Lord! forgive me and My brother! admit us to Thy mercy! for Thou art the Most Merciful of those who Show mercy!” (7:151)

“Then will He be of those who believe, and enjoin patience, (constancy, and self-restraint), and enjoin deeds of kindness and compassion.” (90:17)

May God (exalted is He) encompass all of us within His infinite compassion.

He knows best.


English translation by Matthew Sherry, Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.