IN JUST about every dialogue between the great religions of the world there are points of striking commonality and points of sharp contrast. Both extremes are almost certain to come up whenever Muslims and Jews get together and try talking theology.
This week saw the latest such attempt at an exchange of ideas, as an open letter from leading Muslim scholars to the Jewish community was unveiled in Cambridge, Britain. It follows a somewhat similar initiative that was launched last October, when 138 leading Muslims wrote to the leaders of the Christian world, proposing a formal dialogue based on the commandments of Jesus to love God and one another. The original letter was entitled “A Common Word between Us and You”. At first the Vatican reacted coolly, but Pope Benedict XVI eventually agreed to receive some of the signatories.
The signatories of this week’s letter include Tariq Ramadan, an influential scholar and teacher among Western (especially west European) Muslims; Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia; and Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian professor from al-Quds university in Jerusalem. “As Muslims and Jews we share core doctrinal beliefs, the most important of which is strict monotheism”, the missive states—after explaining that it is being published “as a gesture of goodwill towards rabbinic leaders and the wider Jewish communities of the world.”
The background to the gesture is a broad effort to seek out those points of commonality between religions. For Muslims and Jews there is much to agree upon, but also much to dispute. The Hebrew patriarchs, including Abraham, Moses and Noah, play an important role in the Koran (as does Jesus, the son of Mary); but there are differences in the Muslim and Jewish narratives which are certainly not trivial for anyone who regards these stories as primordial revelations of God. The Koran makes plain that the sacred writings of the Jews offer a valid path to salvation; yet there is also a clear suggestion in the Muslim tradition that the Jews, along with the Christians, misunderstood or even wilfully distorted the messages that they received from God—making a final revelation, that of Mohammed, vitally necessary.
In recent years, theological differences between Muslims and Jews have been complicated (putting it mildly) by geopolitical ones, as both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and their respective supporters around the world) present their case in ever more explicitly religious terms. However far they are from Jerusalem, Muslims and Jews find their diametrically opposing views of the Middle Eastern conflict get in the way of their attempts to discuss more universal themes, such as revelation or morality.
Even when the two sides are doing their best to be polite to one another, Middle Eastern matters rear up. In 2004, for example, a prominent British Jew and veteran of inter-faith work, Sir Sigmund Sternberg, withdrew an award he had earlier offered to Iqbal Sacranie, who was then head of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB): this was in protest at a statement by the council which denounced Israel’s “murderous” leaders and accused them of “ethnic cleansing”. (Not that all the news in Britain’s inter-faith scene is bad. This year the MCB attended an event on Holocaust Memorial Day, discreetly reversing a boycott which had deeply offended Jews.)
There have been some positive Jewish reactions to the letter this week: Rabbi David Rosen, who advises the chief rabbinate of Israel on inter-faith matters, said the initiative was especially welcome because the “remarkable co-operation and cross-fertilisation” which had often existed between Muslims and Jews had been “tragically overshadowed” by modern politics. The letter was launched in the civilised environment of the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations in Cambridge. How it will play in some of the wilder places where Islam and Judaism stand face to face is a harder question.