Muslim Challenge Spurs Inter-Faith Dialogue

On October 13, 2007, 138 Muslim scholars and clerics, representing every major school of Islamic thought, issued a declaration entitled “A Common Word between Us and You,” challenging Christians to come together with them in dialogue.

The phrase “common word” comes from the Qur’an where Allah declares: “O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you” (3:64). Included in “People of the Book” are Jews and Christians, and the meaning of “common word” for them is the love of God and love of neighbor.

The Muslim leaders insist that “empathy and sympathy for the neighbour are not enough. They must be accompanied by generosity and self-sacrifice.”

The authors of “A Common Word” also make it clear that another part of love of neighbors is respect for their beliefs and their freedom of religion, because, as the Qur’an states, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256).

The first response to “A Common Word” was from the Yale Divinity School. Just as 142 additional Muslim religious leaders have signed their original statement, hundreds of Christians continue to sign the Yale declaration “Loving God and Neighbor Together.”

Miroslav Volf, the director of Yale’s Center for Faith and Culture, praised the Muslim statement as “historic, courageous, and marked by deep insight and generosity of spirit.”

The Yale document begins with an acknowledgment that Christians have not always loved their fellow Muslims: “In the past (for example, in the Crusades) and in the present (in excesses of the “war on terror”) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors.”

The Yale signatories were hopeful that even “undeniable differences and the very real external pressures that bear down upon us can not overshadow the common ground upon which we stand together.”

The second major response to the Muslim challenge was a conference at Cambridge University that 17 Muslim and 19 Christian theologians attended October 12-15.

Aref Ali Nayed, a senior advisor to the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, said that “to have top Muslim theologians become personal friends of top Christian theologians [will have] a monumental effect.”

This was the first time that Muslim and Christian religious had actually sat down and studied each other’s scripture together, correcting mutual misconceptions in the process. The conference participants agreed that it was imperative to produce educational materials that will spread these new understandings far and wide.

Despite initial objections from his own advisor on Islamic relations, Pope Benedict went ahead with a conference with Muslim clerics at the Vatican on November 4-6. Pope Benedict addressed the group urging Muslims and Christians to “overcome past prejudices and to correct the often distorted images of the other.”

Christian critics of “A Common Word” choose to emphasize differences rather than common ground. One evangelical scholar maintains that the Qur’an focuses on the fear of, rather than the love of God. He also claims that Muslims are not commanded to love their enemies.

But there are many instances of “fear of the Lord” in the Old Testament, and Martin Luther’s catechism contains the phrase “fear and love God” on every page. The Qur’an contains 192 references to God’s mercy, but God’s wrath is mentioned only 17 times.

Loving one’s enemies is a radical command that most Christians don’t practice, but here is what Muhammad said after being attacked by the people of Ta’if: “The most virtuous behavior is to engage those who sever relations and to forgive those who wrong you.”

Christian critics of the Common Word document are correct in pointing out its many references to the unity of God and that Allah has no “associates.” This of course is an indirect attack on the Trinity and the common Muslim charge that Christians are polytheists.

Most recently Saudi Arabia sponsored a two day conference at the UN on religious dialogue. Most countries sent only low ranking representatives as a sign of protest.

Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, supported the boycott saying that Saudi Arabia “is the world headquarters of religious oppression and xenophobia.” The Saudis prohibit the public practice of non-Islamic religions, and they also promote Wahabi theology, a very conservative school of Islam favored by Muslim extremists.

Fundamentalists of every faith will always stand in the way of interfaith dialogue, but we should all thank the moderate Muslims of “A Common Word” for initiating the most important dialogue of the 21st Century.

Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read his other columns at Read draft chapters of his book on the origins of religious violence at