Muslim Clerics Reach Out

Christian leaders praise letter’s interreligious goodwill

Perhaps it says something about the complexities of Christian/Muslim relations that a recent letter from 138 senior Islamic clerics and scholars to Christian leaders has drawn Catholic reactions ranging from cautious optimism to almost breathless enthusiasm, yet no one seems ready to predict that it will actually make any difference.

Addressed to Pope Benedict XVI and 25 other Christian leaders, including the patriarch of Constantinople and the archbishop of Canterbury, the 28-page letter was released Oct. 11. Signatories include well-known figures from the Sunni, Shiite, Salafi and Sufi branches of Islam, representing more than 40 countries, including Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Pakistan.

The document argues that the twin commands of love of God and love of neighbor provide common ground between the two traditions.

“Whilst Islam and Christianity are obviously different religions — and whilst there is no minimizing some of their formal differences — it is clear that the two greatest commandments are … a link between the Quran, the Torah and the New Testament,” it said.

On that basis, the Muslim leaders said, there is no necessary antagonism between the two faiths.

“As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them — so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes,” the document says, referring to a passage in the Quran.

The Muslim leaders argued that the sheer size of the two faiths makes cooperation essential.

“Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history,” the letter says. “The relationship between these two religious communities [is] the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world.”

The initiative comes on the one-year anniversary of a similar letter to Benedict XVI by 38 Muslim scholars after his Sept. 12, 2006, lecture in Regensburg, Germany, which fired Islamic protest by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman,” such as “his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, described the new letter as a “historic event,” saying it is the first time a cross section of authoritative Islamic figures had issued a collective theological statement to Christians.

Official Vatican reaction came from French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who called the letter “an eloquent example of a dialogue among spiritualities.”

“This represents a very encouraging sign, because it shows that goodwill and dialogue are capable of overcoming prejudices,” Tauran said.

Other Catholic voices have been even more upbeat.

Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, Italy, for example, a widely respected figure in international Catholic circles, said that no document produced by Islamic militants has ever enjoyed the broad consensus of Muslim leaders who stand behind this text.

Egyptian Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, one of Catholicism’s most influential experts on Islam, published a broadly positive reaction with Oct. 17. (See related story) The normal pattern in Christian/Muslim dialogue, Samir wrote, has been for Christians to take the first step, so it’s important to see Muslims taking the initiative.

It’s a measure of Catholic enthusiasm that perhaps the most serious criticism of the letter is that, if anything, it’s too gracious, deliberately using Christian vocabulary such as “love of God” (rather than “obedience” or “adoration”) and “neighbor,” which is not a Quranic term. While that’s a clear signal of the noble intentions of the authors, said Dominican Fr. Jean-Jacques Pérennès, a Cairo-based expert on Islam, it could make the document more difficult for other Muslims to accept.

Many observers believe the ball is now in the Vatican’s court, and this is where enthusiasm turns into doubt about what the next step might be.

Both Esposito and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a noted Iranian Muslim scholar at George Washington University in Washington, charged Oct. 11 that the Vatican is more interested in diplomatic relations with Muslim governments than in theological dialogue.

“The very first meeting in the Vatican [after Regensburg] was with Muslim ambassadors,” Hossein said, “many of whom know nothing at all about Islamic issues. What’s being evaded are underlying differences in belief that cause political and social differences to manifest themselves. We have to be honest enough to tackle that, and not to hide it in the closet.”

Tauran recently provided a clear signal of such ambivalence. Interreligious dialogue can take place “with some religions,” Tauran said in a mid-October interview with the French daily La Croix, “but with Islam, not at this time.”

“Muslims do not accept discussion about the Quran, because they say it was written under the dictates of God,” Tauran said. “With such an absolutist interpretation, it’s difficult to discuss the contents of the faith.”

Esposito said he hopes that Christian leaders will press beyond such reservations to come up with a common statement of their own.

“Think about what it would say if you had a group of cardinals, patriarchs, the head of the Methodist church, the evangelicals, coming together and themselves issuing a statement with regard to Islam,” he said. “Think about the way in which people in the Muslim world would look at that statement, and the impact it would have.”

“It’s a challenge now to Christians in terms of how they respond,” Esposito said.

John L Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is [email protected].