Christmas greetings of peace on Earth and good will to all — what could be more common during this holiday season? It’s heard so much that it’s practically a cliché. But this familiar tune takes on a new tone when the greetings come from leading Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals. The same group of 138 Muslims that invited Christians to a theological dialogue last October has just sent its Christmas greetings to the Christian world (see the text and our news story). What struck me the most about it is that it was even sent at all.
As a decentralised religion with no single leader or leadership group to speak for it, Islam (1.3 billion faithful around the world) has always been “structurally disadvantaged” in comparison to Christianity. The world’s largest religion (2 billion) has one highly centralised church, Roman Catholicism (1.1 billion), led by a highly visible pope. Other large Christian families like the Orthodox (220 million), Anglicans (77 million) and the many different Protestant denominations all have clearly defined leaders who can speak for the faithful. The absence of such figures in Islam has allowed a wide variety of pretenders to claim to speak in the name of Muslims. To put it in terms of the current season, they couldn’t all send a Christmas card to Pope Benedict or Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew or Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams because they had no forum for getting together to do so. Individual sheikhs, muftis, imams or mosque rectors might send their greetings to a friendly local bishop, vicar, preacher or priest they knew personally, but there wasn’t exactly heavy traffic.
The group of 138 that issued the appeal called A Common Word is changing that. Representing Sunnis, Shi’ites, Sufis and other schools of Islam, they can claim more than anyone else to speak for large numbers of Muslims. Sure, we can’t say how many they represent. Of course, they are a mixed group. Naturally, they don’t all agree on everything. And yes, there may be disputes within the group, maybe defections and additions as it develops. But they are from a broad spectrum of Islam and have organised themselves enough to first send a response to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture (back when they were only 38), then propose a dialogue with the Christian world (which the major churches have accepted) and now send these Christmas greetings. Non-Muslim cynics might scoff that signing a Christmas greeting is not all that difficult. But anyone who knows anything about Islam can see this is a significant new step.
After the publication of the letter in October, the main focus was on what the Vatican would say. Many non-Catholic Christian leaders, Rowan Williams being the first among them, welcomed the dialogue appeal. The Vatican took its time and some officials, especially the man responsible for interreligious relations Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran , expressed doubt that a serious dialogue was even possible. But the Vatican finally answered positively and the path is now open for practical work.
Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Mohammad bin Talal, whose Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman is behind the dialogue appeal, recently responded to the Vatican’s acceptance with a letter proposing an initial meeting in February or March. Leading members of the group also plan to meet various Christian leaders at conferences planned over the coming year, so a network of Muslim-Christian discussions should develop. In his letter, of which I have obtained a copy, Prince Ghazi urges the Vatican not to want to make the best the enemy of the good. Dialogue is important, he argues,
“even if it transpires that there are differences between us in the interpretation or comprehension of the text of this letter… These differences themselves are presumably also a matter for discussion between us, and should be an occasion for mutual respect and celebration, and not divisive disputation.
“We, like you, also consider complete theological agreement between Christians and Muslims inherently not possible by definition, but still wish to seek and promote a common stance and cooperation based on what we do agree on.”