Plugging The Knowledge Gap

This week, 48 Muslim and Catholic theologians meet in Rome, to find common ground between their two great faiths. The approach of the Common Word initiative is to find areas of shared belief – a love of God, love of one’s neighbour – in order to generate the goodwill and mutual respect that might allow a practical working together to uphold human dignity.

Common Word is the first large-scale Muslim interfaith initiative in modern times. In the past, interfaith dialogue has been largely brokered by the Christian churches. It is an attempt, backed by hundreds of notable Muslim scholars from over 40 different countries, to provide a framework for a positive engagement between Islam and Christianity after Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address in 2006.

Out of the number of high-level Muslim-Christian meetings planned, this week’s at the Vatican, as Tariq Ramadan sketched out, is perhaps the most crucial. Whilst Protestant theologians at meetings in Harvard and Cambridge have welcomed the whole process, even if they had theological reservations about the Muslim approach to dialogue, the Vatican under Pope Benedict has been more circumspect about entering into a Muslim-initiated dialogue.

It matters that religious leaders set a good example of religious tolerance, dialogue, and understanding. Even if fundamental differences remain between Islam and Christianity, does it not matter that our accounts of each other, critical or appreciative, are recognised as truthful rather than as misleading or unbalanced? Does it not matter that what these two Abrahamic traditions – along with Judaism – share in common is understood and articulated by their respective religious leaderships? Only through greater mutual understanding and friendship will religious leaders be able to use their authority to tackle difficult issues head on. At present, the learned theologians – even with goodwill and intent – are still largely speaking past one another and are yet to develop a mature intellectual language of dialogue with which to explore their respective commonalities and differences.

The network of Muslim scholars behind the Common Word was also instrumental in backing the earlier Amman Message of 2005 to restate broad principles of tolerance and expertise in the self-definition and self-regulation of Islamic orthodoxy. We should therefore recognise that there is a double battle going on – a jihad for tolerance both within and outside the House of Islam, and one that is in its early stages.

One of the long-term outcomes of this process should be to address the Muslim world’s considerable deficit in academic expertise on Christianity and other religions, particularly with respect to the impact upon them of modernity and critical thinking. At the recent Common Word public launch in Cambridge that I attended, this gap was noticeable when the Archbishop of Canterbury made the point that identifying common principles such as love or neighbourliness did not address the very different historical narratives and theological traditions out of which they sprang; this remark was not addressed by any of his eminent Muslim counterparts. The proposals that came out of the Cambridge meeting to widen academic exchange, to develop jointly school curriculums and the training of religious scholars, and to broaden theological exchange all work towards fostering that common language.

After 9/11, a few Muslim institutions have been established to deal with Islam and pluralism, of which interfaith is one element, such as the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan under Aref Nayed, the Tabah Foundation in United Arab Emirates under Ali al-Jifri, the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies in Malaysia under Hashim Kamali, or the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism in Indonesia under Syafi’i Anwar, but they are working at a moment when political and religious intolerance and violence is widespread in the Muslim world, both between Muslims and for non-Muslim minorities.

Similarly there are not many higher education institutions in the Muslim world that have followed the lead of the University of Ankara in studying Judaism and Christianity in their original biblical languages. More generally a UN-sponsored report in 2004 found that more foreign-language books were translated into Spanish in a year than had been translated into Arabic in a thousand years, which the Kalima translation project in Abu Dhabi now seeks to remedy. In short, many linguistic and intellectual barriers have to be overcome.

By contrast, the western countries that lead the research on Islam and the Muslim world like the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the US and Australia have seen great expansion in the last decade, especially after 9/11. New centres have been recently established in all of them – excepting the UK – to bring together interdisciplinary expertise in Islam and the Muslim world from across the humanities. A similar project, Casa Árabe, has also been launched in Spain. The debate, sometimes contentious, about how to accommodate Islamic theology and imam training at university level to serve the needs of diaspora Muslim communities, or how far Islamic studies in the west has successfully extricated itself from an imperial heritage, has moved forward.

In contrast, there is a fundamental institutional incapacity in Muslim world. It cannot remotely match the 5000 graduates and postgraduates in Arabic, Middle Eastern and Islamic studies that come of out of western universities every year with equivalent experts in Christianity or other religions. If the Common Word initiative addresses this disparity directly, then Muslim-Christian dialogue will, in the longer-term, gain the depth and breadth to be more than an exercise in crisis management.