A Common Word Initiative—Theoria and Praxis
by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Although young, “A Common Word initiative” already has a significant history.Begun four years ago through the efforts of Prince Ghazi ibn Muh$ammad ibn Talāl in cooperation with a number of eminent Muslim scholars to create a new ambience based on mutual understanding between Islam and Christianity and the “common word” (al-kalimat al-siwā) to which the Noble Quran refers in this context, the initiative led to the by now famous letter signed by a large number of some of the most eminent Muslim scholars from all over the globe and belonging to different juridical and theological schools. The letter, calling for our meeting within a spiritual framework defined by the hallowed principles of the love of God and of the neighbor, which both Christians and Muslims consider to be sacrosanct, was addressed first of all to His Holiness the Pope but also to leaders of other major Christian churches, the Orthodox, the Protestant and the Eastern. This act was itself historical both because never before had such an appeal been formally supported by such a wide array of authoritative Muslim voices from so many diverse schools and perspectives and because of the enthusiastic responses from leaders of so many different Christian churches.
The first step in this effort led to very significant conferences and gatherings organized around the theme of “A Common Word Initiative” at Yale and Cambridge Universities, then at the all important meeting at the Vatican last November followed by a smaller conference at the University of South Carolina and now leading to this significant gathering at Georgetown, this venerable Catholic university in the capital of the United States where decisions are made that often affect in one way or another the lives of numerous Christians and Muslims and their relation world wide. The selection of this community for the present conference is furthermore most appropriate for it was here that the first major center in America for Muslim-Christian understanding was established.
In light of this short history, which is yet laden with so much significance, dealing as it does with one of the central issues of today, it is now time to take stock of what we have so far learned and one might say also unlearned from this initiative. It is time to review what the theoria, in the Latin sense of this term meaning vision and not theory as ordinarily understood in English, of this initiative is and what practical steps can be taken from here on to realize this theoria on the level of and through praxis.
Our theoria was from the beginning not the creation but the discovery of a common ground between us, discovery and not creation because this common ground has always been there in the inner and quintessential realities of our faiths, created according to those who are people of faith by God and not based simply on human creation for the sake of expediency. Moreover this theoria has been based not on repudiating some of the tenets of our religions in order to create common human understanding, not on casting aside of what is sacred to us for some worldly goal and a convenient least common denominator, but on penetrating beyond the formal order to that “Abode of Peace” that transcends formal differences and in light of that reality to gain a more sympathetic understanding of why there are irreducible differences between us on the formal plane.
“A Common Word Initiative” has made many who have participated in it realize that we do have irreducible differences on the level of theological dogmas, external ritual forms, etc. First of all we have been reminded, in case we had forgotten or not been aware, that there are exclusivists in both religions who are opposed in principle to this initiative. Some among them are happy in their religious exclusivism, worshiping God according to the tenets of their own religion without wanting or being able to bother with the question of religious pluralism but also without bearing enmity towards the religious “other.” We have to respect their attitude, their faith and their piety and it is not for us to castigate them. But there are other exclusivists whose exclusivism leads to the demonization of the “other,” to aggression and even violence which in its extreme form can result in the bombing of innocent people, whether these lethal weapons come at the innocent horizontally or vertically.
We have been reminded that there are people in both religions who identify their religion less with the unadulterated content of God’s message and more with nationalism, cultural imperialism, ethnic and tribal identity and also political expediency. We are faced with a situation in which many followers of one religion find it very easy to criticize the actions of the “other” but difficult to criticize those of their own co-religionists. They choose to disregard the universalist message of accord with the “other” and love of the neighbor, sowing instead the seeds of hatred while claiming to love and obey God as if the supreme commandments mentioned by Christ did not include both the love of God and of the neighbor and also as if the Noble Quran did not teach the same truths in another language.
Such is the reality of our present day predicament. And then there are the irreducible theological, legal and culturally and historically determined differences. We have learned through our many discussions that Muslims will not be able to convince Christians to put aside the doctrine of the Trinity nor Christians persuade Muslims not to insist that God “does not beget nor is He begotten.” During our gatherings Muslims have heard Christian presentations based completely on Christocentrism while Muslims insist on a theocentric perspective. This difference in the understanding of revelation has also made clear that chasm that separates the Islamic meaning of revelation as a universal reality stretching from Adam to the Prophet of Islam and the particularism that Christians associate with the advent of the coming of Christ that remains for most of them a unique event of human history.
We came to realize more fully the different understandings of the meaning of the Word of God in our traditions. To the question who or what is the Word of God, the Christians would answer without hesitation Christ and for the most part reject the Quran as His Word. For Muslims the answer would be the inner reality of God’s prophets and His revealed books, more particularly the Quran. A title of Moses in Islam is the Word of God and he is referred to as kalīm Allāh (the Word of God), hence the term kalīmī sometimes used by Muslims for Jews. But this title of Word of God could certainly be extended also to Christ, one of whose names in Islam is rūh$ Allāh (the Spirit of God). But for Muslims the central and concrete embodiment in their lives of the Word of God and in fact that Word Itself is the Quran to which we often refer simply as kalām Allāh or Word of God. Of course Christians also do refer to the Bible as the Word of God but technically at least the Gospels are the account of the words of the Word of God and are the Word of God only if the Word of God is considered as God.
On many occasions during our discussions it became clear that the Islamic conception of Divine Law or al-Sharī‘ah differs from the Catholic conception of canonical law and also is not identical with the Christian conception of Divine Law pertaining only to the spiritual realm and the domain of ethics and not positive law. Concerning this subject the greater proximity of the Islamic view to the Jewish idea of halakhah than to the Christian concept also became clear. Many differences between our views of religion in public life and the whole question of the opposition between the sacred and the profane and the relation between religion and the secular issue from our diverse understanding of the meaning of Divine Law and its domains of application.
We even came to find important differences because of the sameness of the claims of both religions in believing to be a message addressed not to a single group or nation but to the whole of humanity. Rivalry for the souls of men and women could not have been ignored in our dialogues. The whole question of missionary activity by the Western Christian churches abetted by superior economic means and greater political support in comparison to what is available to Muslims and various Muslim responses to Christian missionary zeal remain a powerful source of discord between us. It is a problem that will not disappear through mere diplomatic niceties. It presents all of us who seek to create greater harmony and understanding with a great challenge but in this case, in contrast to some of the theological issues, our very initiative can play a role to provide from both sides, Christian and Muslim alike, suitable responses to this challenge and help to bring about a change in the dynamic of the present situation which has caused and continues to cause so much bitterness, enmity and occasionally out and out strife in lands as far apart as Nigeria and the Philippines. Surely we could at least try to understand in all honesty the whys of the actions and reactions in this domain that continue to make the creation of harmony between us difficult in so many instances.
One could go on and cite other differences that seem to pose insurmountable obstacles to coming together within the framework of “A Common Word Initiative.” But this is not the whole reality of the matter. Although there are all these and other unmentioned differences that form part of the present day landscape of the encounter of our religions and in fact religions in general, there is also the immense reality of our accord on what is most essential in our worldviews beginning with faith in the one God beyond all the different cataphatic theological formulations of the nature of the Divine Reality. Both Muslims and Christians believe in the transcendent God who is above and beyond all change and becoming, who creates, loves and has mercy for His creatures, whose Will dominates over everything, who is the All-Good, the Infinitely Merciful and who hates evil that nevertheless exists in His creation for metaphysical and theological reasons that our sages, our Saint Thomases and Meister Eckharts, our Ghazzālīs and Ibn ‘Arabīs have explained in the most profound and also diverse ways over the centuries. For both of us, although God is ultimately the Godhead, the ground of Being, the Urgrund, al- H&aqq or Huwa, He is also the Person who addresses us and whom we can address as Thou. If for both of us God is the greatest reality and ultimately the only Reality, how can our common faith in Him not be the greatest source of accord which no discord on any plane could ever match or annul?
We both believe in the gift of faith whose object is not only God but also His revelations and the spiritual and angelic worlds. We live with awareness of the reality of the soul and its immortality and with knowledge of the responsibility we have for our actions before God and therefore the consequences of our actions for our souls even beyond the grave. And despite some differences, how similar are our eschatologies, so similar in fact that the greatest work of Western literature on the Christian view of hell, purgatory and paradise, the Divine Comedy of Dante, that supreme Christian poet, could draw for its structure from a Muslim work on the nocturnal ascent (al-mir‘aj) of the Prophet of Islam.
As Christians and Muslims we both believe in the ethical character of human life here on earth. We hold firm to the reality of Divine Justice and as well seek justice in the social order. While realizing the centrality of God’s love, mercy and goodness that are abiding realities in our lives and in fact in the life of all beings, we also believe in the supreme importance of the virtue of justice and our responsibility to be just in both our individual and social life. Furthermore over the centuries our religions have taught us that in fact life is sacred given by God and is not simply the result of some cosmic accident. In fact in the societies molded by the teachings of our religions laws pertaining to human life have been based on this shared belief in the sanctity of life which includes the sanctity of the family, upon which we both insist.
On the level of religious practice we both pray and perform sacred rites and divinely ordained rituals. The formal aspects of these rites are different but inwardly they point to the same religious realities. Yes, we both pray and pray to the same God no matter what some in our communities may say. In fact we realize this sameness when as sincere Muslims and Christians we pray together. In such cases we feel existentially that the grace that flows during our prayers through both of us is Divine Grace, however its perfume might differ in its Christian and Islamic forms. Can we in our heart of hearts claim that God hears our prayers but not the prayers of the “other”?
When we delve in depth into all these similarities and many others including metaphysical knowledge, the reality of the spiritual life, the virtues we are called upon by our religions to cultivate within our souls and the vices we are commanded to shun, it becomes clear how vast and profound is the common ground on which we can meet and how close Muslims and Christians are in fact to each other when compared with those who deny the reality of the Sacred altogether and all that such a denial entails. In what is most basic to us as Christians and Muslims, we are in fact closer to each other than we are to those members of our own nation, culture, community or ethnic stock who deny the basic truths we hold so dear. The theoria of “A Common Word Initiative” is none other than the vision of this common ground without any recourse to reductionism and with full respect for the sacred traditions of each other.
Theoria, however, is one thing and its realization, which becomes related to praxis, another. Having journeyed so far to this point, we must now ask ourselves what it is that we can do in addition to that primary action of praying to God for succor. As a first step we can begin to cooperate together in those fields where cooperation is the easiest and in many instances of vital importance to the well-being of each of our religions. Let us recall some of these domains. There is before everything else a common challenge that is presented by a de-sacralized worldview, manifesting itself in numerous ways including a virulent campaign of aggressive atheism that has appeared in recent years in Europe, especially in Great Britain, and also in America, a campaign that concerns ultimately not only Christianity but religion as such. Then there are the numerous issues related to the encounter between religion and science and especially the ideology of scientism with its totalitarian claims. There are problems resulting from the applications of modern science in the form of modern technology. These range from difficulties arising from bio-engineering and new questions involving medical ethics to the environmental crisis that now threatens whole eco-systems and in fact human life itself on earth. There are issues of social and economic justice that concern us both. The recent encyclical of His Holiness the Pope on unbridled capitalism could not but be enjoined by authentic Muslim thinkers. Why can we not sit together and devise a new economic philosophy based on our mutual understanding of human nature in its full reality and our sense of justice that is a reflection of a Divine Quality in human life rather than simply being passive observers to the attempt now being made to infuse new life by artificial means into the cadaver of that greedy and selfish capitalism that has already done all of us, or should we say almost all of us, so much harm?
As followers of the teachings of Christianity and Islam we both believe in human rights but ones that are combined with human responsibility towards God, human society and the natural environment. Rather than criticizing each other’s understanding of this issue, we can come together to the realization of the consequences for human beings “made in the image of God” of the substitution of the “Kingdom of Man” for the “Kingdom of God” and the absolutization of the rights of man reduced to a merely terrestrial being with total indifference to the rights of God and other creatures. Bringing the full weight of our traditions together to bear upon this crucial issue, we could render the greatest service not only to our own communities but to the whole of humanity.
On the political plane there are numerous crises where both our religions are involved in one way or another from the prevailing conditions in Nigeria, the Sudan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Indonesia and the Philippines to the situation of Christian minorities in some Muslim countries and Muslim minorities in Europe. Rather than simply taking “our side” automatically or at best remaining silent, could we not try to stand together on the side of truth, justice and compassion, or one might say to take God’s side without claiming blindly that God is always on “our side” no matter what “our side” does. We can criticize in unison senseless violence, extremism and terror carried out by both those wearing uniforms and those without them no matter to which “side” they may belong.
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And now some practical suggestions to implement this vision of harmony rather than discord. There have been many international organizations created during the past century in fields dealing from politics and economics to health and such institutions have met with various degrees of success and failure. Such attempts have also been made here and there for religions but whereas the former types of organizations have been until fairly recently, when NGO organizations have also appeared upon the scene, usually supported by individual nations and in most cases their governments, a similar situation has rarely been the case mutatis mutandis for those concerned with religion. Religious institutions with authority in their societies have hardly ever come together to create international organizations of a religious nature or give full support to those founded by various individuals and groups. Attempts in this domain have in fact been confined to marginal religious groups lacking orthodoxy and being usually of an anti-traditional nature.
Perhaps we could now establish a forum or council consisting of Christians and Muslims and supported formally by established traditional authorities from both religions. Later members of other religions including not only Judaism but also the primal religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. could also be invited to join in the discussion of various issues. But at the beginning the forum would devote itself to the implementation of the ideals of “A Common Word Initiative” carried out between Christians and Muslims. Its members could be appointed at the beginning by the established religious authorities of Christianity and Islam and henceforth be self-perpetuating. In order for it to be effective, however, its members would have to be recognized as persons of great knowledge and theological and/or scholarly expertise in their religions and be respected in their communities as such. But they would also have to possess complete moral integrity and devotion to the truth above all else rather than being pawns of political forces. It would not be too much to hope that they would also have a spiritual perspective and possess spiritual virtues that would provide them with innate attraction and gravitas and enable them to have a vision of the inner unity of our religions beyond the world of forms. If they were to be chosen simply on the basis of political opportunism, the whole effort would become more or less worthless. There is now an effort underway elsewhere to create an international council of elders to face the common problems of humanity. Even if this ideal is realized, however, it will not impinge upon the functions of the forum being proposed here. Our forum would concentrate on the issues mentioned above and similar subjects, seeking to provide solutions that draw from the resources of both traditions and supervising research where it is needed, to be carried out by Muslim and Christian scholars often working together. The forum would also have the major duty of giving its formal view, much like a fatwā or religious edict, on current problems and issues where both religions are involved. Our hope is that the forum would carry so much weight that its edicts would be accepted by a large number, if not all, of Muslims and Christians whom the subjects of the edicts concern.
Today there are a very small number of Christians in Islamic educational institutions and vice versa. There are of course also universities and colleges in both the Islamic world and especially the West where both Christianity and Islam are taught and students from both religions study. But in most such schools, especially those in Europe and America, a secularist and historicistic view of the study of religion as Religionswissenschaft is taught with little interest in theology and the life of faith or in fact in religious truth. In many cases the teaching of religion results paradoxically in the destruction of religion as a living reality for those who are undergoing training in academic religious studies. I must add, however, that such is not the situation everywhere and there are some exceptions but as far as having both Christianity and Islam taught as living realities with existential concern for the life of faith and spiritual experience, with a perspective that is more spiritual and theological than just historical, sociological or philological, the exceptions are few indeed. One such exception is the Selly Oaks Colleges in Birmingham, England affiliated with the University of Birmingham. I have the honor of being a patron of Selly Oaks which seeks to bring Muslim and Christian students to study together and to learn the religion of the “other” and can bear witness to the fact that this school has done much good. But still, as far as I know many of its students, especially those from Sub-Saharan Africa where Christianity and Islam vie with each other for the souls of men and women, still have the attitude of confrontation vis-à-vis the other rather than the sharing of “A Common Word” that we seek. The same can be said of some of the teachers.
Why then not create an institute of advanced studies or academy for the purpose of training a whole new generation of scholars both Muslim and Christian who would know the religion of the “other” well, having a knowledge that is combined with empathy and love of the “other” rather than enmity and is based on both the study of scholarly sources and personal encounters with the “other”? Steps could be taken to create an institute that one might say would be at once a madrasah and a divinity school or seminary, teaching both Islam and Christianity as living sister religions and also training the students to be able to deal with theological differences and historically troubling experiences on the plane of the truth but also in the spirit of reconciliation. The institute should have two campuses, one in the Islamic world and the other in a European country in which the Christian tradition has been strong in recent centuries and is still a living presence.
The institute could also be a research center where joint effort could be used to address so many issues of common concern to Christians as well as Muslims. It would also further the cause of authentic ecumenism. It would, moreover, be here that the difficult task of self-criticism would take place and where the notion of critical thinking so prevalent today when it comes to the negative criticism of religion could itself be studied “critically.” The research that would take place in such an institution would be of the highest intellectual order and be always carried out in light of the truth that both of our religions hold to be central to human life. There is no reason why love of God and the neighbor should weaken our intellects no matter what opponents of religion claim.
The forum and the institute or academy as both a propedeutic and a research institution and other efforts, including perhaps the establishment of a publishing house devoted to the realization of the theoria of “A Common Word Initiative,” could over time create a new living space, a Lebensraum, where Christians as devout Christians and Muslims as devout Muslims could meet, to live in harmony together and to face together so many threatening challenges that we confront in common. Many of our co-religionists would not want to enter into such a space. That is understandable but what is important is to realize that the very creation of such a space or common ground would change the present dynamic between our religions, augmenting the already existing number of Muslims and Christians who see in each other friends and not enemies in a threatening world that poses many dangers for what we both hold dear, and marginalizing the exclusivists and extremists bent on demonizing the “other.”
Hope is a theological virtue as St. Augustine reminded us so eloquently and it is a virtue that the Quran commands us not to lose, and so let me conclude with a note of hope amidst this darkness that continually threatens to dim our vision. Many a skeptic will say, “Of what use is the voice of a few Muslims and Christians amidst the deafening din of a world in strife and burning in so many places with the fire of hatred?” Let us remind ourselves of two cases drawn from Western history which reveal how the voices of the few can in fact become those of the many in a relatively short time. In the early 17th century a handful of scientists in Italy, France, Germany, Holland and England embarked upon the creation of a new purely quantitative science and the creation of a mechanistic picture of the cosmos. Such men associated with such institutions as the Royal Academy and the Accademia dei Lincei often corresponded with each other and in a sense formed a new and distinct body of thinkers that continued to grow but they were at first very small in number. The vast majority of their contemporaries and even some of their own scientific colleagues rejected the mechanistic view of the cosmos that they were propagating. Yet, within less than a century a new paradigm came to dominate over the whole of the modern West, a paradigm based on the mechanistic worldview.
Let me also turn to a personal experience. Over forty years ago in the Rockefeller Series lectures that I gave at the University of Chicago, whose text appeared later as Man and Nature—The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, I was one of the first to speak of the impending environmental crisis and the religious and spiritual and not only engineering causes of the tragedy we were about to face. Both the lecture and the subsequent book met with great opposition from many quarters including a number of Christian theologians. Few showed any interest in these matters and I felt like a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Even in my own country Iran where I lived at that time, this book received less attention than any of my other works. How many Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians, religious thinkers and philosophers were concerned with “the theology of nature” in the 1960’s when my book appeared and how many are concerned with such issues today? It is an eye-opener to ponder upon the response to this question in light of what we hope to be the effect of our “A Common Word Initiative.”
And so although our voice is still weak, let us not lose hope. There is much that can be done to implement that theoria upon which our initiative is based despite the enormous problems and obstacles that exist, ranging from the political to the personal not to speak of the long history between our two religions of confrontation and mistrust whose effects are still with us and that we have to overcome. As members of the family of Abraham, as followers of the message of Christ and the Prophet, we should be the first to remember and the last to forget that the mercy of God is infinite and that with God all things are possible.