Response from Fr. Tom Michel for UCAN (United Catholic Asian News)

On 13 October 2007, 138 Muslim scholars sent a remarkable letter to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders. Eleven of the signatories of the letter were from Asian countries, including representatives from Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, India, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. Professor Nasaruddin Umar, Secretary General of the Consultative Council of the Nahdatul Ulama, the world’s largest Islamic organization, was among the signers, as was Dr. Anwar Ibrahim, former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia.

The letter was sent on the first anniversary of an open letter in 2006 sent by 38 Muslim scholars to Pope Benedict in response to his words about Islam in a talk given by the Pontiff in Regensburg, Germany. This new statement makes no reference to the previous controversy and obviously intends to bring Muslim-Christian discussion into new fields of encounter rather than belaboring disagreements and quarrels of the past.

The topics studied in the letter are three: love for God, love for neighbor, and the common ground for relations between Muslims and Christians. As one might expect from a document rooted in the Islamic tradition, the arguments given for these themes are based on the Qur’an and the Bible, the Scriptures of the two religions.

The first point the Muslim scholars make is that Muslims and Christians should recognize that they worship and serve the same God. They are united in their praise of the One and only God and united in giving thanks to God. In acknowledging God as Creator of all that exists, Muslims and Christians are drawn to offer love and devotion to God.

Christian readers unfamiliar with the Qu’ran will be surprised at the many Qur’anic verses cited to show the importance of love for God and love for neighbor. The document concludes its treatment by affirming “that Muslims must be totally devoted to God and love Him with their whole hearts and their whole souls and all that is in them, and provides a way…for them to realize this love with everything they are.” On love of neighbor, the document cites the eloquent statement of Muhammad found in the collections of sound hadiths: “None of you has faith until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.”

While recognizing that Islam and Christianity are different religions, the Muslim scholars affirm that belief in God’s unity, together with love for God and for their neighbor, form the common ground on which Islam and Christianity (and Judaism) are united. The scholars want to assure Christians that their religion is not opposed to that of Christians, so long as Christians do not do harm to Muslims. They state: “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.” This could be a reference to modern conflicts like Palestine, Iraq, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan, where Muslims have been the victims of aggression by Jews and Christians.

Finally, the scholars make a call for dialogue based on the twin beliefs in God’s oneness and the love for God and humankind that are taught by Islam and Christianity. They state: “Let this common ground be the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us.” In other words, relations between the followers of the two religions should not be governed by tactical concerns or public relations, but by the theological unity formed by belief in and love for the One God.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Pope’s representative for interreligious dialogue in the Vatican, has praised the document, calling it “a very encouraging sign.” Similarly, Samuel Kobia, Secretary-General of the World Council of Churches, has warmly welcomed the letter. “At a time when all of humanity is looking to religious leaders for guidance as to how to respond to the situation of violence in the world,” he said, “the letter gives a lot of hope.”

In my view, this very original and faith-filled statement should be studied by all Christians and Muslims interested in building relations of respect and cooperation between the two communities, as well as by all those who have hopes for building peace and harmony in our world.