By Mor Eustathius Matta Roham
Archbishop of Jezira and the Euphrates
Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch
The letter sent by the 138 esteemed Islamic scholars, dated 13th October 2007, is considered a serious address aiming at coming closer in Christian–Muslim dialogue. It is acceptable, since it relies on the dialogue of coming together, regardless of whether there is an agreement or disagreement to its contents, partially or entirely. I personally recommend this letter as an Islamic point of view for future dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
Life teaches us that dialogue is necessary to know one another. What Muslims do not know about Christianity can only be explained to them by Christians, and similarly, what Christians are ignorant of in Islam can only be explained to them by Muslims. Christians explore how Muslims view them, and likewise, Muslims want to know how Christians view them. For dialogue to be fruitful to both sides and to humanity in general, it should be entered into with transparency, sincerity and good intentions.
If, however, there is any veiling of the truth, then what St. Isaac of Antioch said in Syriac is applicable: “We deceive one another, but Satan deceives us all.”
Since I live in a community composed of a Muslim majority and a Christian minority, and there is daily interaction with one another, I would like to present the following comments in an attempt to advance contact between Muslims and Christians.
1. The letter estimates that the number of Christians and Muslims is 55% of global population, which means that 45% of the world’s people are neither Christians nor Muslims. I was hoping that the letter would point to the importance of the 45% in the peace process. Is it possible that there be peace in the world without those 45%?
2. A fruitful dialogue certainly cannot be one-sided, but the basis for dialogue should be agreed upon by all the parties concerned. The letter posited the basis of dialogue only on religious texts. Despite the fact that Christians and Muslims honour their holy religious texts, we should search for other bases in dialogue, which are God’s gift to us. First of all is our human ability to reason. It is well known that Al-Mu’tazela group فرقة المعتزلةin Baghdad, at the peak of the Abbasid civilization, gave priority to reasoning over religious text.
3. It is obvious that the letter addresses the Western Christian mindset and was not initially written in Arabic. . It relies on Christian expressions as if they carry the same meaning in Islam. Even though the letter aimed to reach the Western Christian mentality, it failed when it used Christian expressions. When we talk about the love of God in Christianity, we mean God’s love for humanity and human’s love of God. In the letter, the love of God in Islam is actually closer to the fear of God in Christianity. The concept of God’s love for humanity in Christianity has no similarity in Islam as this concept in Christianity refers to the Doctrine of Salvation, which is the core of Christian faith.
Similarly, the love of neighbour in Islam reflects the geographical sense of the word “neighbour” (in Arabic Jar جار ). In Christianity, love of neighbour (in Arabic Qaribفريب ) surpasses all geographical and religious boundaries and takes on a whole new dimension encompassing all of humanity. In the New Testament, neighbour (Qaribفريب ) even means becoming a brother. According to the Arabic text, despite all the biblical texts listed in the letter which refer to neighbour (Qarib فريب ) in the Christian sense, the title for that section came across as the love of neighbour (Jar جار ) only in the geographical sense. This is not a biblical term, which indicates that the letter was not initially written in Arabic.
One of the important positive points of this letter is that it opens the door widely for both Christians and Muslims to research the meanings of the love of God and the love of neighbour in both Muslim and Christian sensibility. The relevant matter, however, remains how the other is treated by Muslims and Christians. And here I ask: Do the brother (in Arabic Ak أخ ) and neighbour (Jar جار ) enjoy the same treatment with regards to human rights? When legislations are passed in a country based on a religious majority, what happens to the minorities in countries where this form of legislations is practiced, as the case is in most Muslim countries? Were not such legislations behind the war in south Sudan? Their practice in countries with a Muslim religious majority continues to cause bitter suffering for Christians and followers other religions?
4. According to the Arabic text, seven pages of the letter deal with the love of God in Islam, in addition to six more pages of footnotes and comments, while only one page plus four lines refer to the love of neighbour (Jar) in Islam. We have always heard the saying: “Religion is a treatment of others.” Shouldn’t the neighbour, the human being, who is an essential part of our daily life, have merited a little more mention? Is there anything in God’s creation more precious than the neighbour?
5. The letter listed an obscure accusation without noting the place or time: “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 an account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.”
If what is meant is the Crusades, then that is known as the wars of the Franks even it happened under the motif of the cross. Both Muslims and Christians of the East equally suffered the consequences of those wars. On the contrary, such an accusation leads us to think of the occupation of Constantinople in 1453 and other similar deeds throughout Islamic history. The events of the past should remain good lessons for Muslims and Christians for a better future of reconciliation and mutual respect.
But, if what is meant is the interference in our time of Western world powers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, then one should not forget that it was the same powers that stood by the Muslims in Bosnia/Herzegovina against Serbia’s Milosevic and even mercilessly destroyed Christian Serbia to give freedom to the Muslims of Bosnia/Herzegovina.
This is a simple example showing that the Western world powers do what serves their interests. It was the same world powers that went into Kuwait along with several Muslim countries and liberated the Kuwaitis.
6. There is an important fact to which the letter did not point. Western countries separate religion from the state. Laws and legislation are not based on religious texts. The state legislates what is in the best interests of its people without paying attention to religious texts. Western countries are secular; therefore, we cannot describe them as Christian, even if the majority of the population are Christians. Any transgression by these countries against other weaker countries cannot be described as a Christian transgression. For example, we see powerful Western countries treat Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as an enemy, despite the fact that most Venezuelans are Christians. So can one call this Christian–Christian enmity? No, of course not. Similarly, can the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait be called Muslim–Muslim enmity? No, of course not.
Countries have their own interests. Therefore, we cannot explain attacks against a primarily Muslim country as an attack on Islam. Venezuela, which is treated as an enemy by Western countries, is close to Muslim Iran and its allies. We cannot describe Western hostility to Venezuela as Christian–Christian enmity. Similarly, we cannot describe Venezuela’s alliance with Iran as Christian–Muslim.
In the same manner, we can say that the defamation of Islamic religious symbols that appeared in the Western media has nothing to do with Christians. This is the work of secularists in the West who separate religion from the state. Consequently, attacks carried out against Christians by Muslims, regardless of how great or small, as a reaction to these defamations, were not warranted.
7. This is the final comment I would like to pass along to the honourable Muslim scholars. It came to me from a Christian college student of Arab descent in Holland, and I would like to direct your attention to it: “A large number of Christians suffer from all kinds of pressure in Muslim countries because of their religious beliefs. If Muslim’s religious leaders truly want peace in the world, why don’t Muslim countries give Christians the same human rights that Muslims enjoy in the West?”
Finally, I hope that the letter of the 138 esteemed Islamic scholars and all the replies to it will form a good start towards deeper understanding of one another and working for peace among all the nations of the earth.