Table Talk For Monotheists

Let’s talk, says a letter from Muslim leaders: the survival of the world is at stake

“THERE will come a day when we will agree with one another.” Those were the parting words of a Muslim participant in one of the classic medieval texts of Islamic-Christian dialogue, describing a conversation about matters of faith between Saint Gregory Palamas, a 14th-century eastern divine, and a group of Turks. A similar, if rather more qualified, spirit of optimism seems to have inspired 138 Muslim scholars—including grand muftis from most of the world’s Islamic nations—who this week wrote to Christian leaders, appealing for a sort of strategic dialogue.

Almost teasingly, they suggest the basis for such a dialogue should be two commandments offered by Jesus Christ as a summary of all the law and prophecy of the Hebrew scriptures: to love God with all your might and to “love your neighbour as yourself.” Since Muslims agree with both injunctions—and could indeed back them up with copious material from the Koran—why not take them as a starting point?

As inter-religious initiatives go, the statement dated October 13th, as Muslims round the world were celebrating the end of Ramadan, was spectacular—both in the number and variety of its signatories, and in the range of its named recipients. (They include Pope Benedict XVI, every Orthodox patriarch, many other eastern prelates and the heads of the Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and other Christian churches.)

Also striking was the starkness of the warning it gave about the consequences of a breakdown between the two largest monotheistic faiths. Christians and Muslims, the letter pointed out, account respectively for about a third, and over a fifth, of humanity. This implies that the relationship between the two faiths could be a decisive factor in the prospects for stability in the world. “If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.”

If the message is a challenge to anybody in particular, it is to Pope Benedict, who triggered uproar in the Muslim world with a speech in September 2006 that cited (while not endorsing) a Byzantine emperor’s view that Islam’s only innovation was to propagate violence. The new Muslim message comes exactly a year after a previous one by 38 senior representatives of Islam which politely took issue with the pope on several matters of theological detail. The latest statement says, in effect: We still want to talk to you—and there are even more of us now—and we want to talk to other Christian leaders too.

As it happens, the timing of the initiative could be propitious from the Vatican’s point of view. Since the rumpus over the pope’s speech in Regensburg, the Vatican has been working quietly to repair the damage and to position itself for a new relationship with Islam, one that combines theology with what it calls an “ethical dialogue”—in other words, a conversation about shared values, which sounds rather similar to what the Muslim authors of the letter are proposing.

In institutional terms, the pope has already reversed one move which had been seen by Muslims as unfriendly. The Vatican’s department (in effect, ministry) for inter-faith relations, which had been merged with the culture department in March 2006 (and, it was thought, thereby downgraded), was restored to independent life in May this year. Its new head is Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, a senior figure who knows the Arab world well. The Vatican hopes that “ethical dialogue” will make it easier to raise its concerns about the hard-pressed Christian minorities living in Muslim countries such as Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan.

How might other recipients of the letter react? Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is known to favour the sort of Christian-Muslim dialogue that brings together theologians steeped in a long tradition of scriptural commentary and interpretation. In other words, he sympathises with the view, held by many of the Muslims behind this appeal, that amateurish theology stokes religious extremism.

For those who wonder what difference the musings of a bunch of learned men will make to the hotheads who start riots or plant bombs, it is worth remembering that some of the fallout from the pope’s Regensburg speech could probably have been avoided if the pontiff had been a little more careful over the nuances of history. Perhaps a “hot line”—of the sort that used to connect Washington and Moscow during the cold war—would be a way to forestall such avoidable problems.