SCHOLARS GIVE POSITIVE ASSESSMENT OF A COMMON WORD FORESEE IMPLICATIONS FOR CHRISTIAN-MUSLIM RELATIONS
A premier group of experts on Christian-Muslim dialogue and interreligious relations assembled at Georgetown University to discuss “A Common Word Between Us and You,” which has stirred widespread discussion of Christian-Muslim relations since its release in October 2007. The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and the Office of the President of Georgetown University hosted the two-day conference, March 13-14, 2008, entitled “The Future of Christian-Muslim Relations: Where do we go from here?”
“A Common Word Between Us and You” was released by Jordan’s Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought at the end of Ramadan, on October 11, 2007. The sixteen-page, substantive invitation to Christians everywhere for dialogue, based on the principles of love of God and love of neighbor and the obligation believers in the one God owe to one another to come to common agreement, includes an additional four pages of notes and 138 signatures by Muslim scholars and leaders from across the globe. The document cites Qur’an, Hadith, the Jewish scripture or Tanakh, the New Testament, and a New Testament commentary. It is the result several years of consensus-building under the sponsorship of the King of Jordan and the leadership of Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad, the Royal Institute’s chairman. First, agreement was sought among Jordanian scholars on legal procedures and definitions. This consensus was expanded to ever-increasing circles of scholars, and then they set themselves to the task of writing a consensus text that would serve as an invitation to Christians for theological dialogue and all that follows from it.
For the March conference on the document, Georgetown University was privileged to have two principal drafters of “A Common Word” present: Ibrahim Kalin, SETA Foundation, Turkey, and Caner Dagli, Roanoke College. John Esposito, Founding Director of the Alwaleed Center, who hosted the conference, also advised the Royal Institute and with Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr took part in the launch of A Common Word in the US at the National Press Club.
The March conference on “A Common Word” opened with a keynote address by Peter C. Phan, Ignacio Ellacuría Professor of Catholic Social Thought in the Georgetown University Department of Theology. His address was appropriately entitled “Can we read religious texts interreligiously: possibilities, challenges and experiments?” He was followed by a panel on “A Common Word,” featuring Kalin, Dagli, Esposito, and Thomas Michel, S.J. The four panelists offered insights into the character and implications of “A Common Word.” Fr. Gasper Lo Biondo, director of Woodstock, chaired the panel.
This conference also marked the arrival of Fr. Michel at Woodstock Theological Center, located on Georgetown’s campus. Fr. Michel is long experienced in Catholic-Muslim relations from his first years in Indonesia before 1970, through graduate study at the University of Chicago and in Cairo, then teaching in Indonesia, followed by service at the Vatican from 1981 to 1994, and more recently serving the superior general of the Jesuits from 1995 until the end of January 2008. Many panelists throughout the conference are among Fr. Michel’s friends and colleagues.
The second panel also included four speakers: Mohammed Abu-Nimer (American University), Peter Makari (United Church of Christ), Irfan Omar (Marquette University), and Patrick Ryan, S.J. (Fordham University). Barbara Stowasser, acting director of the Contemporary Center for Arab Studies at Georgetown, chaired the panel. These papers, focusing on aspects of the text of “A Common Word,” offered analyses for moving beyond basic commonalities, for understanding the challenges of the text among the diversity of Christians receiving it, for using the text as a basis for reflections on the common good, and for discerning the exact meaning of “word” as divine command and human response in the Abrahamic traditions.
The third and a fourth panels were held on the morning of March 14. In the first panel, John Borelli (Georgetown University) spoke on how “A Common Word” challenges Christians and Muslims to develop new models for dialogue. Ibrahim Kalin returned to make a second presentation and this time to make suggestions on how the text ought to play out in the United States. Daniel Madigan, S.J. (Georgetown, and this year with Michel an international fellow at Woodstock), offered reflections on the future of relations drawing from his many years of experience in Europe, especially from his position at the Gregorian University in Rome. Amir Hussain (Loyola-Marymount University, Los Angeles), spoke of his experience teaching Islam in the United States and how “A Common Word” will make an impact on education. Chairing this panel was John Voll, associate director of the Alwaleed Center.
The final panel involved another four speakers. Zeki Saritoprak (John Carroll University) reviewed the meaning of “common word” in Islamic theological commentaries on the Qur’an. Clare Amos (Anglican Communion Office, London) spoke of dialogue efforts in England and promoted by the head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams. Qamar-ul Huda (United States Institute for Peace) explored a variety of approaches to Christian-Muslim dialogue which USIP has surveyed. Finally, Samuel Rizk (George Mason University) offered criticisms of staged approaches to dialogue and suggested how “A Common Word” might fail as a call for dialogue if the same mistakes of the past remain. This panel was chaired by Fr. John Langan, SJ, rector of the Jesuit community at Georgetown and holder of the Cardinal Bernardin Chair of Catholic Social Ethics.
It is correct to notice a preponderance of Jesuits and Jesuit universities represented among the speakers. John Borelli, who spoke on the second panel and serves as special assistant to the President of Georgetown University, also assists the United States Jesuit Conference as its national coordinator for interreligious dialogue. In that capacity, he had gathered Muslims who teach theology and religion at Jesuit universities and colleges in the United States for a special meeting after the conference. Of the 28 such institutions in the United States, at least ten have a Muslim in a full-time capacity on the theology or religious studies faculty. Several were in the conference program including Omar, Hussain, and Saritoprak. Kalin will be joining Alwaleed Center in the coming academic year and Dagli will be on the faculty of Holy Cross University. In addition, Jesuit Fathers Langan, Michel, Madigan, and Ryan participated directly in the program.
Plans are underway to publish the papers of this conference. The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Relations and the Office of the President of Georgetown University will host another conference on “A Common Word” in the spring 2009. Co-sponsoring the March 2008 conference with the Alwaleed Center and the President’s Office were: The Dean of Georgetown College, Georgetown University Departments of Theology, History, and Arabic and Islamic Studies, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, the Georgetown Jesuit Community, Woodstock Theological Center, and the Office of Muslim Chaplaincy.
John Borelli is special assistant for interreligious initiatives to President John J. DeGioia of Georgetown University.