The Genesis of A Common Word (ACW)

In the Name of God

A few days after H.H. Pope Benedict XVI’s now infamous Regensburg lecture on September 12th 2006, I was on the plane going to the USA with H.M. King Abdullah II, and referring to the tensions in the Islamic World it had caused, he asked me to: “see what you can do to defuse the situation”. Dr Caner Dagli was working in the Royal Court at the time as an Advisor on Interfaith Affairs. I asked him to write a response and we discussed the points I wanted him to put in. After he wrote his draft, I added in a few parts, notably the part about Christianity and Islam having love in common. Together with some friends, I organized for 38 Muslim Scholars to sign it (including ourselves) and we released it to the press as an Open Letter and sent it to the Vatican on October 13th 2006, exactly one month after the Regensburg lecture. We heard nothing until around December, when the Vatican Ambassador to Jordan came to my house in Amman with Archbishop Celata and another priest, who recommended to me that I should “write to the Vatican Secretary of State if I wanted to have a dialogue”.

I was not satisfied with this rather insufficient response from the Vatican, so I decided to write a more extensive open letter on the theme of love, on which I had done a PhD about at Cambridge University in 1988–1993, and which I was very interested in. I myself wrote the letter, directly in English (not Arabic), whilst I was in Oman alone (except for my wife and children) at my in-laws home in the first 6 months of 2007. The first person to see the draft was my wife Areej, who corrected some typos. I consulted with my friend Shaykh Habib Ali Al-Jiffri and he spoke to some of the senior shaykhs (including Grand Mufti Ali Goma, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, Shaykh Mohammad Said Ramadan Buti, Habib Umar bin Hafidh and the late Grand Mufti of Jordan Shaykh Nuh Al-Quda) and he said they were willing to try another Open Letter. I had taken some of them that year to the tree under which the Prophet Muhammad had sat in Jordan around 1500 years ago, and had in fact privately prayed there for the success of this initiative. The idea was to add 100 more shaykhs and scholars and issue a more public letter, widening the recipients, in order to gently embarrass the Vatican into a peaceful dialogue because there were voices in the Vatican claiming that “theological dialogue is not possible with Muslims as they believe the Qur’an is the Word of God”. I myself researched the historical order of precedence of Christian leaders and included them all, as best as I could. When the letter was finished I sent it to Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr to get his opinion. He read it all and liked it, and we discussed it on the phone. Meanwhile, Habib Ali had it translated into Arabic at Taba institute in the UAE and sent it to the shaykhs mentioned for their opinions and approval. Altogether (including Professor Nasr’s comments and those of the senior shaykhs) there were not more than six changes, and I have kept all the drafts with the different changes to this day. I decided to call the letter “A Common Word between Us and You” (now “A Common Word” for short) based on the Qur’an verse 3:64, which is cited in the text of the letter.

After this core group had thus reached a consensus on the text, we decided to approach others for their signatures on a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ basis. There was an Aal al-Bayt Conference on love in Islam in September 2007, and we thought this would be an excellent platform to gather support for the Open Letter. Between the conference and the efforts of Habib Ali and Sohayl Nakhoda (he was the editor of Islamica Magazine at the time, and helped a lot with gathering signatures from academics with whom he was in touch) we managed to gather exactly 138 important signatures and in fact only two people of all those we approached declined to sign it. Right until September 2007, I was in two minds about going ahead because I was unsure it would be successful. It was Habib Ali who pressed me and finally convinced me to go ahead. I then engaged a top publicity company for 3 months (Bell Pottinger, of London). Tim Ryan of Bell Pottinger kindly agreed to drop their usual (considerable) fees and charge us only $100,000. H.M. King Abdullah II graciously provided the money, and this was the only major expense involved. I did, however, buy before the launch in order to immediately create a public website for the initiative. Professor David Ford of Cambridge (whom we also consulted) was very eager to promote Christian-Muslim dialogue, and so he arranged to release a positive response as soon as news of the Open Letter came out. The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, also agreed to immediately do a positive television interview about the Open Letter; and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office agreed to also immediately release a positive response. This ‘pre-loaded’ the response from the Vatican and the other Christian leaders. On October 13, 2007—one year to the day after the 1st Open letter, and one year and one month to the day after the Regensburg address —we sent the A Common Word Open Letter out to all those to whom it was addressed. The rest is now history.

All praise belongs to God alone, Al-HamduLillah Rubb al-‘Alamin

Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal

August 24th,  2012

Muscat, Oman

Postscript: The shaykhs, Habib Ali and myself determined that we would not identify an author for the document—because what was important to Muslims would be who signed it; because such important shaykhs with such large followings had signed it, and because without their signatures the document would mean very little to either Christians or Muslims—and so we did not do so for at least a year after the release of the letter. Finally, we felt we had to release this information subtly on the website because the media was attributing the authorship to scholars who were actually not involved.