by Samir Khalil Samir, sj
There is a lot of good in the document sent to Benedict XVI and Christian leaders: greater convergence between Muslim currents; attention to Christian vocabulary; the desire for dialogue. There is also some ambiguity and difficulty. But it is a first step: now it is necessary to open up the dialogue to the secular world. The great sura of tolerance. An ample analysis from our expert on Islam.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – The Letter by 138 Islamic academics to the pope and Christian leaders is a first positive step towards dialogue, which however needs to become more universal and more concrete.
The letter lies in the explicit context of an extension of the first letter, sent exactly one year ago to Benedict XVI, as a reply to his masterful address at Regensburg University: the same date was chosen for its publication (13th October 2007), which this year coincided with the end of Ramadan
A highly representative Letter
The fact that its signatories have increased compared to last year is noteworthy: from 38 – as it was last year – they have become 138. They represent over 43 nations, both Muslim and otherwise (in particular western nations). Among them are great muftis (that is leaders of the fatwa in a country), religious leaders, academics and scholars.
Beyond representatives of the two great Sunni and Shiite groups, there are also representatives from smaller groups, sects and even diverging trends, for example the most mystic of those trends (Sufi), who are largely represented in te West. There are also for example Ismailites, derived from the Shiites; jafaarites, also a derivative of Shia Islam; ribadites, which is an ancient group of Islam, rarely spoken of but which has a representation in Yemen.
This indicates a broadening of consensus within a certain Islamic quarter, a step towards what Islam calls ijmaa (consensus). In the Islamic tradition every point of faith is founded in three sources: the Koran, on the Muhammadian tradition (hadith or that is the sayings and life of Mohammad), community consensus, in other words ijmaa. This third step up until now has never really been evaluated. Actually, there is deep division n the Islamic world: one day one Imam says one thing; the next day he says something different.
This letter does not say that there is agreement between all Muslims, but it shows a concerted move towards a certain consensus. This convergence came about under the auspices of the King of Jordan, and the Aal al-Bayt (family of the Prophet of Islam) foundation, lead by the king’s uncle Prince Hassan. This man represents the best of Islam today, from the point of view of reflection, openness and devotion. Being a devote and faithful Muslim, he married a Hindu who – quite unusual in modern Islam – did not have to convert to Islam, as is being demanded of the Christian women today in the West, but which is in no way foreseen in the Koran.
The first positive point of the letter is therefore the fact that it is highly representative, coming from a converging group. The letter is also representative because it has been sent throughout the Christian world. If you take a look at those to whom it has been addressed, you can see a carefully drawn up and complete list: besides the pope we have all of the eastern Christian traditions, the patriarchs of the Calcedonian and pre Calcedonian Churches; then the protestant Churches and finally the World Council of Churches. Which amply shows that behind this letter is someone who knows and understands Christianity and the history of the Church.
I – The structure
On coming to the content of the letter what is immediately striking is the fact that the title has been taken from the Koran: “A Common Word between Us and You” (Sura of the family of Imran, 3:64). This is what Mohammed says to the Christians in the Koran: when he sees that he cannot reach agreement with them, then he says: Come let us agree on at least one common ground: that we shall worship none but God (the oneness of God) “and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God.”.
What must be noted is that this common word in the Koran, does not take into consideration any definition of Mohammed. This sentence does not speak of Mohammad as a prophet, or the last messenger of God. What is underlined is the common word and the oneness of God. Which in itself is a positive step, exactly starting from the Koran.
The structure of the letter is composed of three parts: the first is entitled “love of god”, subdivided into two, “love of god in Islam” and “love of god as the first and greatest commandment in the bible”. In reality, the title in the original Arabic is more precise, it says “in the Gospel”. By using the word “Bible” (which includes the New and Old Testament) Judaism can be included in the discourse (even if the letter is only addressed to Christians). The second part is entitled “love of the neighbour” (hubb al-jâr). Also subdivided in two: «love of the neighbour in Islam» and « love of the neighbour in the Bible». Where once again the original Arabic says “in the Gospel”.
The third part concludes by taking up the Koran citation: “come to a common word between us and you”, and offers an interesting analysis in three parts: “common word”, “come to a common word” and “between us and you”.
II – Reflections on the content
I desire to make some observations regarding this structure.
First and foremost, there is continuity between the first and second letter. The first letter concluded on the necessity to arrive at an agreement based on love for God and for our neighbour. With this the scholars wish to say: we are now developing on what we announced as the basis for all relations between Islam and Christianity.
It is most interesting to note that the vocabulary used is a Christian vocabulary and not a Muslim one. The word “neighbour” (in the Christian sense of brethren) does not exist in the Koran; it is typical of the New Testament. In fact, the Arabic text does not use the word “neighbour/brethren” but “neighbour” (jâr), which only has a geographical meaning (like a neighbour who lives next door), compared to the Christian term qarîb, which also means “brethren”.
The word “love” is rarely used in the Koran. It is not even part of the names of God. It is never said that God is a lover, even if there are less striking synonyms. Instead the word is widely used in Christianity. Moreover if the first part, love of God in Islam, is analysed, we Christians would refer to it as “obedience to God”, not “love”. But here they have termed it so, to align themselves to the Christian vocabulary. Which is a lovely thought but also a little dangerous as it risks falling into the trap of “settling”. Usually Muslims speak of the adoration of God; but the theme of Love for God is another discourse, which is not excluded from Islam, but found abundantly in the world of Sufism.
Either way in this letter, speaking of “love of God” is a novelty. Perhaps it is even an able way of referring to Pope Benedict’s first encyclical (Deus caritas est). It certainly shows a desire to draw near to the Christian way of speaking, even if at the same time there is the risk of taking two meanings from the same word.
Other questions of Vocabulary
In this context, the Arab version of the letter uses different terminologies compared to the French, Italian, or English versions. We have already noted that where the Arabic speaks of the Gospel the western languages speak of the Bible. I will give other examples.
For example: speaking of Christ, in the western versions “Jesus Christ” is always cited. In the Arab version’s: “Issa- al-Massih”. This expression cannot be found in the Koran, but is the combined result of how the Muslims call Jesus (Issa) – Arab Christians call him “Jasua” – and the Christian definition of “al-Massih”, Christ, which is found in the Koran. The expression in the Koran is “Al-Massih Issa Ibn Mariam” (the Messiah Issa son of Mary), while the usual Christian expression “Jasua’ al-Massih” (Jesus Christ). The text of the letter is littered with expressions from the Koran intermingled with Christian expressions.
When they quote from the Koran and the Bible, they use two different measures. Quoting from the Koran they say “God said”, as does every good Muslim. When the quote versus from the bible, they only say “as it is found in the New Testament”, “as it is read in the Gospel”, etc… Which means that they use, in terms of the Bible, a more scholarly studious approach, while for the Koran they use the terminology of a believer in Islam.
But in the end the structure is truly beautiful: from here on in we may say that Christianity, Judaism and Islam have love of God and of ones neighbour as the heart of their faith. This is the real novelty which has never before been said by the Islamic world.
Use of the Bible
In quotations from the New and Old Testament, they take for granted that the Bible is the word of God. This too is a relative novelty. In the Koran this idea is theoretically affirmed, but it is rejected in practice. Very often Muslims consider the Bible as a product (muharrafah or mubaddalah) manipulated by later additions to the original nucleus.
The 138 (in note 4) even go as far as to quote St Paul regarding the idea of the “heart”. St Paul is in general totally rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, he is even considered as a traitor of Jesus Christ’s message, which according to them was originally an “Islamic message”. Often Muslims claim that Christ’s message was like that of the Koran, but that Paul introduced the Trinity, Redemption through the Cross, and the rejection of Moses’ law. A famous anti-Christian book, published in 2000 and banned in Lebanon, is entitled “Unmasking Paul”!
All of these little signs show a real desire for dialogue at the level of language and biblical testimonies. There are even some allusions to Hebraism, in order to integrate it in this vision. Using for example the term “people of the scriptures”, it is clear that this refers to the Jews, even if the discourse is officially addressed to Christians.
III. Positive appreciation and a critical reading
Let us now try to see other positive aspects of this document, while at the same time pointing out its gaps and elements which provoke the need for deeper reflections. In short, I would like to make a critical reading of the Letter.
The search for a common basis… but not a universal one
On coming to the content of the letter my impression is that by staying at this level it is quite easy to reach agreement. The method being used is to choose excerpts from sacred texts that can be paralleled. In the Koran there are texts that are a contradiction of Christianity, but they chose those which are closer and more similar. This is an important step but if we remain on this level, we risk casting a dialogue based on ambiguities. In any case as a first step it is useful to highlight our common foundations.
Even in the Christian tradition there is a search for a common basis with other religions, as well as cultures. This basis, from the Christian point of view, is not based on the Bible or Koran, because this would exclude non-believers. The common basis is natural law, the Commandments seen as the natural laws, a common ethics accepted even by atheists.
In a speech to the International Theological Commission on October 5th last the pope spoke of natural moral law, to “justify and illustrate the foundations of a universal ethic which belongs to the great patrimony of human wisdom and which allows the rational creature to participate in God’s law”. Benedict XVI continues then in reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1955): moral life “has as its pivot aspirations and submission to God, source and judge of all good, and the sense that the other is equal to you”. The Commandments are “natural law” and were not revealed in a strict sense.
The pontiff continues by saying that starting from natural law, “in itself accessible to every rational creature, the basis for entering into dialogue with all people of goodwill, and civil society is laid”.
Just as the signatories of the Letter, the pope is trying to find a common basis for dialogue with everyone; this basis cannot be Scriptures, it is instead universal ethics founded on natural law.
The letter sent by Muslim experts to Christians stops at what is common in the Bible and the Koran. I think that the next step between Christians and Muslims is to find a more universal basis. This can include some elements of the sacred Scriptures as long as acceptable to all; but it should also go beyond this, to find a basis for universal dialogue.
This is what is missing from the letter, which only attempts to re-establish relations between Christians and Muslims. This is clearly stated in the introduction, recalling that together “we represent over 55% of the world’s population”. Thus by reaching an agreement we could almost impose peace in the world. It is a tactical, political approach. We need to move towards the rational foundation of peace, found in truth.
This is why, as Cardinal Tauran pointed out, the text is interesting, it opens some new roads in both its method and contents, but it needs to be explored more deeply to make it more objective and non selective, to render it more universal and less political.
Distinguishing between politics and people
From this point of view, we must add one more note of criticism. At a certain point the letter asks Christians to “consider Muslims not as being against them, but with them, on the condition that Christians do not declare war”. Here perhaps they are alluding to the problems in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan…..but there it is not Christians as such who are committed to war.
The Americans in Iraq (if it is this to which the letter refers) are not in Iraq as Christians who oppress Muslims: neither the Muslim nor the Christian element has any relevance here. It is rather a political issue between the United States and the Middle Eastern States. And even if we know that the president of the United States is a Christian and that he is led by his faith, it can be in no way claimed that this is a war of Christians against Muslims.
This is an important point because Muslims tend to see the West as a Christian power, without ever realising the point to which the West has been secularised and far from Christian ethics. This line of thought strengthens the theory of a clash of cultures (or religions), right at a time when steps are being taken to fight such a theory!
A beautiful conclusion: coexistence in diversity
One last point. In the letter the Koran verse on tolerance is quoted: “Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ” (Al-Ma’idah, n. 5:48).
This sura is the penultimate in chronological order in the Koran. This means that this can not have been cancelled or overtaken by another, according to the Islamic theory of Koran interpretation, the so-called from the abrogate to the abrogated (nâsikh wa-l-mansûkh). This verse is fundamental because it states that our religious diversities are destined by God. The result is: “So vie one with another in good works” as a method of dialogue. This is truly a beautiful choice for concluding the Letter, because it means that we can live together despite our difference, moreover that God wants these difference!
Towards the future
This Letter is a first step in dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Often Christians have taken the initiative regarding dialogue, and they have so done well. It is important that this first steps continue in this direction with increased clarity, even showing differences and the need for correction. As the Letter is addressed to various leaders of the Christian world, we can hope that there will be a reply to this letter, which is the result of an immense effort by the Muslim part.
But this Letter is certainly also addressed to Muslims, even if not explicitly. What weight will it bring to bear in the Muslim world, considering that priests continue to be kidnapped, apostates persecuted, Christians oppressed? Up until now there has been no comment from the Islamic side. But I think that with time this document could create an opening and a greater convergence.
Above all, it is to be hoped that the next step will focus on the more delicate issues of religious freedom, the absolute value of human rights, the relationship between religion and society, the use of violence, etc.., in short current issues that worry both the Muslim world (and I would say above all Muslim people) as well as the West.
 For the complete text of the Letter in English see: