In the Name of God
‘A Common Word between Us and You’:
Two Years Summary, Oct 2007— Oct 2009
By: H.R.H. Prince Ghazi of Jordan
For Georgetown University and the Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding with the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought’s Conference:
‘A Common Word Between Us and You: A Global Agenda for Change’
Bism Illah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim
Wa Allahuma Salli ‘ala Sayidna Muhammad
Al-Salaamu Aleikum, Pax Vobis, (A) Introduction:
Let me start by praising God — Al-HamduLillah — for all His graces to us all and for this happy meeting here in Georgetown University in Washington D.C. Let me then thank Georgetown President Jack Di Gioia for his vision and leadership, his personal time, efforts and his remarkable, sincere and pure-hearted intentions in constantly promoting peace and understanding in the world, and in supporting this conference as part of that greater goal. I would also like to thank Professor John Esposito, our host here today and the Founding Director of the Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Center for Christian-Muslim understanding. Few Christian scholars in history have ever had as much knowledge and understanding of contemporary Islamic religious politics and the reality on the ground in the Islamic World as John Esposito. His last book, Who Speaks for Islam?, co-authored with Dalia Mogahed, is a watershed book and deserves to be constantly reread by anyone interacting politically with the Muslim world. I am sure that the seminal new ‘Muslim 500’ which he edited with Ibrahim Kalin and which is being released today will also be a valuable contribution to the understanding of the Muslim world.
I would also like to thank all the distinguished participants, Muslim and Christian, here today. It is primarily your vision, your good will, your willingness to participate and give your time and efforts that have made, and is making here today, a gradual but important change in the way we understand each other, and which has given life to the whole ‘A Common Word’ initiative. I would like also to particularly welcome to this conference the Jewish scholars who are here. A bilateral conversation between Muslims and Christians certainly does not exclude also having a monotheistic and Abrahamic three-way conversation as well, especially since Love of God and Love of Neighbour are pre-eminent commandments in the Torah. Permit me also to single out former British Prime Minister Tony Blair here and thank him for his attendance and support. Tony Blair is a man who stopped a genocide of innocent Muslims by Christians (and helped create the Muslim-majority nation of Kosovo in Europe) — and who is still today fighting for peace in the Middle East — and I am delighted that he is here to share with us his unparalleled experience and wisdom. Finally, permit me also to single out my wife, Princess Areej, and welcome her here. Not only is she a scholar, an educator, a signatory of ‘A Common Word’ in her own right, and a graduate of this esteemed University of Georgetown for both her BS and MS degrees, but she has also played a quiet but crucial role over the whole ‘A Common Word’ initiative, offering advice, wisdom, insight, enthusiasm and encouragement at every stage.
What I want to briefly do now is to ‘take stock’ of the ‘A Common Word’ initiative, assessing its achievements, accomplishments and shortfalls after two years. I would also like to humbly suggest what I believe the primary goal of this present conference should be, and the future direction I hope the ‘A Common Word’ initiative will take.
As you all know ‘A Common Word Between Us and You’ is an inter-faith theological document initially released on October 13th 2007 as an Open Letter, signed by 138 leading Muslim scholars and intellectuals (including such figures as the Grand Muftis of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Oman, Bosnia, Russia, and Istanbul). It was addressed to the leaders of the Christian churches and denominations of the entire world, starting with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. In essence, the Open Letter proposed, based on verses from the Holy Qur’an and the Holy Bible, that Islam and Christianity share, at their core, the twin ‘golden’ commandments of the paramount importance of loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Based on this joint common ground, it called for peace and harmony between Christians and Muslims worldwide.
‘A Common Word Between Us and You’ followed up and expanded upon a shorter Open Letter that was released exactly a year earlier by a core group of 38 leading International Muslim Scholars addressed solely to H.H. Pope Benedict XVI, one month after his Regensburg lecture of September 13th, 2006 calling for better dialogue between Muslims and Christians. The first letter had met with little reception beyond a polite acknowledgement, and thus the second letter sought to broaden and globalize the ‘conversation’ between Christian and Muslim religious leaders whilst giving it a specific theological platform and focus.
(C) First Year: October 2007 — October 2008
In the first year after its release, the ‘A Common Word’ Open Letter met a reception that can only be properly described — by the grace of God — as historical. Within that year it became the world’s leading interfaith dialogue initiative between Christians and Muslims specifically. It was unprecedented in its importance, scope and global ‘traction’.
Indeed, around 70 leading Christian figures have responded to it in one form or another, including H.H. Pope Benedict XVI; the late H.B. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexi II of Russia; the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams; Presiding Bishop of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Mark Hanson; the President and General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reform Churches; the President of the World Baptist Alliance; Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia; the President of the World Council of Churches; the Council of Bishops of Methodist Churches; the Head of the World Evangelical Alliance; the Mennonite Church; Quaker leaders and a number of other Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs, Catholic Cardinals, Archbishops, Heads of National Churches, Heads of Theological Seminaries, well-known preachers, professors and leading Christian scholars of Islam. Particularly remarkable was an Open Letter published in the New York Times in November 2007 from over 300 leading U.S. Evangelical and ‘main-line’ leaders and Christian scholars written and organized by Professor Miroslav Volf and Yale Divinity School and entitled ‘Loving God and Neighbour Together’, and it led to the first major ‘A Common Word’ Conference held at Yale University in July 2008. In the meantime, the leading Muslim Scholars signing the initiative increased to over 300, with over 460 Islamic organizations and associations endorsing it. A number of spontaneous local grass-roots and community-level Christian-Muslim initiatives of various kinds based on the Open Letter also sprung up all over the world in places as far apart as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Canada, South Africa, the USA, and Great Britain. ‘A Common Word’ also became the subject of a number M.A. and M. Phil. dissertations in Western universities in various countries (including at Harvard University; the Theological Seminary at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and the Center for Studies of Islam in the U.K.), and it was studied also in various international interfaith conferences and gatherings including the World Economic Forum in Spring 2008. Thus over 500 news articles in English alone — carried by thousands of press outlets (not to mention countless ‘blogs’) — were written about ‘A Common Word’ in its first year. Hence during that time it also became the central impetus behind the Wamp-Ellison Resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives which passed in 2008, commending it. The year ended with a second major international interfaith conference based on the document co-hosted by Cambridge University, the Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought and His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, held at Cambridge University and then at Lambeth Palace.
(D) Second Year: October 2008 — October 2009
‘A Common Word’ entered its Second Year as the basis of a very important conference in the Vatican: the first International Catholic-Muslim Forum, in November 2008, which was hosted by H.H. Pope Benedict XVI. Almost at the same time as this, the initiative was awarded Germany’s Eugen Biser Award of 2008 and the UK’s Association of Muslim Social Scientists’ Building Bridges Award of 2008. Thereafter, ‘A Common Word’ became truly a world movement and public property such that all over the world symposiums, lectures, workshops, conferences and other interfaith activities arose spontaneously without any co-ordination with the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan (which had facilitated the launching of the Open Letter) or with the co-ordinators of the initiative on behalf of the Muslim scholars. Indeed, for this reason we cannot give an account of all of what went on, but we did nevertheless come to hear of the following: lectures or workshops were given on ‘A Common Word’ in Cambridge University in February 2009; in Oman in March 2009; and in the Philippines; Richmond, Virginia; Egypt and Sudan over the course of 2009. Larger symposiums were held on ‘A Common Word’ at Mediterranean Dialogue of Cultures in November 2008; at the Brookings Institute in Qatar in January 2009; at Fuller Theological Seminary in May 2009; at ISNA in July 2009; at Yale University again in September 2009. Full-blown conferences were held on A Common Word in Portland, Oregon in March 2009; in the UAE and South Carolina simultaneously in March 2009 also; in Pakistan in April 2009, and in Australia in May 2009. Over the course of this second year a number academic books and journals were dedicated to ‘A Common Word’: Miroslav Volf, Merissa Yarrington and I edited a book on it for Eerdmans (it should be available now I believe); and there is another book being prepared by Professors Waleed Al-Ansary and David Linnan for Palgrave-Macmillan in 2010; our hosts here at Georgetown published an Occasional Paper on it entitled ‘A Common Word and the Future of Christian-Muslim Relations’ edited by John Borelli; the journal Sophia dedicated an issue to it here in Washington DC, as did the Beirut Theological Seminary; and in Jordan the Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought issued a ‘White Paper’ booklet of all of its most important texts. It was referred to also in many important gatherings or speeches including by Reverend Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the US and Canada, during the main sermon at the traditional Post-Inauguration Service at the National Cathedral for President Obama on January 21st, 2009; by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright during her testimony before the US Senate the following month, and by H.H. Pope Benedict XVI a number of times on May 8th and May 9th during His Holiness’s Holy Land Pilgrimage to Jordan. It was even cited by the NGO Habitat for Humanity as the basis for one of their joint projects. Finally, a major documentary was produced — it is perhaps finished now, not withstanding this conference — about ‘A Common Word’ in Arabic and in English in order to bring the initiative to a wider audience, God willing. Much of what I have just said is documented on the ‘A Common Word’s’ official website (acommonword.com) — those interested can find further details there, as best as we can keep up with them.
(E) Assessment of ‘A Common Word’ After Two Years: October 2007—October 2009
In assessing ‘A Common Word’ after two years, it seems to me we should ask ourselves the following two questions: first, did the Open Letter succeed in its stated goal, which was to:
“invite Christians to come together with … [Muslims] on the basis of what is common to [Christians and Muslims], which is also what is most essential to [Christians and Muslims] faith and practice: the Two Commandments of Love”.
Second, we must ask ourselves if we have now come to realize the hope expressed at the end of the ‘A Common Word’ Open Letter that we as Muslims and Christians:
“respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.”
With regards to the first question, we may fairly conclude from all that we have just related that ‘A Common Word’ has indeed succeeded in bringing leading Christians and Muslims together on the basis of the Two (Greatest) Commandments of Love — and has done so, by the grace of God, in a wondrous and unprecedented way. It is hard to think of a single letter that has such a widespread impact, or indeed of any instance in history when an interfaith theological document has had so much traction so quickly. That is not to say of course that all Muslims and all Christians have responded in an unequivocally positive manner to this initiative, or that both sides have agreed that we understand the Two Commandments in exactly the same way (even whilst acknowledging that we have them in common). Indeed, some from both sides — despite the Papal Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate proclamations of 1964 and 1965, and despite verse 29:46 of the Holy Qur’an — have even questioned how we can meaningfully talk about having love of God in common since we do not have the same conception of the Trinity or of Jesus Christ u, as if Jesus himself had not said, along with the commandments: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One” (Mark 12:29), or: “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). Moreover, denying the ‘Common Word’ of the Two Commandments on such grounds is anyway logically equivalent that we cannot have ‘love of parents’ in common, since we do not all have the same parents! For ‘loving’ is a state that exists in the lover, not necessarily in the beloved, as Jesus u himself made clear when he u said: “love your enemies, bless those who curse you….” (Matthew, 5:44)
Howbeit, it cannot be reasonably denied that ‘A Common Word’ did serve and continues to serve as a theological platform to bring faithful Muslims and Christians together in a kind of world-wide peace movement — a peace movement which was never meant to deny or ignore all the irrevocable doctrinal differences between Islam and Christianity, but rather simply to identify their common ground, such as it is — in order to have a common faith-based mutual touchstone that Muslims and Christians can hold each other, and themselves, to. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, we believe endorsed precisely this idea when he said in his response to ‘A Common Word’ of July 14th, 2008:
‘We find in it a hospitable and friendly spirit, expressed in its focus on love of God and love of neighbour – a focus which draws together the languages of Christianity and Islam, and of Judaism also …. Our belief is that only through a commitment to that transcendent perspective to which your letter points, and to which we also look, shall we find the resources for radical, transforming, non-violent engagement with the deepest needs of our world and our common humanity.’
Equally, I believe we can also see a similar sentiment in H.H. Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at the King Hussein Mosque in Jordan on Saturday May 9th, 2009 in his words:
‘ …. and the more recent Common Word letter which echoed a theme consonant with my first encyclical: the unbreakable bond between love of God and love of neighbor, and the fundamental contradiction of resorting to violence or exclusion in the name of God (cf. Deus Caritas Est, 16)’.
Indeed, we believe quite firmly that a peace initiative based on the two ‘Greatest Commandments’ between monotheistic believers has a lot more potential than one based on just the Second Commandment — or the Golden Rule — such as was proposed in the Congress Prayer Breakfast earlier this year, or such as is being proposed more universally by the Charter for Compassion. For whether we like it or not, devoted Muslims, Christians and Jews would find difficult to get whole-heartedly behind a movement that does not mention God, and thus inherently stands the risk of reducing the spiritual virtues of true love and compassion towards the neighbour to nothing more than mere emotion;sentimentality or political niceties. That does not mean of course that we do not wholly support and applaud efforts to engage mankind on the basis of the Golden Rule — obviously we do, for there is no other, better way to engage everyone, believers and non-believers, alike in positive acts. However, we do believe that the ‘Theological Platform’ of ‘A Common Word’ has the greatest potential to engage Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other believers in God. God says in the Holy Qur’an: Verily the Remembrance of God is of all things the greatest (from: Al-‘Ankabut, 29:45), and also: Is it not in the remembrance of God that hearts find their rest (from: Al-Ra’ad, 13:28).
This brings us to our second question: will we now all ‘respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill’ as hoped for in the ‘A Common Word’ Open Letter. The answer to this question, we believe, is still disheartening, despite some positive changes and signs — namely, all that we have just mentioned especially the apparent thaw in relations between Muslims and the Vatican, coupled with H.M. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s interfaith initiative, and President Obama’s Cairo Speech on June 4th 2009 — all this being reflected in the latest Pew polls which show a slight lessening of animosity between Christians and Muslims globally. In other words, despite some positive developments and an incremental amelioration of attitudes, Muslims and Christians as a whole still harbour deep and dangerous animosities and prejudices towards each other. Moreover, even if we were to agree that the situation is better in Iraq now than two years ago, we must admit that it is worse in Afghanistan and that a new war has opened up in Pakistan, which in turn has been manipulated to commit murders against the native Christians there, such as recently happened in Gojra. And this is to say nothing of the situation in Mindanao, Philippines, where a decision by the Philippine judiciary in August 2008 scuttled an immanent peace deal thereby leading to renewed fighting with thousands killed and around a million refugees or displaced people. In short, we are still a long way away from where we could and should be.
There is only one answer to this: we must all continue our dialogue, and more pertinently, we must all do more. Journalist Sally Quinn expressed this poignantly earlier this year in Qatar, when she apparently said: “ ‘A Common Word’ has been established for over a year. It is now time for ‘a common deed’.” This brings me to the present conference.
(F) The georgetown University ‘A Common Word’ Conference: A Global Agenda for Change’, October 2009
Our present conference is not idly — I hope! — entitled ‘A Global Agenda for Change’. Rather its purpose is to examine and chart out some concrete, practical, and, more importantly, actionable ideas that we can bring to fruition based perhaps on the principles of ‘A Common Word’ and the Two Greatest Commandments. In other words, we want to move, God Willing, from ‘traction’ to ‘trickledown’, and we want to start this here, in the fourth major conference on ‘A Common Word’. That is not to say, of course, that nothing practical has been done up to now: a certain amount has been done spontaneously at the grass-roots level, such as the recent opening of a ‘A Common Word’ ‘sub-office’ in Sohan, Islamabad. Moreover, a certain amount has been done by us as Muslim and Christian scholars: I am thinking of the recently-established C-1 Foundation/Institute whose leaders we are privileged to have here today, and which has the principles of ‘A Common Word’ ensconced in its mission statement; and of our own joint Christian-Muslim religious resource website which is in the process of being set. Furthermore, we have, by the Grace of God, most of us here today done practical work in this field — I need hardly tell you about Bishop Chartres’s St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace; or the work of Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation; or Miroslav Volf’s Reconciliation Center at Yale; or what our hosts here in Georgetown have done and are doing; or even our own happy interfaith experience in Jordan — but our efforts, though we hope they be pleasing to God, have not succeeded enough. Therefore, we humbly ask you all in the following two days to chart out further ways forward; we ask you to consult with each other; we ask you to establish contacts, and we ask you to establish mechanisms for co-ordination and follow-up. Most of all, we ask that you each pray in your own ways for God’s blessings to always do what is right and what is good. Jesus u said: ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits … every good tree bears good fruit’ (Matthew 7:16-17)
Wal-HamduLillah Rubb Al-‘Alamin.