Update On “A Common Word Between Us And You” An Appeal From Muslim Scholars For Dialogue and Peace

In October of 2007 I wrote an article about what I believe to be the most important news story of the past year – Muslim Scholars Appeal to Christian Scholars for Dialogue and Peace on Eve of Eid.  There have been a number of developments since then requiring an update to this story.

A brief history of A Common Word Between Us and You

1.  It began with Regensberg

In 2006 in his Regensberg Address Pope Benedict XVI made a statement that was perceived as offensive by Muslims. 

In his speech he quoted from a 14th century dialogue between a Byzantine Christian Emperor and Ibn hazm, a Persian philosopher who proposed a number of theories that are so unique that his followers are sometimes described as comprising a distinct madhab (school of law):  ”He said, I quote, ‘Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached’.” To many Muslims the Pope in this speech appeared to endorse the view, contested by most Muslims, that early Muslims spread their religion by violence. 

This quickly turned into an international incident, and has raised the issue of the effectiveness of dialogue.  A great deal of publicity was generated by the violence that broke out in some countries, but almost no publicity for the reasoned response of Muslim scholars and leaders.

This address provoked a great deal of comment by scholars and ordinary Muslims.  Some of the statements that were made at that time were prescient.  Some of their words are even mirrored in the Common Word document.

“Perhaps it is time for the Pope, if he is sincere, rather than lobbing rhetorical hand-grenades into the Muslim street, to sit down with a few contemporary Muslim men and women of wisdom and explore the common ground that might be found in these notions of faith and reason.” Shaikh Kabir Helminski

“… we should be wary of emotional responses; and act in our interests, which are also those of a well-integrated, tolerant and successful Europe. Benedict XVI may not quite intend it, but on balance, his policies are likely to be good for Islam.” Shaikh Abdul Hakim Murad

“… Muslims are often their own worst enemies when they confront other people as enemies rather than address them as friends in order to turn them into friends if they are not already.  Allah tells us in the Qur’an that only those specially enlightened can do this, but we should at least try to do so in order to set an example for others.  This is the eternal wisdom necessarily taught by every one of the world religions, because each in its own way, as a revelation from God and with its own distinct path of worship, teaches the same truth.” Dr. Robert D. Crane

“I urge Muslim scholars to engage the Pope in an honest interfaith dialogue that does not shy away from highlighting stark differences while at the same time creating an open, respectful and peaceful flow of information that educates the curious masses on all sides.  Islam is a decentralized religion and Muslims will not be happy to have an Ayatollah or a politician debate the Pope, because each sect and each group has its own opinion on the subject.  … ” Neal AbuNab

“The response to the Pope’s philosophical and theological statements needs to be made by Muslim philosophers and theologians who can engage in dialogue with their Catholic peers.  American Muslims have called for just such a dialogue.  If we are to avoid a clash of civilizations all of us must pray that incidents like this one can be turned from examples of mutual misunderstanding and distrust to opportunities for real dialogue and mutual understanding.” Sheila Musaji

Pope Benedict XVI apologized for the misunderstanding.  The Vatican released a statement that said in part:  “The Holy Father thus sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful, and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions. …  In reiterating his respect and esteem for those who profess Islam, he hopes they will be helped to understand the correct meaning of his words so that, quickly surmounting this present uneasy moment, witness to the “Creator of heaven and earth, Who has spoken to men” may be reinforced, and collaboration may intensify “to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom” (Nostra Aetate no. 3).”

2.  The First Letter – Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

Following this, the reasoned voices prevailed, and in October of 2006 38 Muslim scholars from 20 countries representing all eight schools of thought in Islam sent an Open Letter to to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI denouncing the violence after the Regensberg address and urging dialogue and mutual tolerance and respect.  Timothy Winter (Abdul Hakim Murad) one of the signatories to this original letter pointed to some of the difficulties that he hoped the letter and the simultaneous release of a statement against terrorism signed by 500 Muslim scholars would begin to address: “Everyone can see that the advantage that the Christian churches have is that they have efficient hierarchies. If someone who belongs to the Catholic church misbehaves they can immediately issue a denunciation, which is what we saw for years in Northern Ireland.  It’s hard for outsiders to see what the consensus of Muslim orthodoxy is, particularly with the slide into violence of a fringe of the Sunni orthodox world in the past 15 years or so.  Even though the [Muslim] religion is traditionally resistant to creating hierarchies, it has to come up with a mechanism of making the opinions of mainstream orthodoxy known.  Finally the Muslim world is waking up to the fact that it needs to improve its public relations skills.”

Sohail Nakhooda, the Editor of Islamica also spoke to the same points:  “The argument has been over the years that the churches and the governments can’t find a single [Muslim] body to speak to. We don’t have a papacy, one unified church, so it’s hard to speak to a single voice that is a representation of the [Islamic] community.  The document [Tuesday] has 500 signatures from across the Muslim world, condemning the killing of innocent lives and the tactics of Al Qaeda.  We’re trying to reclaim the moral high ground for Islam; we hope that eventually this will be seen accurately as reflective of the majority tendency in Islam.”

There was no official response to this first letter, and little media coverage of either the letter or the fatwa.

3.  The second letter – A Common Word Between Us and You

Exactly one year later a second letter was sent.  This letter was addressed to the Pope, the Orthodox Patriarchs, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the heads of the world alliances of the Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist and Reformed churches (a total of 25 Christian leaders).  This document “A Common Word Between Us and You” was initially signed by 138 Muslim scholars (that number has now increased to 216) from more than 40 countries. 

Almost immediately positive responses were received from The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, and many other Christian leaders.  And, in the United States, 300 Christian clergy signed a statement entitled ”Loving God and Neighbor Together:  A Christian Response to A Common Word Between Us and You”.  This statement said in part: 

“Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world.” We share the sentiment of the Muslim signatories expressed in these opening lines of their open letter. Peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians stand as one of the central challenges of this century, and perhaps of the whole present epoch. Though tensions, conflicts, and even wars in which Christians and Muslims stand against each other are not primarily religious in character, they possess an undeniable religious dimension. If we can achieve religious peace between these two religious communities, peace in the world will clearly be easier to attain. It is therefore no exaggeration to say, as you have in A Common Word Between Us and You, that “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.” …  “Given the deep fissures in the relations between Christians and Muslims today, the task before us is daunting. And the stakes are great. The future of the world depends on our ability as Christians and Muslims to live together in peace. If we fail to make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony you correctly remind us that “our eternal souls” are at stake as well. We are persuaded that our next step should be for our leaders at every level to meet together and begin the earnest work of determining how God would have us fulfill the requirement that we love God and one another. It is with humility and hope that we receive your generous letter, and we commit ourselves to labor together in heart, soul, mind and strength for the objectives you so appropriately propose.”

The Vatican response was a little slower, and an initial, cautiously positive response from the re-established Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, quickly turned negative. His Eminence Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue speaking in an interview on Friday October 19th with the French Catholic daily La Croix, said: “Muslims do not accept that one can discuss the Qur’an in depth, because they say it was written by dictation from God. With such an absolute interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the contents of faith.”

This Vatican response led to a communique issued by Muslim scholars at the Naples Conference “For a World Without Violence: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue”.  The communique stated in part:  “This attitude, it seems to Muslims, misses the very point of dialogue. Dialogue is by definition between people of different views, not people of the same view. Dialogue is not about imposing one’s views on the other side, nor deciding oneself what the other side is and is not capable of, nor even of what the other side believes. Dialogue starts with an open hand and an open heart. It proposes but does not set an agenda unilaterally.  It is about listening to the other side as it speaks freely for itself, as well as about expressing one’s own self. Its purpose is to see where there is common ground in order to meet there and thereby make the world better, more peaceful, more harmonious and more loving. It is thus that the scholars proposed a mutual common ground for this dialogue based on Love of God and Love of the Neighbor. Unfortunately, even the annual ‘Id greeting gesture, kindly established during the time of John Paul II, has been made polemical of late.  We call upon His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to continue the principles of Assisi and the legacy of the much-beloved John Paul II. We call upon him to embrace the initiative that our scholars made with the same good will that has already marked its reception by so many Christians: leaders, theologians, and ordinary believers.”

Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, who will shortly be going to Rome for a meeting with Cardinal Tauran, saw this statement as symptomatic of a deterioration of Muslim Christian relations in recent years, especially since a request for dialogue after the Regensberg Address had received no response from the Vatican.  “Forty years ago, I led a Muslim delegation of scholars to the Vatican. At that time, Paul VI was the pope. It was five-day, very intense theological discussion involving Cardinal [Sergio] Pignedoli and a number of leading Vatican experts on Islam. Yet four decades later, we have the Regensburg address. What that means is that somehow we still have to get the heart of the religion engaged. It’s very disappointing.”

In November an official and positive response was received from Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State stating that the Pope would be willing to meet with representatives of the signatories to the Common Word statement.&nnbsp;

In December Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal responded positively to the Pope’s proposal.  Currently the details are being worked out.

At this point in time we have concrete plans being worked out for a meeting with a delegation of scholars from the signatories and the Pope and other Vatican officials.  We also have very positive responses from many Protestant clergy, but no definite plan as to how and when they might meet with their Muslim counterparts.

All of us can only wait to see how these dialogues will be arranged and whether or not they will be successful.