Uncommon Opportunity

WHEN ISLAMIC MODERATES SPEAK, WHO LISTENS?

Where is the moderate Muslim voice? Political commentators have repeatedly asked this question in the cacophony of the “war on terror” and amid daily news reports of violent acts of Islamic extremism. Yet when a moderate voice is raised, we stand a very good chance of missing it.

On October 13, 2007, a group of 138 Muslim scholars, religious leaders, and intellectuals published an open letter to all Christian churches, denominations, and individuals. Under the title “A Common Word between Us and You,” it is a lengthy, thoughtful reflection—based on the sacred texts of the Qur’an and the Bible—on the common ground that exists between Muslims and Christians. The goal of the writers was to support dialogue and work for peace at every level. The statement truly speaks with a “moderate voice” that is no less Muslim for being moderate.

To understand the statement better, some background is needed. In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI made his controversial speech in Regensburg. It unleashed a firestorm of criticism in the Islamic world. One month later, a group of thirty-eight Muslim scholars sent an open letter to Benedict, respectfully correcting several of his assertions in a spirit of dialogue and goodwill. Those scholars explicitly condemned as “un-Islamic” the violence that followed the pope’s address; they accepted Benedict’s apology and his gestures of respect toward Muslims as sincere; they quoted Nostra aetate and the words of Pope John Paul II appreciatively; and they asked for further dialogue. Regrettably, the letter received no response from the pope.

“A Common Word between Us and You” continues where the 2006 letter to the pope left off, yet in many respects it is entirely new. It is signed by far more Muslim scholars and religious leaders, including all hundred fellows of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan, which sponsored the initiative and maintains its official Web site (ACommonWord.com). The signatories are drawn from more than forty-two countries, representing a wide diversity of Islamic thought, practice, spirituality, and schools of jurisprudence. Addressed to the pope, leaders of Eastern Christian churches, Anglicans, Protestants, and all Christian leaders, the statement is arguably the boldest Muslim peace initiative ever undertaken. Professor David Ford, director of the Interfaith Program at Cambridge University, has called the effort “unprecedented” and “an astonishing achievement of solidarity.”

The statement is religious in nature. The Prophet Muhammad, in the Qur’an, calls Muslims to “come to a common word” with other “people of the Scriptures” (that is, Christians and Jews). Thus, within the Muslim context, the statement emerges as an act of obedience to Islamic religious imperatives, not merely a political or ideological response to Christians and Jews, or to the West.

The “common word,” as the authors have discerned it, is found in the divine command to love God and to love one’s neighbor, imperatives found in the Qur’an, the Book of Deuteronomy, and the New Testament. Because of the centrality of these commandments to Christians and Muslims alike, the statement carries great weight and urgency. As the authors point out, obedience to God’s commands is a matter on which rest not only our earthly prospects for peace, but also the eternal fate of human souls. The statement concludes with an affirmation from the Qur’an that God made the world in such a way that there is a variety of religious communities, and that those communities should “vie with one another in good works.”

Since the document was issued, more Muslim leaders from around the globe have signed it. The fact that so many different Muslim communities have cooperated in this effort is in itself noteworthy. Egyptian Catholic Islamic expert, Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, writing in AsiaNews, observed that in Islam (from a Sunni perspective) every point of faith rests on three sources: the Qur’an, the traditions (hadith), and community consensus (ijma`), but consensus can be difficult to establish. “A Common Word” goes a long way toward reaching and voicing consensus on several important points including religious freedom and the centrality of the idea of the love of God, although much theological work obviously remains to be done. Thus, informed commentators, including Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University, have hailed the document as historic, quite apart from any response it may receive from non-Muslims.

The response to “A Common Word” in the West has been mixed. Press coverage was meager. There was a flurry of quiet affirmation from church sources, such as the president of the Lutheran World Federation, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Hostile or skeptical commentary also appeared. The president of the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, made some positive comments, but Pope Benedict initially remained silent, creating speculation that he disagreed with the initiative. In November, however, the pope thanked the Muslim scholars for their statement and invited a delegation of them to meet with him. He also proposed a meeting of Muslim and Catholic scholars at the same time.

Earlier in November, the Yale Institute of Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School composed the first major Christian response, “Loving God and Neighbor Together.” It appeared in a full-page ad in the New York Times, and was endorsed by three hundred church leaders, theologians, and scholars. The Yale response rivals the Muslim statement in the religious diversity of its signers, including such American Evangelical leaders as Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, and Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, alongside liberal theologians such as Harvey Cox of Harvard. Leaders of mainline Protestant churches, theologians, scholars, and heads of theological schools, and a wide variety of Catholics also signed the Yale statement, which attracted attention in the Muslim world by apologizing for the Crusades and for excesses against Muslims in the “war on terror.”

Despite Benedict’s positive response to “A Common Word,” neoconservative Catholic commentator George Weigel has disparaged the initiative. In a speech given at the University of Notre Dame in November, Weigel voiced suspicions about the signatories, attacked the Yale response, and criticized “A Common Word” both for not responding to the pope’s concerns about the need for Islam to come to terms with the achievements of the Enlightenment and for not addressing concrete political questions.

In fact, the current political crisis is explicitly acknowledged as the context for writing “A Common Word.” Together, Muslims and Christians make up 55 percent of the world’s population, the document states. If there cannot be peace between Muslims and Christians, the world cannot be at peace. The document explicitly affirms religious freedom and tolerance while condemning violence instigated in the name of religion. Of course, it does not provide a blueprint for tactical advances on specific political fronts. How could it without transgressing the boundaries of its writers’ competence? Rather, it proposes something important that until now has been conspicuously lacking: an agreed-on religious starting point for dialogue and a rallying point for moderate Muslims whose views are not represented in the headlines. In short, it is a strategic move rather than a tactical maneuver.

It is true that the statement does not discuss the pope’s comments in his Regensburg talk about the need for an Islamic Enlightenment. It must be remembered, however, that the 2006 letter from Islamic scholars to Benedict engaging many of the pope’s specific comments about Islam received no reply. The scholars who composed “A Common Word” might be excused for thinking that a discussion of the Enlightenment from a Muslim perspective in this second letter would likewise prove fruitless. Besides, “A Common Word” is addressed to the Christian world in all its diversity, not to the pope alone.

The pope’s invitation will certainly be accepted, and it will be important for scholars of both the Christian and Muslim faiths, and not just prominent representatives of each religion, to engage each other in serious and sustained conversation and colloquy. Yet, if the statement remains only in the hands of scholars and experts, it will not achieve its purpose. “A Common Word” deserves to be much more widely read, if its authors’ hopes are to be realized.

Many supporters of the statement expressed the hope that it would ease tensions between Muslims and Christians in settings where one or the other group is in the minority. In any case, better understanding of the common ground that exists between Muslims and Christians can only be beneficial. Sustained scholarly conversation and colloquy, dialogue among religious leaders, and grassroots interfaith interaction are all needed to promote peace. Those who crafted “A Common Word” have provided a significant tool for furthering this work. The statement deserves more attention—and affirmation—than it has received.

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About the Author

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press).