Quaker Universalist Voice

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Muslim Scholars Reach Out to Christians: “A Common Word”


By Anthony Manousos

During this time of escalating Islamophobia, fueled by self-serving politicians, my heart leaped for joy to see the publication of A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor  (Eerdman: Grand Rapids, MI, 2010). This book, consisting of essays by leading Muslim and Christian scholars, offers hope that the two largest monotheistic religions (comprising over half the world’s population) can overcome their historic antagonisms and build a culture of peace based on the Two Commandments shared by all three Abrahamic faiths: “Love God and love your neighbor.”

 Sound too good to be true? No one in this book says it will be easy to convince the extremists (and the ignorant) on both sides to embrace love rather than hatred, but “A Common Word” is certainly an important step towards building a world-wide consensus among believers that Islam and Christianity can get along peaceably.  

This unprecedented Muslim outreach to the Christian community began three years ago, on October 13, 2007, when 138 Muslim scholars sent out a letter (entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You”) to leaders of the Christian faith, calling for peace and understanding. (Since then, there have been more Muslim signatories, bringing the total to over 300.) These noteworthy signatories represent a broad range of nationalities and theological perspectives. According to its author, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammud of Jordan, this letter represents a “normative Ijma [consensus] by the Ummah’s [Muslim community’s] scholars,” that must be taken seriously by Muslims everywhere.

“A Common Word” was written a year after Pope Benedict XVI gave a controversial talk at the University of Regensberg in which he criticized Islam and quoted derogatory remarks about Mohammad made by a Byzantine emperor. Although the Pope disavowed these incendiary sentiments, they nonetheless provoked a strong backlash in the Muslim community.

 Prince Ghazi (an extraordinary scholar who received a BA summa cum laude from Princeton and a Ph.D from Cambridge University) wrote a conciliatory response that was endorsed by major Muslim scholars around the world. As a result of this letter, Pope Benedict went to Jordan where he visited a mosque (an historic moment) and was warmly welcome by the Prince and other Muslim dignitaries.

 Christian theologians responded to “A Common Word” with a thoughtful and encouraging rejoinder. This so-called “Yale Response” appeared in the New York Times (November 2007) and is republished in this book with a commentary by leading Yale scholars, Miroslav Volf, Joseph Cumming, and Melissa Yarrington.

 Thus began a series of dialogues and colloquia among the world’s top Muslim and Christian religious scholars that is ongoing. (Jewish scholars were also invited to take part as observers so they wouldn’t feel excluded. Muslim-Jewish dialogue is also taking place in the same conciliatory spirit.) Some of the best papers from these “Common Word” conferences are published in this book.

 Unless one is theologically trained, these essays don’t make easy reading. But it is nonetheless fascinating to read how finely trained theological minds work, and how they explore the intricacies and complexities of such a seemingly simple statement as: “Love God and love your neighbor.” What is meant by “love”? What is meant by “God”? Or “neighbor”? Do Muslims and Christians mean the same thing by these words? Scholars engage the text and commentaries in a myriad of provocative ways to provide intriguing answers to deep theological questions. For example, many Christian scholars argue that Christianity sees God in terms of Love, while Islam sees God in terms of justice. Rez Shah-Kazemi counters that while the word “Love” as understood by Christians is problematic for many Muslim scholars, Islam sees God as “lovingly compassionate and merciful” and he gives examples both from both mainstream Muslims and Sufis to make his point. Miroslav Volf deals with the question of the Trinity from the standpoint of Love. If God is Love, how could God love before the creation of man and of the universe, unless God were somehow both unitary and triune in nature. These simplifications don’t do justice to the subtle ways that these arguments were woven, but I found these discussions heartening. When scholars come together to explore theological ideas in a respectful manner, they are promoting love and understanding—which, as John Kerry points out, is surely “God’s work.”

 There is of course a political subtext to these theological discussions, as Tony Blair and John Kerry explain in their foreword and epilogue to this book. These scholars do not address many sensitive political issues, such as the occupation of Muslim lands by Western armies, and the lack of religious freedom in many Muslim countries. One hopes that as trust builds, and understanding grows, it may become possible for scholars to deal with these thorny issues in constructive ways.

 To find out more, I recommend that you not only read this book but also go to the website: acommonword.com. There you will find a wealth of statements, news items, and endorsements by notable scholars from around the world, all calling for peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims. (You will also find bigoted  responses from close-minded believers, but that only shows why this theological heavy lifting needs to take place.) This is an ongoing project that has already borne much good fruit. For example, you can see a video of Prince Ghazi welcoming Pope Benedict to a mosque in Jordan, an historic moment since he is only the second Pope to visit a mosque. The news item page notes that an historical conference of Muslim scholars met to repudiate a reading of the Quran that has be used by violent extremists like Osama bin Laden to justify their personal calls for jihad. It was also encouraging to read that a leading Pakistani scholar issued a 600-page fatwa against terrorism in London in March 2010.  Such reports refute the idea that Islamic scholars support terrorism and jihad. Some of course do (just as some Christian leaders promote war against Islam), but the vast majority of Muslim scholars oppose terrorism and are calling for peaceful dialogue.

 It is heartening to see so many leading Christians and Muslims as signatories and participants in this important dialogue. I was pleased to see a response by British Friends, but I was disappointed that the one by American Friends was not included, even though one was sent out two years ago. Here is the text of the American response, published here for the first time:

 The Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee (CIRC) of Friends General Conference of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) welcomes and celebrates A Common Word between Us and You. The truly diverse group of Muslims who gathered and signed this history-making document should inspire Christians to work among themselves to find how they can, despite their many differences, come together and agree on a statement affirming the need for peace among the religions of the world, and particularly between Muslims and Christians, who together account for such a significant portion of the world’s population. CIRC therefore wants to affirm A Common Word between Us and You and the spirit of reconciliation that informs it.

Relationships between Quakers and Muslims go back many years. Friends have a long heritage of educating for peace. In the Friends School at Ramallah, which has been in existence for over 100 years, Christians and Muslims have studied together and cooperated to better their lives. In response to a plea from the United Nations, the American Friends Service Committee initiated a relief program to serve refugees in Gaza in 1949. Quaker service has continued there since that time. In addition to emergency relief work, a current focus is the Quaker Palestine Youth Program, which has worked closely with local non-governmental organizations, Palestinian Ministries, educational institutions, and international organizations to enhance opportunities for marginalized Palestinian youth. Quakers in Ramallah have also founded a Peace Center that works promote peace and understanding. The Quaker presence in the Middle East is also felt in Christian Peacemaker Teams, such as those in Hebron and in Iraq. Tom Fox was a Quaker martyr for peace.

For us, our labors to promote understanding between faiths is an expression of our peace testimony. Early Quakers expressed their convictions on peace in a statement to the king of England, Charles II, in 1660:

“We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward wapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world. The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided,  will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, either for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.”

George Fox, commonly regarded as the founder of Quakerism, spoke of living in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.” We strive to live in that same life and power. We perceive that same esire in your outreach to the Christian world in A Common Word Between Us and You.

In conclusion, we hope to be your partners in promoting understanding between our communities of faith. Both your Scriptures and ours call us top peacemaking.  “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9a). As the Qur’an states (49:13), “People, we created you from one man and one woman, and made ou into nations and tribes, so that you may get to know one another. In the light of God, the most honored of you are the most mindful. God is ll-knowing, all-aware.”

We shall urge members of the Religious Society of Friends to create opportunities for deep listening and dialogue with Muslims in their communities in order to improve our mutual understanding and to work together with Muslims (and others) to make a more just and peaceful world. CIRC commits itself to spreading knowledge of A Common Word Between Us and  You as widely as possible among Friends. Additionally, in CIRC’s ecumenical work, from the local to the national and international level, it will be an advocate to call Christians to share the concern for peace between Christians and Muslims that is so powerfully expressed in your document.

25 April 2008


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