Rev. David Palmer
Muslims and Christians To Share a Common Faith?
Rev. David Palmer
From Australian Presbyterian, February, 2008
Used with permission
Something quite unusual has happened in the past year on the world stage regarding religion. Muslims have said to Christians, ‘come now, let us reason together for the sake of peace between us’.
In late 2006 Pope Benedict XVI sent the Islamic world into one of its periodic tantrums when during a speech at the University of Regensburg, Germany, he quoted from a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus who had said to a Muslim scholar, "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".
This speech drew a sharp response from a group of 38 Muslim scholars in early 2007 in the form of an open letter in which they sought to correct some of the Pope’s views concerning Islam, but also hinting at the possibility of finding some common ground on the subject of love of God and neighbour.
This was then followed up by a remarkable open letter, entitled ‘A Common Word between Us and You’ (hereafter ‘A Common Word’), signed by 138 Muslim religious and political leaders and sent at the end of Ramadan, 2007 to the Pope, twenty Orthodox Patriarchs and Leaders of all the main Protestant groupings.
The Muslim signatories were drawn from a broad range of Muslim constituencies, a wide geographic spread and include a number of women. According to those knowledgeable, whilst some of the signatories are known for their moderation and peaceful intentions, others are Wahhabists, Deobandists and members of the Muslim brotherhood.
Noting that together Muslims and Christians make up more than half the world’s population, ‘A Common Word’ begins by stating that "the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians".
The letter then draws attention to what is said to be held in common between Christians and Muslims – the Unity of God and the necessity of love for Him and neighbour, all of which is supported by quotations drawn from the Koran and the Bible. These three matters are said to serve as the basis for their invitation to Christians "to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us".
In an interview Dr Nayed, the Muslim spokesperson said, "the dialogue, or rather, set of dialogues, we hope ‘A Common Word’ will initiate are multifaceted, multilayered, multidisciplinary, and multilateral. It is more a set or matrix of polyphonic discourses that are united through their exclusive focus: Loving worship of the One God, and Love of our neighbours. The matrix includes theological, spiritual, scriptural, juridical, and ethical discourses. It is to be conducted in cooperation with a broad range of partners from all active Christian Churches and denominations including the Catholic, Protestant (both traditional and evangelical), and the Orthodox communities."
The open letter received, with few exceptions, a generally favourable, even ecstatic response from the media, politicians, individuals and many church groups, mainly Protestant.
‘A Common Word’ and these responses may be viewed at: http://www.acommonword.com/
The main Protestant response took the form of full page advertisement in the New York Times entitled "Loving God and Neighbour Together", and signed by 300 prominent Christians, liberals and evangelicals alike including Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Timothy George and John Stott.
This particular response can only be described as enthusiastic, heaping lavish praise upon the Muslim signatories.
The Vatican’s response has been to invite representatives of the 138 Muslim scholars to a meeting with the Pope but is otherwise subdued, noting as a fact that differences between Christians and Muslims cannot be "ignored or downplayed". It is noteworthy that ‘A Common Word’ failed to take up the challenge of Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address when on that occasion he said, "we Christians feel in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious convictions as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom"
What are we to make of "A Common Word between Us and You"?
There are at least two ways to read ‘A Common Word’, and these ways may in part be determined by differences among the Muslim signatories, but also in who may be the intended audience, for not only are Christian leaders and the Western media in view but there is a Muslim audience as well.
The first way to understand the letter is to accept it as a genuine straightforward call to dialogue for the purposes of easing tension and removing misunderstandings on the basis of shared convictions concerning God, love of God and love of neighbour.
This appears to be the way the 300 church leaders in ‘Loving God and Neighbour Together’ have chosen to read ‘A Common Word’. They begin by saying how "deeply encouraged and challenged", they were "by the recent historic letter".
The Church leaders go on to say, "what is so extraordinary about ‘A Common Word Between Us and You’ is not that its signatories recognize the critical character of the present moment in relations between Muslims and Christians. It is rather a deep insight and courage with which they have identified the common ground between the Muslim and Christian religious communities. What is common between us lies not in something marginal nor in something merely important to each. It lies, rather, in something absolutely central to both: "love of God and love of neighbour".
Their response includes a Biblically sound exposition of the Christian understanding of love of God and
neighbour and a commitment "to meet together and begin the earnest work of determining how God would have us fulfil 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 labour together in heart, soul, mind and strength for the objectives you so appropriately propose."
A particularly helpful aspect of the Christians’ response, contra the Muslims’ letter, is to make clear the priority of God’s love over our response of love toward Him.
However, what is incredibly foolish in "Loving God and Neighbour Together" is that it opens with an apology to Muslims and a request for the forgiveness of "the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world … for the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the ‘war on terror’)".
This is particularly unfortunate given statements within ‘A Common Word’ implying Christians to be at fault in wars involving Christians and Muslims.
If the letter of the Muslim leaders is a genuine straightforward call to dialogue and it certainly carries with it no apologies for 13 centuries of jihad against Christians, then a responding expression of apology and request for forgiveness by the Christians, whilst it may be "a christian thing" to do, speaks more of a grovelling dhimmi than of an equal conversation partner.
Certainly, expressions of apology are appropriate to historic Christian Muslim relations but such apologies should follow rather than precede dialogue and in any case must be mutually made. Additionally, Christian leaders are in no position to apologise for the war on terror, that being a matter for Western states rather than the Church.
The second way to understand "A Common Word" is to see it as a straightforward call to infidels to make submission to "God - He alone", as ‘A Common Word’ expresses the matter. This will almost certainly be the way that many Muslims will read the letter given the Koranic texts quoted and explained in "A Common Word" concerning the unity of God.
Before explaining this, something else needs to be said.
From the Islamic texts in general, we know that the themes of loving God and neighbour are not prominent in Islam. There is simply nothing comparable to the parable of the Good Samaritan. If God’s love is central to the New Testament, then submission to Allah to central to Islamic texts.
Somewhat speculatively, the Barnabas Fund in their analysis have suggested that ‘A Common Word’ may be read as the proposition that if Christians will accept Islam’s concept of the unity of God (and thus deny the Trinity and deity of Christ), Muslims will accept the Christian values of love for God and neighbour as central to Islam.
Well, what can be said of texts cited in ‘A Common Word’ concerning God?
The first thing that must be said is that the section dealing with the love of God in Islam is dominated by the theme of God’s unity. Not only so, but through the quotation of four specific Koranic texts, ‘A Common Word’ represents a clear unambiguous rejection of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the two fold nature of Christ as God and man.
The texts read as follows, using MAS Abdel Haleem’s recent OUP translation:
"Say, He is God the One, God the eternal. He fathered no one nor was He fathered. No one is comparable to Him" (K112:1-4, note that "He fathered no one.." is omitted in ‘A Common Word’)
"Say, ‘People of the Book, let us arrive at a statement that is common to us all: we worship God alone, we ascribe no partner to Him, and none of us takes others besides God as lords.’ If they turn away, say, ‘Witness our devotion to Him.’" (K3:64)
"Even so, there are some who choose to worship others besides God as rivals to Him, loving them with the love due to God…" (K2:165)
"Say, my prayers and sacrifice, my life and death are all for God, Lord of all the Worlds; He has no partner." (K6:162, 163)
So, whilst the invitation to "a common word between us and you" is couched in expansive and generous terms, it clearly places the Islamic doctrine of God front and centre as the basis for agreement between Muslims and Christians.
Indeed, in turning to the Bible for Christianity’s doctrine of God, the one and only text that the letter quotes is Jesus’ repetition of Deuteronomy 6:4,5 found in Mark 12:28f: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!".
No attempt is made to even acknowledge the rich terrain of the Biblical, and therefore Christian understanding of the one God.
So whilst ‘A Common Word’ is presented as a bold new approach in interfaith dialogue, it can also be read as a classic example of Islamic mission (da’wa) - in this case addressed to the topmost echelons of the world wide Church of Jesus Christ!
In other words, the letter from the 138 Muslim scholars and leaders, whether moderate or extremist, is an invitation to the Church’s leaders to become Muslims, and will be read as such by Muslims generally. No one should be in any doubt on this point, least of all those proposing to meet with these scholars. In particular, the lack of response of the Orthodox Patriarchs to ‘A Common Word’ rather underscores this understanding of the Muslims’ letter.
So, should Church leaders heed this call to dialogue and what might they hope for?
Having noted the underlying Call to submission, it is still good that Christian leaders should with open eyes accept the letter at face value, as a genuine call to dialogue with a view at the very least of reducing tensions between Christians and Muslims. This certainly is owed to those moderate Muslims who have signed ‘A Common Word’, and who are unlikely to press the call for submission.
In the second place, Christian leaders for their part, out of loyalty to Christ and His Church and in response to their own creedal formularies must make clear their own adherence to the far richer revelation of the triune God given through Scripture and in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. To do otherwise would be a betrayal. The failure of the Christian signatories to ‘Loving God and Neighbour Together’ to answer the Muslim challenge on the doctrine of God must not be repeated. In fact to answer the challenge will be to test Muslim commitment to dialogue.
Muslims need to hear this uncompromised truth about the one true God from the very pinnacle of Church leadership. Da’wa needs to be answered by Christian apologetic and evangelism!
If dialogue is to take place, then what should be the goal of such dialogue?
Christian leaders should limit their goals for which they should be seeking public commitments from the Muslim leaders, such commitments preferably backed by the issuing of authoritative fatwas, that is, legal determinations made by the appropriate Muslim scholars.
These goals should be:
• the right of both Muslims and Christians anywhere to worship freely and to proselytise, even the right to proselytise persons of each other’s faith.
• the right of non Muslim minorities together with their religious institutions to share fully in an
unhindered way, in the life of their respective nations, without fear of persecution – in practice this must mean the dismantling of the status of a dhimmi as a second class citizen in Islamic society. With estimates of Christians facing persecution by Muslims running as high as 1 in 10, significant, lasting movement on this issue is an imperative for Muslim credibility amongst Christians.
• the right of persons to change their religion without fear of interference, persecution, or death at the hands of the State or other persons, including family members.
Muslims living in the West already enjoy these three rights, and so the issue is one of reciprocity.
There are two additional goals for which commitments backed by fatwas should be sought.
The first is that there need to be positive steps taken by Muslim leadership in all Islamic traditions and at all levels to proscribe terrorist activities targeting non Muslims and secular Muslims.
The second is for Muslims to acknowledge the religious neutrality of the state in the West and therefore the primacy of state law in Western nations over sharia.
What will be difficult?
Quite apart from the issue of getting some uniformity of agreement from internally disparate groupings of Muslims and Christians, itself a major issue, the difficulties at the Muslim Christian divide are considerable.
In the first place agreeing on what the unity of God means is impossible and should not be even attempted, even for those Christians who might wish to affirm that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
The second difficulty concerns the Muslim understanding of terms used in ‘A Common Word’, terms which would be understood differently by Christians. For example, the meaning of ‘freedom of religion’ for a Muslim means freedom to practice Islam. As previously noted, the term ‘unity of God’ constitutes a rejection of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Also problematic is the Islamic use of ‘devotion’ as a synonym for ‘love’.
The immutability of the Islamic sacred texts represents a third difficulty. These texts contain many alarming things for Christians and persons of other faiths. Aside from Islamic teaching, the history of Muslim Christian relations clearly tell us that Islam has never been at peace with Christianity. For Muslims to accept co-existence with Christians, knowing their doctrine of God, would be an astonishing development.
Getting Muslims to move on issues such as the status of dhimmis in Islamic society and the treatment of apostates (Muslim converts to Christianity) will be extraordinarily difficult.
A fourth difficulty concerns the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya.
Whereas for Christians, lying is considered a sin, the use of taqiyya in Islamic jurisprudence and theology, as a precautionary deception and keeping one's convictions secret from unbelievers is regarded as a virtue and a religious duty. And unbelievers is precisely how Muslims consider the Pope and other Christian leaders.
A major problem that will frustrate the Muslims concerns the issue of what it is that the Muslims are seeking and this issue is allied to the implied fallacy in ‘A Common Word’ that Christian leaders can speak for Western nations. This is an understandable misunderstanding for Muslims as Islam is as much a political ideology as a religion in a way that Christianity is not, the Crusades notwithstanding.
This coalescence of religion and political ideology in Islam helps explain why true freedom of religion remains so foreign to it. By issuing this challenge to Christianity, Islam in fact challenges itself to recognise the religious neutrality of the state and therefore religious freedom for all its citizens regardless of their particular religious beliefs.
So, what are the Muslims are seeking?
One answer has already been suggested – the conversion of the Church’s leaders, beginning with the Pope. This can be no more than a fond hope, even for the most conservative Muslim.
Arguably, the main objective for the Muslim political leaders signing ‘A Common Word’ must be to gain the assistance of Church leaders in bringing the war on terror, or in Muslim eyes, the war on Islam to a speedy end. In this they will be disappointed. The disappointment will not be with the words and actions of church leaders who with few exceptions will willingly comply, but rather with the discovery that the church leaders’ voice will count for so little in determining the course of the war on terror.
So, should Christians enter wholeheartedly into dialogue with Muslims on the basis of ‘A Common Word’?
Certainly, but not at the loss of failing to declare the crown rights of Christ our King, the only begotten Son of God! Anything that can reduce tension in the world, anything that opens up cordial lines of communication between Muslims and Christians, anything that assists our persecuted brethren, anything that opens up opportunities for evangelism amongst Muslim peoples, anything that declares the love of God for all people and demonstrates love of neighbour and even enemy must be embraced. The love of Christ compels us to nothing less!
Rev. David Palmer
Convener Church & Nation Committee
Presbyterian Church of Victoria
Presbyterian Church of Australia
5th January 2008