[This post is a continuation of “A Common Word” and Christian-Muslim Dialogue]
Reactions to 138 (and counting) Muslims’ open letter to the Pope, “A Common Word” are diverse, yet predictable. For instance, there are those whose initial reaction is to regard it with skepticism — such as that conveyed by The Pertinacious Papist from the combox:
Mona Charen, “About that Muslim Letter to the Pope” (Oct. 19, 2007), mentions the elephant in the room, which nobody seems to want to talk about. Having said that, I’m nonetheless glad for the dialogues taking place, though I think it’s silly when people lose sight of history as well of contemporary global realities amidst their ebullient giddiness over a few exchanged token gestures. Pray God they may become more than that.
It is worth noting that the website of the document itself — http://www.acommonword.com/ — in the interest of fostering genuine dialogue, does not shirk from including straightforward criticism of the document. Case in point, among the published responses is that of Christian W. Troll, SJ. (Readers might recall that Fr. Samir and Fr. Troll were among the participants in Pope Benedict’s conference on Islam at Castel Gandolfo). (Towards common ground between Christians and Muslims?).
Like Samir Khalil Samir, Fr. Troll recognizes the significant nature of the document and appreciates the intentions of its participants :
This letter from Muslim leaders and scholars undoubtedly deserves careful attention, not least on the part of Christians. For someone such as myself, who has been engaged for decades in religious dialogue between Christians and Muslims, it represents a remarkable attempt to reach a broad consensus among leading Muslim figures. This effort certainly has among its aims that Islam should be taken seriously as a distinct and clearly articulated voice at a global level. Reading the impressive list of signatories from all parts of the world and from various socio-religious contexts reminds one that there are no longer separate Islamic and Christian worlds in the sense of geographically distinct areas. Around the world today Christians and Muslims take part in the life of diverse and thoroughly plural societies and states, amongst which must be included societies such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The scholars’ letter can be read as a tangible recognition of this fact. The new phase in dialogue of which it is a part can thus be seen as a positive outcome of globalization.
That said, Fr. Troll also offers some justifiable criticisms and expresses concerns shared by many a Christian reader.
Noting the authors’ frequent references to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, which Muslims have traditionally regarded as corrupt, Troll asks:
So one naturally asks whether the authors of this document are seeking to understand the biblical texts which they have cited in their own authentically biblical context, which includes both the immediate context of any particular text and also the wider context of the whole Bible. Or could it be that these biblical texts are only accepted and quoted by the Muslim scholars in so far as they correspond with the message of the Qur’an? Be that as it may, the Islamic doctrine of the intentional alteration of the Biblical text by Jews and Christians, which is extremely significant for Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue, is neither mentioned nor explicitly modified in this document.
Troll goes on to call for “a fuller consideration” of Muhammad’s approach to Jews and Christians and increasing tensions between the two traditions such as is reflected in Sura 9.
There is also the question of the specific meaning of the document’s title:
This phrase is drawn from a famous verse addressed to Jews and Christians (referred to here as ‘People of the Scripture’):
‘Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him)’ (sura 3:64).
In the context of Muslim-Christian dialogue it is especially important to reflect on the requirement here that “none of us shall take others for lords beside God”. Much Muslim commentary, classical and modern, has seen in these words criticism of Christian belief in the divity of Jesus. Moreover, this interpretation appears to be in line with a number of other Qur’anic passages insisting that Jesus was a human messenger of God and in no sense divine (3:59, immediately before the text in question; 4:171; 5:75; 9:31; 19:34-5). It is therefore striking that the Open Letter cites a much less polemical approach taken by al-Tabari, an authoritative early commentator on the Qur’an, to the effect that Muslims, Christians and Jews should be free to each follow what God commanded them, and not have to prostrate before kings and the like“’ (p. 14). One might ask, however, what al-Tabari imagined God had commanded Christians to do – not, presumably, to worship Jesus?
Finally, on the non-negotiable convictions concerning Jesus Christ and the Trinity:
Of course, Muslims and Christians (together with Jews) agree that only God should be worshipped, but we disagree in our views of Jesus Christ, and this disagreement has profound implications for how God is understood and worshipped. For Christians Jesus is both fully human and fully divine; the most basic confession of Christian faith is ‚Jesus Christ is Lord’. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is also known by Christians as ‚the Lord, the giver of life’; God is thus known and worshipped as Father, Son and Spirit. So it is important for Muslims approaching dialogue with Christians to understand that this trinitarian monotheism is central to Christian belief and worship and is not an aspect of Christianity that can be negotiated away. In this regard there are some slight ambiguities in the Open Letter, moments at which a Christian might feel that it is suggesting that there are no fundamental differences between the theologies of the two faiths, or at least that these differences do not really matter. While the warm, inviting tone of the Open Letter’s appeal to Christians is enormously encouraging, it is to be hoped that this can be held together with an approach which takes utterly seriously the points at which Christians and Muslims differ and does not encourage a diplomatic evasion of these points for the sake of a dialogue which would suffer as a result.
Fr. Troll asks all the right questions, and it is only with due attention to such that genuine and substantial exchange between Chrisians and Muslims can develop.
- A compilation of Christian responses — Catholic and Protestant — to “A Common Word”.
- Fr. Troll is author of Muslims Ask, Christians Answer. The book is available for downloading in .pdf format for free, and the website is updated regularly with Fr. Troll’s answers to reader’s questions about Islam and Muslim-Christian relations.