Establishing religious and cultural accord is difficult anywhere in the world. This is especially true for the long and checkered relationship between Islam and Christianity.
Islam’s rise to the stage of world history in the 7th century when Christianity was struggling both in Europe and in the East created a sense of rivalry and urgency among Western Christians. Islam’s claim of restoring Abrahamic monotheism and rejection of the Christian Trinity was received as a theological challenge. Its rapid expansion into areas that were once under the Byzantine rule led to a heightened sense of political and military threat.
Finally, the dominance of Islamic culture and civilization after the 10th and 11th centuries was a cause of alarm to many Christians in Europe. Periods of peaceful co-existence in places like Andalusia, Baghdad and Istanbul have provided some brilliant examples of peaceful co-existence. Yet, the perceptions and attitudes of exclusion and hostility have survived and continue to shape the current views of Islam and Muslims from the pulpits across the US to media outlets and policy circles.
In addition to numerous interfaith initiatives, a large group of prominent Muslim scholars, intellectuals and community leaders has been working over the last two years to address some of these issues. In October 2007, an open letter called “A Common Word Between US and You,” signed by 138 Muslim signatories, was sent to Christian leaders and communities around the world to open up new lines of communication between Muslims and Christians.
This was a follow up to “An Open Letter to the Pope” sent in response to Pope Benedict’s controversial Regensburg Speech in 2006. The open letter responded to the Regensburg’s two claims that Islam was unable to develop a rational discourse about its religious tenets and thus invited its followers to “submit” to God rather than to think about or love Him. Furthermore, Islam spread through violence, which is an extension of its irrational nature. On both counts, Christians, the Pope seemed to imply, cannot have theological dialogue with Muslims
Taking its cue from the two commandments of the love of God and love of the neighbor, the Common Word asserted that there is a ground for theological engagement between Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) while religious differences are to be admitted as part of a genuine dialogue and ethics of co-existence. At another level, this is a call for the acknowledgment of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. In addition to the intricacies of Christian and Muslim theology, there are also grounds for practical cooperation between the two largest religious and cultural communities of the world.
After all, one does not have to have uniformity to seek common ground. The challenge is to create an ethics of co-existence and cultivate a sense of respectful difference.
So far, the Common Word led to three high-level meetings. The first was at the Yale Divinity School last July where Muslim and primarily Protestant theologians took up the two themes of the Common Word. A highly significant letter signed by three hundred prominent Protestant theologians and scholars was published in New York Times. The second meeting was hosted by Cambridge University in October ending with a meeting with Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the Lambeth Palace. Prior to the October meeting, Dr. Williams wrote a detailed and profound response to the Common Word, reiterating its main points but also expanding on it to further the relations between Muslims and Christians.
The third meeting took place at the Vatican in Rome on November 4-6, 2008 as the first Seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum with the participation of about 60 Muslim and Catholic religious leaders and scholars from around the world. (Go here for the texts of the Vatican meeting as well as the Common Word.) The fourth meeting will take place at Georgetown University next year.
Interfaith engagements raise the question of whether one should concentrate on practical issues and avoid theological debates. Many engaged in interfaith dialogue prefer to deal with practical issues with the hope that this would produce concrete results. Interreligious dialogue, however, cannot function in a “beyond-the-truth” kind of attitude because, for one, all religions lay a claim to the truth (regardless of how one understands it). One has to take these claims seriously. Secondly, one is expected to remain loyal to one’s tradition in broad outlines while reaching out to the other(s); otherwise a dialogue without a center would be without meaning and substance. Plus, it will have no representation and thus no impact on the larger community.
Differences do not obviate serious intellectual engagement. The current global problems call for a dialogical conversation between Christians and Muslims as well as others. As religions have to learn to live in an increasingly pluralistic world, they are bound to listen to one another more attentively. Muslims and Christians need to mobilize their resources to address the spiritual crisis and social problems of our day and age. It is encouraging to see that the Catholic-Muslim Forum has agreed to “explore the possibility of establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations”. Such measures could prove to be vital to diffuse communal tension and misunderstanding. But much more work remains to be done in order to close the theological and historical gap between Christians and Muslims.
Ibrahim Kalin is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is founding Director of the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research based in Ankara, Turkey, and among the signatories of the Common Word, a major initiative to improve Muslim-Christian relations.