Friday, October 19, 2007

Common Word

In the latest Tablet, Dr. John Borelli of Georgetown offers an analysis of last week's unusual letter by 138 Muslim scholar to the Pope and other leaders of Christianity. The letter is unusual in the broad consensus across different Islamic groups and divides it represents, and it may be well one of the first times there is a broad-based response to the efforts at dialogue called for by Christians in the 20th century, particularly the Catholic Church during and after the Second Vatican Council.
There is another reason why "A Common Word" is so important. It might just be the first widely represented theological response by Muslims to Christian invitations to dialogue since the time of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who now leads interreligious dialogue for the Vatican, has recognised its newness in this respect and its lack of polemics, use of Scriptural citations, and meditative nature. Archbishop Rowan Williams described it as indicative of the relationship for which we yearn in all parts of the world. Bishop Mark Hanson, President of the Lutheran World Federation, has encouraged reading the beauty of the collected passages and studying the vision of fidelity and fellowship. But these are acknowledgements and not responses. Those will take longer, perhaps years.
[The article is free on the Tablet's website. One has to register with an email address, and even if one has registered, it takes some navigating confusing instructions to get to the full text, so I'm copying the entire below after the jump.]

Uncommon overture

John Borelli

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When 138 leading Muslim scholars issued a statement last week addressing Christians around the world, responses varied from warm to cautious, while some claimed that 'A Common Word Between Us and You' is a necessary step on the road to world peace. What is clear is that dialogue between the faiths has vital new opportunities for progress

In the era of email, text messaging and blogging, taking a month, let alone a year, to compose a statement, or an invitation, or dialogue, seems remarkable to many people.

But last week's invitation to theological dialogue from a widely representative group of 138 Muslim scholars and religious leaders to Christians appears to have been in the making for three years. And yet for all the long hours of work, the scholarship, and the care taken, there is an undoubted urgency about it. "Our very eternal souls are all also at stake if we fail," the scholars tell those who relish conflict and destruction.

"A Common Word Between Us and You" was released on Thursday 11 October, and dated 13 October for the feast of Eid al-Fitr concluding the Ramadan fast. Jordan's Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman had dedicated more than three years to making this happen. The work will almost certainly have involved Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad, the Royal Institute's chairman and a member of the Jordanian royal family. He and others have been busy building consensus among Muslims for several years. Prince Ghazi has provided a commentary on the "Amman Message", first released in 2004 by King Abdullah II of Jordan and his scholars, and then supported by Muslim scholars of 50 countries who dealt with three key questions: Who is a Muslim? Who has the right to undertake issuing a legal ruling (fatwa)? Is it permissible to declare someone an apostate (takfir)? The commentary was presented on 11 September 2006, the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and, paradoxically, the day before Pope Benedict's famed address at the University of Regensburg.

But "A Common Word" is not simply a response to the Regensburg speech, nor is it solely addressed to Pope Benedict. A response to that speech was issued on 13 October 2006 and signed by 38 scholars and religious leaders whose names appear in these other documents. This does explain how so many senior and recognised Muslim scholars and religious leaders could construct a theologically nuanced response to the Pope within one month. Respectful, corrective and engaging, the 2006 "Open Letter to the Pope" is but one facet of a major effort by Muslims for "intellectual exchange and mutual understanding" with Christians.

By contrast, last week's "A Common Word" is addressed to the Pope and many others: 14 Orthodox patriarchs, five heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presidents of the Lutheran World Federation and the Baptist World Alliance, the General Secretaries of the World Methodist Council, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the World Council of Churches, and to "Leaders of Christian Churches, everywhere". Like the Amman message and other documents, the signatories are offering consensus, a technical term in Islam (ijma), referring usually to the studied agreement of scholars and the foundational belief that the whole community will not agree on error. "A Common Word" and its predecessor documents are both invitations to theological dialogue and to a common articulation of faith developing among Muslims.

Quoting the Qur'an and the sayings of Muhammad, "A Common Word" builds a case for love of the One God and love of neighbour as fundamental principles for peace and mutual understanding. To support this, the text also cites passages in the Old and New Testaments. The only other sources cited are two traditional commentaries.

"A Common Word" receives its title from the third sura (chapter) of the Qur'an, verse 64. The context is the visit of a Christian delegation near the end of Muhammad's life. The verse exhorts all to worship none but God, nor to ascribe any partner to God, and not to take others for lords besides God. Following al-Tabari, a ninth-to-tenth century Persian historian and exegete of the Qur'an, "A Common Word" agrees that "Muslims, Christians and Jews should be free to follow what God commanded them," by citing another Qur'anic verse, "Let there be no compulsion in religion." (That verse, Sura 2:256, the 38 Muslim respondents to Pope Benedict last year said that he had incorrectly identified as a sura of "the early period", which he drew from Theodore Khoury's translation of a dialogue between Emperor Manuel II and "an educated Persian.")

Despite this subtle point and the not-so-subtle references to the oneness of God throughout, passages often used against the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, "A Common Word" is not polemical like the centuries-long arguments and debates between Christians and Muslims. Some may feel that it goes too far in outlining common terms for agreement and interpreting Christian and Jewish Scriptures. Others may not agree with the way Scriptural and commentarial citations are used. Still, even with its traditional aspects, "A Common Word" is a new departure. It is a response to the urgent need for a united voice from Muslims on the essentials of their faith to counteract voices of extremists and those preaching violence and hatred.

While "The Amman Message" of 2004 is a response to "those who through distortion and fabrication try to portray Islam as an enemy to them" and to those "who claim affiliation with Islam and commit irresponsible acts in its name", this new text, on the other hand, is an invitation to interreligious dialogue - "a sure basis for peace and warding off the dread spectre of those wars of religion which have so often bloodied human history", as Pope John Paul II declared in early 2001. At the Second Vatican Council, he and other Catholic bishops had urged Christians and Muslims to mutual understanding and to joint efforts fostering social justice, moral welfare, and peace and freedom for all. They also exhorted Catholics "to recognise, preserve, and foster the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among the followers of other religions", especially through dialogue and collaboration.

On an international level, Christian-Muslim dialogue has moved by spurts and starts in the last 40 years. The newness of the approach, lack of parallel structures, and political developments, especially in the Middle East, have made lasting efforts difficult to maintain. The most productive record for the Vatican's office for interreligious dialogue was under Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald's leadership with Jordan's Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, but that was not exactly a theological dialogue. More recently, Pope Benedict has coupled "interreligious" with "intercultural" when referring to this dialogue. The change was noticeable the day after his April 2005 election and more evident when he spoke directly to Muslims four months later in Cologne, where he dwelt on terrorism and its effects. He did quote the words of the Second Vatican Council and asserted that this interreligious and intercultural dialogue "cannot be reduced to an optional extra". That dialogue, he and curial officials have emphasised, is to be only on public issues and not a theological one characteristic of "A Common Word".

There is another reason why "A Common Word" is so important. It might just be the first widely represented theological response by Muslims to Christian invitations to dialogue since the time of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who now leads interreligious dialogue for the Vatican, has recognised its newness in this respect and its lack of polemics, use of Scriptural citations, and meditative nature. Archbishop Rowan Williams described it as indicative of the relationship for which we yearn in all parts of the world. Bishop Mark Hanson, President of the Lutheran World Federation, has encouraged reading the beauty of the collected passages and studying the vision of fidelity and fellowship. But these are acknowledgements and not responses. Those will take longer, perhaps years.

"A Common Word" declares that the purpose of the text is not "polite dialogue between selected religious leaders". The more immediate response is for Christians and Muslims to be in touch in all societies, and through reading and studying together this text and their sources of theology, they might build a basis for a common word between them.

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