The Common Word open letter, addressed by 138 Muslim personalities to all Christian leaders, was the result of a sincere effort by Muslim clergy, theologians and leaders to open a path of dialogue and cooperation with Christian communities worldwide. There is no doubt that this initiative is one of the most significant in Muslim-Christian relations and it has the potential to enable both communities to move from a polite rapport to mutual respect and cooperation.
Responses to the Common Word have come from Church leaders across the various denominations such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams; the Secretary of State of the Vatican, Cardinal Bertone; Cardinal Angelo Scola; The Ukrainian Orthodox Archbishop of New York, Rev. Mykhayil Javchak Champions; the World Council of Churches; and also from leading theologians such as Professor David Ford (University of Cambridge), Professor Ian Torrance (Princeton Theological Seminary) and the faculty staff at the Columbia Theological Seminary, and many others (see www.acommonword.com). One of the most significant developments, however, was the publication of a full-page advert in the New York Times newspaper (Nov 18, 2007) of a letter of support for the Common Word signed by 300 leading Christian scholars. Many of the signatories were leading Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, and particularly Evangelical leaders. This heralded the opening of new channels of dialogue between Muslims and Christians previously unexplored. Moreover, in December 2007 the same Muslim signatories also issued their first Christmas message to Christian churches and also thanked the Yale Divinity School faculty for their efforts in gathering signatories to support the Common Word.
High level talks between the Muslim leaders and Church leaders and academic centres are already underway and so are preparations for future conferences, workshops, and common action in North America, Europe, and the Middle East, to explore the issues the Common Word document raises and work on key issues of mutual concern. It is still early to fully assess the impact of the Common Word initiative, but judging from these early responses and the sheer energy behind it, it certainly has the potential to build solid interfaith foundations for lasting dialogue between both faith communities.
The document definitely caught people by surprise, particularly the naysayers in both religions who prefer to keep complete theological distance to legitimize their polemics. In spite of this, discussion and dialogue is already happening, rather than debate, in several regions of the world and at several levels. Debate is between adversaries and it is framed in the language of conflict, and that is something that we need to move away from. In a debate there can be winners and losers, but in discussion and dialogue both sides gain understanding and work out a solution.
Dialogue Within and Between Communities
More specifically, the Common Word document has generated dialogue within and between communities. Firstly, within the Muslim community it has brought a realization of the importance of interfaith dialogue and a need to re-articulate and retrieve a compassionate theological, hermeneutic, and spiritual heritage that is respectful of their Christian brethren. It is worth remembering that the Common Word is actually an extension of a more recent intra-Muslim ecumenical effort which began with the promulgation of the Amman Message (see www.ammanmessage.com). The Amman Message, launched in 2004, was the catalyst for the development of consensus and unity in the Muslim world. It defined what Islam was and what it was not and what actions represent it and what do not and was endorsed by over 500 Muslim clerics and leaders – a monumental ecumenical achievement! Other than the Common Word, it led to the joint Muslim declaration on the Danish cartoons and a declaration on the sanctity of life. More importantly, I should stress, the Amman Message and all the subsequent initiatives which emanated from its consensus is in fact a part of the process by the Muslim mainstream, that represents the moderate and majority voice of Islam, to reassert its authority at a time when the world is rapidly falling victim to extremism of the religious and political kinds. Men and women who believe and love God and who care and love for their neighbours can and must work together for a future that respects the sanctity of life – a future whose leitmotif does not become violence and terrorism.
The same debate has begun within Christian communities regarding their attitudes about Muslims, and the Common Word document has been felt to be both respectful and also challenging in its theological rigour and clear in its assessment of our shared values. Within both religious traditions there are enough scriptural and moral precedents for a respectful and inclusive attitude to the Other. It is not the aim of the Common Word document to whittle away differences in doctrine or, say, soteriology. The text underlines a kind of recognition that we need to retrieve, namely that we both share two most important theological principles, the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour. These principles breathe life into our relationship with God and to our compassion and charity and selflessness for fellow human beings.
The Common Word document urges Muslims and Christians to make a more sustained effort to initiate dialogue and interfaith action between both religious communities. Interfaith dialogue and co-operation has so far not been a high enough priority for most congregations who have let global geo-political events and the negative media coverage of religion dictate their attitudes to one another. The Common Word document is helping communities to see that such isolation from each other is not going to benefit anyone, and is in fact likely to be the reason for an escalation in future conflict. If conflicts in human history never moved beyond angry words that would not be so bad, but often they go on to trespass boundaries of disagreement and inevitably descend into violence. That is something we must try to avoid, or at the very least restrain.
Violence can have different roots: it may stem from the extreme theological mindsets that vilify all those that do not share one’s particular confessional perspective; or derive from actual violence and hurt committed by a particularly group against the other; its causes could be sought in historical antecedents and friction that have survived to the modern period through a community’s traditions and narratives; it could be ascribed to a lack of moderating clergy and activists on either side of the conflict who could help create a middle ground of sanity and safety; it could be the fruit of poverty, social taboos, or even local media that could exacerbate the fear of difference or conflate perceived threats. There are many, many reasons, and the source of disputes and anxieties can only be probed if there are opportunities for Muslims and Christians to talk and listen to each other without fear of recrimination. The Common Word document can make such initiatives possible because it allows them to be build on firm theological grounds. Building inter-religious dialogue on anything other than on theological grounds would ultimately lead to failure.
Starting from Unity
In fact, what is significant, and seminal, about the Common Word is that it starts from unity and moves to difference, rather than from difference to unity. Most interfaith initiatives between the two faith communities have begun with difference and aimed at arriving at some form of unity, or mutual convergence of ideas and values. So the early dialogues would have themes such as “The Notion of God in Islam and Christianity”, “Christ in Islam and Christianity”, etc. It did not generate much understanding about one another because each side was more interested in explaining why they were different than to explore ways in which they actually shared common historical landscapes and theological and spiritual narratives. It was hoped that talking about difference would eventually lead to some form of fuzzy unity. That never happened, neither did the various dialogue initiatives around the world have any trickle-down effect to the ordinary adherents of each of these traditions, nor did it lessen conflict in any way. More importantly, though, it led to a certain distrust of the whole dialogue enterprise from ordinary people because they saw it more as a means of withering away their religious identities and commitments, which they felt passionately about, into some form of new age and politically-correct unity and syncretism. Most people did not want this.
The Common Word initiative was very different in approach. It began with unity, that is, with what both communities shared deeply. That unity, or sharedness, was to be the basis for difference. This is an altogether different way of approaching the problem of intercultural relations and of plurality; it preserves their religious and cultural identities; it enables each to come together on solid theological grounds whose basis are in their own scriptures and which both share. They may disagree, and naturally they will, but when dialogue is based on the dual principles of love of God and of neighbour, it will ensure that they always leave as friends and that their disagreement does not escalate into all-out conflict. The Common Word helps each Muslim and Christian understand that we have a shared provenance and shared responsibility for one another and for the world. Muslims and Christians share the same problems as anyone else. One’s identity, in such a dialogue setting, is not threatened but deeply respected and that will provide the seeds for mutual cooperation and an understanding of the humanity of our co-religionists.
I don’t believe that we can subsume dialogue into the wider categories of mission and da’wah. Both religions, being universal in their purview and therefore also missionary, may inevitably succumb to this from time to time, but all sides must be ever-vigilant that it does not raise its head in a “dialogue” effort. A missionary (be it Christian or Muslim) mindset would not allow for an honest engagement with the Other. It would be better suited for a debate than for dialogue. It would lend to insincerity on the part of each; promote mistrust and fear of ulterior motives by the dialogue partners; and the missionary mindset would restrict the ability to really listen to the Other. Dialogue can be a way of witnessing one’s faith, but it cannot be a place for missionaries to proselytize. In a dialogue setting we are seeking understanding of the Other and that can only take place in an environment of mutual trust and respect. A mission/missionary/evangelical (there are many varieties of the same circulating in Christian literature) posture or attitude leads to a monologue, not a dialogue.
Having seen how this mindset, prevalent in many Muslim and Christian circles, inevitably lend interfaith dialogues to failure, I would argue that dialogue must, rather, be a source for the faith to understand its own surroundings and varying human contexts.
When the Common Word was drafted, Muslim scholars were sensitive to the fact that denominational differences did exist in both religious communities and that for the document to have any fruitful impact that it would necessarily have to trigger inter-denominational discussion and consensus. They were not interested in speaking only to Catholics, or the Protestants, or the Orthodox, but to the whole Christian communion. We see that already happening. I have heard from many Church leaders that the Common Word document would make it possible for discussions within the various Church groups to form consensus on relations and attitudes to Islam and Muslims.
What is significant, though, is that the Muslim signatories really do come from a broad section of the Muslim ummah. They represent over 40 countries and include leaders from all the eight schools of law of the Sunni, Shi‘a and other schools. This consensus gives the initiative a veritable authority that has the power to make systemic changes in Muslim theological and social discourse. No other, and I repeat, no other dialogue initiative has ever been able to form such a Muslim coalition of authorities who really carry weight in their constituencies. Church leaders complained for decades that it was impossible to engage in substantive dialogue with Muslims because the latter lacked a Magisterium, or a unified voice. This is not the case any more. Muslims scholars are now articulating a unified message, responding collectively to events and issues. This is only going to grow in scope. They are beginning to speak with a single, and resolute, voice about how they can play their part in promoting peace, stability and justice in the world.
To conclude, I would like to mention the simple yet poignant messages left by ordinary Muslims and Christians on the Common Word’s website. This is a good indication that the message is making inroads in all key constituencies. One particularly moving response was: “You have planted a seed, a great seed, out of which may spring the tree of peace. May all of us water and tend that seed, and draw others to us to help as well. Thank you for your great act of faith and courage.” – Sue Brown [www.acommonword.com, 07/11/07]
This typifies the strength of conviction that many feel for the Common Word. I am certain than the Common Word can help heal deep wounds accumulated over centuries of strife, stereotypes and misunderstandings. And to God we turn for help.