The tendency to re-interpret the Scriptures anew, word by word and without pre-understandings, is an important step forward

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:35:18

A Common Word between You and Us is the title of a long, beautiful and learned letter that 138 Sunni and Shiite scholars and leaders have recently addressed to leading Christian Church figures. The letter touches upon many questions that are constantly examined and proposed to readers in both the Muslim and Christian worlds, issues that look at what the monotheistic creeds share as well as the similar love that believers, be they Muslim or Christian, have for God, which reflects necessarily upon one's neighbour.

According to the letter, rediscovering and reasserting the fundamental agreement between these two monotheistic "ways" is something important and urgent because "[w]ithout peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world."

Out the Letter's broad doctrinal sweep I would like to pick and focus on the commandment to "love for your brother what you love for yourself," which in the Muslim tradition is the common expression of the the golden rule of love. It is examined in point 2 of the letter. As the very letter points out, this rule is not found in the Qur'an but is taken from the Sunnah, that is to say the collections of words and deeds by the Prophet of Islam that were put together and transcribed about two centuries after Muhammad's ministry on the basis of reliable sources, and which serve as an example of faith and proper behaviour that Muslims are called to follow. This rule is found in particular in two canonical collectionsone by Bukhârî (d. 256 AH/870 AD); the other by Muslim ibn al-Hajjâj (d. 261/875). In both cases the expression that concerns us appears at the top of the collections, hence in a position of importance, in the Book of Faith.

It is very likely that this parallelism is a case of cultural borrowing. As Islamologist Ignác Goldziher noted more than a century ago the earliest writings of the Muslim Tradition provide us with many examples of how Islam's founders quickly incorporated Christian notions into their religion. For Islam "Christianity was a religion from which something could be borrowed," especially in relation to sapiential arguments. As already stated, the aforementioned commandment is not found in the Qur'an.

Like veterotestamentary and neotestamentary writings, Islam's Sacred Book tends to insist on one type of love that logically takes priority over love for and between human beings, namely the love of God and for God. When Islam's holy book does look at love by human beings it does so with a somewhat different meaning. For example in the Surah of the Family of 'Imrân, God tells believers to beware of those who do not reciprocate love, namely the unbelieving people of the Book, Jews and Christians. Similarly, in the same Surah love for children and women is compared to love for pleasure and riches (cf Qur'an, 3: 119 and 14 respectively). And in the Surah of Joseph, the love the Egyptian's wife has for Joseph is cause of mockery and scandal; it is a love that is corrupted, lechereous and untruthful (Qur'an, 12: 23-32).

In general, according to the Qur'an, whether to love or not is among God's great prerogatives. For this reason a man who loves is seen negatively for he loves fleeting earthly riches, idols, a blind heart or evil, or he loves praise for what his hands have not done. In other words, man's love is good and worthy of reciprocity only if it is directed at God and Islam.

O ye who believe! Whoso of you becometh a renegade from his religion, (know that in his stead) Allah will bring a people whom He loveth and who love Him (Qur'an, 5: 54)

For its part the prophetic Tradition confers greatest value to loving God, the Book and the Faith. It is true that compared to the Qur'an this source pays closer attention to love people have for one another, but it is also true that this kind of love must first be directed towards Muhammad, and be "in God." For example, Bukhârî writes: "In three things man finds the sweetness of faith: that for them God and His Prophet be loved above the rest; that in loving human beings he only loves him in God." For the same writer, faith also entails love for anyone who is loved by God and thus by Gabriel and the inhabitants of heaven. It is clear that in these writings loving the Prophet or those who are loved by God, the Angels and the Blessed is ultimately the equivalent of loving God. Although said in more ways than one, this appeal is always the same: it is about loving God and we must specify - about loving God in Islamic terms.

Conversely, loving man, that is mankind in general, is something contingent, a need that is lawful only within the context of the love of God and love "in God." The Sunnah's message does not contradict the message of the Qur'an, but actually fulfils its verses, which ultimately refer all the types of love back to God. Another point needs to be made. Whereas Christian doctrine prescribes loving thy neighbour like thyself, Muslim doctrine prescribes loving for one's brother (an yuhibba li-akhî-hi) what one loves for oneself. Here, Islam's wording of the golden rule is not dictated by any of Arabic's linguistic or syntactical rules but is instead intentional. It is not love thy neighbour, but love for thy neighbour [. . .]." The object of man's love is again beyond mankind because it is in God. As the eminent medieval theologian al-Ghazâlî (d. 505/1111) wrote, only God is the One who deserves love; man's love for himself leads directly to God since every man owes his existence to God.

But who is the one for whom we must love that which we love for ourselves? Another important collector of canonical sayings and deeds by and about the Prophet, al-Tirmidhî (d. 278/899), said that "if you love for those you love what you love for yourself, you are a Muslim." One's brother is also Muslim and, not unlike neotestamentary writings, brotherhood is first of all linked to confession, this according to the writings of the Tradition. For many, the Muslim's brother is the Muslim, the believer's brother is the believer, everyone is a brother in God's religion and in His Book, that is to say in the pact with the Messenger, and even a slave is a brother when he prays. The Qur'an itself says that "believers are naught else than brothers" (Qur'an, 49:10) and that "He made friendship between your hearts so that ye became as brothers by His grace" (Qur'an, 3:102-103).

The appeal to fraternal love must therefore be understood in most cases as referring to a religious sense of belonging. In exploring envy and the sins of the heart, Ghazâlî writes again that "no one can reach true faith unless he loves for other Muslims what he loves for himself; better still, he must share their fate for better or worse. Muslims are like a single construct made up of interconnected parts, a single body in which the rest suffers when but one part suffers." The golden rule according to Islam can thus be put as follows: love the Lord and love His Word in accordance with the Qur'an, and may your love towards God, that is to say your faith, benefit you as much as all your fellow Muslims.

No wonder then that this rule, so clearly defined by confessional criteria, has meant at times for many a Muslim a call for others to convert. At the end of a letter to a Christian, Qustâ ibn Lûqâ, on the truth about Islam, a Baghdad notable, Ahmad ibn al-Munajjim (9th-10th c. A.D.), wrote: "I fulfilled good counsel for you; for you I loved what I loved for myself. Fear God, the One towards whom you are going; come back to the truth which is the worthiest thing for you to return to." Obviously, the aforesaid is not meant to reduce or question the cultural relevance or potential for peace of A Common Word between You and Us. It only seeks to draw attention to a widespread tendency to pick on value-laden words that are undoubtedly apte for dialogue but which are too often understood in isolation, taken out of their cultural context.

The same is true for lâ ikrâh fî al-dîn, the famous statement found in the Surah of the Cow (Qur'an 2: 256) according to which "there is no compulsion in religion," one that is quoted in many writings, including the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights drafted by the Islamic Council of Europe in 1981. Pope Benedict XVI himself referred to it in his lectio magistralis in Regensburg as did the eminent Muslim theologians and legal scholars who responded to him in an Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. In that case as well the quote from Qur'an was cited out of context, in general and absolute terms, as a trans-historic precept, always omitting the many limitations and restrictions which Qur'anic exegesis has imposed on it in its long history. Cultural idiosyncrasies do exist, even in revealed religions. So what can we make of it? There is no easy answer. Louis Massignon wrote that success does not lie in using the same yardstick or seeking a common denominator. "What we must try to do is find a convergence between those aspects that are most authentic and original in each religion." That said, we must also acknowledge that the tendency to re-interpret the Scriptures anew, word by word and without pre-understandings, is already an important step forward.

This text is taken has been written for the January 2008 issue of the London-based Faith Magazine.