A common word between us and you: (1) such is the title that the hundred and thirty-eight representatives of contemporary Islam, brought together within the framework of the Royal Academy for Research in Islamic Civilisation of Amman, employed on 13 October to send an open letter to the religious leaders of the various Christian communities of the whole world at the time of the feast of the Breaking of the Fast of Ramadan and on the first anniversary of the open letter of the thirty-eight ‘wise Muslims’ to His Holiness Benedict XVI. This title is specifically taken from the Koran because Muslims are invited by their holy book to say: ‘O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you’ [3,64]. It is known that following the theological lecture of Ratisborn of 12 September 2006 and its quotation from the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, a significant number of Muslims protested, peacefully or angrily, to be reassured in the end about the intentions of Benedict XVI; one proof of this was his successful visit to Turkey at the end of November 2006. Inter-religious dialogue remains one of the priorities of the Pope and he further demonstrated its importance and urgency when he took part in Naples in the Meeting of Religions for Peace organised, following the meeting of Assisi in 1986, by the Community of Sant’Egidio.
The open Letter of thirty-eight ‘wise Muslims’ of 15 October 2006, which presented an analysis in eight important sections, provoked a great deal of appreciation. This can be found in La conférence de Ratisbonne. Enjeux et controverses by Jean Bollack, Christian Jambet and Abdelwahab Meddeb [Bayard, Paris, 2007] and in Dio salvi la ragione, with the texts of Benedict XVI and the reflections of Glucksmann, Farouq, Nusseibeh, Spaemann and Weiler [Cantagalli, Sienna, 2007]. The Letter of the 138 is thus an expression of an extended consensus at the level of the signatories and a taking up of some of the essential passages of the Letter of the 38. Its newness lies in a redefinition of the monotheism that is affirmed in various forms by Muslims, Jews and Christians, and whose essential theme is the same confession of the living God, united and unique, within the framework of the dual commandment of love of God and neighbour which is dear to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Not enough emphasis has been placed on the spirit of openness that this Letter demonstrates in relation to Islamic-Christian dialogue and it is for this reason that it is valuable to understand its tenor with intelligence and have a positive appreciation of its statements, not, however, without raising questions about some of its silences in relation to certain verses from the Koran, which, indeed, still present problems to Christians.
The signatories of the Letter, who number a hundred and thirty eight, represent forty-three nations belonging to the Islamic tradition or which are within the Western context: ‘ulamâ’, muftis, theologians, jurists, intellectuals. These belong for the most part to the Sunni world but there are also representatives of the Shiite world and of other minority groups. The importance for Muslims of the expression of consensus
(ijmâ‘), the third source of orthodoxy after the Koran itself and the Tradition (Sunna) of the Prophet, is well known.
Using as a point of departure the English translation proposed by the internet site of the Academy, two pages of introduction refer Muslims, Christians and Jews to their shared monotheism. To the first the Koran observes:’ Say: He is God, the One! / God, the Self-Sufficient Besought of all!’ [112,1-2] and ‘So invoke the Name of thy Lord and devote thyself to Him with a complete devotion’ [73,8]. Jesus teaches the second: ‘‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. / And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. / And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these’ [Mk 12:29-31]. In the Letter this dual commandment is deduced from the verse already quoted but it is developed further in the following way: ‘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)’. [3,64] Observing afterwards that the Koran invites Mohammed and Muslims to dialogue in the following way: ‘Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and contend with them in the fairest way. Lo! thy Lord is Best Aware of him who strayeth from His way, and He is Best Aware of those who go aright’ [16,125], the Letter presents its arguments in three sections. The first section examines ‘love of God’ (hubb Allâh) first in Islam (five pages) and then in the Bible (two pages). Beginning with the shahâda (testimony of faith), and dwelling only on the first part, the great shahâda, ‘there is no god but God’, the text expounds monotheism beginning with a saying (hadîth) of Mohammed which states that ‘The best that I have said – myself, and the prophets that came before me – is: ‘There is no god but God, He Alone, He hath no associate, His is the sovereignty (mulk) and His is the praise (hamd) and He hath power over all things’, illustrating each of the statements of this hadîth with numerous quotations from the Koran [33,4; 2,165; 39,23; 67,1; 29,61-63; 14,32-34; 1,1-7; 19,96; 2,94-196; 9,38-39; 64,1; 64,4; 64,16; 6,162-164; 3,31; 73,8], often corroborated by other hadîth. It should be pointed out here that the only verse from the Koran that deals with love of God is not in the form of a commandment but, rather, it occurs in the context of a controversy: ‘Yet there are men who take rivals unto God: they love them as they should love God. But those of faith are more intense in their love for God’ [2,165]. With good reason the Letter does not in the least mention the verse in which it is said that God ‘will assuredly bring a people He loves, and who love Him’ [5,54] because in that verse first the apostasy of certain people is spoken about and then reference is made to the community that is ‘humble towards the believers, disdainful towards the unbelievers’. The two pages that address love of God in the Bible take up the ‘Listen O Israel’ of Deuteronomy [6,4-5], as repeated by Jesus Christ in his teaching of the two commandments which are in reality only one commandment [Mt 22:34-40; Mk 12:28-31], a Gospel echo of Dt 4:29; 10:122; 11:13; 13:3; 26:26; 30:2; 30:6; 30:10; and of Gen 22:5, taken up by Mk 12:32-33 and Lk 10:27-28. The Letter clarifies, in Mt 22:37 and in Mk 12:30-34, as well as in Lk 10:27-28, the respective meanings of the Greek words ‘heart’, ‘soul’, intelligence’ and ‘force’. These are all quotations or references which, in definitive terms, are said to confirm the teaching of the hadîth of the Prophet quoted above.
The second section deals with ‘love of the neighbour’ (hubb al-jâr) in less than two pages. In Islam, according to the hadîth of the Prophet, ‘None of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself’. Hence the stress on ‘righteousness’ which involves giving ‘wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the pious’ [2,177], a righteousness of which God is always the first and last witness [3,92]. With regard to the Bible, the text refers to Mt 22:38-40 and to Mk 12,31, the details of which are already supplied in Leviticus [19:17-18]. At the end of this second section it is said that ‘On these two commandments hang all the Law (Nâmûs) and the Prophets’ [Mt 22:40].
Lastly, the third section comments in four pages on ‘come to a common word between us and you’ [3,64]. The ‘common word’ consists in the dual commandment of love of the only God and neighbour, with a renewed reference to the previous quotations [Dt 6:4; Mk 12:29; Mt 22:40; Koran 112,1-2], proof that Mohammed contributed nothing that was new [Koran 41,43; 46,9], hence the rejection of idols and the performance of justice [Koran 16,36; 57,25]. And the ‘come’ that is an invitation to ‘ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God’ [3,64] seeks to mean, in the view of the great commentator Tabarî, 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’, which is linked to the fact ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ [2,256], which guarantees religious freedom ‘under conditions’ [60,8]: ‘As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them—so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes’. The Letter refers Christians to their Bible [Mk 12:29-31; Mt 12:30; Mk 9:40; Lk 9:50] where Jesus declares: ‘For he who is not against us is on our side’ [Mk 9:40]. The Letter states then states that Muslims believe in Jesus: ‘the Messiah Jesus son of Mary is a Messenger of God and His Word which he cast unto Mary and a Spirit from Him’ [4,171]. Is there here, therefore, a ‘common belief’? For that matter, the faith of Christians in relation to Jesus is very different: is he not perhaps Yasû‘ (God saves) for Christians but Îsâ for Muslims? The Letter itself recognises that amongst the People of Scripture there is a ‘a staunch community who recite the revelations of God’ [3,113-115], although it states that Muslims believe equally in all the prophets of history [2,136-137]. ‘Between us and you’ is, finally, an appeal to unite all the testimonies of believers (‘Together they make up over 55% of the world’s population’), faced with the difficulties of the hour, because the three monotheistic religions should assure peace to contemporary man. References are here made to the Koran [16,90] and to the Gospel [Mt 5:9; 16:26] and the Letter in conclusion quotes the verse on religious pluralism: ‘Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works (fa-stabiqû l-khayrât). Unto God ye will all return’ [5,48].
Innovation and Tradition
The signatories of the Letter thus wanted to re-read the best texts of the Koran and the Sunna in the light of the dual commandment of love of God and neighbour which is at the heart of the Jewish creed and the Christian faith. Emphasising only the first part of the shahâda, they seek to define monotheism through this dual love of God and neighbour, thereby conferring on their reading of the Koran that concern about interior spiritualisation which the Letter of the 38 had already demonstrated. Indeed, it stressed the ‘nearness of God’ to every believer. Does not a hadîth refered to by Ghazâlî perhaps says ‘Whoso says ‘There is no god but God’ have the right to enter paradise’? The classic approaches of obedience, submission and worship are replaced by a lexicon that may appear to be common to Muslims, Jews and Christians – ‘to love’, and it is certainly true that the Koran states that God ‘loves those who fear Him’ [3,76; 9,4; 9,7], he ‘who does good’ [3,134; 3,148; 5,13; 5,93], ‘the patient’ [3,146], ‘the just’ [5,42; 49,9; 60,8], ‘the pure’ [9,108] and ‘those who trust in Him’ [3,159], even though amongst his ninety-nine ‘Fine Names’, that he is ‘loving’ (muhibb) does not appear. And thus it is that love of God and love of neighbour are so closely connected in the Letter as to seem inseparable from each other: nobody could seek to love God if he does not love his neighbour! This is a statement that seems completely natural to Christians because it forms a part of the very principles of their faith and their practice but which is strangely new to many Muslims, who willingly conjoin Islam with respectful worship and trusting submission. Furthermore, the texts of the Bible are often quoted by the Letter without the slightest suspicion of ‘falsification’ (tahrîf) and one of the twenty-three notes that comment on it even makes a reference to a text by St. Paul (note 4). For that matter, these notes constitute, in themselves, other faithful attempts to find values that are common to the three monotheisms.
What should we think exactly of this Letter, with its unexpected emphases, and which in reality is the text of reference? Is it the text published in Arabic or the one transmitted in English? It would appear that it is the latter. Indeed, where this last speaks about ‘The Love of God in the Bible’, the Arabic text reads ‘in the Gospel’ (which attributes the Old Testament to the Gospel!) and when it quotes Jesus Christ the Arabic version refers to ‘Îsâ l-Masîh’, a phrase that does not come from the Koran (simply al-Masîh or ‘Îsâ ibn Maryam) or the Christian tradition (Yasû‘ al-Masîh) but is a precise translation of the English ‘Jesus Christ’. But other details appear to confer a certain priority on the text in Arabic. And the reader remains with all his doubts! The reader is also amazed that a very fine hadîth quoted in the text in Arabic is not translated in the English, French or Italian versions. ‘Human beings’, reads the text, ‘are the family of God’ (‘Iyâl Allâh): the most loved by God is he who is most useful to His family’. Whatever the case, the Letter does not distance itself from a traditional presentation and it accumulates quotations from the Koran and hadîth of the Prophet, even though it isolates them from their context, something which allows them to be given an enlarged and dialogic interpretation. A lexical effort is equally made because although mention is still made to the ‘Peoples of Scripture’ (Jews and Christians), reference is also made to Jews and Christians as such, where these last are called Masîhiyyûn and not Nasârâ. Moreover, the English, French and Italian texts never translate the term of the Koran muslim with ‘Muslim’ (something which numerous Islamic translations do) but rather with ‘soumis à Dieu, ‘surrendering unto God’, ‘sottomesso a Dio’, which applies to every monotheist, whether he is a Muslim, a Jew or a Christian. These are all elements that point to an effort to adapt to the interlocutors, even though the Letter begins with the classic formula ‘In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful’ and ends with salutations of peace (wa-l-salâmu ‘alay-kum).
The Family of God
One can certainly not understand the intentions and the contents of this Letter without locating it in the context of the Letter of the 38 of October 2006, which was not, unfortunately, without polemical emphases. Drawn up hurriedly, or so it appears, it sought to pronounce on the discourse of the lecture at Ratisborn. This Letter located the historical context of ‘there is no compulsion in faith’; attenuated the sole transcendence of God by stating that He is also near to His creature; affirmed the harmonious use of faith and reason in Islam; clarified the various forms of jihad; observed that the Islamic conquests respected the religion of the subject peoples with the provision to them of the status of being ‘protected’ (the status of dhimma); said that Mohammed had never sought to bring anything new; contested the choice made by Benedict XVI as regards his experts; and, lastly, appealed for dialogue and cooperation, broadly quoting the texts of the Second Vatican Council and the declarations of John Paul II. It was addressed to Benedict XVI alone whereas this Letter was addressed to all the leaders of Christian communities, with an exact respect for a certain hierarchy of precedence or titles, soliciting from these leaders, after a certain fashion, an ecumenical response to the contents of the Letter. The tone is very irenic even though certain quotations from the Koran could be clarified and others, not referred to, would require a number of clarifications, as was already suggested by Abdelwahab Meddeb in his comments on the Letter of the 38 [cf. La conférence de Ratisbonne: enjeux et controverses, Bayard, Paris, 2007, pp. 63-100].
Here, therefore, is a text that brings together a large number of Muslim leaders of all schools and sensibilities and which is addressed together to all the leaders of the Christian communities of the whole world, reminding both of sides of their shared responsibility towards humanity, which continues to experience misunderstandings, conflicts and divisions of all kinds. Paradoxically, the invitation directed here to everyone belongs precisely to the approach approach hoped for by Declaration of the Second Vatican Council on the Relations of the Church with Other Religions, namely ‘to promote together social justice, moral values, peace and freedom for all men’. These are modern forms of love of neighbour that the Letter seeks to connect very closely with love of God, a perfect expression of a ‘loving’ and even ‘rich tasting’, as Ibn Khaldûn in his time (tawhîd dhawqî) wanted, monotheism. The invitation to ‘vie with one another in good works’ seems specifically to correspond to the urgent needs of the hour, in a world that is threatened by a ‘clash of civilisations’ and the risks of globalisation. Although one may not necessarily adhere to the concrete proposals with political or strategic connotations that are listed in the conclusion at the end of the third section, and regretting that the Letter does not condemn in any of its pages the acts of violence or terrorism that certain groups of Muslims commit today ‘in the name of God’ (for whatever reason), one should, nonetheless, receive with interest the suggestions that it makes for dialogue in the future, because ‘If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace’
It is advisable, therefore, to receive this Letter as the dawn of a new stage in Islamic-Christian dialogue which will allow the actors involved finally to discuss the fundamental problems that differentiate them, divide them and place them in opposition, in order to work together for the practical application of those human rights which were defined in 1948 and which so much correspond to the requirements of natural law, dear to Christians, and to the principles of the Sharî‘a privileged by Muslims, even though their anthropologies and theologies provide different justifications. The experience that has been acquired over forty years through a whole series of Islamic-Christian meetings, and the positive reception given to this Letter by a large number of Christian personalities and institutions, should allow new initiatives which, involving Jews and men of good will, would confer all of its breadth and efficacy on the dual commandment of love of God and neighbour that this Letter of the 138 wanted to present as a ‘common word’ to all monotheists who refer to Abraham, and to Adam before him. And, indeed, ‘all human beings are the family of God’: the most loved by God is he who is most useful to His family’.
(1) Translator’s note: in this article the quotations from the Bible and the Koran are those used by ‘A Common Word’ itself.