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Religion and Society

The Substance and Appearance of ‘What Unites Us’



The 138 Muslim authors of the recent Message to Christian Leaders find a ‘Common Word’ in ‘The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour’, and they want to make this ‘the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us’. (1) Once that commitment to love is acknowledged, theological differences can be discussed in charity and political tensions eventually overcome. Like many Christians who welcomed the Message, I want to reflect on this challenge in all sincerity. It seems that the authors of the Message have located common ground on which a dialogue may be built. But the path ahead is not a smooth one.



The Letter of the 138 speaks of love as the basis for interfaith dialogue. We should, at the outset, acknowledge that few religious believers, whether Christian or Muslim, are seriously interested in such a dialogue. Only a small number of intellectuals want to pursue the question of truth as a theologian or philosopher within their own faith-tradition, and fewer still wish to do so in conversation with those of other traditions, whose basic assumptions may be opposed to their own. Many Christians in Britain do regard Islam as a false religion spread by violence and now threatening to take over a West gone soft with liberalism. The mutual hatred of Arabs and Israelis in and around Palestine offers little prospect of peaceful resolution. The disastrous war in Iraq and the possibility of another in Iran are on everyone’s mind. Meanwhile the persecution of Christians in Islamic states continues around the world. These are hardly conditions conducive to rational conversation.



Even among intellectuals, it may be hard to get a serious dialogue underway. There are real difficulties in reading each other’s scriptures, for one thing. Muslims insist that the Quran cannot be appreciated or fully understood if it is not read in Arabic. A translation of the Quran is merely an interpretation. Furthermore, when Muslims approach the Bible (if they are prepared to do so) they tend to read it with suspicion, having been informed by the Quran that the Jewish and Christian scriptures have been corrupted – a simple way of accounting for any divergences from the message entrusted to the Prophet. This suggests that there may be an even greater need for a pre-theological dialogue concerning the historical origins, development, and authority of Scripture itself.



Another common objection I have encountered is that the apparent agreement of both traditions on love of God and neighbour affirmed by ‘A Common Word’ masks a profound difference in the understanding of God and man that would call any attempt at dialogue into question. This point was made in a recent article by Adrian Pabst of Nottingham University. He writes:



`Theologically, [the Message of the 138] glosses over elementary differences between the Christian God and the Muslim God. The Christian God is a relational and incarnate God. Moreover, the New Testament and early Christian writings speak of God as a single Godhead with three equally divine persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.



This is not merely a doctrinal point, but one that has significant political and social implications. The equality of the three divine persons is the basis for equality among mankind – each and everyone is created in the image and likeness of the triune God. As a result, Christianity calls for a radically egalitarian society beyond any divisions of race or class. The promise of universal equality and justice that is encapsulated in this conception of God thus provides Christians with a way to question and transform not only the norms of the prevailing political order but also the (frequently perverted) social practices of the Church.



By contrast, the Muslim God is disembodied and absolutely one: there is no god but God, He has no associate. This God is revealed exclusively to Muhammed, the messenger (or prophet), via the archangel Gabriel. As such, the Koran is the literal word of God and the final divine revelation first announced to the Hebrews and later to the Christians. Again, this account of God has important consequences for politics and social relations. Islam does not simply posit absolute divisions between those who submit to its central creed and those who deny it; it also contains divine injunctions against apostates and unbelievers (though protecting the Jewish and Christian faithful). Moreover, Islam's radical monotheism tends to fuse the religious and the political sphere: It privileges absolute unitary authority over intermediary institutions and also puts a premium on territorial conquest and control, under the direct rule of God.



These (and other) differences imply that Christians and Muslims do not worship or believe in the same God; in consequence, across the two faiths, love of God and love of the neighbor invariably differ. By ignoring these fundamental divergences, the authors of the open letter perpetuate myths about Christians and Muslims praying differently to the same God. Worse, they exhibit a simplistic theology of absolute, unmediated monotheism. In this way, they unwittingly play into the hands of religious extremists on both sides who claim to have immediate, total and conclusive knowledge of divine will by faith alone’. (2)





Trinity and Incarnation



There are several important mistakes being made here. First, the Christian God is ‘relational and incarnate’, true, but not incarnate by nature. Christians do not hold that God was necessarily incarnate. The question is rather what is understood by ‘incarnation’, as we shall see. Second, the equality of Persons in the Trinity may be a basis for universal equality and justice, but so is the Muslim insistence on equality before the One God. Islam may be described no less than Christianity as calling for ‘a radically egalitarian society beyond any divisions of race or class’. Third, the Muslim God said to be ‘revealed exclusively to Muhammed, the messenger (or prophet), via the archangel Gabriel’. In reality, Islam does not claim the exclusive revelation of God, but insists on a multitude of divine messengers, of which Muhammad was only the last and the seal. Admittedly this causes problems for those who, like the followers of the Bab and Baha’u’llah, believe in a later Messenger, but it is no less absolutist than the Christian insistence that there is no salvation outside the Church, and that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between heaven and earth. Finally, for a religion that ‘privileges absolute unitary authority… under the direct rule of God’, Islam is politically remarkably diverse and disunited, compared to the Catholic Church which owes allegiance to one Pope. Rather than trying to impose a direct theocracy, it believes in the rule of divine law (Shariah), a ‘nomo­cracy’, and even that allows of a variety of interpretations.



A much fairer approach would take it for granted that the word ‘God’ (Allah in Arabic) has the same referent in both religions. In both, what is intended is the one Creator and Lord of the universe. But how is this ‘God’ understood, and do the differences change the meaning of ‘love’? That is the more interesting debate. And we should begin by noting that whatever Christians may mean by the ‘Trinity’ – and whatever Muslims may say on the subject – they should agree that God is ‘one’ in the sense that both Jews and Muslims insist he is ‘one’. The Trinity, as the concept was developed by the Cappadocians and other Church Fathers, and enshrined in the Creeds of Christendom, is not intended to suggest (and the Creed expressly rejects) a division or a multiplication of the divine nature. That remains entire and undivided in each of the Persons.



The crucial distinction is between Nature and Person, for according to Christianity God is one in respect of the former and three in respect of the latter. The divine Nature does not exist except as the three Persons, and each Person – distinct from the others only by relations of eternal origin – is identical with the divine Nature. This doctrine is an attempt to define a mystery by means of a paradox. It is nevertheless a perfectly rational conclusion, forced on Christianity by the revelation of Christ’s divinity combined with the distinction he himself drew between his own person and that of his Father and the divine Spirit.



The Quran in fact could be said not to deny the Christian Trinity at all (except, arguably, by implication). What it denies is a divine Triad consisting of God, Jesus, and Mary – a misunderstanding of Christian doctrine that may have been promulgated by some early heretics. (3) Islam seems to have rejected the divinity of Jesus for the reason that it wants to avoid making him a second God. And without a third divine Person, that is precisely what he would have become: the Christian Trinity would have collapsed into a false Duality. You cannot affirm the Second Person unless you also affirm the Third, who is the Spirit of Unity.



As for the Incarnation, from which the doctrine of the Trinity is deduced, Muslims deny it on the basis of what seems to Christians another misunderstanding. However, Islam does possess quite a ‘high’ Christology compared to some Protestant sects (made even higher by some Sufi commentaries on the Quran). A helpful introduction to this is provided by Mahmoud Ayoub in his book A Muslim View of Christianity. (4) The Prophet Jesus (Isa) is the unique Messiah, without a human father, having been ‘blown’ into the womb of the sinless Mary (who is the only woman named in the Quran) by the angel Gabriel from God. Jesus is described as the ‘Word’ (or sometimes Spirit) of God sent forth, breathed, or cast into the virginal womb of Mary [Q. 4:171; 66:12]. Having at the end of his earthly life been taken up to God’s throne, he is to return at the end of the world to inaugurate the day of judgment. The divergences from Christian teaching, of course, are equally striking. For example, the Jews ‘did not kill him nor did they crucify him’ [Q. 4:157], though they thought they did, for instead God took him up to himself. There are speculations (no more than that, for the Quran is not explicit on the subject) that someone else died on the Cross in his place, perhaps Judas.



A Christian might point out that even according to the Bible, ‘the Jews’ did not crucify Jesus, though a crowd of Jews certainly called for him to be crucified. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment and it was necessarily imposed by the Romans. But this argu­ment misses the main point. To judge from the relevant verses of the Quran, the reason for insisting on Jesus’ non-crucifixion seems to have been the scandal involved in attributing such a humiliating fate to God’s Messiah. That was precisely the sort of reason the Jewish authorities wanted Jesus crucified – because they thought it would disprove the claims of this blasphemous Rabbi – and why most of his disciples abandoned him until he rose from the dead (a miracle the Quran omits to mention, although it does refer to his ascension). It took Jesus himself to explain to his disillusioned disciples on the road to Emmaus why it was ‘necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory’ by way of them [Luke 24:13-27], presumably along the lines that St Paul and others later unfolded in the New Testament Letters.





The Love of God



These differences and similarities are precisely the kind of things that a real theological dialogue would explore, as Mahmoud Ayoub begins to do so well in his previously quoted book. But how do they affect our understanding of love – both the love of God and the love of neighbour?



For Christians as for Jews, as the ‘Common Word’ states, the two great commandments are love of God and love of neighbour. But for Christians, Jesus is in his own Person both God and neighbour, so that the two commandments are unified in a new one: love one another as I have loved you [John 13:34].



Islam tends to emphasise the contrast between God and man, rather than the intimate relationship of the two (even if, as the Quran puts it at 50:16, God is closer to man than the vein in his neck). On the other hand, the Sufis would say (in love poetry as eloquent as any in world literature) that God is supreme Beauty, as well as Truth, and we cannot but love and praise him if we know him at all. For his part Allah is Al-Wadud (the Loving, the Kind), and his love for us is said to be seventy times greater than that of a mother for her child.



Yet it is not quite the same to say God loves as to say that he is Love [1 John 4:16]. Only if God is three Persons can God be said not merely to love his creatures, but to ‘be’ love. Islam is no doubt speaking of the same God, but the inner life of this God has been revealed through Christ. And can we truly love with all our hearts an impenetrable Absolute? The Incarnation shows us a God who can be loved because he has a human face, having assumed a human nature. To these objections a Muslim might point out that Islam, too, calls on us to submit our hearts to God, to obey out of love, and this surely implies a divine Face turned towards the world, to which we can respond. The God of Islam is not completely faceless. Wheresoever you turn, there is the Face of God; God is All-embracing, All-knowing [Q. 2:115]. In fact, the intense love of Muslims for the Quran is partly explained by the fact that the Book is regarded as itself a particular manifestation of God’s love – almost an incarnation, in fact.



The authors of the ‘Common Word’ certainly believe in love, for they write: ‘The call to be totally devoted and attached to God heart and soul, far from being a call for a mere emotion or for a mood, is in fact an injunction requiring all-embracing, constant and active love of God. It demands a love in which the innermost spiritual heart and the whole of the soul—with its intelligence, will and feeling—participate through devotion’.








There may be real differences, as well as similarities, in the way love is understood and motivated in the two traditions. These need to be discussed, and the brief comments above are not intended to do any more than encourage thought. But the theological discussions that we hope to see in years ahead will surely not call into question the basic conclusion of the ‘Common Word’, that we can at the very least agree on the need to treat others with the respect, fairness, and kindness due them as being – equally with ourselves – creatures of God, and furthermore that our world and even our eternal souls are ‘at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony’. In the end, we must hope with the authors of ‘A Common Word’ that God will instruct us on the matters wherein we differ.



In the long run, the real ‘clash of civilisations’ may not be that between Islam and the West, but the one between those who espouse a theocentric or transcendentalist view of the world and those whose view is mainly secular or profane. Seriously believing Christians are today likely to find themselves allied with Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others in the face of an aggressive atheistic materialism that regards religious practice as irrational and religious education as a kind of indoctrination that some atheists (such as Professor Richard Dawkins in Oxford) have likened to child abuse.



Despite their differences, Christians and Muslims are both the heirs of classical civilisation, and while historically they have developed different articulations of philosophical reason, their long dialogue – which has too often degenerated into name-calling and polemics against a background of political violence – demonstrates considerable common ground even so. The recent Message proves this to anyone who may have begun to doubt the possibility of rational dialogue in our time.








(1) 'A Common Word Between Us and You’, 2007 (



(2) Adrian Pabst, ‘We Need a Real Debate, Not More Dialogue’, International Herald Tribune, 13 November 2007.



(3) However, the close identification of Mary and the Holy Spirit in Catholicism – St Maximilian Kolbe called her the Spirit’s ‘quasi-incarnation’ – makes the mistake an intriguing one.



(4) A Muslim View of Christianity: Essays on Dialogue by Mahmoud Ayoub, edited by


Irfan A. Omar (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 2007).