Perhaps the best place to begin trying to
understand the motivation of A Common
Word is at the end. The authors note that, since together we make up more
than half the world's population, there will be no peace in the world unless
Muslims and Christians find a way to live at peace with one another. They
surely echo the feelings of many when they say that "our common future is at
stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake." In a world
that increasingly ready to see our current situation as a winner-takes-all
struggle between two incompatible civilizations, this is a welcome reminder
that there is an alternative: we can still try to envision a common future.
The signatories rightly believe that the
resolution of our conflicts lies not merely in political negotiation but in
finding a common theological basis that can ground our mutual commitments and
give them an authority beyond the calculations of temporary expediency. So they
undertake to demonstrate the common ground we share in our belief in the unity
of God, in the necessity of complete devotion to God and of love towards the
neighbour. They quite rightly refuse to accept the idea, all too often
expressed even by members of the Roman Curia, that Muslims are incapable of
entering into theological dialogue.
A longer timeline
However dramatic may be the current world
context that prompted it, this open letter to Christian leaders by 138 Muslim
scholars and authorities should probably be read against a longer timeline.
Forty-some years ago over two thousand Catholic bishops at Vatican II approved
an epoch-making statement that, as Pope
Benedict has several times reaffirmed, remains the official position of the
Church with regard to Muslims. Though it did not deal with some of the more
substantial differences between our faiths, Nostra
Aetate, as it was entitled, focussed on the things we have in common, which
are the basis for the esteem for Muslims that the Council professed. The
bishops concluded: "Since in the course of centuries
not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims,
this sacred synod urges all to forget ['transcend' or 'overcome' might have
been a better choice of words] the past and to work sincerely for mutual
understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of
all humanity social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom."
Authority and consensus
The Catholic Church
has a well-defined authority structure that makes possible the enunciation of
such a clear change in policy, and its implementation through control over the
training of priests and the appointment of bishops. Even so, the Council's
positions, especially with regard to Muslims, are still not broadly enough
known or accepted. They are sometimes dismissed as just outdated pastoral
advice appropriate for the optimistic 60's, but hopelessly out of touch with
twenty-first century realities.
religious community, Christian or non-, has such an authority structure.
Everywhere else authority is more diffuse–we might even say democratic. It has to be painstakingly negotiated, and
binding consensus is often elusive. We should therefore be particularly grateful
to this group of Muslim scholars that they have succeeded in arriving at a
statement like this, subscribed to by such a broad representation. One might
read their letter as a first collective Muslim response to Nostra Aetate, a response that agrees to adopt the same approach as
the Council: the bracketing of differences in order to affirm common beliefs,
and an appeal to work together for justice and peace in the world.
A Common Word forms part of a larger
project, focused in Jordan, to develop an authoritative consensus on what it
means to be Muslim in our time. In so doing the Amman project seeks to fill a
vacuum in the leadership of the worldwide Muslim community–a vacuum that has in
recent years been filled by the extremist voices only too well known to us
through the world's media. In media terms, such reasoned and scholarly voices
may be no match for the sabre-rattling diatribes that make for good television,
but they deserve to be taken seriously and given the widest possible diffusion.
We can only hope that this letter, though it may well have to struggle as Nostra Aetate does to be accepted as
authoritative, will favour just as momentous a change of mentality.
The authors are
not the "moderate Muslims" with whom everyone professes to be ready to
dialogue. What a patronizing term that is! We seem to be looking for Muslims
who "don't take it all too seriously" and who are ready to tell us what we want
to hear. It is against "moderates" of this kind in the Catholic Church that
bishops fulminate at election time. "Cafeteria Catholics"–take the bits you
like and leave the rest–are roundly condemned, but similarly picky Muslims are
celebrated. The presumption seems to be that a commitment that takes seriously
the whole Islamic tradition is incapable of dealing with the modern world. In
fact the opposite would seem to be the case: the reactionary and intransigent
ideologies that drive terrorism and puritanical repression are not drawing on
the whole of the Islamic tradition, but rather a truncated and impoverished
reading of it.
The group of
scholars behind A Common Word are
ignorant neither of the breadth and depth of the Islamic tradition, nor of
Christianity. Among them are people like Mustafa Ceric, grand-mufti of
Bosnia-Herzegovina, who knows both the Western academic world and traditional
Islamic learning, as well has having first-hand experience of the genocidal
rage driving some Christians. We would be mistaken to think that they are
pushovers who will settle for a ceremonial acknowledgement of fellowship
without a serious intellectual and spiritual engagement, and frank political
talk. In their patient but insistent correspondence since Regensburg they have
shown a determination to pursue this discussion with seriousness and respect.
For several decades,
of course, it was the Church that made much of the running in interreligious
dialogue, but our interlocutors feel that in recent years our pace has faltered
somewhat and that, at least in Rome, there is no great energy for dialogue even
if we still profess a commitment to it. It may be discomfiting for us, but the
initiative seems now to be in the hands of others.
to a long list of popes, patriarchs and other church leaders, A Common Word surely has another
audience as well. In keeping with the aim of the Amman project, it is
implicitly addressed to Muslims, modeling for them a methodology and a mode of
discourse appropriate to a dialogical approach to relations with other
believers, and also providing the authoritative textual underpinnings for it.
The letter spends much of its energy on outlining the obligation on Muslims to
be devoted completely to God, to love God and to be grateful for all God has
given. In this context, one might have hoped for a more explicit recognition of
the political implications of such devotion: the relativizing of all power,
ideologies and political projects. However good and divinely-sanctioned they
may seem to us, they are not God, and therefore are not ultimate. This will be
an essential element in further dialogue; it is the theological key that takes
us beyond mere disagreement about power relations and political alternatives.
I tend to bristle when I hear the words "all
religions." They usually accompany a hasty generalization that owes more to wishful
thinking or projection than to attentive observation of what the various
religions do actually claim or profess. It is surprising and disappointing to
note how often even academic writing falls back on such pieties, and each
religion is reduced to a particular variation on the generic theme of religion.
A Common Word does not quite fall
into that trap, since it confines itself to speaking only of the Abrahamic
traditions of Christianity and Islam (with Judaism unfortunately only making
the occasional, parenthetical appearance. Yet the letter does open itself to a
reductionist reading–one that Christians might want to examine more
closely–when it says in part III, "Thus the Unity of God, love of Him and love
of the neighbour form a common ground upon which Islam and Christianity (and
Judaism) are founded." There has been a slide from the unexceptionable
affirmation earlier in the paragraph that the obligation to love God and one's
neighbour is a common element in the sacred texts of our traditions, to the
more questionable claim that the dual commandment of love is the foundation of all three.
In fairness to our Muslim colleagues, it should
be admitted that many Christians too will propose a shorthand rendition of
Jesus' saying about the greatest commandments as the kernel of his teaching and
the foundation of Christianity. But are they right? Is that all there is to the
Gospel? Does the Word become incarnate simply to remind us of a few important
verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, verses that some of Jesus'
contemporaries among the rabbis would also have recognized as summing up "the
Law and the Prophets"? Is Jesus' mission primarily to remind us of an
obligation already revealed centuries before? Is all the rest of his living,
dying and rising somehow only ancillary to this?
A trick question
We should note that when Jesus gives his answer
to the question of the greatest commandment, it is always in the context of
controversy. Matthew (Mt 22:35) and Luke (Lk 10:25) both note that it was a
question intended to trap him. The cautious answer to a trick question can
hardly be considered the foundation of a religion. If the subject under
discussion is commandments, then surely those two are the greatest. But is
there nothing to the Good News other than commandment and obligation? When the
lawyer who poses the commandment question in Mark's gospel warmly reaffirms
Jesus' reply, Jesus says to him, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God" (Mk
12:34). Not far from it, but not quite there. Commandments are fine as far as
they go, but the Kingdom goes further than that. The Gospel is not a simple
cut-and-paste job on the Torah, with a more pithy selection of commandments.
Before all else it is about what God has done for love of us. What we are to do
flows from that and is made possible by it.
God's love for us
Common Word speaks of "the love of God," it means our love for God, and that almost always in terms
of obligation–as witness the repeated use of 'must' and 'should' in part I. Yet
personal experience is enough to make us realize that true love cannot be
commanded or conditioned; it is freely given and received.
No New Testament writer has devoted more
attention to the question of divine love than the one known there as "the
disciple whom Jesus loved" and whom we call John. In his first letter he says, "This is what love is: not that we
have loved God, but that God has loved us ..." (1Jn 4:10). "We love," John tells
us, "because God first loved us" (1Jn 4:19). Throughout John's work there is a
constant outward movement of love: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved
you" (Jn 15:9). "Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another"
(Jn 13:34). That is Jesus' "new commandment," given to his disciples just
before his death. A command not to love him, or the Father, but rather to dwell
in the love he bears us. Dwelling in that love means allowing it to transform
us so that we in our turn love others. In this context Jesus uses the telling
image of a vine and its branches. The nutrient sap of the vine enables the
branches to produce fruit, yet the fruit is for the benefit neither of the vine
nor of the branches – it is for others. All love originates in God and flows
ever outward from there, transforming all who will allow themselves to be
suffused by it. It does not turn back on itself, demanding reciprocation, but
pours itself out for the beloved–even for the ungrateful.
Both John and Paul recognize the central
importance of the fact that it was not on the basis of our perfection or even
repentance that God's love for us was manifested, but while we were still
sinners (1Jn 4:10; Rm 5:6). If there is a foundation to Christian faith this is
surely a major pillar of it.
A similar understanding of divine love is not
entirely lacking in the Islamic tradition, but it does not find a place in A Common Word, possibly because it
confines itself to quoting Qur'ân and hadith in order to address the broadest
possible Muslim audience. Still, it might have appealed to the verse Q 5:54 in
which it is said that "God will bring a new people: He will love them, and they
love will love Him." Commenting on this
verse some Sufi writers have observed that God's love for human beings precedes
their love for God, and if it were not for the fact that God had favoured us by
His primordial love, mercy, and compassion, humanity could never have loved God
and His creatures. In this lies an important point for our continuing
Who is my neighbour?
Just as there are reservations about how
foundational for Christianity is the commandment to love God, so also one must
question whether the commandment to love one's neighbour is fundamental. There
are two elements in the gospels that relativize it. The first comes from Luke's
gospel where Jesus' questioner, having failed to trap him with the commandment
question, has another try and asks, "And who is my neighbour?" (Lk 10:29). The
parable Jesus tells in response–the Good Samaritan–actually turns the man's
question on its head. After having described the extraordinarily generous and
compassionate response of this religious outsider to a Jew in need, after two
of the victim's own religious leaders had already failed him, Jesus asks,
"Which of these three proved himself a
neighbour to the man attacked by robbers?" The question is no longer who is
to be included in the category of neighbour and so what are the limits of my
obligation to love. It is, rather, how can I show myself a neighbour to others
by responding to them in love?
The second and more
striking element in the gospels occurs in both Matthew and Luke in slightly
different forms. Here is Matthew's version:
You have heard that it
was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to
you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be
children of your Father in heaven. For
He makes his sun to rise on the evil as well as the good, and his rain to fall
on the righteous and unrighteous alike. (Mt 5:43-45)
Luke reports that it was
in this context that Jesus said,
anyone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who
takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs
from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to
others as you would have them do to you.... Love your enemies, do good, and lend,
expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be
children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be
merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Lk 6:29-31, 35-6)
for Luke such exaggerated and disinterested generosity is the imitation of
God's mercy, for Matthew it is the very definition of God's perfection: "Be
perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). Our perfection lies in loving our enemies just as God's perfection is
shown in His loving us with a self-emptying love. God revealed that love in
Jesus even while we were still sinners, preferring alienation from God to the
peace with God that was our original human state.
"God bless our enemies"
infinitely expanded definition of the neighbour and brother to include even
enemies and attackers has not been easy for Christians to assimilate. We
quickly fall back into a generic religious mindset where God loves only the
righteous and we, who of course are
the righteous, are entitled to hate those who are not. Just how radical is the
demand placed upon us by Jesus' teaching can be seen if we could imagine the
ubiquitous "God Bless Our Troops" bumper-stickers in the US replaced by ones
that read "God Bless Osama." Or could we imagine banners in Occupied Palestine
that wished life and blessing on Israel and the United States rather than
annihilation? Transformations like
these do not happen easily, yet one witnesses them again and again on a small
scale. These are the seeds of the Kingdom taking root and sprouting here and
there, but too often they are trampled underfoot by "realism" or the desire for
retribution. Perhaps our dialogue could focus on the words of Q 60:7, "Perhaps
God will create friendship between you and those you consider your enemies. God
is powerful, infinitely forgiving, most merciful." Where love replaces enmity,
it is surely God at work, not just us.
Some difficult points
A Common Word does not hide some rather problematic points, though perhaps their
implications could be missed. The major example of this is where Christians are
assured in Part III that Muslims "are not against them and that Islam is not
against them." Then come the conditions (stipulated in Q 60:8): "so long as
they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them
and drive them out of their homes." Though the original context is Mecca which
oppressed its first Muslim citizens, the verse is given broad contemporary
application. Many extremists will use precisely this verse to justify enmity
towards Israel and anyone who supports it. George Bush's catastrophic military
adventure in Iraq, and his so-called "War on Terrorism" are easily interpreted
as attacks on Islam. Given the religious rhetoric he employs for political
advantage, and the outspokenness of many of his evangelical supporters, his
wars can easily be portrayed as Christian wars and thus put in jeopardy all
Christians. Even Western cultural hegemony is sometimes read as aggression and
so taken as legitimizing a violent response against any members of that
culture. The letter's reassurance that Islam and Muslims are not against
Christians entails a fairly major conditional clause. This is surely an
important focus for our continuing dialogue with the group of 138 and other
Although I suggested
at the beginning that we might read this letter against the background of Nostra Aetate with its appeal to common
elements of faith and practice, that should not be taken to imply that our
dialogue will best proceed by a series of letters, however authoritative. These
documents are important touchstones but we know from the history of Vatican II
that they only grow out of reflection on experience. Many of the signatories of
A Common Word have long experience of
an interfaith dialogue that goes beyond mere ceremony and requires commitment
and openness. Documents like these not only grow out of personal encounter,
ideally they also open the way to further interaction.
Dialogue of Repentance
Both Nostra Aetate and A Common Word focus on positive common elements, and this is certainly
a useful beginning. We do need to understand and appreciate each other at the
level of ideals and norms, especially those we have in common. However, we also
have in common our personal and communal failure to live up to those ideals.
Speaking of our obligation to love God and neighbour is relatively easy. Even
to speak about loving one's enemies is not that difficult. Talk, as they say,
is cheap. It takes much more courage to acknowledge to each other our failures
in loving, but that is where the real breakthrough will come–when the proud
façades crumble and reveal a contrite heart.
Of course we are
both quite sure that the other has plenty of which to repent compared to our
high ideals and minor failings. Perhaps we both need to listen again to Jesus'
advice about taking the plank out of our own eye before offering to remove the
speck from another's eye (Mt 7:3-5). The dialogue of mutual repentance is the
most difficult, yet most necessary of all, if we wish to move ahead.
A clash of civilizations?
Though the discourse of A Common Word is framed in terms of conflict between Muslims and
Christians, an honest examination of conscience will not permit us to forget
that our future is not threatened only by conflict between us. Over the
centuries of undeniable conflict and contestation between members of our two
traditions, each group has had its own internal conflicts that have claimed and
continue to claim many more lives than interconfessional strife. More Muslims
are killed daily by other Muslims than by Christians or anyone else. The huge
numbers who went to their deaths in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980's were
virtually all Muslims. Scarcely any of the tens of millions of Christians who
have died in European wars over the centuries were killed by Muslims. The
greatest shame of the last century was the killing of millions of Jews by
Christians conditioned by their own long tradition of anti-Semitism and seduced
by a virulently nationalist and racist new ideology. The last 15 years in
Africa have seen millions of Christians slaughtered in horrendous civil wars by
their fellow believers. It seems from the statistics maintained about Catholic missionaries that one is much more likely to be killed in largely Catholic Latin America than anywhere in the Muslim world.
The cry of the poor
So let us not be misled into thinking either that Muslim-Christian
conflict is the world's greatest conflict, or even that war is the most serious
threat to the human future. What of the millions of African children who die
every year for want of some clean water or a few cents worth of vaccines? What
of the world's poor who live under crushing burdens of foreign debt and corrupt
domestic tyranny? What of the devastating effects on the earth of our poor
stewardship of its resources? The new stage in Muslim-Christian dialogue
represented by A Common Word should
not become the occasion for a further narrowing of our attention and a greater
obsession with ourselves. If we wish to talk of love, we will not be able to
ignore the cry of the poor.
Dan Madigan is an Australian Jesuit, founder of the Institute for the Study of Religions at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, and member of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims. This year he is International Visiting Fellow in the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington DC, where he is working on a book on Christianity for a mostly Muslim readership.
This article was amended, with the addition of subtitles, on 17 October 2008.
Read the full text of the A Common Word letter (PDF)
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