The Future of Interfaith Dialogue: Muslim-Christian Encounters Through a Common Word

  • Book Title:
 The Future Of Interfaith Dialogue
  • Book Author:
Lejla DemiriYazid Said
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 A decade has passed since the promulgation of A Common Word Between Us and You. One of the major interfaith initiatives of our time, this open letter from Muslim leaders comprised an ambitious call for a better understanding between Muslims and Christians worldwide and an invitation to work for the common good in the interests of a wider humanity.

Since its launch on 13 October 2007 the ACW document has prompted a remarkably fecund response in the form of joint statements, gatherings of religious scholars, academic events, conferences, workshops, seminars and grassroots community activities.

 It has inspired the publication of a great number of papers, books, dissertations and other academic and non- academic writings. Of strikingly broad interest and appeal, ACW has been discussed both in university settings and in interfaith gatherings locally and internationally. The official ACW website offers an exhaustive account of these dialogical ‘fruits of A Common Word ’. 1

 What is it that made this initiative so cathartic? By no means has every response been fully approving of its tone, language or content. Plenty of critics have interrogated its choice of scriptural passages, its theology, its style and its vocabulary, as evidenced by some of the contributions to the present volume.

Some respondents have taken issue with Muslim doctrinal or contextual presuppositions which they find to be present and problematic in the ACW document. Yet virtually all respondents acknowledged the genuineness of its call for dialogue, receiving it as an honest and gracious invitation to promote peace and social justice in a time of international mistrust and turmoil.

Further, it has been generally recognised that much of the success of ACW ’s impact lies in its global character and remit. This was not the call of a few Muslim individuals working in a regional context. Instead, for the first time in the history of Muslim– Christian relations, Muslims of different theological schools from around the globe addressed a peaceable invitation to dialogue towards all Christians worldwide.

 This international and cross- denominational character lent enormous weight to the document. Rooted in global Islam, the impact of ACW has also been global.

 Since the earliest days of the Islamic religion, and despite political realities which were often difficult and competitive, Muslims and Christians found ways to consider each other and to discuss their distinctive theologies.

These encounters generated a vast and many genred literature on both sides. The modern Christian– Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History project 2 bears witness to this: the mere identification and mapping of all the writings of Christians and Muslims about each other’s religion, in a wide diversity of languages, from the emergence of Islam until 1700, has filled the pages of eleven large volumes, and more documents and books continue to come to light. 3

Despite their sometimes-distressing limitations and failings, these historical writings are an important heritage for modern- day Muslim– Christian relations and remain relevant to interfaith discussions and theological conversations today, especially for thinkers able to consider history not as ‘a burden on the memory, but an illumination of the soul’. 4

 Against the background of this long narrative of engagement, ACW is hardly unique in its desire to enable interfaith conversation. But what makes it quite exceptionally refreshing, for all its imperfections and the criticisms which it has attracted, are the striking graciousness of its language in addressing the ‘Other’ and its openness to a balanced and fair hearing of the Other’s sacred scriptures.

Readers note quickly that the text is not written in a polemical spirit. Nor does it have an apologetic purpose or engage in any kind of one- upmanship.

The aim is evidently to direct our attention to what it finds to be common ground, namely, the two shared principles of love of God and love of neighbor, on the basis of which we may venture a theological engagement shaped by mutual trust and friendship. Yet ACW does not look for a lowest common denominator, nor does it reach any shallow and concordist verdict which sets aside the weighty theological differences that exist between the Muslim and Christian worlds of thought.

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 The present volume, which continues this exegetic and discursive process, is dedicated to a close reading and study of the text, context and reception of A Common Word, and has been divided into five parts.

 Part I , which seeks to shed light on the document’s genesis, opens with Tim Winter’ s chapter, which tries to understand the text in a context of political trauma shaped by ‘the West’s military and economic interventions in the Muslim world’.

It was these which ultimately galvanised the birth of the ACW document, ‘one of our era’s most significant initiatives in the fi eld of interreligious engagement’, as the author suggests. The chapter reflects on ACW ’s purpose, language and approach to scripture, and its theological repercussions for Muslims and Christians living in today’s context of globalisation and rapid change.

 Islam and Christianity, Winter concludes, though ‘plurivocal traditions with evolving and conflicting theologies’ which offer different understandings of the Divine nature and the love of God, witness to the fact that, through the Common Word, ‘some words at least are recognisably held in common’.

 Winter ’s essay is followed by Jonathan Kearney’ s chapter, which offers a critical analysis of ACW in relation to the earlier Amman Message ( AM ). The chapter looks at AM not only as ‘a necessary precursor and vital companion to ACW ’, but also as a significant tool for non- Muslims in their understanding of, and engagement with, Islam and Muslims today.

After a brief outline of AM and its context, some observations on its genetic relationship to ACW are proposed. The chapter concludes with a critical analysis of the document and its methodology, at the same time acknowledging ‘the motivating spirit behind both the AM and ACW – one of mutual respect, tolerance and, above all, the need to always talk to and listen to one another’, hoping that this effort ‘will positively transform and enrich the lives of people everywhere’.

 Chapter 3 is by Michael L.ouis Fitzgerald , who considers some formal dialogue meetings held between Christians and Muslims from the time of the Second Vatican Council until the ACW initiative, demonstrating that the latter was not a creation ex nihilo . A brief account is given of the events leading up to ACW , and then attention is turned to the Muslim– Catholic meetings that have followed this initiative. The chapter further underlines the ‘spirit of openness’ of ACW , while also highlighting certain weaknesses.

 Here the author summarises the analysis made by Maurice Borrmans , who has been highly critical of ACW and yet welcomes it as ‘the dawn of a new stage in Muslim– Christian dialogue’. In conclusion, Fitzgerald acknowledges the ACW document as ‘a stimulus to engage’ in theological dialogue through which ‘we can help one another to understand the logic of our respective belief systems’. But he suggests that ACW has had a disappointingly limited impact, particularly in the Arabic- speaking world.

 Part II of our collection showcases some responses and reactions to ACW . It opens with ‘ A Common Word for the Common Good’, the official response of Rowan Williams , the Archbishop of Canterbury when A Common Word was issued, whose text, although it appears on his web-site, has never before appeared in print.

Many see it as the most substantial Christian response to ACW , reflecting a consultation with ‘church representatives and Christian scholars’ from around the world. Williams welcomes ACW as a ‘recognition that the ways in which we as Christians and Muslims speak about God and humanity are not simply mutually unintelligible systems. He celebrates key points of convergence, but does not hesitate to raise sensitive issues such as love in relation to Christian understandings of God as Trinity, the problems of human failure, defeat and suffering and the relation of religion to violence. The chapter concludes by proposing a range of ways and principles for dialogue that should help Christians and Muslims to seek together ‘the common good in the way of God’.

 The following chapter , by Ingrid Mattson, takes the form of a Muslim reflection on Williams ’ chapter, refl ecting on ways in which ACW has empowered communities to engage in interfaith dialogue. Mattson fi nds Williams ’ response to be generous, hospitable and affable, albeit from her perspective ‘unduly focused on religiously justified violence by Muslims, with little interrogation of violence perpetrated and justifi ed by Christians’.

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 However, she does acknowledge that ‘Williams has elsewhere written and spoken about the history and ongoing existence of violence, including economic violence, in his own society’, thus suggesting that Williams ’ response to ACW should not be considered ‘the sum total of his views on the matter’.

Commenting on Williams ’ recommendations in the section entitled ‘Seeking together in the way of God’, she highlights the value of ACW as ‘primarily pastoral’. She calls it a ‘permission slip for ordinary Christians and Muslims’ in their aim ‘to be good neighbours’.

As Mattson concludes, ‘ ACW liberates good-h earted Christians and Muslims to be mutually hospitable and to collaborate in good works.’ Thus the value of ACW and the positive Christian responses to it lies in the fact that they ‘simply cleared the path of hate and suspicion that had seeped into their religious communities’.

 The subsequent chapter, by Reuven Firestone, consists of a response to ACW coming from his Jewish tradition , which, as has often been observed, is not directly addressed by the open letter. Firestone problematises the assumption of loving one’s neighbour by analysing the birth pangs of religion and the resulting complexity of historical relationships between ‘the established religion’ and ‘the newly emerging religion’.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the author argues, experienced both their own religious birth and the birth of religious competitors, and the trauma of both experiences has become deeply embedded in their religious worldviews. Most religious believers are unaware of the profound influence these narratives have on their perspective towards the religious ‘Other’. Greater awareness of this phenomenology of religious parturition can be of significant service in realising the goals of ACW . Firestone offers some suggestions for addressing this problem: to work within our communities and with those outside our own spiritual circles, to promote ‘a more compassionate perspective towards the religious “Other” ’ and ‘to transcend our ingrown fear, born of the trauma of religious parturition, so that we can recognise the dignity and love of the religious “Other” ’.

 Sarah Snyder’ s chapter presents a descriptive analysis of the offi cial responses to ACW from different church leaders and communities, and the controversies that sometimes followed them concerning ‘the nature of God’, ‘love of God and neighbour’, the definition of ‘neighbour’ and the ‘relevance of ACW to today’s context’.

The chapter provides a com-prehensive analysis of the leading Christian responses (from churches and church institutions throughout Europe and the United States as well as from individuals in Nairobi, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Beirut, Tripoli, Cambridge, Frankfurt, Melbourne, Yale and elsewhere) and notes certain patterns of internal difference.

It concludes with a reflection on canons of dialogue whose objective, according to the author, should be about ‘discovering a better quality of disagreement, rather than seeking common ground’.

 In the l ast chapter of Part II, Peter Admirand highlights ‘the need of self- critique and humility within interfaith dialogue’, using ACW as a case study. He examines ACW ‘through a Christological lens to gauge whether the positive call of inviting Christians to dialogue was thwarted or hampered by an insuffi ciently developed and nuanced Christology within that invitation’.

The chapter takes the Gospel par-able of the Pharisee and the tax collector as a guide for humility and self- critique. Taking the author’s ‘Catholic tradition into account, it examines the historical tenor and current state of Catholicism’s openness to self- critique and change’.

Finally, the chapter seeks similar space for humility and self- critique in ACW, as it argues for the relevance of Christian belief in Christ to be expressed more clearly within the document. While praising ACW for having ‘drawn Christians and Muslims together’, the chapter’s critical reading is meant to challenge both sides in the conversation.

 Part III is given over to some critical readings of the use of scripture in the ACW document. In Chapter 9 , Asma Afsaruddin scrutinises the reading of Qur’anic texts in the interfaith dialogue environment. Warning that ‘interfaith dialogue can be both a richly rewarding learning experience and a minefi eld’, the author raises two questions.

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First, how is one to establish a general protocol for a respectful and candid dialogue that is mutually benefi cial and illuminating? Second, what sources can be invoked to establish an authentic dialogue and defi ne its guiding principles?

Focusing on the Muslim scripture, the chapter discusses the exegeses of three sets of Qur’anic verses that specifically deal with the mechanics of interfaith dialogue and commend respect for religious sensibilities. The chapter consults a number of major exegetical works from pre- modern and modern periods that have allowed diverse and historic-ally contingent perspectives to emerge that nevertheless continue to exercise considerable pressure in the modern context.

Her piece concludes with ‘a reflection upon the further implications of these exegeses for fostering better interfaith understanding between Muslims and their dialogue partners in today’s globalising world, implications that could not have been evident to our pre- modern predecessors, who inhabited a very different world’.

 In the following chapter , Daniel A. Madigan , taking seriously the double commandment of love that constitutes the kernel of ACW ’s call for dia-logue, argues that the heart of the Gospel lies not in the commandments, but rather in a recognition of the graciousness of God towards us in spite of our signal failure to live the ideals that those commandments represent. He asserts that the Gospel ought to elicit from us fi rst of all an acknowledgement of failure – a mea culpa .

He further proposes that dialogue matures when it is based on a mutual acknowledgement of failure rather than an exchange about shared ideals, allowing him to conclude that real and fertile dialogue happens when we ‘acknowledge our need for forgiveness – from God and each other’ and ‘recognise our common reliance on nothing else but God’s mercy at work in us and through us’.

 In Chapter 11, Pim Valkenberg draws attention to a problem which, he thinks, has sometimes hindered ACW from being an effective dialogical

instrument. This relates to the translation of the words kalima saw ā ʾ in Q 3:64 as ‘a common word’, which seems to suggest the possibility of a common ground between Christians and Muslims as a prerequisite or goal of their dialogue.

The chapter scrutinises, first, the historical con-text of this verse and the history of its interpretation. Second, it proposes an alternative interfaith hermeneutic which would avoid the notion of a common ground. Third, it refers to the Netherlands as a case that shows why ACW might fail to work in certain contexts unless it is interpreted

differently. An alternative rendering of kalima saw ā ʾ as ‘a word of justice’ or ‘an equitable word’, according to Valkenberg, ‘may open up new pos-sibilities for a dialogue between Muslims and Christians that centres on matters of peace and justice rather than on dogmatic statements’, and might help to broaden the Christian reception of ACW.

 The section concludes with a c hapter by Clare Amos, whose pri-mary concern is to assess the Biblical texts used in ACW, the criteria which might have guided their selection and the rules by which they are interpreted. It also looks at the terminology used to describe Christian scripture in both the English and Arabic versions of the document, and asks what this might suggest about the intended difference in the reader-ship of the two versions. Some attention is also given to ways in which the treatment of Muslim and Christian scripture differs in the document.

The conclusion reached is that though Biblical texts are treated respect-fully by the Muslim authors of ACW, the selection of passages and the interpretative principles employed underline the Muslim provenance of the document. Some comparison is also made with the treatment of scripture in the process known as ‘Scriptural Reasoning ’ (SR), although differences with SR are also noted, notably the fact that SR’s method of dialogical conversation is not recognisably present in ACW.

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