Muslims Appeal for Theological Basis for Dialogue with Christians:
A Common World Between Us and You

By John Borelli

At a time when critics of Islam have charged that Muslims cannot or will not engage in theological dialogue, a widely representative group of 138 Muslim scholars and religious leaders has invited Christians to such a dialogue. “A Common Word Between Us and You,” dated October 13, 2007, for the feast of `Id al-Fitr which concludes the Ramadan fast, is a product of Jordan’s Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought.

The open letter to 27 named heads of churches and religious organizations and to “leaders of Christian churches everywhere” prints out to 20 pages of text and notes and another eight pages of signatures. A balanced text, the letter cites the Qur’an and Hadith, the traditional reports of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad, and the Old and New Testaments. It also draws from a traditional Muslim commentator, al-Tabari, which is balanced by a reference to a traditional commentary by Theophylact, an eleventh century Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria.With the Tanakh or Jewish Bible cited, the invitation for dialogue is implicitly extended to Jews.

“A Common Word” has at least a four year history. In 2004, King Abdullah II of Jordan and his scholars issued the “Amman Message,” an invitation to Muslims for a consensus on the meaning of Islam for the contemporary world. This effort to offset undue emphases in the media on the statements of extremists was followed by a consensus statement in July 2005, gleaned from Muslim scholars of 50 countries on three relevant questions:Who is a Muslim? Who has the right to undertake issuing a legal ruling (fatwa)? Is it permissible to declare someone an apostate (takfir)?

The Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought facilitated and distributed these statements. Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammed, the Royal Institute’s chairman and a member of the Jordanian royal family, then released a commentary explaining this effort on September 11, 2006, the fifth anniversary of the tragic events that directly launched the “war on terrorism” and, paradoxically, the day before Pope Benedict’s famed address at the University of Regensburg. This explains how 38 Muslim scholars and religious leaders could issue a respectful, constructive and theologically nuanced response to the Regensburg speech one month afterwards on October 13, 2006.

That “Open Letter to the Pope” turns out to be one facet of this major effort by Muslims for “intellectual exchange and mutual understanding”with Christians. “A Common Word Between Us and You,” issued one year later, is addressed to the pope and to many others.All these messages and their Muslim signatories are offering a voice of consensus, a technical term in Islam (ijma),which refers to the studied agreement of scholars based on a foundational belief of Muslims that the whole community will not agree on error. “A Common Word” and its predecessor documents are both invitations to theological dialogue with Christians and with others and to a common articulation of faith developing among Muslims.“A Common Word” and related documents can be found at www.acommonword.com.

Borelli is national coordinator for interreligious dialogue for the U. S. Jesuit Conference, and special assistant for interreligious initiatives to President John J. DeGioia of Georgetown University.


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