The Return of “A Common Word”

By Ifran A Omar

These past few weeks have been interesting for those who are following the communication between the (Muslim) initiators of the document titled “A Common Word Between Us and You” and its (Christian) recipients. The document is quite literally an invitation to pursue dialogue between these two faith communities more aggressively than ever before.

“A Common Word” has already drawn some favorable responses and acknowledgments from Christian leaders and scholars. The Vatican has issued statements but a substantive response is yet to emerge. In addition, there was also a follow up “communiqué” issued by Muslim scholars asking Pope Benedict XVI to “continue the principles of Assisi and the legacy of the much-beloved John Paul II.”Bishop Paul Hinder, the Catholic Vicar Apostolic for Catholics in the Arabian Peninsula,welcomed the invitation to dialogue while raising some issues of clarification over terms used in the document, such as the “love of neighbor” and “love of God.”

“A Common Word” is historic in its broad-based consensus; it boasts 138 Muslim signatories, representing major religious organizations and groups from countries around the world. Signatories, however, do not necessarily represent the authors; in fact, that question has been left open, and no actual author/authors are identified.We may ask, “Why only 138 scholars and not more?” The document claims to be “representative”; however, it leaves out some long-celebrated scholars involved in Muslim-Christian dialogue. One name that comes immediately to mind is that of Professor Mahmoud Ayoub, who has taught for many years at Temple University. His sustained and consistent scholarship on the subject stands out among all Muslims involved in research and writing on interreligious dialogue.

That criticism aside, a significant aspect of “A Common Word,” in my opinion, is its boldness of outreach. It seeks to broaden the circle of dialogue and conversation, including as many representatives of Christianity as possible among the named addressees. This, it is hoped, will filter down to the constituents of their various Christian groups and create an impetus for dialogue, especially among those Christian groups that have been left out of the conversational loop previously.

“A Common Word” is the beginning of a fresh approach, a new push for dialogue, stronger than before. Although channels of communication have been open for at least two decades between some involved in this initiative, this document highlights a new level of urgency to continue ongoing conversations and to widen the parameters of dialogue to include as many as possible on both sides. This is also significant because, as critics of dialogue have charged, many such meetings in the past were merely friendly receptions where selected (read “privileged”) members from the two communities gathered and exchanged niceties.

The widening of the circle means more to me as an academic and a participant in dialogue than the actual message of “A Common Word.” While the message is of central importance, it is also well known to those of us already engaged in dialogue. Thus, the task at hand should be to get as many people on board – both Christians and Muslims – as possible. This initiative has been better than others in reaching out to average people by inviting them to endorse the statement electronically (see www.acommonword.com). Hence, “A Common Word” has the potential to reach out to ordinary believers in both traditions and find common ground for dialogue.

If properly pursued by both the invitees and those who issued the invitation, the path outlined in “A Common Word” could generate greater consciousness and invigorate Muslim and Christian activists, students on college campuses, members of mosques, churches and community forums, and those sincere partners in dialogue who are of late feeling a bit of “dialogue fatigue.” Reasons for such fatigue are too numerous to discuss here; suffice it to say that “A Common Word” should empower individuals on both sides of the divide between us.

Finally, it is important to note that the choice of the phrase “A Common Word” is a renewed call of the Qur’an which summons all the people of the Book, including Muslims, to come to “kalimatin sawa’” among them all to worship God alone. This point needs to be stressed. Furthermore, the word sawa’ has also been translated as “just,” that is, “for equal commitment.” The justice called for here is to put things where they ought to be: to let God be God and humans be humans. Thus, justice means to worship God alone and not put ourselves or anyone or anything that we may hold up for worship as gods instead of God.

Historically speaking, “A Common Word” has not been so uncommon after all. Christians and Muslims in many parts of the world often have lived quite amicably, living out “A Common Word” in their daily lives. Despite the Crusades and Muslim expansionist wars of previous centuries, Muslim and Christian communities held their ground in many places and flourished together.

When, for example, the Fatimid rulers in 11th century Egypt limited the freedoms granted to Christians, they also imposed similar limitations on the Sunnis living under their rule. Examples of such shared experiences and co-existence are found in other Muslim-ruled areas. In that sense, this new initiative may be seen as a revised and thoughtful invitation to return to a renewed state of peaceful relations, albeit imperfect in the past, and to work towards increasing mutual understanding between Muslims and Christians and between them and all others.

Omar is an assistant professor in the theology department of Marquette University and the editor of “A Muslim View of Christianity” and co-editor of “Heirs of Abraham,” both volumes published by Orbis Books.



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