A Most Uncommon Word

By Patrick J Ryan, S.J.

The open letter to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian religious leaders issued by 138 Muslim scholars worldwide on October 13, 2007 – the post- Ramadan Feast of Fast-Breaking in the Islamic tradition – is titled “A Common Word between Us and You,” but it is a most uncommon word indeed! Under the leadership of Prince Ghazi ibn Muhammad, the first cousin of King ‘Abdullah II of Jordan, royal sponsor of the Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought based in Amman, the authors of the letter bend over backwards to appeal to all Christians, and especially to Pope Benedict XVI, to join with them on a common religious ground to pursue the work of peace-making.

This letter follows by one year a letter signed by 38 Muslim scholars questioning the inflammatory words of a late Byzantine emperor quoted by Pope Benedict in his academic address at the University of Regensburg in September 2006. The second open letter could well be seen as a response to the first part of the pope’s encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est.

The title of the document, “A Common Word,” derives from one verse in the Qur’an (3:64) in which Muslims believe that God instructs Muhammad to come to terms with “the People of the Book,” a Quranic term for Jews, Christians and another, more mysterious community called the Sabaeans. (It should be noted that the Quranic term “the People of the Book” does not include Muslims in its scope, although many well-meaning Christian interlocutors with Muslims today seem to think it does.)

My rendering of the verse follows; recall that God is always the speaker in the Qur’an, even when God suggests to Muhammad what he is to say in one or another circumstance.

Say, (O Muhammad): “O People of the Book, come to a common agreement [word] between us and you: that we serve none but God; that we ascribe no partner to Him; that we take none among ourselves as lords less than God.”And if they refuse, then say: “Testify that we are those who have submitted.”

It is worthwhile examining this Quranic verse in its context. The Muslim commentaries on the Qur’an suggest that the first part of the Surat Aal-‘Imran (Qur’an 3) dates from the year 630 when Muhammad was dealing with the Christian community of Najran in south Arabia. This verse in particular represents a divine instruction to Muhammad to respect the Christians of Najran and to see to it that both Muslims and Christian agree on three central tenets that they hold in common: (1) the absolute oneness of God, (2) the denial of any “partnership” in the one God, and (3) the refusal of divine honors to merely human sovereigns.

Some Christians and even more Muslims may object that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity runs counter to the second of these common tenets, but such an objection misunderstands the doctrine of the Trinity. It underestimates the oneness of God who reveals the divine Reality as an absolute communion of love far surpassing and transcending any human notion of a triad. Elsewhere in the Qur’an (5:116), a notion of the Trinity as a divine Father, Mother and Son is strongly rejected, as it would be by any orthodox Christian.

We are not exactly sure what the Christians whom Muhammad encountered in seventh-century Arabia understood of the Trinity, but it seems fairly obvious that there were few sophisticated theologians among them. Popular iconography and piety may have given the impression that such a tri-theistic Trinity was the object of Christian faith.

The most interesting element in this open letter is the fact that it takes the twofold commandment in the New Testament to love God above all things and one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:36-40 and its parallels in Mark 12:28- 34 and Luke 10:25-28),which is derived from two passages in the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18), as the common basis for dialogue.

One of the Christians who has commented on this letter, the Egyptian Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir, denies that God’s love for humankind or human love for God plays much of a role in the Qur’an, although he does admit, somewhat grudgingly, that the theme of mutual divine and human love can be found “in the world of Sufism,” the Islamic tradition of mysticism (Asia News, October 17, 2007). Since Sufism derives its piety from profound meditation on Quranic texts, it is hard to see what point Samir is making.

He also suggests that this open letter has no equivalent for the notion of “neighbor” as the word is used in the New Testament. The Arabic translation of the New Testament renders the New Testament Greek word for neighbor (plesion), in the text from Matthew,with the Arabic word qarib. The authors of “A Common Word” use the more Quranic word jar for neighbor, a term quite as generic as that used in the New Testament. In his quibbles with the letter, Samir presumes that the Arabic version of the letter is the original, but this may not be so, given the large number of non-Arabic speakers who have signed it.

Much more irenic and very well reasoned is the response of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome, a center conducted by the Missionaries of Africa (“White Fathers”). The authors recognize the importance of the Muslim document as a groundbreaking moment in Muslim-Christian dialogue. Until November 19, the only response thus far from the Holy See had been two rather lame remarks, one positive and one negative, delivered off the cuff by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.

President, since September 1, 2007, of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Tauran was formerly the “foreign minister” of the Holy See and his remarks gave the impression that he has not yet adjusted to his new job in Interreligious Dialogue. Finally, however, on November 19 Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Pope’s Secretary of State, ended the comparative papal silence in a letter to Prince Ghazi ibn Muhammad indicating the Pope’s happiness with the open letter and his willingness in its wake to meet some of its signatories for more formal exchanges.

Having lived and worked with Muslims over many decades in Africa, I am delighted by “A Common Word” and the irenic note it sounds. In an age of Western secularist Islamophobia, this open letter is a clarion call to peace-making that faithful Christians must not ignore.

Ryan (NYK) is vice president for University Mission and Ministry, Fordham University, and New York Province representative on the Jesuit Advisory Board on Interreligious Dialogue and Relations. He has spent 26 years in Africa.

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