Since its publication in October 2007, A Common Word between Us and You has become the most prolific and successful initiative for Christian-Muslim relations. One needs only to browse the official Common Word website (www.acommonword.com) to review the endorsements and criticism coming in from various media and academic streams. Some, such as Sam Soloman and al-Maqdisi, have even raised suspicion towards the entire enterprise, believing it to be a rouse by Muslims ‘to humiliate the kuffar (non-believer) and make him surrender or to Islamize him’ (al-Maqdisi & Soloman, (2009), p.10)
The Common Word initiative has also led to some significant Christian-Muslim assemblies. These include a conference hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury with Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt among his audience, and the establishment of the Catholic-Muslim Forum in March 2008, where it would go on to run its first official meeting at the Vatican in November 2008 (Hoover, (2009), pp.51-2).
This essay will examine the impact of the Common Word initiative on Christian-Muslim relations in the twenty-first century. We will first look at the incentive behind the letter, the criticism and commendation it has attracted, before drawing our conclusions to whether or not the initiative can be regarded as a turning point in Christian-Muslim relations.
Motivation for the common Word
The letter opens by drawing our attention to the socio-political scenario of the world today. With Muslims and Christians together making up more than half the world’s population, reasoning that peace today is dependent on these two faith communities resolving their differences ((2007), p.2). The letter reaffirms this point in its conclusion ((2007), p.15), and goes further by painting an otherwise bleak future: ‘The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake…our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.'((2007), p.16).
Before embarking upon this peace-making initiative, there was a need to determine who exactly are the religious authorities in today’s Muslim societies. This need became especially acute post-9/11, where suspicions against Muslims were at an all time high (Hoover, (2009), p.54). This led to the authorship of the Amman Message by the Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan, whose aim it was to ‘marginalize the voices of both Muslim radicals and non-Muslims who paint Islam as an enemy and to locate the power to define Islam in the hands of knowledgeable and mainstream scholars of religion.’ (Hoover, (2009), p.55). The Amman Message helped set the context for the Common Word initiative, drawing together a consensus of world’s leading Muslims scholars to help avert a ‘clash of civilisation’ (Nakhooda, (2008), p.8).
The risk of this clash became more acute through the ‘infelicitous words’ of Pope Benedict XVI in his lecture at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006; which in turn prompted the Common Word response (Nakhooda, (2008), p.6). Prior to the Common Word, the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute issued its first response through an Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on 13 October 2006. A year later the institute would issue the Common Word as its ‘landmark initiative’ that marked a new dawn in Christian-Muslim relations; an invitation for dialogue where Muslims were, ‘more positive and open, yet mainstream and orthodox’, avoiding polemics but at the same time remaining loyal to their fundamental doctrines (Hoover, (2009), p.52).
The central body of the Common Word consists of three sections.
- Love of god
- Love the neighbour
- Come to a Common Word between Us and You
It is from these three responses we will be able to gauge the impact of the Common Word initiative.
The Common Word draws in Christian readers with its linguistic uses, particularly in its use of the word ‘love’, which one often associates with Christian writings (Hoover, (2009), p.60). The paper goes on to provide Islamic underpinnings of how one is to love God and their neighbour: ‘The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love for the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.’ The paper then goes on to reinforce this commonality with verses from the Qur’an, Hadith, and biblical text before supplying reader’s with key qur’anic verse (3:64) from which the Common Word ((2007), p.2) draws its name from.
Some Christian respondents criticise the approach taken by the Common Word, seeing it as a call to suspend their beliefs and adopt the precepts of the paper; to accept that sovereignty belongs entirely to God ((2007), pp.4-8) and to hold to the Islamic tradition, ‘None of you has faith until you love for your brother what you love for yourself’ ((2007), p.11). The paper goes on to cite biblical texts such as Leviticus (19:17-18) and Matt (22:38-40) to compound this Islamic view.
Professor Johnny Awwad ((2009), p.79) raises his concerns of how the Common Word, and by extension, Islam perceives Christianity. Awwad argues that for Christians, love of God and the love of neighbour are rooted in the event of the crucifixion and resurrection. He goes further to say that belief in a triune God does not compromise the Unity of God and it’s up to Christian theologians to clarify this point to Muslims ((2009), p.82). Awwad then goes onto invite Muslims to engage with and understand Christianity the way Christians do, advising: ‘If we are committed to dialogue and its development we must set aside all the preconceptions we have about the other, even if this involves a radically new interpretation of some sacred passages.’ (Awwad, (2009), p.83)
On the point of new interpretation, Awwad questions the Qur’anic foundation of the Common Word. Though he does stress the importance of the Bible in the lives of Christians, he posits that Christians are ‘“people of the person of Christ” who have a book. Unlike the Qur’an, the Bible is not the locus of God’s revelation. Rather, the locus of God’s revelation is the person of Christ.‘ (Awwad, (2009), p.80). If Muslims were to adopt Awwad’s advice, they would view Christians outside the scope of the Common Word, thus bringing dialogue to a close.
On another point, Awwad along with Professor George Sabra draws criticism to how the Common Word pays fleeting tribute to how one is to ‘love thy neighbour’. Sabra argues that peaceful co-existence between neighbours can only be assumed if one is able to identify who their neighbours are (Sabra, (2009), p96). Both Awwad ((2009), p.84) and Sabra ((2009), p.96) cite the parable of the Good Samaritan to point out that the neighbour they are wanting to love also happens to be their enemy.
The language of love that permeates the Common Word has also precipitated doubts about its Islamic fidelity. On this point, Prince Ghazi provides a defence in his opening address at the Yale Conference in July 2008:
‘…it has been a particular joy to be able to focus in our initiative on this frequently underestimated aspect of our religion, the principle of love. Indeed, we have over 50 near synonyms for love in the Holy Qur’an. English does not have the same linguistic riches and connotation….If Muslims do not usually use the same language of love as Christians in English, it is perhaps because the word ‘love’ frequently implies different things for Muslims than it does for Christians’ (Hoover, (2009), pp.64-5).
Having offered his rationale to the matter, Prince Ghazi then ‘retracts’ his statement by expressing that he sees love as ‘a universal human phenomenon that best finds its ultimate fulfilment in God.’ (Hoover, (2009), p.64). In retrospect, Sabra suggests that the Common Word:
‘…needs to be received in the Islamic World before it can truly serve as a basis for dialogue and peace between Islam and Christianity. My distinct impression is that not enough effort is being exerted to make the Common Word known and understood among Muslims’ (Sabra, (2009), p.98).
Adulation for the Common Word
One of the most prolific ‘official Christian response’ to the Common Word has been Yale Divinity School’s press release in the New York Times, called ‘Loving God and Neighbour Together: A Christian Response to A Common Word Between Us and You‘, and much like the Common Word, the report is supported by more than three hundred signatories (al-Maqdisi & Soloman, (2008), p.11).
In its preamble, the article accepts the offer for dialogue and seeks forgiveness from Muslims all over the world (New York Times, (2007), p.2). It gives due consideration of the proposals offered by the Common Word and compliments them with the canonical Gospels. On the point of ‘love thy neighbour’, the article states, ‘Our faith teaches that we must be with our neighbors – indeed, that we must act in their favor – even when our neighbors turn out to be our enemies’. It then goes on to compliment this point with reference to the ‘Prophet Muhammad’s virtuous behavior’ when he was driven out of the city of Ta’if, asking God to forgive them, only to be later consoled, as their article underlines, by a Christian slave named ‘Addas (New York Times, (2007), pp.4-5).
Such a highly publicised cross-faith exchange is perhaps what the authors of the Common Word had intended. The New York piece rounds off with an optimistic tone:
‘Indeed, together with you we believe that we need to move beyond “a polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders” and work diligently together to reshape relations between our communities and our nations so that they genuinely reflect our common love for God and for one another.’ (New York Times, (2007) p.5).
In a more objective piece, Gé M. Speelman, tackles the more pressing questions posed to the initiative. In her view, the common grounds for Christians and Muslims are rooted in Judaism (Speelman, (2010), p.109), and in dedicating an entire section on this point, subtitled ‘The Missing Link: Judaism’, she argues that if a common tie is to be found in the Unity of God, it must account for all three monotheistic faiths (Speelman, (2010), p.114).
In Speelman’s observation, ‘the things left unsaid [in the Common Word] are almost as important as the things said’ (Speelman, (2010), p.113). She comments that although the Common Word does bypass some central Christian tenets, it also forgoes some of Islam’s own essential elements by dissecting the Islamic testimony to faith to simply ‘There is no god but God’ and leaving out the second part ‘and Muhammad is the Messenger of God’. ‘So in the end, both traditions end up with a mutilated version of their basic tenets of faith’ (Speelman, (2010), pp.118-9).
As for the language of Love, Speelmen concludes that the search for a common verbatim between Muslims and Christians is a futile task. The purpose of dialogue, in Speelman’s estimation, is in the search itself:
‘Love of God and love of the neighbour are of course for Christians indispensable notions, as they are for Muslims. What we Christians really mean when we employ these words may be in many ways different to the meanings given to them by Jews and Muslims, and in the course of our dialogue we must finds ways to explore these differences.’ (Speelman, (2010), p.120).
The Common Word draws its readers’ attention by painting a stark reality of the world we inhabit. In doing so, one concludes that the initiative was written on impulse. Where the Common Word differs from previous calls to engagement is in its ability to offer a unified mainstream Muslim voice against those who speak insidiously on behalf of and against Islam (Nakhooda, (2008), p.8)
To its credit, the Common Word has generated a new dialogue, one that is more optimistic in its tone where Christians and Muslims vie for collaborative partnerships that will help bring peace in the twenty-first century; and it’s on this second point the initiative fails to deliver.
For a turning point to occur, it needs to bring about affirmative changes in our global society. The Common Word paper is not really a turning point in itself; but has the potential of becoming a turning point if concrete steps are taken by Christian and Muslim leaders to build on the platform it has set, introducing creative and practical initiatives that engages each respective communities at a grass-roots level. Such initiative will demonstrate the commitment of the religious leadership to work together for a more prosperous future. Without engaging the community at a grass-root level, the Common Word initiative will turn into yet another aggrandised initiative that fails to penetrate beyond the religious clergy.
Bibliography Ali, M.M. (2009) A Muslim Interfaith Initiative (A Common Word between Us and You) and its Christian Response, Insights 02:1 (Autumn), pp.115-154. al-Maqdisi, E. and Soloman, Sam (2009) The truth about A Common Word: The Undermining of the Church, ANM Publishers, Charlottesville, USA. Awwad, Johnny. B. (2009) Who is My God and Who is My Neighbour? A Response to “A Common Word Between Us and You”, Theological Review XXX, pp.78-88. Beckford, Martin (2008) Archbishop of Canterbury ‘should be trying to convert Muslims’ The Telegraph, [online], Wednesday 16th July, Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2419448/Archbishop-of-Canterbury-should-be-trying-to-convert-Muslims.html, [Accessed: 3rd April 2012]. Benedict XVI, Pope (2006) Lecture of the Holy Father, Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, Meeting with the representative of science, Regensburg, Tuesday 12th September, Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/15_09_06_pope.pdf. [Accessed: 19th March 2012] El-Ansary W. and Linnan D. K. (eds) (2010) Muslim and Christian Understanding: Theory and application of “A Common Word”, Palgrave Macmillan, London. Ford, David, F. (2007) A Common Word Between Us and You: A response by Professor David Ford, Director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, (mail), Message to: The Editor, Islamica Magazine, Sent: Tuesday 9th October 2007, Available at: http://www.acommonword.com/lib/media/Regius-Professor-of-Divinity.pdf. [Accessed: 29th March 2012] Hoover, Jon (2009) A Common Word “More positive and open yet mainstream and orthodox”, Theological Review XXX, pp.50-77. Nakhooda, Sohail (2008) The Significance of the Amman Message and the Common Word, In: Jordanian Foreign Ministry, 4th Annual Ambassadors’ Forum, Amman, 30th December 2008, Available at: http://www.acommonword.com/The-Significance-of-the-Amman-Message-and-the-Common-Word.pdf, [Accessed: 27th March 2012] New York Times (2007), Loving God and Neighbour Together: A Christian Response to A Common Word Between Us and You, [online] New York Times, Available at: http://www.acommonword.com/lib/downloads/loving-god.pdf, [Accessed: 30th March 2012] News Blog (2007) Pope stays silent on peace plea, The Guardian, [online], Wednesday 17th October, Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2007/oct/17/popestayssilentonpeaceple. [Accessed: 3rd April 2012] Pigott, Robert. (2007) Emerging voice of mainstream Islam, BBC News, [online], Friday 12th October, Available at: www.news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7040774.stm. , [Accessed: 3rd April 2012] Sabra, G. (2009) The “Common Word” Letter in the Context of Christian-Muslim Dialogue, Theological Review XXX, pp.89-98. Speelman, G. M. (2010) The Background of ‘A Common Word‘, Exchange 39, Brill, pp.109-120. The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought (2007) A Common Word between Us and You, [pdf], Jordan, The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, Available at: http://www.acommonword.com/lib/downloads/CW-Total-Final-v-12g-Eng-9-10-07.pdf, [Accessed: 18th March 2012]