A group of Muslims from around the world have issued an open letter to Christian leaders everywhere. The call for peace is summed up in the beginning of the document:
Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.
The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.
The rest of the document lays out the two commandments – Love God and Love Neighbor – as the common ground between Christians and Muslims, showing both Quranic and Biblical support for the commands. What ought we to make of it?
Christianity Today is tracking some responses – so far mostly positive. John F Cullinan, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, is less optimistic, calling attention to violence within Islamic practice and in the advice in the Quran itself. Do these “functionaries” actually speak for Islam?
My answer would be that surely they do speak for Islam, unless by “speak for Islam” you mean something like the Pope speaking for the Roman Catholic Church. These Islamic scholars, leaders, and “functionaries” do not have the same kind and extent of authority in Islam that the Pope has in Catholicism. But that doesn’t matter.
In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre defines a tradition:
“A tradition is an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition who reject all or at least key parts of those fundamental agreements, and those internal, interpretive debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements come to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.”
This is a philosophical definition. It is not an exact match with Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or any other group’s understanding of tradition – but I would identify it as a possible general account of each of these more particular offerings.
What we see in the Common Ground letter is an instance of both external and internal conflict – or to use a more appropriate and irenic word – conversation. While explicitly addressed to Christians as a statement of Islamic thought and practice, it also functions as a move within Islam, a move very different from what we see the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the like making. Do they speak for Islam as a whole or for a majority of Muslims? While the answer to that question may have political import, I think it’s mostly irrelevant. As a Christian – and as a citizen of a country and participant in a culture that at least some Muslims have dedicated themselves to eradicate – I’m quite happy to hear that the there are other ways to be Muslim.
But that’s just it. There isn’t just one way to be a Muslim, just as there isn’t just one way to be a Christian. Both our traditions are in flux, in a continual effort of definition and redefinition. Each of us who speak for our traditions – I use “speak for” in a smaller sense than one would predicate of a Pope or Ayatollah – are participating in this work of definition and redefinition. Whether these guys “speak for Islam,” are representative of the majority of Muslims, or even get Islam “right” is irrelevant. From my point of view as a Christian, we are better off if they are right, if their position does prevail in Islam. I think they’d be better off for it also.
So what do we do if we feel positive about their statement? That could be tricky. If you’re a Christian leader like I am, you could start by saying there is a movement within Islam that seeks to define it as what we on the outside would perceive as a religion of peace, and that they want to live in peace with those of us who are not Muslims. We can go further and tell them that from what we see, their’s is not the only interpretation of Islam currently available (they already know that from the news, so you’re just telling them your head isn’t in the sand), but is well worth encouraging.
The tricky part might come in how are positive response is taken by their foes within Islam. OBL and his ilk might reason, “These folks are reaching out to infidels. The infidels like what they say. That means these so called Muslims are really infidels also.” Personally I don’t care what OBL et al. say. And apparently the folks who wrote this document don’t either. They boldly set forth a “peace is possible with Christianity” version of Islam as true Islam, regardless of what their internal competitors might say.
“But do they really mean it?” We have to decide that about every momentous conversation we have. My perspective is, “Sure they mean it.” And they’ll mean it even more if they get a positive response from it.
“Do we agree with it all?” It’s too big a document to speak meaningfully of agreement on every level. A centerpiece of their argument is a quote from the Quran:
Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and
you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no
partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside
God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who
have surrendered (unto Him). (Aal ‘Imran 3:64)
The phrase “ascribe no partner unto Him” has a history of use by Muslims to argue against the doctrine of the Trinity. If we endorse (the language of their website) or receive (language I’d prefer) this document, are we admitting the history of this phrase from a Muslim perspective, i.e., repudiating our Trinitarian faith? I don’t think so. Though the phrase is repeated many times in the text, not once is it raised as a club to bludgeon – or argue with – the Christians. They assume that Christians are monotheists – inspite of our Trinitarianism. That’s where I stand also – I’m a Trinitarian and a monotheist. So I can read this document as them getting us right.
In the end, I take this document as a positive step. I am willing to recognize that Muslims and Christians hear a common call to love God and love neighbor – and that we can include each other within the definition of neighbor, and thus look at each other as people to love.