Engaging Islam: Reflections on “A Common Word between Us and You”

Wafik Wahba

Historical Background

One month to the day, on October 13, after Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg University lecture of September 13, 2006, 38 Islamic authorities and scholars representing a wide range of schools of thought joined together to deliver an answer to the Pope in the spirit of open intellectual exchange and mutual understanding. In their “Open Letter to the Pope” (cf., Muslim scholars from different branches of Islam spoke with one voice to respond to the Pope’s address.

Exactly one year after that letter on October 13, 2007, Muslims have expanded their message. In “A Common Word between Us and You” (cf., 138 Muslim scholars, clerics, and intellectuals have unanimously came together for the first time since the days of the Prophet of Islam to declare the common ground between Christianity and Islam. Like the “Open Letter,” the signatories to this message came from a wide range of Islamic backgrounds. Every Islamic country or region in the world is represented in this message, which is addressed to the leaders of all the world’s churches, and indeed, to Christians everywhere.

This universal letter brought for the first time in history a collective voice of the leading Islamic religious authorities and scholars worldwide in a positive affirmation of relating to Christians. Never before had Muslims delivered such a definitive statement on Christianity. The signatories adopted a position of respecting the Christian Scriptures and calling Christians to be more faithful to it. The letter carefully uses the NT language familiar to Christians calling for the love of God and the love of neighbor as a common ground between Christianity and Islam.

The final form of the letter had been presented previously at a conference in September 2007, held under the theme of “Love in the Quran,” by the Royal Academy of The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan, under the Patronage of King Abdullah II. After the conference the document was released by all 138 Muslim scholars and authorities. Since the original signing of the document, another 130 Muslim authorities and scholars have joined the original 138 signatories, making the total number of Muslim leaders supporting this initiative 268 at the end of August 2008.

“A Common Word” by Muslim authorities and scholars was delivered to key Christian leaders worldwide—including Pope Benedict XVI, all Orthodox Patriarchs, and heads of Protestant churches worldwide. Between October 2007 and August 2008, Christian leaders worldwide issued around 60 different responses and reactions to “A Common Word.” These include Orthodox Christian leaders, Pope Benedict XVI, several Catholic Cardinals, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lutheran, Presbyterian, World Baptist Alliance, World Council of Churches officials, leaders of the Mennonite and Quaker Churches, Unitarian Congregations, and Christian scholars representing all major Christian denominations, as well as political leaders such as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Former Prime Minister Tony Blair. One of the most celebrated responses to the letter is the Yale document initiated by Professor Miroslav Volf and other Yale Divinity School scholars. Over 500 evangelical and mainline Protestant Christian leaders and scholars endorsed the Yale document that was published in the New York Times on November 18, 2007.

“A Common Word” by Muslim leaders and the Yale response to it created global shock waves in the form of tens of national and international conferences between Muslim and Christian leaders. Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown and other universities held conferences on Christian-Muslim relationships. Other international conferences in Amman, Dubai, and Madrid to mention a few, were also held on the same theme. More than 3,000 key political leaders, scholars, and religious authorities participated in these interfaith dialogues during the last year.

Theological Reflections

Indeed, the best basis for future dialogue between Islam and Christianity is the love of God and the love of our neighbor. “A Common Word” by the Muslim leaders takes up the great themes of love of God and love of one’s neighbor, showing how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Scriptures (Deut 6:4-5; Matt 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31; Surah 3:31; 73:8) teach “complete and total devotion to God.” The document affirms: “Our scriptures also enjoin generous love of neighbor, for without giving the neighbor what we ourselves love, we do not truly love God or the neighbor” (Surah 2:177; 3:92; “A Common Word,” 11). The Muslim letter resonates with the words of James: “My brothers, what good is it to profess faith without practicing it?” (Jas 2:14; cf. 1:22-27; 1 John 2:3, 9-10; 3:14-18).

It is interesting that “A Common Word” by the Muslim leaders takes up the great themes of the love of God and the love of neighbor as the basis for dialog. It states that “the Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbor is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity” (“A Common Word,” 1). This is the first time in the history of Christian-Muslim relationships that the theme of love is considered to be a common ground. The document refers to the “necessity of love.” Is love a “necessity” or an outcome of a mutual relationship of respect, love, and compassion? It is very encouraging indeed that the document is using the theme of love; unfortunately, the Qur’an does not provide a solid ground for supporting such a theme.

Although the document makes reference to several biblical texts that speaks to the love of God, the document finds only three Qur’anic texts that use the word “love.” “Yet there are men who take rivals unto God: they love them as they should love God. But those of faith are more intense in their love for God…” (Al-Baqarah 2:165). The context of the love of God here is emphasized in contrast to those who take rivals unto God. The second half of the verse states, “If only the unrighteous could see, Behold, they would see the Punishment: that to God belongs all power, and God will strongly enforce the punishment.” The second Qur’anic text states: “Say: ‘If you do love God, follow me: God will love you and forgive your sins; for God is oft-forgiving, most merciful.’ Say: ‘Obey God and his messenger’: but if they turn back, God loves not those who reject faith” (Al-Imran 3:31, 32). The third Qur’anic text that mentions the word love is: “Lo! those who believe and do good works, the Infinitely Good will appoint for them love” (Maryam 19:96). The previous verses in this Surah (19:77-94) criticize those who believe that God has begotten a son.

According to the context of the three Qur’anic texts used in the document, God does not love those who associate other beings or deities with him. God’s love is conditioned on obeying God’s commands of worshiping God alone. Otherwise, God severely punishes those who disobey him. This conditional love is just the opposite of the concept and experience of God’s love in Christianity. God’s love is not an abstract concept. In Christianity, we speak of God’s love because there is a historical context and a relational framework within which God showed his love through the incarnation, life, and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. According to the Bible God loved humanity while we were still sinners and extended his reconciliation to sinful humans through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world (Rom 5). We love God because God is love, and because God loved us first and extended his love to us, not out of necessity or fear of punishment (1 John 4). Christians entering into dialogue with Muslims have a responsibility to respond to the Islamic cry for God’s love, the love for which all humanity is searching.

Since the love of God in Islam means total devotion and submission to God, the document is calling Christians to worship God without ascribing other partners to him. This repeated message in the document presents what is meant by loving God according to Islam. The document repeatedly speaks about the total devotion and submission to God as the key to loving God. The core Qur’anic text used in the document and the very title “A Common Word between Us and You” is based on Surah 3:64, a text calling for the Jews and Christians to worship God alone. In fact the document starts by affirming anew this call by insisting: “In the Holy Qur’an, God Most High enjoins Muslims to issue the following call to Christians (and Jews—the People of the Scripture): “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).

Is this a call for Christians to accept Islam by submitting to the Islamic understanding of the oneness of God, or is it a formula for dialogue between Christians and Muslims? Since its inception Islam takes upon itself the task of correcting the beliefs of the Christians and the Jews. At the heart of the disagreement and misunderstanding between Christianity and Islam is the very belief in God and God’s nature. Although in Christianity God is known and experienced as a relational God, Islam speaks of God as the absolute other. According to Christianity the relational God reveals himself to humanity through the incarnation of his son, Jesus Christ, who fully reveals God and God’s nature to humanity. God’s love of humanity extended to the sacrificial death of the incarnated son of God for the redemption of humanity from sin, death, and alienation from God. Such Christian beliefs are considered blasphemy in Islam. In fact the Qur’an devotes several passages, including the one mentioned in the document, to call Christians to put an end to their “shirk” (i.e., their associating other beings or deities with God), considered the grave sin in Islam. By referring several times to Qur’anic texts that state that God has no partner and associate, the document affirms afresh the deepest difference between Islam and Christianity.

Indeed, Christians and Muslims have different perspectives and experiences of God. Although the Christian perspective of God realizes the dimensions of absoluteness and the relatedness in knowing and experiencing God, the Islamic perspective of God emphasizes the absolute oneness of God. Christianity and Islam have different understandings and experiences of the person and function of Jesus Christ, human nature, and the concept of sin and salvation. In any serious dialogue between Christians and Muslims such basic differences need to be addressed in a spirit of love and respect. Sincere dialog requires genuine listening and understanding of each other in order to achieve any meaningful relationships.

The Socio-Political Dimension

“A Common Word” gives compelling reasons why Muslims and Christians should work together, for “with the terrible weaponry of the modern world, with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus, our common future is at stake.” An even more serious reminder of why we must pass from being adversaries to being peacemakers is that “our very eternal souls are all also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony” (“A Common Word,” 16). The document also raises a deep concern among Muslims. “As Muslims we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them—so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes…” (“A Common Word,” 16). Several issues need to be taken seriously in order for Muslims and Christian to be able to enter into a meaningful dialog and ultimately to be able to live in peace and harmony.

First, we cannot wait until we have solved all theological differences in order to accept one another and to live harmoniously with one another. Respect and love of all human beings regardless of their race, color, or religious beliefs are fundamental principles that govern any civilized society.

Second, the document emphasizes that “justice and freedom are a crucial part for achieving peace.” One only hopes that this will be the case in many Muslim countries where non-Muslims are often harassed and persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Peace in the political realm cannot depend on religious uniformity. Religious freedom is a basic human right for all people. If Muslims believe that God is Great (Allahu Akbar), it follows that no human is given the task of defending God. God does not want people to believe in him because they are threatened or forced to do so, but because they truly love him. Religious freedom is manifested only when those who differ with us are given the freedom to practice their religious beliefs.

Third, in Islam there is no separation between politics and religion. Submission to God and God’s will must be made manifest in every sphere of life. This fundamental religious principle presents several problems. On one hand, non-Muslims living in Islamic states often must follow Islamic rules and regulations presented in Islamic law (i.e., Shari’a), and many of those rules are both in sharp conflict with basic human rights and do not guarantee freedom of religion. On the other hand, Muslims often view the West as the Christian world. We need to distinguish between western civilization—which happens to develop in majority Christian countries—and Christian faith. The majority of Christians today do not live in the West. They live everywhere in the world. Christianity is not a western religion. It is a Middle Eastern religion practiced by the worldwide Christian community. Like many Muslims around the globe who are not following Islam, not all those who call themselves Christians are truly living the Christian faith. Finally, it has to be stated that hatred, wars, and violence are not, and, have never been part of the Christian faith. At the heart of the Christian faith is love, humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

In response to “A Common Word,” the Yale document acknowledges the deep fractions and hostility between the two faiths: “Muslims and Christians have not always shaken hands in friendship; their relations have sometimes been tense, even characterized by outright hostility” ( The Yale response speaks to one of the most significant Christian values by acknowledging the mistakes of the past and the present, and asks for forgiveness. “We want to begin by acknowledging that in the past (e.g., in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g., in the excesses of the ‘war on terror’) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors. Before we ‘shake your hand’ in responding to your letter, we ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world.” This is one of the most significant statements in the Yale document and it reflects the heart of the Christian faith, a genuine willingness to forgive and to reconcile with others. Only forgiven and reconciled people can extend forgiveness and reconciliation to others. One hopes that this reconciliatory spirit will eventually dominate the Christian-Muslim relationships.

Posted Feb 01, 2009