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Islam and Other Religions >
Are Muslims involved in interfaith dialogue?

Today, Muslims and major Muslim organizations are a major presence in interreligious and intercivilizational dialogue nationally and internationally.

In the past, Muslims have been suspicious of interfaith dialogue. They wondered, “Is the real intent of those seeking dialogue with us actually our conversion?” “Is dialogue really necessary if we believe we have the final and complete revelation?” or “Will dialogue with other religions lead to relativism?” Both vivid memories of colonialism, when Christian missionaries accompanied European colonizers in order to teach what they saw as their “superior” faith, as well as contemporary globalization with its political and economic dominance of the Western world, have led Muslims to be hesitant about dialogue. They wonder, “Is talk of religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue actually ‘cultural imperialism’ in disguise that would undermine Islam?” Nevertheless, in a matter of decades, Muslims have become partners in interreligious dialogue. These dialogues are occurring locally, in many cities and towns around the world, as well as globally, with the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Interfaith dialogue, religious and political pluralism, and human rights have become an important part of contemporary Islamic discourse. An important Muslim initiative that mobilized Christian and Muslim religious leaders to build bridges is the widely accepted “A Common Word Between Us and You” (2007). The limited coverage it has received exemplifies the media's continued lack of interest in “good news.”

“A Common Word” is a major Muslim response to an address delivered in 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg, Germany, which dismayed and angered many Muslims globally. In his speech, Benedict cited a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor's remarks about the Prophet Muhammad: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Equally offensive to Muslims was the pope's assertion that the Quranic passage “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) (which is often used by scholars to illustrate Islam's acceptance of freedom of religion, that other believers should not be forced to convert to Islam) was revealed during Muhammad's early years in Mecca, a period “when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]” and that this passage was superseded by “instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran [Quran], concerning holy war.” Unfortunately, both the pope's statements were historically incorrect. Muslims and many non-Muslim scholars strenuously rejected the pope's assertion that Muhammad commanded the spread of Islam by the sword. To prove that this statement was inaccurate, Muslims and scholars argued two things. First, the Quran does not equate jihad with holy war. This interpretation of jihad developed years later after Muhammad's death when it came to be used by rulers (caliphs) to justify their wars of imperial expansion and rule in the name of Islam. Second, many scholars have verified that Quran 2:256 is not an early Meccan verse but is in fact from the later Medinan period.

A month after the Regensburg speech, thirty-eight Muslim scholars sent Pope Benedict XVI an open letter, expressing their concerns about the speech. On the first anniversary of that letter, some 138 prominent Muslim leaders (muftis, academics, intellectuals, government ministers, authors) from across the world, recognizing the need for better mutual understanding, sent another open letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” to the heads of the world's major Christian churches. This initiative was launched simultaneously at news conferences in Dubai, London, and Washington. The purpose and heart of their message was this:

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 basis for this peace and understanding already exists …: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour … 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 signers noted the expression of the Two Great Commandments in the Torah, New Testament, and Quran, and they emphasized: “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. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.”

The response to “A Common Word” from Christian leaders and scholars was immediate and global. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Benedict XVI, Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II of Russia, the presiding bishop of the Lutheran World Federation, and many others acknowledged its importance, as did many individuals and groups who posted their comments and criticisms on the official Web site of “A Common Word.” Over three hundred leading American mainline and evangelical leaders as well as scholars responded in an open letter endorsing a statement, “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” published in the New York Times and elsewhere. The number of Muslim leaders and scholars who signed the initiative increased from the original 138 to over 300, with more than 460 Islamic organizations and associations also endorsing it. As a follow-up to the letter, international conferences of religious leaders, scholars, and NGOs occurred at Yale University, Cambridge University, and Georgetown University as well as at the Vatican to explore the theological, biblical, and social implications of this initiative.

In response to Muslim reaction to the pope's speech, the Vatican invited Muslim leaders to a three-day summit to seek deeper understanding between the largest religions in the world. Roman Catholics account for just over half the world's 2 billion Christians, while Islam has 1.5 billion followers. Under the theme “Love of God, Love of Neighbor,” some fifty papal officials, Islamic leaders, and scholars met in 2008 at a historic summit. At the end of the meeting the pope met with delegates in a frank discussion.

The Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mustafa Ceric, led the Muslim delegation, and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, leader of the Vatican's delegation, called the meeting a “new chapter in a long history.” The Vatican stressed specific issues of concern: that emphasis on shared beliefs and values not gloss over real differences and issues, in particular what it terms “reciprocity”—the freedom of Christians in countries like Saudi Arabia to build churches and practice their religion freely. The three-day meeting issued a manifesto that called for a new dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders, underscoring the values shared by Islam and Christianity.

Following “A Common Word,” an important dialogue between Muslims and evangelicals ensued. It focuses on exploring common values (peace, justice, compassion, and mercy). A group of mainstream evangelical leaders have initiated multifaith dialogues and projects dealing with common concerns, from social issues like poverty and the environment to security. A sampling of the insights that bring Christians and Muslims together in mutual understanding can be found in “10 Terms Not to Use with Muslims” by Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement:

• “Clash of civilizations” creates an “us as good guy and them as bad guy” scenario when the only clash is between those for civilization and those against it.

• “Secular” to Western ears represents separation of church and state needed for democracy and to Muslims often connotes a “godless society.”

• Instead, “pluralism” “encourages those with (and those without) a God-based worldview to have a welcomed and equal place in the public square.”

• “Integration” suggests that “all views, majority and minority, deserve equal respect as long as each is willing to be civil with one another … in the public square of a shared society.”

• “Integration” is more effective than “assimilation,” which suggests a majority European or North American Christian culture that minority Muslims “need to look like.”

• “Tolerance,” meaning “allowing someone's existence or behavior,” will not build the trust and relationships needed to face global challenges in the twenty-first century.

• Only true respect for each other will help us to “name our differences and commonalities” and to recognize our “inherent dignity … as creations of God” whose different faiths call us “to walk together in peace and justice, mercy and compassion.”

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