Seeking Common Ground between Muslims and Christians

GIVEN THE DIFFICULTIES of interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Islam and the West, a historic step was taken in Rome on 4-6 November 2008. The first Seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum was held at the Vatican with the participation of about 60 Muslim and Catholic religious leaders and scholars from around the world. For two days in workshops closed to the public, the participants discussed the love of God, love of the neighbor, human dignity and mutual respect in the two traditions of Islam and Christianity. On 6 November, the delegation was received by Pope Benedict XVI inside the Vatican where Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the renowned scholar of Islam, spoke on behalf of the Muslim delegation representing the signatories of the Common Word.

Establishing religious and cultural accord is difficult anywhere in the world. This is especially true for the long and checkered relationship between Islam and Christianity. Islam’s meteoric rise to the stage of world history in the 7th century when Christianity was struggling both in the East and in Europe created a sense of ri- valry and urgency among Western Chris- tians. Islam’s claim of restoring Abrahamic monotheism and rejection of the Christian Trinity was received as a theological chal- lenge. Its rapid expansion into areas that were once under the Byzantine rule led to a heightened sense of political and military threat. Finally, the dominance of Islamic culture and civilization after the 10th and 11th centuries was a cause of alarm to many Christians in Europe. Periods of peaceful co-existence in places like Andalusia, Baghdad and Istanbul have not changed this fact. As works of Southern, Daniel, Kedar, Tolan and others show, the attitudes of premodern Christendom towards Islam remained mostly hostile and exclusivist, and some of these attitudes continue to form the views and perceptions current in Western societies today.


The Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg address came as a shock to many in the Muslim world because it reiterated the old misconceptions of Islam as an irrational and violent religion. The Regensburg speech claimed that Islamic faith left little or no room for human (“natural”) reason and asked its followers to blindly follow a stem and rule-driven God. This implied that Islam was unable to develop a rational discourse about its religious tenets and thus invited its followers to “submit” to God rather than to think about or love Him. Furthermore, Islam spread through violence, which is an extension of its irrational nature. On both counts, Christians, the Pope implied, cannot have religious or theological dialogue with Muslims. Even though the Pope Benedict was quoting some provocative medieval sources about Islam, it was clear that his typology of religions accorded a place to Islam only as a culture, not a religion. In addition to Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (1997), Benedict reiterated the same point in an address to a Muslim authence in August 2005 where he used a distinctively socio-cultural language to describe the importance of Muslim-Christian relations.

There are two main problems with these arguments. Firstly, the claims of irrationality and violence are based on a shallow and distorted reading of Islamic intellectual and political history. Neither the strict literalism of the now de- funct school of Ibn Hazm mentioned in the Regensburg speech nor the military con- quests of medieval Muslim empires are suf- ficient for such a judgment. What is intriguing is that the long and honorable tradition of first rate Catholic scholarship on Islam is alarmingly absent in some of the Vatican statements about Islam and Mus- lims. Secondly, one can easily use the two arguments of the Regensburg against the Catholic Church itself. As a matter of fact, it was primarily arguments of this sort which Enlightenment thinkers used to envisage a post-Christian Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Common Word letter, out of which the first Seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum developed, addressed these and other issues to open up new lines of communication between Muslims and Christians. Taking its cue from the Qur’an, it claimed that there is a ground for theological engagement while religious differences are to be admitted as part of a genuine dialogue and ethics of co-existence. At another level, this is a call for the acknowledgement of a Judoe-Christian-Islamic tradition. As the Pope underlined in his address to the Muslim delegation, “We can and must be worshippers of the one God who created us and is concerned about each person in every corner of the world.” In addition to the intricacies of Christian and Muslim theology, there are also grounds for practical cooperation between the two largest religious and cultural communities of the world.
In any interfaith engagement, one wonders if one should concentrate on practical issues and avoid theological debate as it will likely not go anywhere. Many engaged in interfaith dialogue prefer to deal with practical issues with the hope that this would produce concrete results on the ground. Interreligious dialogue, however, cannot function in a “beyond-thetruth” kind of attitude because, for one, all religions lay a claim to the truth (regardless of how one understands it). One has to take these claims seriously. Secondly, one is expected to remain loyal to one’s tradition in broad outlines while reaching out to the other; otherwise a dialogue without a center would be without meaning and substance. Plus, it will have no representation and thus no impact on the larger community. On both counts, the Vatican meeting exceeded expectations. The meetings, speeches and the Final Declaration are punctuated with points of theological reasoning and practical concerns. This is an encouraging outcome and shows that careful and patient work can break new ground in bridging the gap between Muslim and Christian communities. (For the texts of the Vatican meeting as well as the Common Word, see


One of the outcomes of the Vatican meeting is the recognition that one does not need uniformity to seek common grounds. The theological and historical differences between Islam and Christianity are considerable but not impossible to discuss. The Christian view of Christ as the Son of God and suffering savior is different from Islamic notions of salvation and eschatology. In his Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (2004), Benedict affirms, “faith in Jesus Christ as the only Savior and the indivisibility of Christ and the Church is the foundation.” The Muslim concept of Jesus, however, remains within the confines of Islamic prophetology and accords him a central place in the history of revelation. As for Virgin Mary, she is mentioned more in the Qur’an than in the Bible and her name decorates the mihrabs of countless mosques around the world. Together with Fatimah and other women of early Islamic history, Mary is also one of the towering figures of Islamic spirituality. The Christian tradition on other hand rejects the Qur’an as a revelation and Prophet Muhammad as a messenger of God. While even the most bigoted religious zealots in the Muslim world would not say anything against Jesus or Mary, Prophet Muhammad is routinely insulted by numerous Christian circles. Fortunately, the Catholic-Muslim Forum took a clear position against “any form of mockery or ridicule” of the sacred figures and symbols of Islam and Christianity.

Both traditions emphasize love as an essential quality of the Divine but assign different functions to its application in human life. Unconditional love is central to Christian theology because “God is love” (John 4, 16). Expanding upon the same principle of love, Islamic scriptures also stress mercy (rahma) and justice ‘adi) as complimentary qualities of the Divine. A Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, quoted in the Final Declaration, states, “God’s loving compassion for humanity is even greater than that of a mother for her child” (Muslim, Bab al-Tawba: 21). Islam and Christianity agree that the Divinely sanctioned love guides all commandments and extends to all of God’s creation. While everybody accepts the command to “love thy neighbor” as extending to all human beings including those outside one’s spiritual communion, the challenge is how one puts it into practice with patience and consistency. Despite the assurances of Catholic and Muslim theologians, one wonders why and how these two religions that place love and mercy at the heart of their theologies can harbor so much mistrust, fear and occasionally hatred of one another.

Besides theology, the two religions have followed different trajectories in their encounter with modernity and secularization. From Jacques Maritain to Pope Benedict XVI, Catholic theologians appear to have embraced the basic values of secular modernity on “personalism”, human rights and social ethics in order to secure a breathing space for the Christian faith in an increasingly secularizing, individualistic and materialistic world. Yet seeking to use the arguments of a postChristian philosophy in favor of traditional Christianity has not always worked to save the Church from the onslaught of an aggressively secular and skeptical age. A major philosophical difference separates the post-Vatican II notion of the “human person” from that of Islam. The Vatican’s concept of the dignity and inalienable rights of the person echoes well with the broad outlines of Kant’s post-Christian and postmetaphysical theology. And it can be perfectly justified on the basis of biblical and Qur’anic pronouncements about the unique position of the human state in the great circle of creation. But it comes close to erecting a subjectivist theology on the basis of a secular anthropocentric humanism. In either case, the modern autonomous individual and his/her “choices” in the Weberian sense of the term seem to have the final say over what counts as the basis of normative theology.

Modern Islamic thought has largely stayed away from embracing the secular humanism of the Enlightenment. Even in the case of such modernist figures as Muhammad Iqbal and Fazlur Rahman we do not find either an anthropocentric cosmology or a notion of religion reduced to social utility. “Muslim personalism”, attempted by Iqbal, Lahbabi and others, remains within the confines of Islam’s monotheism and moral communalism. Despite Pope Benedict’s criticisms of extreme secularization and rampant relativism shared by many Muslims, the way in which Islam and Catholicism are dealing with the challenges of our secular age reflects different philosophical positions.


Similarities and differences extend to practical issues as well. While Christians insist on freedom of religion and conscience as a universal human right, which the majority of Muslims accepts, missionaries interpret it as a license to proselytize in Muslim countries, which Muslims reject. This is where Pope Benedict’s view of mission and dialogue as the two sides of the same coin enters in. While it is true that every religion is missionary in the sense of witnessing one’s faith, there are worlds of differences in the way religious communities make their message (and witnessing) available to others. Many in the Muslim world see the aggressive missionary work of European and American religious organizations as part and parcel of the Western power structure and indeed instrumental to it, and denounce it as a continuation of 19th century colonialism. Given the painful memories of European colonialism and the political realities of the current world order, which is dominated by countries that are at least nominally Christian, it is not possible to speak of religious freedom in the abstract.
The deplorable human rights record of Muslim countries makes life miserable for both Muslim and non-Muslim communities. The reality of corrupt and autocratic regimes in Muslim countries does not prove the absence of a democratic and participatory culture in Muslim societies. Rather it points to a source of extreme frustration among the Muslim masses. Nevertheless, none of these should be an excuse for the oppression and humiliation of non-Muslim communities in Muslim majority countries. Muslim nations have a religious, moral and civic duty to work for the protection of the rights of their non-Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens as equal members of society. But it is obvious that equal rights and civil liberties will not be secured for everyone until an effective system of representative democracy is established for Muslim countries. This, in turn, brings us back to the global balance of power that dictates the parameters of regional and national politics in much of the Muslim world.

At this point, the Muslim world needs to recover the spirit of cosmopolitan Islam which generated and nurtured the classical Islamic civilization. Striking a balance between recognizing the plurality of religious and cultural communities on the one hand, and remaining loyal to one’s own spiritual tradition on the other was the hallmark of Muslim societies from the greater Mesopotamia to al-Andalus. Such cosmopolitan centers of Muslim culture as Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba, Alexandria, Sarajevo and Istanbul were among the finest examples of the Qur’anic injunction of “striving for the common good” al-khayrat) of God’s creation. Responding to God’s will to create diverse “nations and tribes” did not diminish but increased and deepened the Muslim sense of the serving God by loving Him and one’s neighbor. It is this spirit of cosmopolitan Islam that has been lost in the modern maelstrom of oppositional identities, religious formalism and profane politics.

Differences do not obviate serious intellectual engagement. The current global problems call for a dialogical conversation between Christians and Muslims as well as others. As religions have to learn to live in an increasingly pluralistic world, they are bound to listen to one another more attentively. Muslims and Christians should mobilize their resources to address the spiritual crisis and social problems of our day and age. It is encouraging to see that the Catholic-Muslim Forum has agreed to “explore the possibility of establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations”. Such measures could prove to be vital to diffuse communal tension and misunderstanding.

Centuries of conflict, suspicion, mistrust, rivalry and violence will not be resolved over the course of several or more meetings. But the Common Word initiative and the Pope Benedict’s positive response to it represent a major step towards a “historical reconciliation” between Islam and the West. The Pope has already made some goodwill gestures before meeting with the Muslim delegation of the Common Word on 6 November. His stance against the Iraq war, his call for a just solution to the Palestinian problem, and his positive messages during his visit to Turkey in 2007 should be seen as important steps in the right direction. But much more work remains to be done in order to bring to life the message of love of God and love of the neighbor.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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