12 October 2017
Sheikh Ahmen al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the oldest Muslim university in the world, greets Pope Francis during the pontiff’s visit to Egypt in May 2017. A decade after the landmark document, “A Common Word,” efforts at improving relations between Muslims and Christians continue.
(photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Ten years ago, on 13 October 2007 a document entitled “A Common Word” was signed and published by a group of 138 Muslim scholars. Its name was taken from the Quran 3:65 and it appeared three years before the so-called “Arab Spring,” four years before the beginning of the civil war in Syria and seven years before ISIS declared the restoration of the caliphate. Since its publication, governments have fallen in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, a war has started in Yemen and almost a half million Syrians have been killed in internal violence in the country and millions of people — Christian and Muslim — driven from their homes.
From the outset, “A Common Word” was unique. It is a letter addressed to Christians. It manifests a surprising grasp of the complexity of Christianity and its inner divisions. Using the appropriate ecclesiastical titles, the letter is addressed to the Pope and the Patriarchs of the other four ancient churches — Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. In addition, thirteen other patriarchs, seven major archbishops, including Canterbury, and the leaders of the Lutheran World Federation, World Methodist Council, Baptist World Alliance, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches and “Leaders of Christian Churches everywhere...” are addressed.
Using monotheism as a starting point, the document carefully examines the sacred writings of the Jews, Christians and Muslims to see points of convergence. The methodology used is familiar to theologians in all three traditions.
While the entire document is important, its conclusions were extraordinary — and I might say underestimated — ten years ago and are perhaps more important now than ever. Moving from the level of exegesis to application, the scholars declare:
Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. 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.
Lest anyone think that this is merely a recognition of self-interest and survival, the document stresses the religious component of its argument in a striking way: “...we say that our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.”
What is happening here is that a large and diverse body of Islamic scholars (ulamā) are basically re-evaluating the notion of jihād. In both Muslim and non-Muslim literature jihād is seen as the constant state between the Dar ul-Salām, “the realm of peace,” where Islam and Muslims are in charge, and the Dar ul-Ḥarb, “the realm of war” where they are not.
In Islam, the only legally permitted war is jihād, i.e. extending the realm of peace, i.e. submission (islām) to the one God, to the entire world. Muslim scholars placed numerous conditions and restrictions on conducting jihād, many of which seem enlightened even in the 21st century. However, the very concept of jihād as a permanent state of at very least possible aggression seems foreign — and is understandably disturbing to many, if not all, non-Muslims.
The Muslim scholars in “A Common Word” clearly state that “no side can unilaterally win” this conflict. This is a major new direction in Muslim thinking. No longer is détente between the two “realms” an unfortunate and temporary necessity while waiting for the winds of fortune to change. It is now a required goal to be achieved. The document recognizes that not everyone agrees with this and speaks of “those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them....” The rise of jihadi groups in the last decades, especially but not exclusively ISIS, underlines the importance of this document. The letter offers the beginning of a religious solution to the problem of religious extremism which can be definitively eradicated only by religious means Using the strongest religious language possible, “A Common Word” recognizes that “our very eternal souls are also at stake” in finding a solution to violent, religious extremism.
If the document is extraordinary in its addressees, it is no less extraordinary in its signatories. Originally it was signed by 138 scholars. What might understandably be overlooked by non-Muslims is the amazing variety of the signatories. Islam is divided — sometimes bitterly — between different groups. It is extraordinary that so diverse a group of Muslims could come together at least temporarily to sign this document.
In a world where Christianity in the Middle East is struggling for its very existence, where xenophobia, racism and “Islamophobia” are raising their ugly heads, perhaps the 10th anniversary of “A Common Word” might provide an opportunity to re-envision a new type of dār ul-salām — a “realm of peace” — in which Christians, Muslims and others work together for a world of peace, justice and security.