Common Word and Common Ground: Transforming Interfaith Dialogue into Interfaith Solidarity for Transcendent Justice
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
I. The Three-Phase Process
The last five years of the third millennium’s first decade, from 2005 through 2010, witnessed an unprecedented movement toward mutual understanding and practical cooperation among the world religions designed to combat extremism and address some of the underlying issues of conscience. This movement has involved the leaders of all the world religions in a common effort to transform interfaith dialogue to interfaith solidarity in the pursuit of transcendent justice. This effort has proceeded in three phases or chapters, the first one within Islam, the second among the Abrahamic religions, and the third between them and the Eastern Religions.
The first phase culminated in the Amman Message of July, 2005, at which the leading Islamic scholars of the world convened in Amman, Jordan, to condemn the growing practice, known as takfir, among Muslim extremists to condemn as apostates those who disagree with them. This was the first such universal fatwa by all six of the Islamic schools of law in many decades. This was designed to launch a global process of intra-faith dialogue and cooperation among Muslims. It was obvious that the first step in inter-faith understanding and cooperation must be intra-faith cooperation within each of the major world religions, based on understanding that the real clash of civilizations is not among civilizations but within each of them.
The second phase of the universal search for interfaith solidarity in rehabilitating the role of religion on behalf of transcendent justice started in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensberg speech of September 12, 2006, which was widely perceived as an attack on Islam as a religion and as a radical change from the interfaith outreach of his predecessor, John Paul II. This helped to spark intra-faith conferences that year, following the Open Letter to the Pope on October 12, 2006, in which thirty-eight authoritative scholars from every branch of Islam for the first time spoke comprehensively with one voice about the true teachings of Islam. This was followed by a letter of September 13, 2007, from 138 authoritative Islamic scholars, entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” which was even more inclusive than the first one and for the first time since the days of the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, declared the substantial unity of Christianity and Islam in addressing key issues of conscience.
In November, 2007, a group of scholars at Yale Divinity School drafted a reply to A Common Word, entitled “Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to ‘A Common Word Between Us and You’,” which was endorsed by more than 300 leading Christian scholars in an effort to reorient Muslim-Christian relations away from “a clash of civilizations.” This, in turn, led to the first of a series of conferences beginning at Yale University on July 24th-31st, 2008, to be followed by four more at Cambridge University, The Vatican, Georgetown, and the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute in Jordan. This pioneering process was enriched by parallel efforts, beginning with the conference held by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Madrid at the end of July, 2008, to bring Jewish scholars into the process for the first time.
The third phase of a growing global movement toward interfaith solidarity in countering extremism by reviving the best of the past in the present to shape a better global future was sparked by the same Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad and his Royal Aal Bayt Foundation for Islamic Thought, based in Jordan, who launched Phase Two in 2007. This phase led in 2010 to the publication of an orientation book from Fons Vitae entitled Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism, by Reza Shah Kazemi with an Introduction by the Dalai Lama and a Conclusion by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf of America. This differs from Phase Two because it focuses not on the Common Word but on the Common Ground. The Common Word initiative has focused on what one might call the intellectualization of God, thus the focus on the Word, which is central to the Abrahamic religions and has led to irresolvable differences at this level. The initiative led by Prince Ghazi and the Dalai Lama focuses on the spiritual and moral affinities of understanding at the deeper level understood intuitively by all humans without ontological or epistemological explanation.
For example, in the Pali Canon the Lord Buddha’s silence on the One as Creator is not a denial as such, but, in my view and also in the view of the leaders of the Third Phase is simply assumed. The Buddhist emphasis on the Absolute is comparable with, but not necessarily identical with, the Essence (Dhat) of God in Islam. The core Islamic word, Al Haqq, which means simultaneously Allah, truth, and normative law, is comparable, but perhaps not identical, with the Buddhist dharma. Karuna or loving compassion in the sense of participating in the suffering of others is similar to rahmah in Islam. The Buddhist concept of nirvana or the transcendent as the highest good, which transcends the ego, is similar to the Islamic fana or extinction of the self, which is basic to all of what is called Abrahamic mysticism. The Buddhist shunya or The Void is similar to the otherwise unique Islamic concept of la ilaha ille Allah (no god but God). The combination of Dharma, Nirvana, and Shunya is similar to what Sufis would call the unnamable essence of God, beyond the Trinity of Persons and beyond all conceivable qualities. This Common Ground, beyond the Common Word, has been fundamental in Islamic-Buddhist relations for well over a thousand years in most of the so-called Muslim World. Phase three of the growing global movement, like the first two phases, is designed to rehabilitate the role of religion in the world by laying a traditionalist foundation on the natural law of transcendent justice.
II. Three Basic Principles of Respect
The success of this global movement depends first of all on the role of respect among the followers of the global religions for each other. The Islamic guidelines focus on three basic principles emphasized throughout the Qur’an. They are:
1) Freedom of religion, which includes equality in human dignity, unity in diversity, equality of prophets, universal conditions for salvation, and equal validity of prophets.
2) Love, which includes one’s personal relationship with God, forgiveness, and peaceful reconciliation; and
3) Compassionate justice, which includes personal righteousness and normative law.
Together these three lead to respect for each other among Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists and to acceptance of each other as fellow peoples of the book.
A. Freedom of Religion
1. Equality in Human Dignity
Immediately following the beautiful “throne verse,” which describes the attributes of God, in the second surah, Surah al Baqara, is verse 257. It states simply, “Let there be no compulsion in religion (la ikraha fi al din)”.
This is axiomatic because absolute truth does exist and it is human instinct to seek it, but no person or community can know more than a portion of this truth. Certainly no one should claim to possess it to the exclusion of others, because this would be the same as claiming to be God. This is clear from scholarly interpretation of the throne verse, “He knows all that lies open before men and all that is hidden from them, whereas they cannot attain to any of his knowledge except what He wills [them to attain].” Some scholars consider that this refers to earth and heaven, but the meaning is essentially the same.
The word din used here for religion is the broadest of several related terms and refers to the unchanging spiritual truths that have been preached by every one of God’s prophets. Twice the Qur’an refers to the shar’, which refers to the normative jurisprudential principles common to Judaism, Christianity, and all human communities. The term din in reference to freedom of religion includes also the more restrictive terms minhaj, which refers to an entire way of life based on one’s own conscience and the wisdom of one’s community, and shar’ah, which refers to the governing laws of the particular community. The still more restrictive term, shari’ah, is reserved for the normative principles and specific regulations that are binding only on those who profess to be Muslims.
The Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, was specifically ordered to treat all people equally regardless of their religion. Shortly after the throne verse we find Verse 2:272, which reads, “It is not for you, O Prophet, to bring people to the path of right guidance, since it is God [alone] who guides whom He will.” The circumstance of this revelation was the Prophet’s advice to his companions to give charity only to his own followers in Madinah who were poor. The above revelation came immediately, whereupon the Prophet enjoined his followers to disburse charity based on personal need without regard to religion. Freedom of religion means freedom for all persons to be treated equally in dignity as human beings.
The reason for this requirement of equal treatment is the requirement of respect for every person’s free will. Surah Yunus 10:99-100 reads: “If God had willed, everyone would have believed. Will you then compel humankind to believe against their will? No soul will ever attain to faith except by the Will of God.” As a moral being, every person is free to discriminate and choose between right and wrong and to use one’s reason in conforming to one’s God-willed nature, but this is possible only through the grace of God.
2. Unity in Diversity
Throughout the Qur’an, we are asked to see the coherence of the universe in the diversity that points to its Creator. If uniformity were the norm, there would be only one standard tree, one standard cloud, and one uniform sunset all over the world. Furthermore, we are directed to see that all beings are created to form pairs and with a nature that seeks community. This communal nature applies also to religion.
Sur’ah al Ma’ida 5:48 reads thus: “To you have we given the scriptures, just as we have given scriptures to people before you. We have protected your scripture [the Qur’an] in its entirety. So, judge among people from what knowledge has come to you, and do not be carried over by your vain desires. Unto every one of you We have appointed a [different] governing system of law (shir’ah) and a [different] way of life (minhaj). If God had so willed, all humanity would have been a single community. God’s plan is to test you in what each one of you has received [in both scriptures and inspiration]. So strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of all people is to God. God [alone] will tell you the truth about matters over which you dispute.”
This is why the immediately preceding verse, 5:47, states: “Let, then, the followers of the Gospel judge in accordance with what God has revealed in it, for those who do not judge in the light of what God has bestowed from on high are truly the iniquitous.” In other words unity in diversity can come only when the diverse paths are respected as legitimate in the plan of God, even though the most comprehensive expression of truth may be found in the Qur’an, after which no further revelation is necessary.
3. Universal Conditions for Salvation
One of the clearest and most insistent messages throughout the Qur’an and in the teachings and practice of the Prophet Muhammad was the universality of salvation within the various religions that have developed in various times and places.
Only three conditions are given as the requirements for salvation. These are: 1) belief in One God; 2) belief in the justice of God both in this world and the next; and 3) the practice of good works.
Near the beginning of the Qur’an in the second surah, Baqarah 2:62, we have the standard formulation: “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish Scriptures, the Christians (those who follow the teachings of the Gospel), and the Sabians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – shall have their reward from their Lord, and they need have no fear, nor shall they grieve.”
The Sabians may refer to a specific people, perhaps the Buddhists, as suggested by Reza Shah Kazemi, but, like much of the Qur’an, probably is also generic in referring to all monotheistic peoples, as well as to every individual who follows his own human nature and recognizes the essence of what all the prophets have taught. Muslims in the East, from Persia to the Pacific, have always included the Lord Buddha in this category. One of the early revelations in the Qur’an, Surah al Tin, refers symbolically to four religions. According to many commentators, this surah takes its title from the first symbol, namely, the Bo Tree (Tin) under which The Buddha received enlightenment.
In Surah al Baqarah 2:112 an even more generic formulation is given: “Everyone who surrenders his whole being unto God, and is a doer of good, shall have his reward with his Sustainer; and all such need have no fear, and neither shall they grieve.” The literal translation is “everyone who surrenders his face unto God,” which is classical Arabic for one’s whole being. Whoever does so is a muslim and it is in this sense that the terms islam (the religion) and muslim (the person who surrenders to God) are used throughout the Qur’an.
4. Equal Validity of Prophets
A central teaching in Islam is that God has provided a prophet for every people, beginning with the cavemen millions of years ago, and probably has done so for all the sentient beings on the perhaps millions of other inhabitable planets in the universe. The Qur’an states that no community has been left without a prophet. The hadith suggest that the number of prophets is 124,000, which means numerous beyond count.
Since all prophets taught essentially the same thing, the Qur’an specifically says that humans should not make distinctions among them, even though they may have had different emphases depending on differences in time and place and on the receptivity of their own communities.
“Those apostles We endowed with gifts, some above others: to one of them [Moses] God spoke; others [David] He raised to degrees (of honor); and to Jesus the Son of Mary We gave Clear (Signs) and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. (Surah al Baqarah, 2:253)
This “equality” of prophets in the sense of their legitimacy as witnesses before God and of the validity of their message mirrors the Qur’anic emphasis on the equality of believers in the different religious traditions. The standard formulation is first found in Surah al Baqarah 2:136: “Say: ‘We believe in God, and in what has been bestowed upon us from on high, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendents, and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus, and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction among any of them [in faith]. And it is unto Him that we [all of us] surrender ourselves (literally “unto Him we are Muslims)’.”
This is repeated verbatim in the next surah, Surah Al-i Imran 3:84, and is preceded by the rhetorical question in 3:83, “Do they seek perchance a faith other than in God, although it is unto Him that whatever is in the heavens and on earth surrenders itself, willingly or unwillingly, since unto Him all must return.” The standard formulation is followed in 3:85 by the warning, “For, if one goes in search of a religion other than self-surrender unto God (literally “other than the din of Islam”), it will never be accepted from Him, and in the life to come he shall be among the lost.”
This emphasis on the universal equality of all Prophets, while recognizing the special gifts of some adapted to time and place and the missions of some as Messengers bringing books of guidance, is why a Muslim is not a Muslim unless one believes in the holy scriptures given to earlier dispensations.
1. The Personal Relationship with God
The most pervasive teaching in the Islamic religion is the centrality of love. Oddly, this is precisely the concept that its detractors insist does not and cannot exist. Unfortunately, Islam has more than its share of professed adherents who share the conclusions of its detractors and accordingly exhibit arrogance toward God and exude hatred rather than love for Jews and Christians. Such hatred is the origin both of terrorism and of terroristic counter-terrorism.
The word islam means submission to God but implies both love as the means to submission and peace as the result. The Qur’an often uses the term taqwa, which means loving awareness of God. The common word for love, hubb, as the basis for the reciprocal relationship of love intended between God and the human person first appears near the beginning of the Qur’an in the second chapter, Surah al Baqarah 2: 165: “Those who have attained to faith love Allah more than all else.”
The combination of God’s love and mercy first appears in the next chapter, Surah Al-i Imran, which introduces the Virgin Mary and the “Word from God,” Jesus, whose message is renewed by Muhammad. The Prophet Muhammad is instructed as follows:
Say: If you love God (in tuhibbuna Allaha), follow me, and God will love you (yuhbibkum Allahu) and forgive you your sins, for God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.
The term hubb is first used in conjunction with taqwa in 3:76, fa ina Allaha yuhibu al mutaqin “for God loves those who live in awe of God’s love.”
The first complete listing in English of all terms in the Qur’an referring to love may be found in the Concordance of the Qur’an in English by H. E. Kassis, University of California Press. In addition to hubb it also lists the related terms radiya, shaghata, and wadud (waada and wadda).
The favorite prayer of the Prophet Muhammad, and of millions of Muslims after him, is Allahumma, asaluka hubbaka wa hubba man yuhibuka wa hubba kuli ‘amali yuqaribuni ila hubbika, “Oh Allah, I ask you for Your love, and for the love of those who love You, and for the love of everything that will bring me closer to your love.”
Compassion and mercy are the essence of Allah in His name Al Rahman and are manifested in His attribute of action Al Rahim. Every surah in the Qur’an, except one, begins with the invocation Bi ismi Allah, al Rahman al Rahim, as does every prayer by practicing Muslims.
Surah Fatir 35:45 concludes with the statement that if it were not for the mercy and grace of Allah not a single living creature would enter heaven.
This is why kindness and forgiveness are encouraged throughout the Qur’an, which states about those who forgive transgressors, “Their reward is with God, for God loves those who exercise restraint and forgive.”
Forgiveness is also an essential part of Islamic law. The well-known punishments of retribution are covered in Surah al Ma’ida 5:45, “We ordained in the Torah a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, and an ear for a ear, and a tooth for a tooth, and a similar retribution for wounds, but he who shall forego it out of charity will atone thereby for some of his past sins.”
The same applies to the prescribed punishment for theft, which is cutting off the thief’s hand. This is waived in times and in societies where poverty reduces the freedom of the individual to maintain a moral life based on truth. This reflects the Prophet Muhammad’s warning, “Poverty may well turn into a denial of the truth.” This means that those who must exert all their energy merely to survive have no dignity, no freedom, and no spiritual progress. This can drive whole communities into materialism and away from love of God. This is why the second caliph, ‘Umar ibn al Khattab, gave a blanket waiver and eliminated the particular hadd of cutting off hands during a time of hunger.
This aspect of Islamic law reflects the basic Islamic teaching that the economic well-being of the individual is essential. If the functioning of societal institutions does not provide adequate material well-being through the community’s duty to protect its members, it has no right to apply the full punishment for theft. In a fully functioning Islamic society, however, theft by one person from another is considered to be an attack on all of society and deserves full hudud. In this case, the thief may be pardoned only if he repents and returns the stolen goods before apprehension, because at least from the standpoint of society he does not otherwise merit mercy and forgiveness.
3. Reconciliation and Peace
The opposite of love and forgiveness is the ascription of collective guilt to another community because of the sins of some of its members. This leads to war. The Qur’an specifically condemns collective guilt as the origin of politically inspired hiraba, which is the closest Arabic equivalent to “terrorism.” Collective guilt is used as the justification for blowing up Jewish babies and “driving the Jews into the sea”, just as it was in blaming the Palestinians for the crimes of the Nazis. Of course, extremists among Jews would like to do the same to all Palestinians in response to the perceived collective guilt of the entire world for the shoah or holocaust. And extremist Christians would like to nuke Makkah now rather than later as retaliation against the incineration of 3,000 innocent people in the towers of the World Trade Center. But one crime inspired by ascribing collective guilt to others does not justify another in an unending chain of destruction.
In the universal principles of Islamic jurisprudence the right to life is next in importance to freedom of religion, so much so that both the Jewish and Islamic scriptures compare slaying another human being to killing all of humanity. As in the holocaust, quantity becomes somewhat irrelevant compared to the evil of the crime, which in the shoah was unprecedented in human history. Near the beginning of Surah al Ma’ida, 5:32, we read, “If anyone slays a human being – unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption on earth (fasad fi al ‘ardi) – it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind.”
Long before the beginning of international law in Europe, Islamic scholars developed a sophisticated set of criteria for the just war similar to that now universally accepted at least in theory throughout the world. Islam does not preach pacifism because the Prophet Muhammad warned his sometimes reluctant followers that under certain conditions one must oppose aggressors with force, because otherwise not a single synagogue, church, or mosque would remain standing. A permanent state of war, as advocated by many Muslim extremists today, however, is both unnecessary and forbidden.
The limits of just war are the same as the limits for the jihad al asghar or Lesser Jihad. The aims must be approved by legitimate authority and must be limited to the defense of human rights for oneself and others. The amount of force must be held to the minimum required for victory in order to avoid harm to non-combatants and property. “Fight in the cause of God [to defend justice] against those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for God does not love transgressors” (Surah al Baqarah, 2:190). Furthermore the expected benefit from war must be greater than its inevitable harm. And all measures short of war must have been exhausted in the search for justice.
Among the measures short of war are the other two forms of jihad. These are the jihad al akbar or Greatest Jihad and the jihad al kabir or Great Jihad. The greatest jihad is the purification of the self spiritually so that one will always seek peace. The greatest and lesser jihads are found in the hadith or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
The great jihad, which is the only one mentioned in the Qur’an (Surah al Furqan 25:52) reads, wa jahidhim bihi jihadan kabiran, “strive with it (divine revelation) in a great jihad.” This is the intellectual jihad needed especially during times when one’s soul and body are relatively secure. This is the struggle of tajdid or societal renewal in order to promote greater justice at all levels of human community, since injustice is the major cause of war.
According to the Grand Mufti of Syria, Shaykh Ahmad Kuftaro, who headed one of the Naqshbandi Sufi orders until his death at an advanced age, “The Great Jihad is to acquaint ourselves and others with our Lord, with His greatness, wisdom, justice, mercy, and love. It is to reflect all of His attributes, as we can conceive of them, in our own lives so that we become instruments of His purpose. And the Great Jihad is to acquaint ourselves and others with the models of Allah’s attributes to be found in the Prophets and Messengers of Allah and in their common message in all its purity and fullness in the life of the Prophet Muhammad.”
Good translations and annotations of the Qur’an are now becoming available free, such as that by Muhammad Asad from The Book Foundation. A profound tafsir or commentary on the Qur’an is now nearing completion by The Traditionalist Foundation under the direction of Syed Hossein Nasr, who has long been University Professor in Islamic Studies at George Washington University and over the past half century has published a score of excellent books on Islam for both scholars and inquisitive teenagers. Recently he has augmented the wealth of good books on Islam by his introductory volume, The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity.
C. Compassionate Justice
The third of the principles that lead to respect among all people of faith, other than freedom of religion and love, is compassionate justice. This includes both individual righteousness, known as qist, and social justice, known as ’adl.
Islamic teaching and practice distinguish between righteousness and justice. This is shown by the use of both terms in Surah al Nisaa 4:135: “Be ever steadfast in upholding equity (qist). … Do not follow your own desires lest you swerve from justice (‘adl).” What is translated as equity refers to a set of responsibilities in the practice of individual virtue, because virtue at the individual level is the essential foundation of justice at the level of the community. This is why the portion of Surah al Nisa’a leading up to verse 135 deals with one’s personal spiritual life (verses 105 to 126) followed by responsibilities and rights in social behavior (verses 127 to 130), including a strong moral but not legal restriction on plural marriage in verse 129 as part of the rights of women.
Equity or qist, though usually not differentiated from justice, includes the five pillars of Islam, which are submission to God and divine revelation, prayer, charity, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca in the hajj. These are essential means to go beyond the level of islam, which may be defined as belief in the Islamic creed or ‘aqida (belief in divine revelation, angels, prophets and revealed books, ultimate justice, and the infinite power of God) to the higher level of iman or faith so that one can become fully human. God’s supreme gift to every person is one’s endowment with a conscious soul, referred to in the Qur’an as the ruh or spirit, which God breathes into every person as a “breath of His own spirit.” Every person’s identity is the person God intends one to be, so the pursuit of iman is to become that person. At the highest level, known as ihsan, which is the goal of Sufis, one’s subjective impression, though not the absolute reality, is that only God exists, because everything else is relatively irrelevant. This is a foretaste of heaven.
Justice is the most universal value in all civilizations. Justice assumes the existence of a truth higher than man-made or positivist law. In fact, justice is merely an expression of this truth. Thus God reveals in Surah al An’am 6:115 of the Qur’an, wa tamaat kalimatu rabika sidqan wa ‘adlan, “The word of your Lord is fulfilled and perfected in truth and in justice.”
The purpose of all religion is to empower the truth. Justice is important for Muslims because they consider that it is the translation of truth into practice and that therefore justice is nothing more than the Will of God. Its nature and substance, however, must be sought out through deduction from divine revelation, natural law (known by Muslims as the sunnat Allahi), and human intellectual processing of the first two sources. In other words, justice is heuristic in the sense that it constantly seeks knowledge about the sources, nature, and practice of justice, with the challenges lying more in the present as a means to build on the best of the past in search of a better future.
Justice requires us to recognize that there is such a thing as the furqan or difference between right and wrong at an absolute level of truth and that we are not the ultimate arbiters of it. The major purpose of prophets as intermediaries between God and humankind is to raise our natural awareness of the multi-dimensional nature of reality. Jesus, whom most Muslims call the Prophet of Love and many Muslims call a Word from God through the Holy Spirit (Ruh al Quddus), taught that as a manifestation of the divine he was an essential link. He taught, “The truth shall set you free” (John 8:32) and “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). This statement of ultimate reality and of the means to access it is just as true today as it was when Jesus spoke it two thousand years ago. Today it is perhaps even more needed, now that we have entered the most militantly polytheistic period of human history.
The above three principles of respect, namely, freedom of religion, love, and compassionate justice, constitute the essence of Islam and the paradigmatic framework for human rights in all higher religion.
III. Can Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists Acknowledge Each Other’s Scriptures?
The Peoples of the Book can accept the Common Word in all divine revelation, because they accept the same Common Ground. They can accept Hans Kung’s Global Ethics, first proposed and approved in Chicago at the Second Parliament of the World Religions in 1993, just as they can accept the normative principles in Islamic jurisprudence, known as the maqasid al shari’ah. But, can they accept each others’scriptures as divinely inspired?
The movement of The Common Word and The Common Ground has led to several good books on this difficult question. One of the most profound is Muslims, Christians, and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue, by Jane Edelman Smith, who wrote this book at Hartford Seminary as Professor of Islamic Studies and Co-Director of the MacDonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.
Whether Muslims can accept Jesus as a Muslim is explored in Robert F. Shedinger’s treatise, Was Jesus a Muslim? Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion.
The more difficult question is whether Christians can do the same by accepting Muhammad as a Genuine Prophet and the Qur’an as God’s Word. Can Christians should respect the Muslim belief that the Qur’an is a verbatim revelation from God and therefore is central to their faith. Can Muslims accept Jesus, a person of a Trinitarian God, as Christians’ response to God’s presence in their lives.
From my reading, the New Testament does not clearly support the basic Christian teachings on the trinity, original sin, and the death of Jesus as vicarious atonement for the sins of humankind. The New Testament therefore is quite compatible with the Qur’an as a divine revelation. Based on my dissertation on the subject at Northwestern University in 1955-56, however, I would emphasize that the majority position in Catholic tradition should be accepted as definitional for Christians as it was developed in a series of Ecumenical Councils in the early Christian centuries. For the same reason, the majority position of the greatest Islamic scholars in Islamic tradition should be taken as definitional for Islam, regardless of whether or not this has been accepted universally by Muslims throughout the centuries.
The great Roman philosopher, Cicero, advised two thousand years ago that before one discusses anything whatsoever one should first define one’s terms. Another wise wag has added that “One should treat symbols and terms with the same caution one would with tame rattlesnakes”. One has a universal responsibility to respect the role of faith in understanding and relating to any sacred scripture. An important question in interfaith understanding, which is essential for productive interfaith cooperation in addressing issues of conscience, is the definition of prophecy. Prophecy has at least four basic definitions.
The first is prophecy in the sense of predicting the future, which secular think-tanks sometimes do based exclusively on their selection of variables from the world of manifestation in order to reach a preordained policy conclusion and recommendation. In Islam, any such attempt to predict the future is forbidden as denying the power of God, Who alone knows and has the ultimate power over all things.
The second definition of prophecy, the Islamic one, is contained in the Qur’anic word for it, nubuwah, which means “bringing the news”. A prophet or nabii (pl. anbiyah) brings the news from God either to a specific people or to all humankind. A few prophets also bring a book of guidance and therefore are called rusul (sing. rasul) or messengers. They may address the future, as well as the past, but the primary message is for the present.
Perhaps the best Islamic definition of prophecy is contained in an interview with Professor Hossein Nasr, entitled “The First Prophet”. He explains, “First of all, prophecy is the revelation of some aspect of divine reality in the world of creation. Or, speaking metaphorically, the projection of an aspect of divine reality into manifestation. The world as we see it, of course, is not reality; it is only the appearance of reality, a level of reality. The Divine is reality as such, the absolute and ultimate reality”.
He concludes, “It’s the ‘Good News’. That is, news which has to do, not only with our own nature in the world – what we are, who we are – but also what we ought to become, where we should be going”. This is similar to Thomas Merton’s wisdom that each person’s real identity is the person that God created one to be, so one’s mission in life is “to become the person that one is” in the “eyes of God”, as contrasted with the false self or selves that occupy the creative energies of so many persons in the contemporary world. And the same applies to every human community.
Still a third possible definition of prophecy is represented by the Qur’anic reference to the mysterious character known as Al Khidr or “The Green Man”. He famously dumbfounded the Prophet Moses, alayhi as-salam, on a journey by doing things that seemed to have no legitimate purpose, while commanding Moses not to ask questions. At the end he explained the purpose of every inexplicable act, thereby teaching even a Prophet of God what he did not and could not know.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf in the book, Common Ground between Islam and Buddhism, discusses the classical Islamic scholars’ identification of Khidr (also called Al-Khadir) as the Lord Buddha. He writes, “Based on their description of the Buddha, if they are accurate, it would seem that he is none other than al-Khader, whom Muslims acknowledge, upon him be peace. … Although al Khadir, ‘alayhi as-salam, is associated with the period of Moses in the Qur’an, a widespread belief among Muslims is that al-Khadir does not die until the end of time. … Al Khadir was a trans-historical character. It is also possible to interpret the figure of al-Khadir as a supra-historical archetype, or a particular mode of spiritual guidance – antinomian and enigmatic, radically transcending human modes of comprehension, and even ‘normal’ modes of prophetic guidance”.
“Al-Khadir”, writes Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, “is indeed an enigmatic character. According to the Qur’an, he is given two gifts directly from God: mercy and experiential knowledge of reality. He is generally not considered a prophet. He is a teacher who wants no students, and, in the Qur’anic narrative, he attempts to dissuade Moses from attempting to learn what cannot be taught but has to be experienced. This is a very Buddhist view. The Buddha is reported to have said, ‘If one would make oneself as one teaches others to be, one should master self-control, for the self is truly hard to tame’. Al-Khadir uses a Zen-like approach, in which the student cannot discern the meaning of his actions but has to endure the teacher’s outward antinomian behavior patiently. He is described by most of the theologians of Islam as someone who was given direct knowledge (‘ilm ladunniyy). Which is not revelation, but knowledge ‘from the divine presence’. It is defined as ‘A direct knowledge someone obtains from God without means of an angel or a prophet through witnessing, as occurred with al-Khadir… It is said that it is a knowledge of the divine essence and its qualities with a certainty that arises from direct witnessing and experience that occurs in the inner eye of consciousness’.”
Sufi exegetes of the Qur’an have argued: “Al-Khidr represents the inner dimension, esoterism, which transcends form. He appears to men in those moments when their own soul bears witness to an awareness of that dimension. In that rare case when there is a spontaneous realization of spiritual truth on the part of a fard, a solitary or someone who is by destiny cut off from revelation or from normal channels of spiritual instruction, it is al-Khidr who is the teacher, as in the saying ‘when the disciple is ready, the master appears’.”
Ordinary Muslims understand this esoteric teaching merely as the distinction between wahy or divine revelation to prophets, which is binding on everyone, and ilham or inspiration, which is binding only on the person who receives it. Those who confuse the two are by definition outside the faith. Roman Catholics accept inspiration but reject prophecy after the death of Jesus. Muslims reject prophecy after the death of Muhammad, simply because there is no further need for prophecy. The same is not true, however, for Jews, who may reject both Jesus and Muhammad as prophets but are still awaiting future prophets until the Messiah comes at the end of the world.
The fourth form of prophecy is the Jewish. Under this definition, Jews and Christians can accept Muhammad as a prophet, even though few do. The classical definition of the prophet as a recipient of divine revelation was penned by Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel. In his magnum opus, The Prophets: An Introduction, HarperCollins, 1962, he writes, as reproduced in Parabola, Spring 1996, pp. 6-9, entitled “What Manner of Man is a Prophet”:
“The Prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words. …
“To a person endowed with prophetic sight, everyone else appears blind; to a person whose ear perceives God’s voice, everyone appears deaf. No one is just; no knowing is strong enough, no trust complete enough. The prophet hates the approximate, he shuns the middle of the road. Man must live on the summit to avoid the abyss. There is nothing to hold to except God. Carried away by the challenge, the demand to straighten out man’s ways, the prophet is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist….
“The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven. … The prophet is a watchman, a servant, a messenger of god, ‘an assayer and tester’ of the people’s ways (Jeremiah 6:27). … The prophet’s eye is directed to the contemporary scene; the society and its conduct are the main theme of his speeches. Yet his ear is inclined to God. He is a person struck by the glory and presence of God, overpowered by the hand of God. Yet his true greatness is his ability to hold God and man in a single thought.”
This story of Khidr in the Islamic scripture reveals the central challenge of interfaith dialogue and cooperation. In order to bring out the best of all faiths one must understand and respect where each person of faith is coming from. Equally important is solidarity in practical follow-up through a commitment to explore for everyone’s mutual enrichment what all people of faith have in common in addressing universal issues of conscience. In Christianity, as developed throughout the centuries, the commitment is based on mutual love inspired by God. In classical Islam and classical Judaism, as developed in their extensive interpretative tradition, the commitment is based on the search for truth and justice inspired by one’s love of God and of one’s fellow human beings. Both the search and the result originate in God’s love for everyone of us.
One of the most instructive moments in my life was the five minutes I spent in 1982 with two Buddhist monks, who had just arrived from Nepal to join a gathering of representatives from the world religions designed to establish a village of monasteries in Baca, Colorado. They had only five minutes time before they had to go shopping in Baca, and I was delegated to entertain them. Nogt knowing how one entertains Buddhist monks, I asked them to explain Buddhism in five minutes.
They laughed and replied, “We do not need five minutes to explain all there is to know about Buddhism. First, one must master Hinayana Buddhism, which is to separate oneself from addiction to the material world. Then one must master Mahayana Buddhism, which is to unite with nirvana, nothing, no thing, the transcendent. Finally, once has accomplished this, one will be at the level of Tantarayana Buddhism, where one’s great desire will be to bring peace through justice to every living being”.
My response was still more simple: “You have just explained in twenty seconds everything that is essential to know about Islam”. This simple lesson from two Buddhist monks is the secret to success for the movement of the Common Word and the Common Ground in transforming interfaith dialogue into interfaith solidarity for Transcendent Justice.
1 See Crane, Shaping the Future: Challenge and Response, Tapestry Press, 1997, 159 pages.
2 Crane, Robert D., “From Clashing Civilizations to a Common Vision,” in Islam and Global Dialogue: Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace, Roger Boase, editor, with a Foreword by HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal, Ashcroft, 2005, 310 pp., pages 159-177. See also Joseph E. B. Lombard, Editor, Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Western Muslim Scholars, World Wisdom, Bloomington, IN, 2004, 324 pages.
3 See, Crane, Robert D., http://www.theamericanmslim.org ̶,0;The Mission of Imams in America: Marginalizing Extremists by Revealing the Real Truth about Muhammad, June 25, 2007, and “Mission of Muslims in America: A Grand Strategy to Marginalize Extremists,” July 18, 2007. See also, Crane, “New Frontiers in Conflict Management: A Grand Strategy to Wage Jihad Against Terrorist Muslims,” http://www.theamericanmuslim.org Septe,mber 24, 2004, and “Counter-Terrorism 201: The Role of Islam,” http://www.theamericanmuslim.org March, 4, 2005.
4 Robert D. Crane, “Common Word and Principles of Respect: Transforming Interfaith Dialogue into Interreligious Solidarity for Justice,” condensed for delivery at the 37th Annual Conference of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), entitled “Crossing Boundaries: Mobilizing Faith, Diversity, and Dialogue,” at Harvard Divinity School on October 24th-25th, 2008, http://www.amss.org.
5 The best discussion of this question is by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf in his concluding essay, entitled “Buddha in the Qur’an,” pp. 113-136, published in 2010 by Fons Vitae in the book Common Ground between Islam and Buddhism, by Reza Shah Kazemi, with introductions by the Dalai Lama, by Mohammad Hashim Kamali, who is perhaps the leading Muslim expert on the shari’ah, and H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, who was the author of the historic A Common Word Open Letter and Peace Initiative of 2007.
6 Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation, and Commentary, 1934, 1854 pages, footnote 6198 to Surah al Tin, 95:1. This footnote in the original Yusuf Ali translation was removed in later editions, together with some lengthy appendices, footnotes, and translations that were not acceptable to those who funded its publication.
7 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, HarperCollins, 2002, 338 pages.
8 Robert D. Crane, The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice: An Islamic Perspective, Fort Washington, MD, Scholars Chair, 224 pages, officially launched in a signing ceremony at the Rumi Forum in Washington, D.C. on January 28, 2010.
9 Jane Edelman Smith, Muslims, Christians, and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue, Oxford University Press, 1997, 186 pages. This was followed by the second edition of her book, Islam in America, New York, Columbia University Press, 2010, 231 pages, a publication of the Columbia Contemporary American Religion Series.
10 Robert F. Shedinger, Was Jesus a Muslim? Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009, 194 pp.
11 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “The First Prophet”, Parabola: Myth, Tradition, and the Search for Meaning, Spring 1996, pp. 13-19, in an issue devoted to “Prophets and Prophecy”.
12 The story of Khidr in Surah al Kahf, 18:65-82, relates to the travels of Moses reportedly near the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, where the “two waters” meet, in the search for wisdom, specifically in discerning the difference between his own great knowledge of this world and the still greater and higher knowledge that transcends it. According to the account revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, Moses “encountered one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed grace from Ourselves and unto whom We had imparted knowledge issuing from Ourselves. Moses said to him, ‘May I follow you on the understanding that you will impart to me something of that consciousness of what is right which has been imparted to you’. He answered, ‘Behold, you will never be able to have patience with me – for how could you be patient with something that you cannot comprehend with the compass of your experience?’ Moses replied, ‘You will find me patient, if God so wills, and I shall not disobey you in anything.’ Said the sage, ‘Well, then, if you are to follow me, do not question me about anything (that I may do) until I myself give you an explanation for it’.
“And so the two went on their way [until they reached the seashore], and when they disembarked from the boat [that had ferried them across the water] the sage made a hole in it, whereupon Moses exclaimed, ‘Have you made a hole in it in order to drown the people who may be traveling in it? Indeed, you have done a grievous thing!’ The sage replied, ‘ Did I not tell you that you will never be able to have patience with me?’ Moses said, ‘Do not take me to task for having forgotten, and do not be hard on me on account of what I have done’.
“And so the two went on until they met a young man, whom the sage promptly killed, whereupon Moses exclaimed, ‘Have you slain an innocent human being without his having taken another man’s life? Indeed, you have done a terrible thing!’ He replied, ‘Did I not tell you that you will never be able to have patience with me?’ Moses said, ‘If, after this, I should ever question you, do not keep me in your company, for by now you have heard enough excuses from me’.
“And so the two went on, until, when they came upon some village people, they asked them for food, but those people refused them all hospitality. And they saw in that village a wall which was on the point of tumbling down, and the sage rebuilt it, whereupon Moses said, ‘If you had wished, surely you at least could have obtained some payment for it’. The sage replied, ‘This is the parting of ways between you and me. And now I shall let you know the real meaning of all those events that you were unable to bear with patience’.
“‘As for that boat, it belonged to some needy people who toiled upon the sea, and I desired to damage it because [I knew that] behind them was a king who was accustomed to seizing every boat by brute force. And as for that young man, his parents were true believers – whereas we had every reason to fear that he would bring bitter grief upon them by his overweaning wickedness and denial of all truth, and so we desired that their Sustainer grant them in his stead [a child] of greater purity than him and closer to them in loving tenderness. And as for that wall, it belonged to two orphan boys living in the town, and beneath it was buried a treasure belonging to them by right. Now their father had been a righteous man, and so your Sustainer willed it that when they come of age they should bring forth their treasure by your Sustainer’s grace. And I did not do any of this of m own accord. This is the real meaning of all those events that you were unable to bear with patience’.”
13 Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, footnote 5 supra.