“A Common Word Between Us and You” - UPDATE Catholic Muslim Forum
Sheila MusajiPosted Oct 7, 2009 •Permalink • Printer-Friendly Version
Update on “A Common Word Between Us and You” An Appeal From Muslim Scholars For Dialogue and Peace
by Sheila Musaji
In October of 2007 I wrote an article about what I believe to be the most important news story of the past year - Muslim Scholars Appeal to Christian Scholars for Dialogue and Peace on Eve of Eid.  There have been a number of developments since then requiring an update to this story.
As I pointed out in the original article: “This is a truly an important document, and Insh’Allah (if God is willing) will be a call for peace that will resonate with both Muslims and Christians. The diversity and eminence of the signatories of this letter requesting dialogue and peace can only strengthen the resolve of the majority of the world’s Muslims to continue standing against extremism, and also these well respected scholars now provide a unified entity that can engage in the necessary dialogue. This is a Muslim voice that is loud and clear and beautifully represents mainstream Islam. This letter clearly undermines the position of Muslim extremists and also undermines the propoganda of those who have refused to hear the Muslim voices against extremism  that have been attempting for some time to gain the world’s attention.”
“For centuries there have been theological contentions between Christianity and Islam that have had vast political implications. As there is so much need for mutual understanding and accord, it is essential to provide a solution to these contentions through deeper appreciation and comprehension of the position of the other,” said Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University and President of the Foundation of Traditional Studies. “This document, prepared on the basis of profound knowledge of Islam and the best of intentions to extend a hand of friendship to Christianity, is signed by major scholars across the spectrum of Islamic thought. It is a very important step taken by Muslims to bring about better understanding between themselves and their Christian brothers and sisters, thereby assisting in that crucial task of creating harmony among religions and peoples, the task to which all those who are seriously concerned with the Future of humanity must dedicate themselves.” 
A brief history of A Common Word Between Us and You
1. It began with Regensberg
In 2006 in his Regensberg Address Pope Benedict XVI made a statement that was perceived as offensive  by Muslims.
In his speech he quoted from a 14th century dialogue between a Byzantine Christian Emperor and Ibn hazm, a philosopher who proposed a number of theories that are so unique that his followers are sometimes described as comprising a distinct madhab (school of law): ”He said, I quote, ‘Show me just what Mohammed 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’.” To many Muslims the Pope in this speech appeared to endorse the view, contested by most Muslims, that early Muslims spread their religion by violence.
This quickly turned into an international incident , and has raised the issue of the effectiveness of dialogue. A great deal of publicity was generated by the violence that broke out in some countries, but almost no publicity for the reasoned response of Muslim scholars and leaders.
This address provoked a great deal of comment by scholars and ordinary Muslims. Some of the statements that were made at that time were prescient. Some of their words are even mirrored in the Common Word document.
“Perhaps it is time for the Pope, if he is sincere, rather than lobbing rhetorical hand-grenades into the Muslim street, to sit down with a few contemporary Muslim men and women of wisdom and explore the common ground that might be found in these notions of faith and reason.” Shaikh Kabir Helminski 
”... we should be wary of emotional responses; and act in our interests, which are also those of a well-integrated, tolerant and successful Europe. Benedict XVI may not quite intend it, but on balance, his policies are likely to be good for Islam.” Shaikh Abdul Hakim Murad 
“... Muslims are often their own worst enemies when they confront other people as enemies rather than address them as friends in order to turn them into friends if they are not already. Allah tells us in the Qur’an that only those specially enlightened can do this, but we should at least try to do so in order to set an example for others. This is the eternal wisdom necessarily taught by every one of the world religions, because each in its own way, as a revelation from God and with its own distinct path of worship, teaches the same truth.” Dr. Robert D. Crane 
“I urge Muslim scholars to engage the Pope in an honest interfaith dialogue that does not shy away from highlighting stark differences while at the same time creating an open, respectful and peaceful flow of information that educates the curious masses on all sides. Islam is a decentralized religion and Muslims will not be happy to have an Ayatollah or a politician debate the Pope, because each sect and each group has its own opinion on the subject. ... “ Neal AbuNab 
“The response to the Pope’s philosophical and theological statements needs to be made by Muslim philosophers and theologians who can engage in dialogue with their Catholic peers. American Muslims have called for just such a dialogue. If we are to avoid a clash of civilizations all of us must pray that incidents like this one can be turned from examples of mutual misunderstanding and distrust to opportunities for real dialogue and mutual understanding.” Sheila Musaji 
Pope Benedict XVI apologized  for the misunderstanding. The Vatican released a statement  that said in part: “The Holy Father thus sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful, and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions. ... In reiterating his respect and esteem for those who profess Islam, he hopes they will be helped to understand the correct meaning of his words so that, quickly surmounting this present uneasy moment, witness to the “Creator of heaven and earth, Who has spoken to men” may be reinforced, and collaboration may intensify “to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom” (Nostra Aetate no. 3).”
2. The First Letter - Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Following this, the reasoned voices prevailed, and in October of 2006 38 Muslim scholars from 20 countries representing all eight schools of thought in Islam sent an Open Letter to to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI  denouncing the violence after the Regensberg address and urging dialogue and mutual tolerance and respect. Timothy Winter (Abdul Hakim Murad) one of the signatories to this original letter pointed to  some of the difficulties that he hoped the letter and the simultaneous release of a statement against terrorism signed by 500 Muslim scholars would begin to address: “Everyone can see that the advantage that the Christian churches have is that they have efficient hierarchies. If someone who belongs to the Catholic church misbehaves they can immediately issue a denunciation, which is what we saw for years in Northern Ireland. It’s hard for outsiders to see what the consensus of Muslim orthodoxy is, particularly with the slide into violence of a fringe of the Sunni orthodox world in the past 15 years or so. Even though the [Muslim] religion is traditionally resistant to creating hierarchies, it has to come up with a mechanism of making the opinions of mainstream orthodoxy known. Finally the Muslim world is waking up to the fact that it needs to improve its public relations skills.”
Sohail Nakhooda, the Editor of Islamica also spoke to the same points: “The argument has been over the years that the churches and the governments can’t find a single [Muslim] body to speak to. We don’t have a papacy, one unified church, so it’s hard to speak to a single voice that is a representation of the [Islamic] community. The document [Tuesday] has 500 signatures from across the Muslim world, condemning the killing of innocent lives and the tactics of Al Qaeda. We’re trying to reclaim the moral high ground for Islam; we hope that eventually this will be seen accurately as reflective of the majority tendency in Islam.”
There was no official response to this first letter, and little media coverage of either the letter or the fatwa.
3. The second letter - A Common Word Between Us and You
Exactly one year later a second letter was sent. This letter was addressed to the Pope, the Orthodox Patriarchs, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the heads of the world alliances of the Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist and Reformed churches (a total of 25 Christian leaders). This document “A Common Word Between Us and You” was initially signed by 138 Muslim scholars (that number has now increased to 216) from more than 40 countries.
As the Rev. Khalil Samir, S.J.  has pointed out, this letter and the wide range of signatories from different schools of law represents “a broadening of consensus” on this issue of dialogue. This consensus or Ijmaa will help the Muslim community to overcome the problem of not having a hierarchy who speaks on behalf of the community. It can be exactly the mechanism that is needed to make the opinions of mainstream orthodoxy known.
Almost immediately positive responses were received from The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, and many other Christian leaders. And, in the United States, 300 Christian clergy signed a statement entitled: ” Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to A Common Word Between Us and You” . This statement said in part:
“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.” We share the sentiment of the Muslim signatories expressed in these opening lines of their open letter. Peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians stand as one of the central challenges of this century, and perhaps of the whole present epoch. Though tensions, conflicts, and even wars in which Christians and Muslims stand against each other are not primarily religious in character, they possess an undeniable religious dimension. If we can achieve religious peace between these two religious communities, peace in the world will clearly be easier to attain. It is therefore no exaggeration to say, as you have in A Common Word Between Us and You, that “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.” ... “Given the deep fissures in the relations between Christians and Muslims today, the task before us is daunting. And the stakes are great. The future of the world depends on our ability as Christians and Muslims to live together in peace. If we fail to make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony you correctly remind us that “our eternal souls” are at stake as well. We are persuaded that our next step should be for our leaders at every level to meet together and begin the earnest work of determining how God would have us fulfill the requirement that we love God and one another. It is with humility and hope that we receive your generous letter, and we commit ourselves to labor together in heart, soul, mind and strength for the objectives you so appropriately propose.”
There were some, like Rev. Albert Mohler, Jr.,  president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who found fault with specific aspects of this Christian response. Some have gone so far as to insult the signatories and to call this a “dialogue in bad faith”.  Particular aspects of the letter have been widely discussed,  and some of the signatories have felt the need to explain  why they signed the letter. In the long run, this may be a good thing for everyone because it may lead to a real discussion of what dialogue is and is not.
It must be noted that in addition to the overwhelmingly positive responses to A Common Word, there were also negative responses from those who seem to want to see a clash of civilizations and insist on perverting and twisting even something so clear to make it appear that this plea for understanding is actually a Muslim threat. They report this story with headlines such as: “Muslim Clerics Warn Pope Over Criticizing Islam…” , “Muslims to Christians: make peace with us, or the survival of the world is at stake” , “The Muslim Letter to the Pope” by Robert Spencer , “Make peace with us – or we’ll kill you!”  by Hal Lindsay, Muslims Lie Re Peace Bridge to Lull Non-Muslims  by J. Grant Swank, “Who Speaks for Islam?”  by John F. Cullinan, “Islamic Extremists Accept Peace Bid?”  by J. Grant Swank, “Anxious for Dhimmitude” , by Mark D. Tooley, “The New Islamists”  by Daniel Johnson, “About that Muslim Letter to the Pope”  by Mona Charen, “Islam’s Peace Offensive”  by Stephen Brown and Jamie Glazov, “Muslim letter to the Pope”  by Robert Spencer, (Robert Spencer also says it’s “Absurd”  for Muslims to claim that Islam is on an equal footing with Christianity), “Muslim Scholars’ Open Letter to Pope: A Pack of Lies and Deception  by MA Khan, “A Common Word Between Us and You is a Call for Conversion”  by Ryan Evans, and “Muslim Scholars’ Letter to Pope: Marking the Anniversary of Lies and Deception”  by Jack Diamond.
These negative responses are not from theologians or respected leaders within the various Christian denominations. However, their opinions do reflect the opinion of a large segment of the public.
The Vatican response was a little slower, and an initial, cautiously positive response from the re-established Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, quickly turned negative. His Eminence Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue speaking in an interview on Friday October 19th with the French Catholic daily La Croix, said: “Muslims do not accept that one can discuss the Qur’an in depth, because they say it was written by dictation from God. With such an absolute interpretation, it is difficult to discuss the contents of faith.” 
This Vatican response led to a communique  issued by Muslim scholars at the Naples Conference “For a World Without Violence: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue”. The communique stated in part: “This attitude, it seems to Muslims, misses the very point of dialogue. Dialogue is by definition between people of different views, not people of the same view. Dialogue is not about imposing one’s views on the other side, nor deciding oneself what the other side is and is not capable of, nor even of what the other side believes. Dialogue starts with an open hand and an open heart. It proposes but does not set an agenda unilaterally. It is about listening to the other side as it speaks freely for itself, as well as about expressing one’s own self. Its purpose is to see where there is common ground in order to meet there and thereby make the world better, more peaceful, more harmonious and more loving. It is thus that the scholars proposed a mutual common ground for this dialogue based on Love of God and Love of the Neighbor. Unfortunately, even the annual ‘Id greeting gesture, kindly established during the time of John Paul II, has been made polemical of late. We call upon His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to continue the principles of Assisi and the legacy of the much-beloved John Paul II. We call upon him to embrace the initiative that our scholars made with the same good will that has already marked its reception by so many Christians: leaders, theologians, and ordinary believers.”
Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, who will shortly be going to Rome for a meeting with Cardinal Tauran, saw this statement as symptomatic of a deterioration  of Muslim Christian relations in recent years, especially since a request for dialogue after the Regensberg Address had received no response from the Vatican. “Forty years ago, I led a Muslim delegation of scholars to the Vatican. At that time, Paul VI was the pope. It was five-day, very intense theological discussion involving Cardinal [Sergio] Pignedoli and a number of leading Vatican experts on Islam. Yet four decades later, we have the Regensburg address. What that means is that somehow we still have to get the heart of the religion engaged. It’s very disappointing.”
In November an official and positive response was received  from Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State stating that the Pope would be willing to meet with representatives of the signatories to the Common Word statement.
In December Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal responded positively  to the Pope’s proposal. Currently the details are being worked out.
At this point in time we have concrete plans being worked out for a meeting with a delegation of scholars from the signatories and the Pope and other Vatican officials. We also have very positive responses from many Protestant clergy, but no definite plan as to how and when they might meet with their Muslim counterparts.
All of us can only wait to see how these dialogues will be arranged and whether or not they will be successful.
The Official Website of A Common Word. On this site you will find not only the full text of the document, but also Christian and Jewish responses, additional signatories who have signed on after the letter was delivered, and many other detailed materials. This site is at http://www.acommonword.com
Originally posted 1/12/2008
UPDATE February 2008
3rd International Conference “Coexistence and Peace Making” was held in Amman, Jordan. Senior Muslim leaders and Christian heads of every church in the Middle East participated in the conference. Also participating was an envoy of the Secretary General of the League of Arab States, in addition to scholars and civic leaders interested in interfaith dialogue.
UPDATE, March 2008
Abdal Hakim Murad wrote “Reflections on the Meeting Between Catholics and Muslims At the Pontifical Council for Interreligius Dialogue” about the March 2008 meeting in Rome.
UPDATE, August 2008
Hisham A. Hellyer wrote “Finding sincerity in cross-religious dialogue” about the July meeting at Yale. Final statement from Yale Conference.
UPDATE, October 2008
October 15, 2008 - A Common Word Conference with The Archbishop of Canterbury and Cambridge University. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and His Excellency Dr Ali Gomaa, presented the communiqué from ‘A Common Word’ conference, a meeting of leading Muslim and Christian clerics and scholars.
UPDATE, November 2008
1st Catholic-Muslim Forum Conference, Vatican City. “WE AND YOU Let us meet in God’s love”, address of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Address by His Eminence Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia. Address of His Holiness BENEDICT XVI To Participants in the Seminar Organized by the “CATHOLIC-MUSLIM FORUM”. Final declaration of the conference. ‘Human Dignity and Mutual Respect’ , Address of Abdal Hakim Murad.
A Common Word Conference at Yale Divinity School - Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/a_common_word_conference_at_yale_divinity_school_loving_god_and_neighbor_in/
A global bid to connect Muslims and Christians, Jane Lampman http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0730/p02s01-ussc.html
America as a Jihad State: Middle Eastern perceptions of modern American theopolitics, Abdal-Hakim Murad http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/america_as_a_jihad_state_middle_eastern_perceptions_of_modern_american_theo/
Christian-Muslim Relations in the 21st Century, Cardinal Francis Arinze http://www.sedos.org/english/arinze.htm
Christian, Muslim Scholars at Yale Meeting Agree Reconciliation, Conflict Inevitable http://www.christianpost.com/article/20080731/christian-muslim-scholars-agree-reconciliation-conflict-inevitable/index.html
The Cross and the Crescent, Francis X. Maier http://catholiceducation.org/articles/persecution/pch0034.html
Cross meets crescent: An interview with Kenneth Cragg http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_5_116/ai_53985719/print
Deconstructing Neo-Conservative Ideology & Constructing a Faith-Based Future Based on “A Common Word, Dr. Robert D. Crane http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/deconstructing_neo_conservative_ideology_constructing_a_faith_based_future_/
One Year after Regensburg, 138 Muslims Write a New Letter to the Pope, Sandro Magister http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/171166?eng=y
The Lecture in Regensburg Continues to Weigh on the Islamic Question, Sandro Magister http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/101884?&eng=y
When Civilizations Meet: How Joseph Ratzinger Sees Islam, Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/53826?eng=y
How the Church of Rome Is Responding to the Letter of the 138 Muslims, Sandro Magister http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/173961?eng=y
Why Benedict XVI Is So Cautious with the Letter of the 138 Muslims, Sandro Magister http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/178461?eng=y
The Cardinal Writes, the Prince Responds. The Factors that Divide the Pope from the Muslims, Sandro Magister 2/1/08 http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/184641?eng=y
Vatican prepares for interreligious meeting with Muslim leaders http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/new.php?n=11727
Five Muslims at the Vatican, to Prepare the Audience with the Pope, Sandro Magister 2/6/08 http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/188961?eng=y
Two Wheaton College scholars ask to have their name removed from Yale letter 2/12/08 http://www.citizenlink.org/content/A000006500.cfm
UPDATE May 2009
4th major conference at Georgetown
Meeting of Muslim and Christian religious leaders, members of the Diplomatic Corps and Rectors of Universities in Jordan in May. Text of Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI at Mosque al-Hussein bin Talal. Text of H.R.H. Prince Ghazi’s Speech
UPDATE October 2009
According to A Common Word site:
“This October Georgetown University’s Office of the President and Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, together with the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought of Jordan, will host A Common Word Between Us and You: A Global Agenda for Change. This two-day conference will take the Common Word initiative to the next stage by focusing on global issues and initiatives for change. Global political and religious leaders, scholars, media, and community representatives will discuss and develop concrete proposals to advance global peace and security between Muslim and Western societies.
A Common Word, the largest Muslim interfaith initiative towards Christians to date, has provided Muslims and Christians with a framework to address religious, historical, social and practical issues between two world communities. Muslims and Christians make up about 55% of the world’s population; world peace depends to a great extent on establishing peace between these groups. Globalization has touched all communities around the world, providing challenges and opportunities for mutual understanding, trust and respect. Global problems call for global efforts, and Christian and Muslim societies have a duty to mobilize their moral, spiritual and social resources to respond to the problems of our age. We must work together with a global agenda and chart a new course for relations in the 21st century.
The Georgetown Common Word Conference will include a frank and open discussion between key religious leaders, scholars and practitioners about pressing issues between Muslims and Christians. The second day of the conference will be open to a broad audience of invited guests and media, and will include panel discussions highlighting best practices and practical measures to improve Muslim-Christian relations.
Georgetown will host the fourth conference of the Common Word on its main campus in Washington, D.C. Please note attendance to this conference is by invitation only. “
You can view the following live Common Word webcasts at http://webcast.georgetown.edu/live/
October 7, 2009: Common Word Global Leaders Forum with Tony Blair 9:30am
October 8, 2009: Common Word: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century 9:30am
October 8, 2009: Common Word: Religion, Violence and Peace-Building 1:30pm
October 8, 2009: Common Word: The Role of International NGOs in a Pluralistic World 4:00pm
October 8, 2009: Common Word: Wrap-Up Discussion, Where Do We Go from Here? 6:00pm
“Common Word” aims for “common deed” for peace, Tom Heneghan http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2009/10/08/common-word-aims-for-common-deed-for-peace/
Good Religion Gone Bad http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/robert_parham/2009/10/good_religion_between_muslims_and_christians_promises_a_new_day.html
Leaders and Scholars Discuss Interfaith Challenges http://explore.georgetown.edu/news/?ID=45111
The Search for Muslim-Christian Understanding http://explore.georgetown.edu/news/?ID=45075
Seeking Muslim, Christian and Jewish Wisdom in the Fifteenth, Twenty-first and Fifty-eighth centuries: A Muscat Manifesto, David F. Ford http://www.acommonword.com/OmanFordMuscatManifestocircverapr09.pdf
Sh. Ali Gomaa calls for expansion of Common Word to include all of the Abrahamic Faiths in Common Word http://online.wsj.com/article/SB20001424052748703298004574457452301729982
Speech by Tony Blair to ‘A Common Word between us and you: A Global Agenda for Change’ http://tonyblairoffice.org/2009/10/this-is-the-full-text.html
What is required of a religious leader today http://www.docstoc.com/docs/12503267/What-is-Required-of-a-Religious-Leader-Today
Will the Nobel Peace Prize go to a religious leader this year? http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2009/10/06/will-the-nobel-peace-prize-go-to-a-religious-leader-this-year/