Christian-Muslim dialogue has been thriving for several decades in Britain, Europe and, more recently, North America. In the last few years, however, some trends have been developing on the Christian side that appear rather disturbing. Let me explain the background first.
Following the atrocity of Sept. 11, 2001, a seismic shift occurred in Christian-Muslim relations, motivated by the fear of a clash of civilisations and a war of religions. Ironically, instead of looking deeply into Islam to find the source of hatred for Christianity and Christendom, a huge wave of sympathy for Muslims swept the West, based on the assumption that the radicals are just a small minority and that Islam is in reality a religion of peace. A similar sentiment was widespread when the London bombings took place in 2005.
Then in 2006, following Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture, which seemed to suggest that Islam was violent, worldwide Muslim demonstrations broke out and worried Muslim leaders decided to act. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya and Iran organised inter-faith gatherings with various Christian bodies around the world to discuss Christian-Muslim relations. But perhaps the most influential gesture was the famous letter signed by 138 Muslim scholars and religious leaders from across the Islamic world, which was sent in October 2007 to the pope and other Christian leaders in both East and West. It was entitled “A Common Word” and was sponsored by the Jordanian royal family and its think tank Ahl al-Bayt.
While the letter received positive but modest reactions from Catholic and Orthodox leaders, it got more enthusiastic responses from American Evangelicals in particular. The most remarkable was the letter from Yale University in Connecticut, which was signed by over 300 Evangelical and other Christian theologians and pastors, and was dispatched in November 2007. Unfortunately, though, the signatories made rather unnecessary and disturbing concessions to Muslims, which appeared to compromise the essentials of the Christian faith. We know that, for a number of years, Muslims have been cleverly targeting Evangelical intellectuals as potential allies to present Islam in a positive light as a moderate and peace-loving religion.
II—The “Common Word” Letter
Before examining the Yale response and its implications, however, we should analyse the “Common Word” letter itself, since it prompted the response. First, I agree with Christian experts on Islam, such as the Jesuits Christian Troll (Germany) and Samir Khalil Samir (Lebanon), as well as the Anglican Canon Patrick Sookdeo (U.K.), that although the idea of such a letter is both welcome and unprecedented, its contents include some dangerous material. The problem with most Christians in the West, may I add, is their lack of knowledge of both Islam and Arabic, so that they simply accept what they are told at face value. Many Yale signatories, moreover, have since admitted that they signed either out of a naïve desire to improve relations or because of pressure put on them.
Now the title itself is taken from the Qur’anic verse 3:64 which, addressing both Christians and Jews, states: “Let there be a common word (or “agreement”) between you and us…that we shall ascribe no partner unto Allah…and that we have surrendered”. The Arabic for “have surrendered” is “have become Muslims”. Right from the start, one becomes suspicious about a hidden agenda based on the anti-Christian polemic that runs throughout the Qur’an, namely, that Christians are guilty of polytheism. In verse 2:116 the Trinity is wrongly described as a tritheism comprising God, Jesus and Mary! The letter keeps repeating the belief in monotheism (tawhid
), which is found in verses (such as 2:116, 4:171, 5:17 and 6:162-4) that condemn the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, as well as 3:85, which declares Islam to be the only religion that is acceptable to God. The main theme of the letter, moreover, is completely false, i.e., that the love of God and neighbour is as central in Islam as it is in Christianity; in reality it is a very minor theme. And, when it is explained, it
is simply equated with God’s mercy. In the couple of places in the Qur’an where God’s love is mentioned, it is conditional upon man’s blind observance of Allah’s laws. In Islam, we are not God’s children but his slaves (‘abid),
and the word “islam
” means “submission”, not “peace”.
Finally, the letter plays the “blame game” or “victim card” which many Muslims are fond of doing. It states: We are not against Christians…as long as they do not wage war against Muslims…” But, at the same time, there is no sense of sorrow, humility or a hint of apology for the wrongs inflicted upon Christians, both historically and at present. While the letter quotes one of the few Qur’anic verses that are positive towards non-Muslims (i.e., 2:256 “There is no compulsion in religion”), it ignores the dozens of verses which urge Muslims to kill non-believers (2:89; 4:56, 84; 8:39; 9:5, etc.), as well as 5:12-16, 51 which command Muslims not to befriend Christians and Jews, and 3:110 which exalts Muslims as being “the best community raised up by Allah”.
We now return to the “Yale Letter” which is the most favourable reaction to the “Common Word” letter. When read closely, the following disturbing elements emerge:
- It speaks of Islamic texts as being “sacred”, as if on a par with the Bible, thereby implying that the Qur’an too is God’s revealed word.
- It considers Islam to be a part of the Judeo-Christian heritage that goes back to Abraham, which is both historically and theologically unjustified. It also comes close to recognising Muhammad as a prophet, which would go against the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and his definitive mission of redemption.
- It curiously identifies Christian mission as a major factor causing tensions in the world, while completely ignoring the widespread Islamic mission (da’wa), thus giving ammunition to Muslim missionaries to carry on with their aggressive proselytising everywhere.
- It accepts responsibility for both the Crusades and the present-day (political) war on Islamic terrorism, but makes no mention of either past Islamic atrocities (the 7th century conquests of Christian lands in the Middle East and North Africa, the forced conversions of many thousands of European youths who were recruited into the army during Ottoman times, the massacres of over a million Armenians and other Christians by Turkish and Kurdish forces, particularly in 1915, etc.), or present-day anti-Christian persecution that is raging throughout Islamic lands.
All the above smacks of shameful dhimmitude
and appeasement to Islam. It also gives the impression that, in the West, the majority should adapt to the faith and culture of a small, vociferous minority instead of the other way round. The signatories do not even mention the principle of “reciprocity” which stipulates that just as Muslim communities in the West enjoy full human rights, so should Christian communities in Muslim-majority countries, where they have always been treated as second-class citizens.
Such tendency towards appeasement is unfortunately spreading beyond Yale and the Evangelicals to other Christian scholars in the West. In their desire to find a common ground when dialoguing with Muslims, they are watering down their own Christian beliefs and accepting some of the tenets of Islam. So they stress monotheism at the expense of the Trinity and highlight the humanity of Jesus while ignoring his divinity.Even a number of Catholic theologians are jumping on the band wagon, for example, the Americans Roger Haight and Paul Knitter, who tend to question New Testament claims about Jesus’ resurrection, his divine nature and his uniqueness as the universal Saviour of mankind (cf. Acts 4:12). All this of course is in line with the Islamic/Qur’anic portrayal of Jesus as being no more than a human prophet. It sadly appears that Muslims no longer need armies to subdue Christendom because they have “Christian” allies facilitating the job for them.
(© JS, 2012, article previously published in The Catholic Times, 28 March 2010, reproduced here with permission)