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How to Think About “A Common Word”

Nov 19, 2007

Last month a number of leading Muslims issued the document “A Common Word Between Us and You.” The letter, delivered to world Christian leaders, was from 138 prominent Muslim imams and scholars. It urged Christians and Muslims to find common ground in working together for peace and harmony.

One could be tempted to suggest that this is just another attempt by the Islamic community to whitewash their actual beliefs and practices. One could regard it as just another propaganda piece. But many evangelicals have leapt to this document, claiming we have an obligation to support it. For example, J. Dudley Woodberry, professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary said this: “Certainly evangelicals should take a prominent role in sponsoring and participating with Muslims in such endeavors. . . . Muslims have taken the first step through this open letter to Christians. Let us not miss this opportunity to respond humbly.”

But are these evangelicals right? Should we embrace the letter and such overtures by the Islamic community? To answer these questions, it seems that three important considerations must first be addressed here. They have to do with interfaith initiatives; how much common ground in fact exists between Islam and Christianity; and how we can work together to achieve genuine peace.

Interfaith

First, the issue of the interfaith movement, and how we as evangelical Christians should think of it. That is a very large topic which can here only be briefly spoken to. And different Christians have different takes on this issue. My spin is this: there may be a place for limited interfaith activities. Learning about one another, working together on certain common causes, and having better understandings of other faiths all may be commendable activities.

But what is the purpose of interfaith in general, and this initiative in particular? Is it to convince us that all faiths are at bottom alike, and we should play down differences and play up similarities? This document does admit that, “Whilst Islam and Christianity are obviously different religions – and whilst there is no minimising some of their formal differences – it is clear that the Two Greatest Commandments are an area of common ground and a link between the Qur’an, the Torah and the New Testament. What prefaces the Two Commandments in the Torah and the New Testament, and what they arise out of, is the Unity of God – that there is only one God.”

This seems to imply that despite the differences, the common ground is much more substantial, and should form the basis of cooperation and working together. The document says it hopes that the two great religions can live together in peaceful coexistence. Peace between Islam and Christianity will lead to a meaningful peace in the world, the document states.

Peace is always a worthwhile aim, but how it is to be achieved is an important part of the equation. Seeking to minimise differences between the two faiths does not seem to me to be the way to do it. And as will be seen below, if these leaders are serious about peace and the avoidance of conflict, then they have a lot of work to do to make this a reality.

And if the aim of interfaith initiatives is to in effect mute the uniqueness of the Christian witness, then I am not at all clear why any evangelical would want to be part of it. And most of the interfaith activities that I have been familiar with have had just that aim in mind: to suggest that no one religion is exclusively true – or that all are equally true – and that we should just all learn to get along with one another, and ease up on evangelism and the proclamation of truth claims.

Common ground?

The second, and related, question has to do with whether there is in fact so much common ground between Islam and Christianity as this document suggests. The letter suggests that there is much that unites us.

Yes, both world religions are monotheistic, but Christianity obviously has a radically different idea of how to think about that monotheism, namely one God in three persons. The document says Christians and Muslims share the basic common ground of having a devoted, whole-hearted love of God. This is true only to a limited degree. The New Testament makes it clear that the only way we can truly love the Father is through the Son. Indeed, we have no access to the Father except through the Son. We cannot have right standing with the Father except by means of the Son. Jesus made it quite clear that he and he alone was the only way to the Father. All others were false prophets, he boldly proclaimed.

Bear in mind that the central tenet of Christianity is the fact that God became incarnate, died on a cross for our sins and rose again. Islam rejects all three of these contentions. The Koran acknowledges Jesus as a prophet of God, but not as God. And it strenuously denies that Jesus died on a cross and rose from the grave.

Thus the very heart of the Christian faith is denied by Islam. How, under such diametrically opposed beliefs, can there be genuine harmony and concord between Islam and Christianity?

Broader questions of whether Christians even worship the same God as Muslims do cannot here be examined. I have dealt with this elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the God of the New Testament is not the same as Allah, and attempts to play down major theological and conceptual differences seem unhelpful at best, and misleading at worst.

Moreover, a good devout Muslim wants to see everyone become a Muslim and subject to Sharia law. Similarly, a good devout Christian wants everyone to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Both faiths are inherently evangelistic, in other words, and both faiths enjoin their followers to do all they can to spread the word about their creed. How any real common ground can exist when two rival religious groups are trying to win the other around to their way of thinking seems a bit difficult to achieve.

Peace?

The third issue concerns the topic of peace and the common good, and how the two religions are working toward those ends. This letter has as its major focus the need for peace and how Islam and Christianity can and must work together for it by realising how much unites them. I agree that the attempt to bring peace to the planet is a noble aim, but I question whether we are really on a level playing field here. Indeed, I would suggest that the track record of Christianity on this is pretty good: biblical Christianity has been a force for good in the world in ways too numerous to recount.

But the question is, can the same be said about Islam? The letter pleads for Christians to get along with Muslims in the interests of world peace. But is Islam really interested in peace? And if so, what sort of peace? In traditional Islamic understanding, real peace cannot be achieved until all mankind bends the knee to Allah. Islam means to submit, and until all mankind submits to the Islamic faith, there can be no real or lasting peace.

Indeed, true Muslims believe that there is perpetual conflict between the dar al-Islam (the house of Islam, where Islam rules) and the dar al-harb (the house of war, where Islam does not rule). In classic Islamic thinking, until the whole world comes under dar-al-Islam, peace will not be possible.

Furthermore, we must not be ignorant of some key Islamic legal concepts such as taqiyya and kitman. Taqiyya has to do with deception and dissimulation. Kitman refers to concealing one’s real intentions, or telling just part of the truth, in order to fool one’s opponent. Thus a Muslim has religious sanction to mislead and misinform the infidel. For example he can tell a non-Muslim that Jihad means only a spiritual struggle, while not informing him that it also means holy war or violent conquest.

Thus the whole concept of peace is quite different to the Muslim than it is to the Christian. But let me get much more practical and concrete about all this. For example, as I write this article, an item in today’s press spoke of the horror of a Muslim woman who was the victim of a gang rape. But instead of dealing with the rapists, she was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months prison in Saudi Arabia. Until such fundamental injustices as these are addressed by the Muslim community – and these 138 Muslim leaders – it is silly to talk about peace on earth and learning to live together.

Consider just a few of the big issue issues that need to first be addressed – but are not – in this letter. What of dhimmitude and the persecution of Christians in Islamic countries? Dhimmitude is the condition of second class citizenship that Christians throughout the Muslim world are forced to live under. If these 138 Muslim leaders are genuinely interested in peace between the two main religions, they should start by condemning this reprehensible practice. To call for both groups to get along while not challenging dhimmitude makes this document ring hollow.

Indeed, the letter makes this strange plea: “As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them as long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.” But who is oppressing whom? Piers Paul Read is worth citing at length here:

“Where are Christians waging war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppressing them or driving them from their homes? It is difficult to think of any Christians in any era who have waged war against Muslims purely ‘on account of their religion’. The crusades were broadly a defensive reaction against Islamic aggression: even the Iberian Reconquista was, as its name suggests, a recovery of once Christian lands conquered by Islamic armies. The Western nations that colonised Muslim countries in Africa in the 19th century did not do so for religious motives: the French Third Republic that colonised Algeria was anticlerical and the British governments of the time were concerned with power-politics and trade. Indeed, Britain did what it could to prop up the Muslim Ottoman Empire to prevent the expansion of Christian Russia, and only after it collapsed did Britain and France occupy Syria, Palestine and Iraq – and then to secure the Suez Canal and supplies of oil, not convert the populations to faith in Christ.”

“The same is true of the recent invasion of Iraq. Despite the Christian beliefs of Bush and Blair, it was undertaken in the face of emphatic opposition by Pope John Paul II and other Christian leaders; and it cannot possibly be construed as a Christian attack on Islam. Quite to the contrary, the ancient Christian churches of Mesopotamia were protected by the Baath socialist regime of Saddam Hussein, and both the aim and the outcome of bringing it down was to hand power to the majority Shia Muslims. As a result there has been an exodus of Christians from Iraq, as there has been from Palestine, where the Christians are caught between Muslim and Israeli intolerance. Certainly, if the imams were appealing to Israeli Jews rather than Western Christians, then there would be some sense behind what they said in their letter published last week.”

“While it is hard to find instances of the oppression of Muslims by Christians, it is all too easy to cite instances of the oppression of Christians by Muslims: they are well documented in almost every country where Muslims make up the majority of the population – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan, even Turkey, where a government that hopes to join the European Union will not give legal status to Christian churches. Mosques are built in the cities of the United States and Western Europe, but no Christian church is allowed to be built in Saudi Arabia, nor Christian services held for the Christians who work in that country. Bibles and crucifixes are banned and Muslims who convert to Christianity are declared apostates and stoned to death.”

Thus it seems most of the religious oppression is coming from just one side here. The call to live in peace will only be taken seriously if Muslim leaders condemn all cases of persecution of Christians. Says Robert Spencer, “The persecution of Christians is the primary indication of the letter’s inadequacy as the basis for any real dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Genuine dialogue must focus, or at least be cognizant of, the reality of what separates the two parties. Nothing can be resolved, no genuine peace or harmony attained, except on the basis of confronting those differences.”

Spencer mentions Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and his response to the document. Says Spencer, “Tauran went on to call for reciprocity between the treatment of Christians in Islamic lands and the treatment of Muslims in the West, decrying the fact that Muslims are permitted to build mosques freely in Europe, but Christians face difficulties or outright bans when trying to build churches in Muslim lands. ‘In a dialogue among believers, it is fundamental to say what is good for one is good for the other’.”

And what about the global jihad aimed at destroying Western democracy and imposing sharia law on a world-wide scale? This letter mentions nothing of this. If the leaders were serious about real peace, they should start getting their own house in order, and make clear their condemnation of all acts of Islamic terror.

Conclusion

In sum, I find this letter to be unconvincing. Sure, there can be a time and place for co-belligerency, when Muslims and Christians unite on tactical and temporary causes. For example, we are united in opposing things such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and should work together on such causes.

And seeking to come to better terms with each other can be a good thing. Any attempt to lessen hostilities and unnecessary divisions can be welcomed. But the question is just how far this can go, given the very real theological differences between the two religions.

In truth, I find very little in this letter to get excited about, and it surprises me greatly that some evangelical leaders seem so infatuated with it. The whole letter reads like one-way traffic. Muslims are asking Christians to chill out, ease up on the differences, and learn to get along with Islam. Such a one-sided approach seems like a call to embrace Islam – a call to submission. This is just what one would expect to hear from devout Muslims, but not from committed evangelical Christians.

www.spectator.co.uk/print/the-magazine/features/269411/the-muslims-letter-to-the-pope-is-not-all-it-seems.thtml
www.jihadwatch.org/archives/018531.php

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8 Responses to How to Think About “A Common Word”

  • Wise words and timely.

    John Nelson

  • “A Common Word Between Us and You” is a perfect example of the concepts of taqiyya and kitman in action. How can they expect us to believe anything they say in light of these “legal concepts”?
    Peter Paplawsky

  • To promote a “common word” is to assume that there are common grounds that we agree on.
    To my way of thinking, this is not the case.
    I feel that there are more areas between Judaism, Islam and Christianity that we can disagree on than we are in unity.
    Jim Sturla

  • As human beings we need to find common ground to co-exist.

    However, as spiritual beings there is no common ground between light and dark. We serve a God who gave his own Son so that we may be set free of our sin to be reconciled with Him by a choice of our free will. Others serve gods whom they either don’t know, or encourage a ‘conversion or death’ approach.

    This letter, while it sounds nice, is political manouvering. The devil’s water is not so sweet after all.

    Garth Penglase

  • Because of their harmony the Word of God (His Son and the Bible) and the acts of God speak louder then any other voice. But both for Islam and Christianity it’s true that acts speak louder then words. Let us be aware!
    Jan de Vries

  • I liked the commentary. An accurate synopsis! It would be good if the truths it contains could be more widely known and debated.
    Peter Beswick

  • Greetings and peace be with you all,

    Can the Greatest Commandments have a greatest meaning for God?

    God the Father loves all that he is with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength.

    God the Father loves each and every one of us as he loves himself?

    Although I cannot make any claims for truth; the greatest commandments do not seem out of place when searching for a meaning for God.

    Can we hang interfaith relations on the greatest commandments, how can we love people of other faiths as we love ourselves?

    In the spirit of praying for greater interfaith tolerance and friendship

    Eric Hyom

  • Thanks Eric

    Of course if we are going to talk about love, we must define it biblically, not sentimentally. Jesus said ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’. That includes his teachings about himself. For example, he claimed to be the only way to God (‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me’ – John 14:6), and called other claimants ‘thieves and robbers’ (John 10:8).

    And if we really love others with the love of Christ, we will tell them the truth of the gospel: that they are heading to a lost eternity if they have not turned to Christ and away from their sins. Biblical love is not about all of us just trying to get along somehow, but telling the truth of who Jesus is and why he came.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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