Since releasing the document A Common Word late last year, a number of Christian groups and individuals have jumped on board, expressing their agreement with the thrust of the document. A Common Word was released by Muslim leaders in an effort to show just how much common ground there is between Muslims and Christians.
Just after it came out I wrote up an assessment of the document for this website. Since then a number of other good Christian critiques have appeared. Two in particular are worth highlighting. One is by London-based expert on Islam, Patrick Sookhdeo. The other is by Melbourne-based scholar Mark Durie. Both pieces proved excellent analysis of this document and how Christians should respond.
Here I provide a few snippets from each article. Readers are invited to read each piece in its entirety (see the links below). Sookhdeo, of the Barnabas Fund, has already written two responses to A Common Word. His latest piece is actually a response to a favourable response put out by evangelical Christians at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and signed by more than 300 Christian leaders.
Says Sookhdeo, “An eagerness to grasp at the common ground presented by the Muslim letter is clearly evident in the Yale Statement, and it has seemingly blinded its authors to the negative implications of the Muslim letter. The Muslim leaders know of this desperate Christian longing for common ground, and manipulate it to their advantage. The tone of the Muslim letter is condescending, given from a position of superiority and strength. It seems to imply that in spite of Christian guilt in fomenting war and aggression against Muslims, the Muslims scholars are offering Christians peace and harmony, if only they will accept the conditions laid down explicitly and implicitly in the document. The tone of the Yale response document, on the other hand, is one of abject humility, guilt and subjugation.”
He explains, “It is well known that for Islam honour and power are of central importance. Islam, which sees itself as the last and final revelation of God to humanity, can brook no rivals. The traditional view is that God has exalted Islam and Muslims above all other religions and made them superior to all others. . . . All relationships with non-Muslims have to serve the principle of the exaltation and strengthening of Islam and of Muslims as compared to non-Muslim communities. The term that best describes this relationship is dominant-subordinate: Muslims are dominant, all others are subordinate.”
This results in the denigration of Christianity and the elevation of Islam: “This would seem to be the end result of the long road towards relativism in theology and theological contextualisation undertaken by some of the authors in an effort to seem relevant to secular and multicultural interests in society and in mission. This stand would suggest to Muslims a weaker Christian position, which accepts Muslim superiority in religion. This is reminiscent of the traditional submissive role required of dhimmi minorities (Christians and Jews) within an Islamic state.”
Sookhdeo reminds us that in Muslim-Christian dialogue, it tends to be all one-way traffic: “Aggressive proselytisation is seen as an act of violence against Muslims from a position of power. In the Muslim view, Christian aid and development efforts are also part of the aggressive missionary programme of Christianity and should be prohibited. This fits in well with the postmodern secularist agenda of eliminating truth and value content from all religions equally. In interfaith dialogue, Muslims have always attacked Christian evangelism as aggressive and hurtful to Muslims, without in the least critiquing Muslim da`wa [mission, or invitation to Islam]. Muslims always demand an end to Christian evangelism in Muslim states and in Muslim societies and minorities. They never promise to stop Islamic da`wa in return. This is but one example of the way in which some Evangelicals in the West are yielding more and more to such demands, resulting in a weakening of Christianity and an empowerment of Islam.”
Concludes Sookhdeo: “While we may pray for peace and harmony between Muslims and Christians in areas of physical conflict, there is no Biblical warrant for seeking reconciliation between Christianity and non-Christian religions such as Islam. Non-Christians are called to be reconciled to God by faith in Jesus Christ, outside of whom there is no salvation – this is the Biblical message. Watering down Christian fundamental doctrines and accepting Muslim claims to effect a hoped for reconciliation with Muslims can only lead to syncretism.” As a result, “there is a risk that Christians will do all the giving and Muslims all the taking”.
Dr Mark Durie’s analysis is also first rate. He looks in detail at what the document is saying, in light of Islamic faith and practice. He urges us to ask some hard questions about the document. Says Durie: “Both Christians and Muslims agree that there is only one God. The Muslims’ letter presupposes that this is the same one God, that Allah of the Qur’an is Yahweh of the Bible. This is a cornerstone of the ‘common word’ offered to Christians as the foundation for dialogue, and more generally it is a lynchpin of Islamic da‘wa to Christians. To accept the ‘common word’, as offered, means accepting that we do both worship the same God. There are of course deep problems with accepting this presupposition. The One God Christians worship is the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and no Muslim would confess that this is their Allah. The question of the identity of God should therefore be allowed to remain for discussion.”
Christianity is obviously all about Christ. A faulty understanding of Christ means a faulty understanding of Christianity. Durie reminds us that the Islamic view of Jesus is radically at odds with the Christian view: “The letter is dismissive of Christian beliefs about Christ, on the grounds that ‘Christians themselves anyway have never all agreed with each other on Jesus Christ’s nature’ (p.15). The intended implication is that Christians should not regard disbelief in the incarnation and rejection of the sonship of Christ as a rejection of Christianity. It is suggested that, as Muslims believe Jesus was the Messiah, Christians should not regard them as being ‘against’ Christians. Yet the letter ignores the proactive eschatological role which the Islamic Jesus is supposed to play against the Christian church, destroying ‘the cross’ and bearing witness at the last judgement against Christians who believe in the crucifixion (Sura 4:155-159).”
The document in essence is really quite anti-Christian: “The overt strategy of this letter is to focus on what can be believed to be shared – the ‘common ground’ – between Islam and Christianity. In laying out this common ground, the Muslim authors of the letter make no direct, upfront acknowledgement that Islam has profound objections to Christian beliefs. The problem at the heart of this strategy of indirectness, is that the Qur’an rejects Trinitarian doctrine, and specifically the incarnation, in no uncertain terms, as being shirk, ‘association’, something entirely incompatible with tawhid [the unity of Allah]. Christians are repeatedly charged in the Qur’an with ascribing partners to Allah, and the most dire punishments of hell are announced against them for this. Although A Common Word does not lay this charge explicitly against Christians, the whole letter is peppered with citations from the Qur’an which reject association in general terms.”
Why should Christians be stumbling over each other in the attempt to embrace a document which in fact asks them to surrender their basic Christian beliefs? Durie concludes, “The danger for many Christians is that if they are ignorant of Islam, they will endorse A Common Word without first making the effort to understand it, leading to an Islamicized dialogue. A question to be asked is: Is this bridge which Muslims have built for us to walk upon together a reasonable basis for improved mutual understanding and communication, or is it in fact a carefully constructed pathway for crossing over into Islam? The authors of A Common Word have taken pains to avoid overt and direct opposition to Christian beliefs which Islam rejects, such as the incarnation and the crucifixion. In doing this, the letter appears to take seriously its own task of finding common ground. On the other hand, many of the Qur’anic references cited in the letter cannot be separated from Islam’s traditional anti-Christian polemic.”
He finishes his piece this way: “Christians should not make the mistake of handing over to Muslims what A Common Word has not itself offered to Christians. The Muslim authors are not offering reconciliation. There is no suggestion in the letter that the Muslims leaders wish to apologize for the jihad, or acknowledge its damaging consequences for humanity. Instead, they keep silent about militant verses in the Qur’an, and imply that, where Muslims have been against Christians, this has only been because of Christians’ prior oppression of Muslims (p.14). This means that a Christian response which abandons fundamental principles of reciprocity and responds to the letter by apologizing to Muslims for oppressing them, will set the stage for a very unequal dialogue, in which one of the founding principles will be the validation of the Islamic view that the historic anti-Christian jihad, resulting in the military occupation of most of the Christian world (excepting Western Europe) was a righteous process which need not be regarded by Christians as an obstacle to dialogue.”
Both authors are quite right to raise such concerns. Where genuine inter-faith discussion is possible, believers may be able to take part. But genuine common ground does not mean that one side assumes the superior position and expects the other side to raise the white flag of surrender.