Bismi’Llah al-Rahman al-Rahim
In the Name of God, the All-Good, the Infinitely Merciful
and blessings and peace be upon the Prophet Muhammad and upon
all the messengers.
Your Holiness, Eminences, Excellencies, Distinguished Scholars: It is asserted by the Word of God, which for us Muslims is the Noble Qur’an, “And God summons to the Abode of Peace,” and by Christ (may peace be upon him) , who is the Word of God in Christianity and also a prophet and messenger of the highest order in Islam, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The goal of attaining peace is thus common between our two religions and we are here precisely with the hope of attaining peace between Christianity and Islam. Furthermore, what can be more important and foundational in the quest for peace than creating peace between our religions – for only from this peace will it be possible to establish peace between peoples and nations, more specifically the Islamic world and the West. Whether we are Christians or Muslims, we are beckoned by our religions to seek peace. As people of religion meeting here at the center of Catholicism, let us then dedicate ourselves to mutual understanding, not as diplomats, but as sincere religious scholars and authorities standing before God and responsible to Him beyond all worldly authority.
When one ponders over the remarkable similarities between Islam and Christianity, one wonders why there has been so much contention between the two religions over the centuries. As Muslims we share with Christians faith in the One God, the God of Abraham, and see in the beginning of the Catholic declaration of belief, credo in unum deum, the deepest confirmation of the first shahada or testimony of our religion, namely la ilaha illa’Llah (there is no divinity but God), which we consider to be foundational not only to our religion, but to every authentic religion. Our religion and yours share, therefore, the same foundation and basis despite differences among us in the interpretation of the doctrine of tawhid, or unity, that is so central not only to Islam but also to Christianity since the doctrine of the Trinity certainly does not negate Divine Unity in mainstream Christian theology.
Moreover, for us God is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, at once Transcendent and Immanent, as He is for you. Over the many centuries of our history men and women of our two communities have stood in awe before the majesty of God as Transcendent and felt His closeness as the Immanent, for as the Noble Qur’an asserts God is closer to us than our jugular vein. And there have been those in our two communities who have smelled the perfume of Divine Proximity, have become immersed in the Ocean of Oneness and been blessed by the beatific vision of God.
For both of us God has a personal dimension and we can address Him as the “Thou” to whom we both pray. For Muslims as well as Christians God is both Merciful and Just and the harmonization of these two apparently contradictory qualities has been the subject of countless studies by both your theologians and ours. And of course we both associate God with love with different interpretations of this central divine quality in our two religions. Christians speak of the love of God and some view Islam as lacking in emphasizing this quality. Muslims would respond that God being infinite, surely His love for His creation could not have become exhausted by the advent of Christianity. Some of that love must in fact have remained to be manifested in Islam and we, no less than Christians, live the life of faith in the glow of Divine Love. That is why one of the greatest spiritual masters of Islam, Jalal ai-Din Rumi, identified God with the Beloved, as did so many other Sufis, and could utter in a poem:
Hail to Thee O our Love with goodly passion,
O physician of all our ailments,
O remedy of our pride and honor,
O Thou our Plato and Galen besides.
Both you and we believe that God has created the human soul which is immortal and reject all those views that consider man as a clever machine brought about through accidental and haphazard biological events. We both associate human dignity with men’s and women’s eternal soul. Consequently we both emphasize the ethical character of human life and believe that having been given free will to act, we are responsible to God for our earthly actions. Our theologians may have debated about free will and determinism for many centuries but both religions have always insisted upon morality and the ethical nature of human actions with consequences beyond the grave. We all affirm the reality of good and evil and their basic distinction, without which belief in ethical action and its effect upon our immortal soul would be meaningless. And our ethical norms are in fact similar in so many ways. That is why we both seek to avoid what classical Catholic theology calls the seven deadly sins. That is why on the social plane we both emphasize the importance of the family and on the individual level the crucial significance of sexual ethics, which, although dealing primarily with the individual, has such a major impact upon society at large.
For both you and us it is our common eschatological beliefs, in their general principles and not details, that provide the framework for the religious understanding of human actions and their consequences upon our souls. We all believe in the reality of posthumous states, in various paradises, infernos and at least in the case of Catholic Christianity the purgatories. All of us expect to meet God and rely on His mercy and forgiveness. We even have fairly similar historical eschatologies with of course some differences, but in any case we both expect the second coming of Christ, who is at once the center of Christianity and such a major figure in the Islamic religious universe.
We Muslims and Christians, like followers of other religions, pray, and although the external forms are different, there are remarkable similarities in our prayers. Some of us say “O God forgive us our sins” and others astaghfiru’Llah, that is, “I ask forgiveness of God.” The life of the pious person, whether Christian or Muslim, is intertwined with prayer and both religions are witness to a vast spectrum of prayers from the simple petition to God for some need or want to the prayer of the heart, of the saints who only want “Thy will be done” or “I want not to want.”
Also over the centuries both Christians and Muslims have made pilgrimage and many continue to do so, Christians to such places as St James of Compostella, Lourdes, and in earlier Christian history Canterbury, and Muslims primarily to Mecca and Medina but also many other sites including Jerusalem which has been shared by both Muslims and Christians as a site of pilgrimage. Indeed, the external forms are different but how similar was and is the inner experience of pilgrimage in our two religions!
“How precious is the gift of faith!” Such an assertion can be made equally by a Christian and a Muslim. Whether one speaks of fides or iman, one is dealing with a most profound reality shared by Muslims and Christians alike. Moreover, both religious communities have encountered the relative significance of faith and works in their religious life. Remarkably enough every theological position taken in Christianity as a whole on the question of the relation and relative significance of faith and works has its equivalence mutatis mutandis in Islam.
Such is also true of the question of free will and determinism. Islamic thought is not confined to Ash’arism nor Christianity to Calvinism. It is false to assert that Islam is fatalistic and deterministic while Christianity is based on free will. In reality the rich theological and philosophical schools of both religions present a full spectrum of views on this crucial subject. Nor could this have been otherwise, for the followers of both religions experience in an immediate way, as do all human beings, their freedom to act. Yet along with Jews, they stand before the God of Abraham whose Will reigns supreme.
How strange that Muslims have been accused of being opposed to reason while it was a Muslim philosopher and jurist, Ibn Rushd or Averroes, who is considered to have been the single most important figure in the introduction of rationalist arguments into medieval Christian theology. The reality of the matter is that both Christians and Muslims have presented and held many diverse views concerning the relation between reason and faith or reason and revelation and practically every view in one religion finds its counterpart in the other, except that of course Islam did not encounter Enlightenment rationalism in the i8th century and did not surrender to its tenets as did certain strands of Christianity. In any case, persons of faith in both religions stand before the Majesty of God and His allpowerful Will as well as all-encompassing knowledge. And among them those who have had philosophical and theological tendencies have had to ponder over the relation between reason and revelation and have come often to similar conclusions. It is true that in Christianity God is a mystery hidden from man and in Islam it is not He who is hidden and a mystery but man who is hidden from God. And yet, the question of the relation between reason and faith, far from being a source of contention between the two religions, is a source of common accord if one considers the full spectrum of the traditional theologies and philosophies of Christianity and Islam.
Both religions having been sent by God to lead human beings back to Him, Christianity and Islam are channels of grace and make possible not only salvation but also the experience of sanctity as well as the attainment of inner illumination. The pious life of both religions has, through the centuries, been involved with the reality of sanctity in one way or another despite the eclipse of this dimension of religious life in recent times in both religions, in Western Christianity due to the advent of secularism and in Islam as a result of the rise of what has now come to be known as “fundamentalism”. One can only ask what the relation between Christianity and Islam would be if saints, men and women whose being are rooted in God, represented each religion in dialogue. In any case, the reality of sanctity as well as spiritual leadership, whether associated with an imam or a superior of a Catholic order are shared between us. In Shi’ism and certain schools of Sunnism, we speak of walaya which means spiritual power, sanctity and inner guidance. Surely Christians would find in this concept and reality deep similarities to their own doctrines.
It is also important to recall that both Islam and Christianity have created major civilizations with their own social structures, sciences, philosophies, arts, etc. Both have created sacred architecture of the highest order whether it be Chartres or the Mezquita in Cordova. Both have produced most outstanding examples of literature imbued with the values of the religions in question. Outward forms differ but the inner meanings of traditional Islamic and Christian arts and sciences – and not the humanistic and modernistic distortions of the traditional norms – are very close and should be a means of bringing the two religions closer together.
Speaking of Christian and Islamic civilizations, it must be noted that the name of both religions has been associated with violence in certain periods of their history. To associate only Islam with violence is to overlook the fact that over the centuries many more Muslims have been killed by Christians than Christians by Muslims. If there is more violence today carried out in the name of Islam than of Christianity, that is not due to the support of violence by one religion and opposition to violence by the other, but rather the result of the relative strength of each religion today. If Christianity in the West is no longer associated with violence, it is because of the weakening of Christianity before the onslaught of secularism. One could hardly imagine calling French or British soldiers to war these days in the name of Christianity, in contrast to older days from the Crusades to the destruction of natives in the Americas when Christianity being strong, was used oftentimes by political forces to legitimize wars and violence. To associate Islam simply with violence and Christianity with non-violence is to make virtue out of necessity. The task to confront and oppose violence in all its forms is in fact a task in whose realization both Muslims and Christians must work hand in hand.
When we ponder over what unites us, we are confronted with the issue of human dignity. The views of the two religions are indeed close in this crucial matter. Traditional and classical Christianity and Islam both believe in human dignity because as both religions have asserted “God has created man in His image” whatever different meanings we attach to the word “image”. Furthermore, God has breathed into us His Spirit and that is the origin of human dignity we both accept and the source of human rights. To base human rights and freedoms on humanistic, evolutionary and secularist conceptions of man is merely to espouse a position that is based on sheer sentimentality bereft of any theological foundation and opposed by serious theological thought, both Islamic and Christian.
These are but a few of the realities shared by us and you. Why then has there been such confrontation and opposition between Christianity and Islam? One must consider first of all the fact that Islam appeared after Christianity and from the dawn of Islam Muslims have had respect for Christianity as a revealed religion, and have protected the Christians living among them and as they continue to in sizeable numbers in several Islamic countries. In contrast Christianity preceded Islam and its mainstream religious thought did not accept and for the most part does not accept even now Islam as an authentic religion revealed by God and given the power to bring about salvation to its followers. There are also formal differences many of which were divinely ordained in order to keep the two religions distinct. Had not those providential distinctions existed, we would not be speaking to each other as followers of two religions today, both of which have not only survived but possess a global presence to this day, a situation surely willed by God for those of us who accept God as the Almighty whose Will rules supreme. Let us then turn to some of those differences.
Islam emphasizes above all else Divine Unity for, as the Noble Qur’an asserts, “Say God is One (ahad). Being the One, who is also the Absolute, God’s reality cannot be compromised by any relationality for that would imply relativity.; hence the Islamic rejection of the Trinitarian doctrine and the possibility of Divine Sonship. Christianity on the contrary emphasizes the Triune nature of God while like Islam accepting His Oneness. Likewise, the two religions differ in their account of the end of the life of Christ who plays such an important spiritual role in the Islamic religious universe as well as being the heart and center of Christianity. The question between the two religions that remains is the following: was Christ crucified or not? And the answer to this crucial question is not the same as far as Islam and Christianity are concerned.
On the social plane, Islam emphasizes the centrality of the Divine Law (al-Shari’a) whose main sources are the Noble Qur’an and the Sunnah or wonts of the Prophet of Islam while for Christianity the law of Christ is a spiritual law and in everyday affairs Christianity incorporated much of Roman Law and later Germanic common law. The result is different views concerning the significance of laws that govern human society. Likewise, on the social plane Christianity preached giving unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. This meant the complete separation of spiritual and temporal authority, although in practice after Constantine the two became intertwined resulting practically in a situation not very different from that of Islam which has never accepted the separation of the domains of God and Caesar. Today both religions struggle with this question but for different reasons.
When we come to the organization of religion we again detect important differences. In Catholic Christianity there is the ordained priesthood and only priests can perform certain ritual actions, especially the consecration of the Eucharist. In Islam every man is a priest and there is no religious hierarchy as we find in Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. Even the hierarchy found in Shi’ism is not the same as that found in Catholicism and a Shi’ite, like his Sunni brothers, is a priest in being able to conduct all the rites of the religion from performing or leading the daily canonical prayers to leading the prayer for the dead.
What or who is the Divine Word? To this question a Christian would answer Christ and a Muslim the Noble Qur’an, although in certain schools of Islamic thought each prophet including Jesus has been identified with an aspea of the Divine Word. In any case, for Christians the body of Christ is the “container” of the Word, while for Islam it is the Qur’anic Arabic language which, as the result of the Islamic revelation, became by God’s Will the sacred language of Islam and the “container” of God’s Word. Christianity has had many liturgical languages, including, besides Latin, Aramaic, Greek, Russian, Slovanic and even Arabic which is thus the sacred language of Islam as well as the liturgical language of Arab Christians. This different understanding of the role of language in religious rites has had many significant consequences. Not only Arabs, but all Muslims, whether Malay, Indo-Pakistani, Persian, Turk or African, all having mother tongues other than Arabic, pray five times a day in Arabic, whereas in the West after nearly two millennia of the use of the beautiful Latin liturgy, it was put aside in favor of vernacular languages after Vatican II.
Many have said that for Christianity, Islamic teachings have been too close for comfort and there is what one might call family enmity towards Islam that Christianity has not had towards other religions, the case of Judaism being an exceptional one. Yes, Christians read in the Holy Bible about Noah, Abraham and Moses, all of whom along with many other prophets are also mentioned in the Noble Qur’an. Christians, especially Catholic and Orthodox, venerate the Virgin Mary and so do Muslims. For Christians, Jesus is the Son of God, who was born miraculously from a virgin mother and who performed of many miracles. For Muslims he is not the son of God but one of the foremost prophets dedicated to spiritual guidance, the prophet of inwardness, born miraculously of a virgin mother. Yes, Muslims also venerate Mary, the only woman after whom a chapter of the Qur’an is named. Moreover, they not only accept the virginal birth of Jesus as do Christians, but also affirm his performance of miracles. Despite differences, the similarities are great enough to have aroused suspicion and special enmity among many Christians against Islam even after the political threat of Islam to Europe had disappeared.
There are also significant differences between Islam and Christianity due to their very different encounters with modernism and secularism. Obviously in dealing with Christianity today, we Muslims are not confronted with St Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and the builders of the Cologne Cathedral, however real these dimensions of traditional Western Christianity might still be. Rather, we face a Christianity that bears the deep wounds of five centuries of battle with forces opposed to religion, from the secular humanism and skepticism of the Renaissance to the materialism associated with the 17th century Scientific Revolution and the subsequent secularization of the cosmos to the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, to the historicism and evolutionism of the 19th century to the current post-modern critique of religious texts and the virulent atheistic attacks being made recently in the West against religion as such. Western Christianity has had to face such figures as Montaigne, Bayle, Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, all of whom were products of the West and not from a land far away as has been the case of Islam in its confrontation with such figures. Islam, moreover, did not experience various phases of modernism in a gradual manner as did Western Christianity, but experienced it rapidly and in quick order. Of course there are those in the West who claim that the problem is precisely that Islam did not experience in depth modernism and especially the Enlightenment to which Muslims would respond, thank God that this did not happen to us. Otherwise the number of Muslim worshippers performing the Friday prayers at the Sultan Hasan Mosque in Cairo would be the same as the number of Christians participating in the Mass on a Sunday at the St Sulpice Church in Paris.
In seeking to come together we must be fully aware of the differences created by the advent of modernism. Western Christianity has fought against but also in many cases surrendered to the foe as we see in the abandonment of the cosmos to a secularist science or the adoption of certain Marxist themes in some of the currents of liberation theology. As for Islam, its encounter with modernism has been confined to a short period. Within the span of a century Muslims have had to face the challenges of five centuries of European anti-religious thought. Their reaction has, therefore, been different from that of Western Christianity. Islam’s encounter with modernism has not produced an army of influential secularist thinkers, nor a strong wave against religion as we see in modern European history. But there have been severe reactions, sometimes unfortunately violent, to modernism throughout the Islamic world recently, resulting in what is called problematically in the West fundamentalism which, however, also has its equivalents in both Judaism and Christianity not to speak of Hinduism.
Let us understand the roots of our differences not only as based in scripture and tradition, but also as resulting from our very different experiences of modernism and secularism. Simple criticism of the other without understanding and empathy cannot bring accord despite all the elements common between Islam and Christianity to which some reference has already been made. We are situated in the same boat floating over very dangerous waters. The vilification of the other through accentuation of differences without deeper understanding of causes of these differences and disregard for all that unites us, especially the love of God and the neighbor, cannot but lead to our own perdition.
Forgetting and casting aside the remarkable accord on so many basic doctrines and values and exaggerating differences used often to bring about purposefully discord and opposition have characterized much of the history of relations between our two religions. As we now all stand at the edge of a precipice it is time to turn a new page and seek to come together in the bosom of Divine Love. Of course our coming together does not and should not mean the destruction of divinely ordained formal structures of each religion. You and us: we must in fact be able to continue our distinct religious lives without constant threat of the destruction of our faith from the other side before even embarking upon dialogue. That is why we Muslims oppose aggressive proselytizing which seeks to reward conversion with worldly advantages. We wish to preserve our religion, as do the Jews, who in 1988 passed a law in Israel banning religious proselytizing, as would Christians if they were placed in our situation. To be friends requires that we first exist as ourselves. The other must be respected as the other, not as potential material for conversion from the category of otherness. Yes, both Christianity and Islam envisage for themselves a universal message, but if we are to live together in peace, we cannot try to destroy the religious identity of the other at all costs, imposing what we consider to be our right on the other, and disregarding his right for self-preservation.
Our attitudes in this matter as in so many others will change if we realize not only theoretically, but also concretely, that we belong to the same family of religions, worshipping the same God. The great tragedies of the 20th century have helped to expand the usage of the term “Judeo-Christian”. It is now time to realize that we have to speak of “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” if we are to be honest, and also reverential towards Abraham, who is the father of monotheism. It was God’s Will that the Abrahamic tradition should be comprised of the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. You cannot sever bonds that have been forged by God. If we are to accept in our hearts, and not only diplomatically, that we are members of the same religious family (seen in the positive sense of family based on accord and not discord), then we must discourse with each other as family members and respect each other in every way without hatred and above the fray of family feuds. Our dialogues must not be based on suspicion, hidden agendas and duplicity, but on sincerity and honesty, which are so much needed in our world. We are not each other’s enemies, but members of the same divinely ordained family. Therefore, we should not try to destroy each other, but seek to vie with each other in goodness, as the Noble Qur’an asserts.
One might understand that a thousand years ago, when we both lived in a world impregnated by faith, some Christians might have called Muslims their enemies, and vice versa, although even then many Christians and Muslims lived as friends as can be seen in the long history of Christian communities in the Islamic world. In any case, we no longer live in a traditional world of faith and are confronting other enemies. We live in a secularist world in which religions are each other’s best friends. In any case, today our enemy, which in fact is common between us, is the materialistic, hedonistic, nihilistic and God-negating world-view that is so wide-spread, the world-view that negates the spiritual nature of humanity, denies the sacred and the transcendent, and seeks to shatter our hopes for a blessed life everlasting. We have much to offer to each other in the central battle between truth and falsehood. But the offer can only be accepted if we first recognize each other as friends and not as enemies.
In this effort to reorient ourselves toward each other, all of us, Christian and Muslim alike, can play a role. But there is no doubt that the main responsibility lies on the shoulders of religious leaders, thinkers and scholars, those whom we call ‘ulama’ in Islam. Those who are guides and trailblazers in religious matters must come forward and seek to bring about understanding to those in their own communities who hearken to their call. They should bring about further knowledge about the other whom they should present as friend, not enemy, to be loved and not vilified. And surely the carrying out of such a task on our part is one that is not always easy. It requires – besides the necessary knowledge – selflessness, honesty and truthfulness in conjunction with love and compassion.
We as Muslims from different schools of Islamic thought and countries have come together to extend to you our hand of friendship, seeking to meet you in God’s love, beyond all our theological differences and memories of historical confrontations. Surely we, who respect and love Christ as you do, can meet and come together under the banner of what he has stated to be the two supreme commandments: to love God and to love the neighbor. We can also seek to extend, often in harmony with each other, the border of the definition of neighbor to include not only you and us but the whole of humanity, and even beyond that the rest of God’s creation. As the Holy Bible asserts, “With God, all things are possible.” We submit to Him, and ask for His help and affirmation in carrying out this momentous task of meeting with you in friendship and peace under the banner of that common word that unites us. There can be no more blessed act in our times than the creation of deep accord between God’s religions, especially the two religions that have the largest numbers of followers in the world, namely Christianity and Islam. Indeed, God summons us to the Abode of Peace, and blessed are the peace-makers.