The Common Word for a Common Humanity: The Underlying Essence of the Message as Rooted in the Holy Scriptures of Islam and Christianity

By Nadim Pabani

Special to Simerg

Introduction

“Say: O People of the Book! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God.” (The Holy Qur’an, 3:64)

In this study, the author will firstly examine The Common Word initiative and its formative roots. Secondly, he will overview some of the subsequent reactions from religious leaders and academic scholars in both the Christian and Muslim communities. While acknowledging that negative responses to The Common Word have arisen, the author will rather focus on the perceptions of the majority which reflect more favourably on the impact of the initiative. Finally, the author will suggest that it is possible to view The Common Word initiative as having been derived from the basic essence of both the Qur’anic and Biblical teachings in regards to the building of one’s social conscience through pluralism, humanism and universalism.

The author contends that the initiative and others of similar origin can prove revolutionary in impact, thus aiding in the bid to bridge the divide – through better understanding – which has unfortunately been ever-widening since the horrific events of 9/11. In this way, perceptions about the current situation being a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ can be transformed, instead recognising the problem faced as more so a ‘Clash of Ignorance’. His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Shia Ismaili Imam, alluded to this in an address at the Tutzing Evangelical Academy, in which he stated:

 When people speak these days, about an inevitable “Clash of Civilizations” in our world, what they often mean, I fear, is an inevitable “Clash of Religions.” But I would use different terminology altogether. The essential problem, as I see it, in relations between the Muslim world and the West is “A Clash of Ignorance.” [1]

With adherents of the Christian and Muslim faiths today accounting for almost half of the world’s entire population, interaction – good and bad, positive and negative – between the peoples of both faiths is inevitable. In a world of increasing diversity and globalisation, inter-faith relations between the religions of Christianity and Islam and its peoples will naturally be on the increase. As with all dialogue, there will exist people on both sides of the fence: Those who may subscribe to Huntington’s thesis of the undeniable ‘Clash of Civilizations’ [2], explicit in its understanding of Islam as an inherently violent religion which is thus at loggerheads with the ‘Christian’ values which form the foundation of ‘Western’ civilisation, and those – referred to as ‘Muslim apologists’ – who argue that there is no conflict between Islam and the West, and indeed they are, in their fundamental essence, more alike than they might believe; but what of the middle ground? The common ground; As Heck states:

‘Christianity remains Christianity and Islam remains Islam: There are insurmountable differences. But there are also ways for believers of diverse faiths to enlighten one another’. [3]

So can we, as the Qur’an requests in the verse quoted above, arrive at ‘a common word’ in order to build a better future for society, finding the similarities in both which could pave the way towards appreciating ‘a common humanity’? In light of this we can call upon the following Qur’anic verse in which God proclaims that it is He, the ‘Lord who created. Created man from a clot… who taught man what he did not know’ (Qur’an, 6:1-2, 5). The verse espouses this notion of commonality, implying that humankind is part of one brotherhood and one community – the human community (Qur’an, 21:92).

The Birth of The Common Word

The Common Word initiative took shape as a response to comments made by Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensburg lecture on 12th September 2006. In the address, the Pope quoted the words of a medieval Byzantine Christian emperor who was strongly critical of the Prophet Muhammad, suggesting that the religion of Islam and violence go hand in hand. Having not specified that this was not his personal opinion, unsurprisingly, responses to the statement from the Muslim world were ardent in their disapproval. It was the reaction to this statement, after initial correspondence, which gave birth to The Common Word initiative, prompting authorities in the Islamic world ‘representing all denominations and schools of thought… to deliver an answer to the Pope in the spirit of open intellectual exchange and mutual understanding’. [4]

‘An Open Letter and Call from Muslim Religious Leaders’ dated 13th October 2007, and signed by one hundred and thirty eight leading Muslim scholars, clerics and authorities entitled ‘A Common Word Between Us and You’ was issued to representatives of the Christian world, calling them to open exchange and interfaith dialogue in a bid to foster harmonious relations between two of the world’s largest faiths. The intention, H.R.H. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad notes, was not only to ‘avoid a greater worldwide conflict between Muslims and the West’ but ‘simply to try to make peace and spread harmony between Muslims and Christians globally’. [5] This act of extending the hand of Islam to that of Christianity, in order to seek common ground, was – on the whole – met with hugely positive support, receiving ‘encouragement at the highest levels of religious authority and political power’. [6]

Reaction to The Common Word – Bridging the Gap Towards Better Understanding and Paving the Way for a Better Future

The initiative has been viewed by many as a vital and necessary first step towards fostering better relations between the Muslim and Christian world; Kalin also suggests that, unlike other calls for open dialogue which tend to avoid a focus on debate with a grounding in theology, ‘A Common Word puts forward serious theological propositions and invites Muslims and Christians to reflect upon them’. [7] Below, we shall look at two separate responses from the Muslim and Christian perspectives, which subscribe to this view.

1. His Grace Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury – A Common Word for the Common Good, 14th July 2008

In reaction to The Common Word initiative, the Archbishop of Canterbury, formed a response with backing, as he mentions, from Christian colleagues and most notably from those who attended a ‘Consultation of Church representatives and Christian scholars in June 2008’. From analysis of the letter, we can see the reaction as resoundingly positive. The letter notes that ‘…the appearance of the A Common Word [Open Letter] of 2007 was a landmark in Muslim-Christian relations and it has a unique role in stimulating a discussion at the deepest level across the world’ [8] with the Archbishop commending the step taken by the Muslim community as one of courage and good intention.

In his introduction there is also the important acknowledgement that, in no way is the initiative seen as suggesting that both Muslims and Christians should ‘immediately affirm an agreed and shared understanding of God’, but rather that people of both faiths should recognise that ‘on some matters, [they] are speaking enough of a common language… to be able to pursue both exploratory dialogue and peaceful co-operation with integrity and without compromising fundamental beliefs’. [9] The Archbishop’s response was seen as reciprocating the hand extended by the Muslim World and was widely acknowledged as an extremely encouraging one; one which could continue to keep open the lines of communication for peaceful exhortation which the Qur’anic scripture calls for.

2. “The Common Word Dossier”, Islamica Magazine, Issue 21 (2009)

This dossier comprises a number of articles written by various personalities on both The Common Word and general interfaith relations between Muslims and Christians in a broader sense. “The Promise of a Common Word” [10] has been authored by Aref Ali Nayed who obtained a Ph.D. in Hermeneutics from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. He went on to found Kalam Research and Media (KRM) based in Tripoli and has been an ardent supporter of interfaith initiatives which is evidenced by his position as one of the original one hundred and thirty eight signatories of The Common Word.

In his article, Nayed reflects upon The Common Word as a ‘landmark document’ outlining ten reasons as to why the initiative is ‘of immense importance’. Among these reasons are the reality that the voices which have spoken for Islam and the voices to which they are being spoken in Christianity, are representative of their respective faiths, as leaders who ‘guide and influence millions’ of believers in each community; The strength of the initiative lies in its firm grounding in the theological roots of both the Islamic and Christian Holy Scriptures; its invocation of verses from the Torah also goes some way to promoting a sense of inclusivity and ‘healing relations’ with the Jewish community. Nayed acknowledges that although being only the first step towards healing relations between Islam and Christianity, the initiative can be hailed as a truly monumental one.

The Essence of The Common Word as Derived from the Divinely Inspired Message

Having outlined responses to the initiative from both Muslim and Christian perspectives, we can now proceed to establish the validity of our statement that the underlying essence of the initiative itself can be interpreted as having been founded upon the fundamental and essentially pluralistic teachings of the Qur’an and Bible.

The notion of open dialogue in a bid to foster harmony between Islam and Christianity is a necessity; it is vital, and even more so, essential for world peace as stated in the open letter. The claims that, ‘without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world’, and that, ‘the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians’, are immensely powerful. They bring about a realisation that neither religion will wipe out the other; and thus, the future peace of human civilisation may hinge upon the successful discourse and seeking of common ground between Islam and Christianity; ‘…the very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.’ [11] This notion, that neither Muslims nor Christians can force the other to submit to the other’s theological viewpoints, is summed up in the following Qur’anic verse:

“There is no compulsion in religion.” (Qur’an, 2:256).

Bearing this in mind we must acknowledge that in order to realise peace among nations and the world, peace between Islam and Christianity may prove to be the solution. In addition to accepting that there can be no compulsion in matters of faith and that one cannot ‘compel’ another to believe (Qur’an, 10:99), the Qur’an goes further by acknowledging that there is no necessity to believe in particular creeds because essentially, the plurality of the Divine message is part of God’s plan. He has willed that His religion be manifested in the different ‘paths’, in the guise of ‘different’ religions through which He has called upon humanity to recognize His Lordship over all creatures.

“We have assigned a law and a path to each of you. If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good…” (Qur’an, 5:48)

It is thus acknowledged that God has given mankind different paths upon which to tread, implying that there is no monopoly on salvations by adherence to a certain religion as they are all merely different expressions of the same essence. The outward form of God’s religion may differ but each contains the same unchangeable immutable truths. One can also interpret the ‘race to do good’ as a request for mankind, irrespective of faith to act piously and righteously. But it is this acceptance that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in an individual’s relationship with the Divine that allows us to ask the next question: “How do I reconcile the belief of the ‘other’ with that of my own in order to maintain peaceful co-existence?” The author proposes open dialogue, void of polemic or hidden agendas, as being the only viable solution.

From the outset, it was stated that the purpose of The Common Word was to establish an open line of communication between the Muslim and Christian communities, in a bid to promote better understanding. This concept of peaceful dialogue and debate is evidenced by the following Qur’anic verse:

“[Prophet], call [people] to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good teaching. Argue with them in the most courteous way…” (Qur’an, 16:125).

Once established, the founders of the initiative called for mutual understanding on the basis of two key themes which are to be found in both the Qur’an and Biblical teachings of Christianity – namely, ‘love of the One God, and love of the neighbour’. [12] To evidence this, the open letter issued by The Common Word calls upon the following verse from the New Testament in which Jesus Christ states:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. / And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. / And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark, 12:28-31).

As regards the concept of co-existence between peoples of different faiths, traditions, belief systems etc. we can see evidence for peaceful co-existence in the following verse of the Qur’an – a verse which also alludes to this idea of a common humanity as noted in the introduction to this work:

“People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another [not despise one another].” (Qur’an, 49:13).

The Good Samaritan: A Biblical Narrative

As regards The Common Word’s decision to take the initiative in extending the proverbial ‘handshake of religious good-will, friendship and fellowship’, [13] we can take heed from the example of the Good Samaritan in the Biblical narrative who assisted the injured stranger. In the narrative, the Samaritan, a foreigner – who would in contemporary terminology be representative of the ‘other’ – moves beyond this simplistic box definition, reaching out across the cultural and ethnic divide, in order to aid the fallen stranger at the wayside. The story illustrates how, by assisting the stranger, the Samaritan made an active and positive choice to disregard what separated him and made him ‘different’ from the stranger, and acted with the spirit of good humanitarian values. Regardless of the stranger’s creed it was the simple fact that he was a fellow human being worthy of support, which compelled the Samaritan to act. This Biblical story exemplifies the underlying humanistic essence of The Common Word initiative.

In this way, The Common Word can be seen as similar in nature; one could call it a manifestation of this very same concept of the benevolence and humanitarianism which should be inherent in mankind; a manifestation of the Divine will that in order to progress as a race, as a human race, we must work together to forge links in order to build a better and brighter future for ourselves, a better humanity. This humanistic and universalist spirit manifests itself in the story of the Good Samaritan, in The Common Word initiative, and also in verses from the Old Testament:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbour, and not bear sin because of him… you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus, 19:17-18).

A (Common) Word to the Wise

The Common Word initiative can thus be interpreted as an expression of the fundamental essence of the Qur’anic message. The initiative was founded with the objective of building bridges and strengthening Muslim-Christian relations and the author believes, in concurrence with the reaction from a vast number of influential Muslim and Christian religious leaders and academics, that the initiative was ground-breaking in many respects. The initiative is recognised as a milestone not just on the inter-religious level but also at the intra-religious level within the Islamic tradition, and has been noted as being ‘the first time since the days of the Prophet [that] Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals [from all the Islamic traditions] have unanimously come together…to declare the common ground between Christianity and Islam’. [14] We can therefore view The Common Word initiative as a hugely positive step towards bridging the divide between Christians and Muslims. The essence upon which the initiative has been founded is essentially derived from the fundamentally pluralistic nature of both the Islamic and Christian Holy Scriptures. In this regard, although founded by Muslims, derived from an interpretation of Islam’s essence as being an all-embracing and universal one, a conclusion can be reached that this essence is the very same essence upon which Christianity was founded; the Divine essence which aspires for us as human beings to live together peacefully in order that we may become consciously aware of our common heritage, and consequently, our common humanity.

Date article posted: Friday, March 16, 2012.

Copyright: Nadim Pabani, 2012.

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Notes:

[1] Aga Khan IV, “Address by His Highness the Aga Khan to the Tutzing Evangelical Academy Upon Receiving the ‘Tolerance’ Award”, 2006. For PDF, click The Institute of Ismaili Studies

[2] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, 72, 3 (1993): 22-49.

[3] Paul L. Heck, Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009): 4.

[4] The Official Website of “A Common Word” – click A Common Word.

[5] Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington. A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010): 8.

[6] Heck, Common Ground, 1.

[7] See Ibrahim Kalin “Seeking Common Ground between Muslims and Christians” in John Borelli and John L. Esposito, “A Common Word and the Future of Christian-Muslim Relations”, Occasional Papers published by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University.

[8] His Grace Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury,A Common Word for the Common Good”, 14th July 2008 – click Archibishop of Canterbury.

[9] Ibid., 1,2.

[10] Aref Ali Nayed, “The Promise of a Common Word” in “The Common Word Dossier” Islamica Magazine, Issue 21 (2009), 49-79 –  click The Promise of a Common Word .

[11] “A Common Word Between Us and You: Summary and Abridgement”, October 13th 2007 – click A Common Word – Summary.

[12] The Official Website of  A Common Word.

[13] Volf, Muhammad, and Yarrington, A Common Word, 8.

[14] The Official Website of A Common Word.

Bibliography

-  Abdel-Haleem, M.A.S. trans. The Qur’an (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

- “A Common Word Between Us and You: Summary and Abridgement”, October 13th 2007. See note [11] above.

- “A Common Word” Official Website – click http://www.acommonword.com.

- Heck, Paul L. Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009).

- His Grace Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury,A Common Word for the Common Good”, 14th July 2008. See note [8] above.

- His Highness the Aga Khan, “Address by His Highness the Aga Khan to the Tutzing Evangelical Academy Upon Receiving the ‘Tolerance’ Award”. See note [1] above.

- Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, 72, 3 (1993): 22-49.

- Kalin, Ibrahim, “Seeking Common Ground between Muslims and Christians” in John Borelli and John L. Esposito, A Common Word and the Future of Christian-Muslim Relations, Occasional Papers published by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University.

- Nayed, Aref Ali.  “The Promise of a Common Word” in “The Common Word Dossier” Islamica Magazine, Issue 21 (2009), 49-79. See note [10] above.

- Volf, Miroslav, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington. A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010).

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About the author: Nadim Pabani, a resident of London, UK, obtained his Undergraduate Bachelor of Laws with Honours Degree from City University, London in Law and Property Valuation (LLB). Currently he is studying at The University of Edinburgh for a Masters as part of the MSc in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. His interests lie in the fields of Islamic (and more specifically Ismaili) History, Philosophy and Theology. His Masters Dissertation will involve a comparative study of the Fatimid and Alamut conceptions of the Qaim and Qiyamah with particular reference to the works of Nasir-i Khusraw, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Hasan Mahmud, in order to explain the shift in doctrine between these two distinct phases of Nizari Ismaili history.

The author can be contacted via email at nadimpabani@hotmail.com.

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5 thoughts on “The Common Word for a Common Humanity: The Underlying Essence of the Message as Rooted in the Holy Scriptures of Islam and Christianity

  1. Nadim is going to be a great scholar, if he isn’t one already. Keep up the amazing work and looking forward to you completing your dissertation.

  2. Bravo! Great work Nadim! I felt a coolness in my eyes when I saw this! Just like Prophet Muhammad was refreshed by prayers!

    You will appreciate this quote from the Aga Khan:

    “Ever since its revelation the fundamental concepts of Islam have been its universality and the fact that this is the last revelation, constantly valid, and not petrified into one period of man’s history or confined to one area of the world. Islam is for all places and all time.” – Aga Khan http://www.amaana.org/speeches/nano3.htm

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