Muslim-Christian relations: If not brothers, good neighbors

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Author: Gabriel Said Reynolds

On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict returned to the University of Regensburg, where he had been a professor of theology from 1969 to 1977, to give an address to the faculty on faith and reason. In his address Benedict famously (or infamously, if you read the press accounts) drew the faculty’s attention to a 14th century dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II and a Muslim among the Ottoman Turkish forces who had taken the emperor captive.

Among other things Pope Benedict quoted Manuel’s comment: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” With this Manuel meant to counter his opponent’s claim that Islam is the final religion, the religion which completes and corrects Judaism and Christianity.

Unfortunately, misunderstanding over the pope’s use of the quotation and the ensuing uproar generated so much heat that the light shed by his remarks was missed by most of the public. Benedict, for his part, turned to Manuel’s dialogue in order to address the question of terrorism, a topic of international concern at the time after a series of well-publicized incidents involving Muslim fundamentalists (the September 11 attacks in 2001; the Moscow opera house crisis in 2002; the Beslan [Russia] school hostage crisis in 2004; the London underground attacks of 2005; and the Mumbai train bombings in 2006).

In Manuel’s dialogue the polemic against Muhammad is a preface to an argument against religious violence. Manuel argues that “God is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” On this point Benedict comments that the word “reasonably” in Greek is literally “with the word (logos).” In this light the opening of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word (logos),” testifies to the importance of reason.

Thus the first point of Benedict’s address is the necessity of rationality to religious thought. The second point is the necessity of faith – that is, truths known only because God has revealed them. Among other things, Benedict argues that Catholics’ recognition of faith should make them sympathetic to Muslims (and indeed the absence of faith makes it difficult for the secular West to understand Islam). Thus Benedict’s speech, if seen as a whole, is a compelling argument for the importance of faith and reason in Catholic thought.

Yet most of the mass media, predictably, was concerned only by the quotation on Muhammad. Benedict’s inclusion of this quotation showed him to be, in the media’s view, a maladroit (if not malicious) academic in pope’s clothing. The media’s portrayal of the Regensburg speech soon reached the Islamic world and protests — some violent — followed, to which the pope responded with a series of apologies.

The letters

About a month after Benedict’s address, 38 Muslim leaders addressed a letter to him. It acknowledged his apologies and insisted on the peaceful and rational nature of Islam. The following year (October 11, 2007) a group of 138 Muslim leaders, led by the Libyan scholar Aref Ali Nayed, addressed a longer letter not only to the Holy Father but also to Orthodox and Protestant leaders worldwide. Therein they propose to base future Muslim-Christian conversations on love of God and love of neighbor.

This second letter has since become well-known among those involved with Christian-Muslim relations. Its title, “A Common Word between Us and You,” is a quotation from the third chapter of the Quran (hence the peculiar diction). For the most part Christian leaders responded enthusiastically to it. Three hundred Protestant, Orthodox and Catholics (although no bishops) signed “A Christian Response to ‘A Common Word,’” a document prepared by Yale’s Center for Faith and Culture in 2007.

The Vatican’s response to “A Common Word” was not immediately forthcoming. However, the pope later invited groups of 24 Muslim and 24 Catholic scholars to a three-day symposium at the Vatican, an event that took place in November 2008 and led to a joint declaration. Few would have predicted that Benedict’s Regensburg speech would lead, eventually, to such an unprecedented meeting of Muslims and Christians.

To many the Muslim initiative of “A Common Word” and the meeting at the Vatican are of historical importance. They are signs that Christians and Muslims have begun, as the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate puts it, “to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding.” Yet it seems to me that the lessons to be drawn from this episode are somewhat sobering.

It is worth noting, among other things, that the phrase, “A Common Word between Us and You” is hardly an invitation to dialogue in Islamic tradition. It comes from a passage in which the Quran refutes Christian claims about Jesus. In 3:51 the Quran has Jesus himself proclaim “God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him” (contrast John 10:30: “The Father and I are one.”). The “common word” to which the Quran calls Christians in 3:64 is nothing less than an invitation to abandon Christian teaching on Jesus. The Quran defines it in the following manner: “We shall worship none but God, ascribe no partner to him, and no one shall take another [person] as a Lord.”

Otherwise the Muslim letter is marked by an apologetical reading of the Quran on questions of religious violence and freedom of religion (for a detailed examination read the observatons by Lutz Richter-Bernburg) Now there is nothing wrong, of course, with Muslims re-evaluating the literal meaning of the Quran or the standard interpretation thereof. The problem with the Muslim letter is that the apologetical reading (i.e. the insistence that the Quran teaches peace and tolerance) is presented as the literal meaning of the Quran. The letter is thus completely out of touch with the teaching of the Quran throughout history and throughout the Islamic world in Friday sermons today. It is little wonder, then, that “A Common Word” has had no noticeable impact there. Christians of Muslim background, for example, still live in fear for their lives in the Islamic world, as do Muslim women who marry Christian men.

So Christians might learn from this episode that the relationship between Islam and Christianity is not like that between two brothers with different opinions on the same topic. Islam is a religion that has come to replace Christianity, to teach Christians that Jesus was a Muslim who predicted the coming of Muhammad. Christians should not take offence to this claim. This is, after all, the sort of thing that religions do (has not the Church long told Jews to become Christians?).

But the point is that on religious matters there is no question of reaching a “common” position. Instead Christians and Muslims should strive for two things. First, we should learn to look on the intense devotion in the religious lives of the other with profound and honest admiration. Second, with reference to faith and reason we should learn to live together, if not as brothers, then as good neighbors.


Gabriel Said Reynolds is an associate professor of Islamic studies and theology at Notre Dame and the author of A Muslim Theologian in the Sectarian Milieu and the editor of The Quran in Its Historical Context.


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