By Joe Thomas
Welcome to the second week of our exploration of the 2007 letter A Common Word between Us and You. As I noted last week, A Common Word seeks to find common ground between the monotheistic religions of Islam and Christianity, and by extension Judaism. The common ground proposed is 1) Unity of God, 2) Love of God, and 3) Love of Neighbor.
As a Christian I am delighted that A Common Word argues for the unity of God and the two great love commandments as the peaceful meeting point of our respective faiths. Properly understood I have no doubt that this is correct. Like the authors of A Common Word, Christians understand these scriptural truths to be foundational to our faith. Indeed, our Lord Jesus Christ explicitly made them central to his public and private teachings. So this starting point portends the beginning of a fruitful dialogue.
For the moment, let’s leave the discussion of the unity of God to next week. While Christians and Muslims share a common belief in the unity of God, how we understand that unity is clearly different. It is important that we don’t gloss over the profound differences even as we both affirm the unity of God as an essential religious and spiritual truth.
A Common Word reminds Muslims, and explains to Christians, that man’s love for God, as understood in the Qur’an, is deeply rooted in obedience to God and the fear of God. Man should know his place among the created. A proper obedience and fear towards God will bring forth praise among the faithful for his greatness. But God’s greatness isn’t just about obedience and fear, but also reflects his great mercy and forgiveness. It is this combination of God’s attributes that causes man to love God.
Say, (O Muhammad, to mankind): If ye love God, follow me; God will love you and forgive you your sins. God is Forgiving, Merciful. (Aal ‘Imran 3:31)
Let me comment here that the Love of God is a great starting point for Christians and Muslims to dialogue. If I understand A Common Word correctly, the authors are equating the Qur’anic teaching on the love of God with the teachings of the Jewish Shema and the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. A Common Word seems to say as much when it quotes the prophet of Islam as saying, “The best that I have said—myself, and the prophets that came before me” to mean that his words and the best that have come before him can be equated with each other. This is made clearer when A Common Word states, “that the Prophet Muhammad was perhaps, through inspiration, restating and alluding to the Bible’s First Commandment.”
Based on these comments I believe Christians and Muslims can begin a most helpful discussion with each other by digging deep into what it means to love God in their respective faiths. It is important to be able to state that Muslims and Christians both agree in the abstract that Love of God is fundamental to their respective faiths; it is the beginning of a genuine friendship to explore what this means for the individual believer.
“None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.”
The section on “Love of the Neighbor” is a brief one in A Common Word. Nonetheless, quotes from the prophet of Islam, as the one above, demonstrate Islamic teaching that is similar to that of the Christian Bible. A further quote from the Qur’an emphasizes that a Muslim’s wealth is to be used to help not only kinsfolk, but also orphans, the wayfarer, and the needy.
Significantly, A Common Word interprets the second commandment to mean that within Islam, Christianity and Judaism, freedom to worship should be respected. “In other words, that Muslims, Christians and Jews should be free to each follow what God commanded them, and not have ‘to prostrate before kings and the like’; for God says elsewhere in the Holy Qur’an: Let there be no compulsion in religion…(Al-Baqarah, 2:256). This clearly relates to the Second Commandment and to love of the neighbour of which justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part.”
This is an important concept, indeed, to be included in discussions between Christians and Muslims. As with Love of God, agreeing in principle that Christians and Muslims share a basic understanding of Love of Neighbor should be celebrated; and that it is interpreted to include an understanding of justice and freedom of religion even more so. No doubt further explorations into the legal meanings of justice and freedom of religion within Christian and Muslim societies and nation states can bring Christianity and Islam closer together in our common pursuit of world peace.
A Common Word closes with a plea for Christians to understand that Muslims are not their enemies. “As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them—so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes….” There is much to discuss and clarify in this statement from the authors of A Common Word, including conversations that must touch on politics and the definition of the nation state in Western culture to name two. Still, as a Christian I affirm this sentiment and likewise state that I am not against Muslims. Lord willing, a love of God and love of neighbor will allow us to begin with the simple proposition that Muslims and Christians are not against each other but for each other’s good.
Next week I will raise a few questions for us to discuss about A Common Word. Please be sure to comment on our blog site so that I can hear your thoughts on my reflections.