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Calling for a new dialogue between Islam and Christianity

Dr. Rashid Shaz

As a Muslim I am rather perplexed to enter into a formal dialogue with Christians. For a Muslim-Christian dialogue entails that the representatives of Muhammad and Jesus find themselves on the opposing sides of the table. As a Muslim who believes both in Jesus and Muhammad, one and at the same time, and who belongs to both the camps, it is not possible for me to speak for Muhammad alone and yet remain a Muslim. Today, when I stand here presumably to represent the Muslim side, I want to make it clear that representing the Muslim side does not mean that I have forsaken Jesus or withdrawn my claim on him who is integral to my faith.

In the Quranic worldview, the term Ummah Muslima or the Muslim nation encompasses all the prophets and their rightly guided followers, the nations of Abraham, of Jacob and Moses and of Jesus and Muhammad. It is altogether a different story that today we Muslims appear to have patented the word Muslim which simply means submission per se.

In the heyday of Islam when Prophet Mohammed lived amongst us, we never considered the Jews and the Christians as the religious other. Instead, we took them as our natural allies, as people of the book while the non-believing Meccans despite their kinship to the Prophet and his followers were dubbed as kuffar, the religious other. In Surah Haj verse 40 one is astonished to find that monasteries, churches and synagogues, are placed at par with the mosques, and are mentioned in the same breath, wherein together, we are told, 'God's name is commemorated in abundance':
صَوَامِعُ وَبِيَعٌ وَصَلَوَاتٌ وَمَسَاجِدُ يُذْكَرُ فِيهَا اسْمُ اللَّهِ كَثِيرًا

This sense of religious pluralism that pervaded early Islam helped flourish a full-fledged religious life of other believing nations under Islam. History records the prophet's treaty with the Christians of Najran which guaranteed the protection of their religious life and preservation of their religious institutions. And when Muaz was sent to Yemen as a governor, the prophet instructed him not to disrupt the religious life of the Jews. In early Islam, socializing with the people of the book was a norm as the Quran openly declared their food lawful for Muslims and Muslim food lawful for them. Muslims were even allowed to enter into marital relations with the Jewish and Christian girls. The Christians under early Islam were, so to speak, a loving and affectionate nation enjoying the general goodwill of the Muslim people, as documented in the Quran:

وَلَتَجِدَنَّ أَقْرَبَهُمْ مَّوَدَّةً لِّلَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ الَّذِينَ قَالُوَاْ إِنَّا نَصَارَى

And you will find the nearest in love to the believers those who say: "We are Christians."

Had there been no crusades, no colonialism and no war on terror, I'm sure, the world would have been a much better place today and the two ideologically allied nations would not have needed any dialogue to mend their strained relations. But the unfortunate incidents have cast their legacy, firstly, impacting historiography on both sides, secondly, severely damaging the psychological self, and finally giving birth to new terminologies like Islamophobia and Islamic terrorism. We therefore are left with no option but to call for an effective dialogue to get out of the present impasse.

In 1965 when Vatican II declared that salvation outside the Church was possible and a pontifical council was entrusted to engage other believing nations in a dialogue, Muslims did little realize then the importance of this revolutionary step. The reason may be, for many centuries Muslims too had virtually closed the door of salvation on other believing nations. Their ulema had told them that all such verses that called for forging alliance with the people of the book or gave glad tidings to the God-fearing submitters among the Jews and the Christians and the Sabaeans – were abrogated and hence not applicable to them anymore.

From Vatican II Nostra Aetate proclamation to the post-9/11 anti-war demonstrations, the Christian-Muslim understanding has come a long way. The anti-war rallies in Europe and America demonstrated to Muslims, probably for the first time in history, that even among secularized Christians they can find allies against oppression and injustice. Without any theological hairsplitting or finding a common religious ground these demonstrations achieved what otherwise probably would not have been possible.

This is not to downplay the importance of theological engagement but simply to assert that theological engagements should not be taken as the crux of Christian-Muslim dialogue. It can only be one of the possible levels on which dialogue has to take place though it immediately comes to our mind. In recent years, among the many theological formulations on the horizon, probably by far the most sophisticated and consistent initiative on the Muslim side has been the common-word initiative by an Amman based Foundation. Assuming that everything in Islam and Christianity hangs around the two basic precepts; the love of God and love of neighbor, this document is a passionate search to find common religious grounds. But despite substantial endorsement by Muslim ulema and policymakers and a good press this document received in the West, so far it has been a non-starter. To me, it appears more an exercise in diplomacy than any frank dialogue. It not only casts Islam in a Christian dye by employing Christian terminologies it also avoids difficult questions that have been bone of contention between the two communities. Should we allow building new Churches in Muslim lands? Or, what it means to have freedom to change one's religious affiliations? Such questions are natural corollary to any theological engagement.

Since Hans Kung publicized the idea from the platform of Parliament of World's Religions that there can be no peace without peace among religions, other possible and equally important levels of dialogues have been pushed to the background. We should not lose sight of the fact that today, unlike the Medieval Ages, Christianity is no fixed set of dogmas and no Nicene Creed bind the adherents of Christianity together. In a post-Christian environment where the Church fathers command little influence, no elitist theological engagement can be effective. I'm afraid theological and fiqhi hairsplitting on both sides would keep them entangled for many years to come. I therefore plead that the dialogue must move on simultaneously to the other forums. Or, alternatively, high-level theological dialogues may incorporate public intellectuals, social scientists, natural scientists and industry leaders on both sides. This will not only save us from unnecessary entanglements but also increase the efficacy of any such engagements manifold.

Honesty and frankness apart, the proponents of a new Muslim-Christian dialogue must be clear about the methodological issues involved. For us, Islam as a message is not negotiable – though open to further interpretation, but Islam as a history is always open to any evaluation and criticism. I do not know if the Christian scholars would be willing to have the same attitude to the Vatican councils or the councils that once canonized the Nicene Creed. To me, Jesus like Muhammad is not negotiable. But what comes after them, the human element in the making of Islam and Christianity should be open to critical evaluation.

A new dialogue will pose a major intellectual challenge to the proponents of both religions. Before finding a common word between the two they need to find a common word or a founding document on which each community broadly agrees. Probably, Quran on the one side and Jesus words as recorded in the four primary books of the Bible can serve as a possible alternative.

Taking the dialogue to this level needs building of unshakable trust on both sides. Often seen out of context, some verses in the Quran such as the Jizya verse or latattakhezul yahood wan nasara etc have appeared to some Christians as 'troubling'. There is no need to be apologetic about them or hide them in the closet. We must accept each other as we are, with all our intellectual and religious moorings. There is nothing in the Quran that makes religious conversion punishable by death or that prohibits building of Christian churches in Muslim countries. These are basically administrative issues that have to take into account public sensitivity and security issues attached to them. The juridical rulings of the past fuqaha are always open to debate. But as I said, this kind of debate requires a general atmosphere of trust and goodwill. Today, when Christianity has yet to shed its colonial image, when the war on terror is perceived by many as a modern-day crusade, as a war against Islam and as a Christian attempt to grab energy resources in the Muslim Middle-East, when predominantly Christian bullets are continuously taking innocent lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, when publishing the cartoons demonizing the prophet Muhammad has become a litmus test to free-speech, even well-intentioned debates on such sensitive issues and by well-meaning individuals can only create further suspicion and distrust.

Let us first build trust. We must start sowing the trust and good-will now and move on to address other immediate concerns on which depends our common survival and survival of the world at large. Globalization's leap in the wrong direction has resulted in the mad burning of extra-oil creating alarming energy crises, speculative prices of fossil fuels, ecological imbalance, the ever-widening divide between the poor and the rich and eventually turning our only planet into a mere theater of mega-corporations. A free space where the individual can live an alternative living, beyond the tax-net, and where he is not coerced to pay for mad defense spending and development, has vanished. The capitalist control of the media and now, to a great extent, of the university system are indicative of the fact that things are rotten to the core. The world needs a major shake-up. Democracy is ailing and there are all indications that the capitalist system, despite its worldwide popularity, is crumbling. It is for the believing nations to bury their differences in the greater interest of humanity and come out with a viable alternative.

Confronted as we are with a gigantic crisis today, no single nation on her own, can turn the tide. It is incumbent on all the inhabitants of the planet, no matter which religious tradition he or she comes from, to contribute his maximum share to the great rescue mission of humanity.

يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ تَعَالَوْاْ إِلَى كَلَمَةٍ سَوَاء بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَكُمْ
(O people of the book come to what is common between us and you.) When we Muslims say
أَلاَّ نَعْبُدَ إِلاَّ اللّهَ

(Don't obey other than the One God), the political implication should not be missed; i.e., obey God and don't obey Mr. Bush. I wonder if any Christian brother or sister would still like to dissent.

(Transcript of the speech delivered by the author who is editor of Future Islam at Crans Montana Forum in Monaco, June 26-29, 2008)

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