New Frontiers in Theological Research Presents: The Hope of Muslim-Christian Dialogue

Speaker Dr. Terence Nichols is Professor of Theology and former chair of the Theology Department at the University of St. Thomas, where he also is Co-Director of the Muslim Christian Dialogue Center.

Date/Time

Tuesday, March 4, 2014
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM

Location

John Roach Center Auditorium (JRC 126)
University of St. Thomas
Saint Paul Campus


Cost



Dr. Terence Nichols is Professor of Theology and former chair of the Theology Department at the University of St. Thomas, where he also is Co-Director of the Muslim Christian Dialogue Center. He teaches courses in Christian theology, science and theology, and death and afterlife. He is the author of several books, including Death and Afterlife: a Theological Introduction, published in 2010 by Brazos Press. Dr. Nichols has been involved in Muslim Christian Dialogue for about 15 years, and will discuss both the challenges and the hope of Muslim Christian Dialogue.

Co-sponsored by the University of St.Thomas College of Arts and Sciences, the UST Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center, and the UST Theology Department
 

For a printable copy of the talk, click here: Nichols talk 03-03-14: ‌

TEXT OF THE TALK:

The Hope of Muslim Christian Dialogue

Dr. Terry Nichols

Originally given as a lecture at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN

March 3, 2014, 7-8:30 PM

Perhaps the best place to start with this topic is to clarify what we mean by Muslim Christian dialogue. In fact, there are several forms of dialogue. The document Dialogue and Proclamation, issued by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1991, lists four types of dialogue. They describe these as follows:

The dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations. The dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people. The dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values. The dialogue of religious experience, where persons rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute (#42).

At our Muslim Christian Dialogue Center, we are focusing mainly on the third type, theological exchange, and the fourth type, religious experience. But these spill over into types one and two. For example, we have both Muslims and Christians on our Board of Advisors, as well as a Muslim co-Director, Dr. Adil Ozdemir, and a Christian co-director, myself. So we normally work together; we collaborate in the work of the Center. Mainly, though, we present panels and speakers on theological topics, and also engage in conferences with Muslim theologians from Turkey and Iran, where we read and discuss theological papers.

Here I will consider 4 main topics. First, I’d like to briefly explain what has attracted me and kept me engaged in Muslim Christian dialogue for over 16 years. The second topic is, I will explain some of the work we are doing right now in the Muslim Christian Dialogue Center, and what we hope to accomplish in the future. The third topic is, what are the obstacles and challenges to Muslim Christian dialogue? And the fourth is, what are the promises and hopes of Muslim Christian dialogue, not just our dialogue here, but Muslim Christian dialogue worldwide?

Topic I: What is my attraction to Muslim Christian dialogue?

So, let us proceed to the first topic: What has held my interest all these years in Muslim Christian dialogue? Why is Muslim Christian dialogue attractive to a Catholic theologian at all?

One reason is the similarity between Islam and Christianity. An example of this is the concept of God in both religions. Now I realize that Muslims reject the trinity, and so you could say, Christians and Muslims have different concepts of God, or even that they worship different Gods. Many fundamentalist Christians take this position. But if you look at how God is actually described in each tradition, the so-called attributes of God, are almost identical. Both Muslims and Christians affirm that God is omnipotent, omniscient, the Creator who is not created, who exists necessarily, who is transcendent as well as immanent, who will judge humanity on the last day, and so on. Muslims describe God by the 99 names. As a Christian, I can affirm every one of the 99 Muslim names of God. When I have taught with my colleague Adil Ozdemir in the course on Islam, we have been in agreement in our description of God.

One of the things that has struck me in our dialogue with theologians from Dokuz Eylul University, in Izmir, Turkey, which we have visited twice now, is this: these Muslim theologians with whom we are in conversation are trying to do the same thing in their world that we Christian theologians are trying to do in our world: to teach people about God, what God expects of us, and how we come back to fellowship with God. We are fellow workers in different vineyards. So, as Christian theologians, I think I have a lot to learn from our Muslim colleagues; they are exploring the same territory we are, from within a different tradition.

The second thing that has drawn me to this dialogue is the differences between Islam and Christianity. Sometimes these are illuminating. For example, Christians explain the alienation between humanity and God as due to sin, including original sin. Muslims have a different way of explaining the divorce between God and humanity. They do speak of sin, but they also say humanity has forgotten God. The Quran tells the story of God confronting the souls of human beings before they were born and asking them “Am I not your Lord?” And they all affirm, “Yes, you are our Lord.” But humans now have forgotten this. Alienation from God, therefore, is caused by forgetfulness, as well as sin.

Now this explanation strikes me as true. I can see in my own life and that of others that one of the main reasons we lose touch with God is that we are lost in distractions and in work; we are too busy to take the time to remember God. So if I were teaching why we have lost touch with God, I would say it is because of sin and self-centeredness, but also because of distractions and forgetfulness. Thus in explaining our alienation from God, I would draw both from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Islamic tradition.

The third thing that has kept me involved in dialogue is the people I have come to know. I admire the intensity with which Muslims are committed to God: they pray five times a day; they fast for a month during Ramadan; they abstain from alcohol; they are careful about what they say—swearing is uncommon among them; they are concerned about backbiting, because of the strictures placed on it by the Quran. One of their main concerns is to maintain an awareness of God all through each day. Now, the constant awareness of God is also a Christian ideal, but it is usually found in monasteries and convents; it is not preached regularly in the churches, nor practiced by many Christians. So the many Muslims I have known have inspired me to deepen my own faith. I can say that I am a better Catholic as a result of my friendship and conversations with Muslims; dialogue with them has deepened my own relationship with God.

Finally, the most important reason I have remained engaged in dialogue for many years is that it seems so important to me. We are gradually exiting from wars in two Muslim countries, and at the last election there were calls for us to bomb Iran, in other words, to start a third war. But wars have a habit of not going according to plan, as we found out in Iraq. The crusades went on for hundreds of years. Tensions between Muslims and Christians, and Muslims and the west (though there are many Muslims in the west) seem to be getting worse. What is the alternative to war? The best alternative to war, I believe, is dialogue. War is what happens when dialogue breaks down. I realize that sometimes you can’t dialogue: we are not attempting to dialogue with the Taliban or with Al Qaida. But I still think that dialogue is our last, best hope against a state of more or less permanent war. So even if the chance of success of dialogue seems small, it is still worth pursuing.

Topic II: What are we doing at the Muslim Christian Dialogue Center, here at UST?

We started the Center about seven years ago. Our aim is announced in our mission statement, which reads: “Our mission is to foster mutual understanding and cooperation among Muslims and Christians through academic and community dialogue grounded in the Qur’anic and Christian traditions. The dialogue flows from the belief that Muslims and Christians worship the same God who is at work in both faiths.” Our method is taken from the Faith and Order Commission, a national ecumenical organization on which I served for eight years. We begin by articulating what both Muslims and Christians hold in common. Then we articulate what are the points of difference, and then what are the points of fruitful dialogue. This method has produced great fruit over the years in Christian ecumenical dialogue; we hope it will be equally fruitful in Muslim Christian dialogue.

Let me say more about our method. For centuries, Christians were divided between Catholic and Protestant. They even fought wars: the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648, was partly due to differences between Lutherans and Catholics. During most of those centuries each side tried to prove the other wrong. The result was hundreds of years of polemics, but no progress in mutual understanding. And neither side succeeded in converting the other. Finally, during the early twentieth century it occurred to some people to focus not on the points of difference, but to begin by focusing on the points of similarity. Once people began to discuss points of similarity, they realized how much they had in common. This built trust, and from there they were able to tackle the harder points of difference, like justification. Then, recently, Catholics and Lutherans were even able to arrive at a Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification. This is a result of a method which begins with what each side shares in common. Then it discusses differences, rather than resorting to polemics and trying to prove the other side wrong.

So the first step in our dialogue is that we do not try to convert the other party, or to prove them wrong. Rather we try to understand each other. There is a lot of work to be done in furthering mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims. Even now there is much misunderstanding, and consequent suspicion, hatred, and even wars.

What do we do at the Center to dispel this misunderstanding?

The first thing we do is to teach courses. (Technically, the Center does not teach courses; the Theology Department does, but the instructors have been Muslims who also work for the Center.) My colleague, Dr. Adil Ozdemir, has been teaching courses on Islam here at UST since 2004-2005. By now he has taught over 800 students. These students get a good introduction to Islam and a comparison between Islam and Christianity. They leave these courses with more knowledge of Islam than most of the American population will ever have. Dr. Ozdemir also takes students to Turkey for a J-term course on Islam. In this course students visit Turkish institutions, meet and eat with Turkish families, and come away with a deep appreciation for Turkish culture and hospitality. My friend and colleague, Odeh Muhawesh, also has taught courses for the Theology Department on Islam. So we at UST have two Muslim instructors teaching Islam to our undergraduates. This is rare; most of the people teaching Islam to students in colleges and universities in Minnesota are Christians, not Muslims. Now you might say: “Well, what if they try to convert our Christian students to Islam?” But this does not happen as far as I know. None of us as teachers is allowed to proselytize in our courses, and we don’t. But the advantage of having a Muslim teach about Islam, rather than having it taught by an outsider, is that students can hear about Islam from the perspective of an insider, one who is very familiar with Islamic beliefs, practices, and explanations. Generally, students like this.

Our Center also works with Muslim students on campus. Specifically, Dr. Ozdemir does this: he advises Muslim students and Muslim student organizations at UST.

We also sponsor public lectures, panel discussions, and events both for UST students and faculty and for the general public. You can find a complete list of the events we have sponsored on our website at www.stthomas.edu/mcdc, under “events,” then “past events.” Normally we sponsor four to six events a year. Let me describe a few which stood out for me. One of them was entitled “The Role of Religion in US Foreign Policy.” The speakers were Representative Keith Ellison, and Major General Richard Nash, head of the Minnesota National Guard. Keith Ellison, it turned out, was unable to come to campus because at that time (April 8, 2011) Congress had not yet passed a federal budget, and Ellison might have been called to vote at any time. But our tech people were able to bring him in to the 3M Auditorium, on screen, live from his office in Washington, DC. He gave his lecture to us and was even able to answer questions from the audience in this format. General Nash spoke to us in person. He had commanded Minnesota troops in Iraq, and had been very successful in building bridges of conversation and trust between US personnel and Iraqi religious leaders. This had contributed to the success of his mission in Iraq.  

Another event we sponsored was a panel—made up entirely of women—on the subject of “Women in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” We hosted a panel discussion on the document A Common Word, probably the most important document in Muslim Christian relations ever. I will say more this document later. And we brought in Professor Abdulwahid Qalinle to speak on “Islamic Sharia: A Threat to Democracy?” These are but four of the dozens of events we have sponsored over the years.

We have also succeeded in opening dialogue with Muslim theologians in Turkey, a leading Sunni country, and in Iran, the leading Shia country. Our contact with the Turkish theologians was facilitated by Dr. Ozdemir, who taught on the faculty of Dokuz Eylul, the University of Nine September, in Izmir Turkey. This university has a theological faculty composed of over 100 professors and 2200 students. We have met with them for three years now; our last meeting was in Izmir, Turkey, from January 30 to February 2, 2014, where we discussed the topic of Jesus in Islam and Christianity, a very sensitive and difficult topic. Our discussion went very well. Later this year, in September, we hope to bring some of the Turkish theologians here to St. Thomas for a workshop on war and peace. We have already hosted four visiting scholars from Dokuz Eylul for periods of a semester each. And both of our universities have signed a protocol which commits us to working towards faculty exchange and student exchange, over a five year period.

We have held two meetings with theologians from the University of al Mustafa, in Qom, Iran. The first meeting took place in Rome, in June 2012, and was mainly a getting to know each other type of meeting, because we had never met; we arranged the whole thing by e-mail. After this initial meeting, the Iranians invited us to visit them in Qom, Iran, which we did last August. These were both very fruitful meetings in my opinion. In the Rome meeting, we were privileged to meet with Monsignor Akasheh, the director Islamic dialogue for the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue. One of the senior Iranian theologians present, Dr. Zamani, asked him how Shia Muslims and Catholics could cooperate in the future to bring about greater harmony between our religions. Then Dr. Zamani said: “We Shias believe that at the end of history, Jesus Christ and the Mahdi will come together to establish a reign of justice and peace. We believe our dialogue is helping bring this about.” We are planning a third meeting with the Iranians, here at UST, next June, if they can get visas.  This has been the biggest problem with the meetings: there is no US embassy in Iran, and no Iranian embassy here. Arranging visas, either for us to go to Iran or for the Iranians to come here, is extremely difficult.

Where do we hope to go with the Muslim Christian Dialogue Center in the future? Certainly we hope to continue to sponsor local dialogues, speakers, and panel discussions. And we hope to continue and extend the international dialogues, both with Turkey and Iran, Inshallah, God willing, as the Muslims say. Ideally, we hope to reach a point, at least with the Turks, where we can exchange both faculty and students for periods of a semester or a year. We are already getting there. This March, during spring break, Dr. Brady and I have been invited to teach Christianity to the graduate students and faculty at Dokuz Eylul University, in Izmir. Needless to say, this is a significant honor. Student exchange will be harder to arrange, but is possible. So perhaps in the future, when St. Thomas students are studying abroad in London, Spain, France or Germany, they will also be able to study abroad in Turkey. I cannot at present foresee this possibility with Iran, unless the relationship between our countries improves a great deal. But I will say this. During our week in Iran, we met with officials, university faculty, and also with ordinary people who approached us on the street, and who were able to speak to us in English. None of us encountered even a trace of animosity, resentment, or hostility in these meetings. On the contrary, we found, to our surprise, that Iranians like Americans, though they don’t like our government. I can’t explain this; I can only testify that the Iranian hospitality towards us was extraordinary. They escorted us through much of their country, at their own expense. At least once, we slept in private rooms in a four star hotel, while our Iranian escorts shared rooms to save money. With that kind of good will, anything is possible. We got a very different picture of Iran than we get in the media. And I think they got a different picture of Americans also. At breakfast one morning, Dr. Mahdinejad, one of our hosts, told me that we were different from other Americans; we spoke from the heart, he said, like Iranians; not like the bluff, macho Americans he saw in the media.

Topic III: What are the obstacles and challenges to Muslim Christian dialogue now and in the future?

I hardly need to tell you that there are many obstacles to Muslim Christian dialogue. Let’s start with what is required for a successful interreligious dialogue. Dialogue and Proclamation notes that successful interreligious dialogue requires certain dispositions. First, a “balanced attitude”—neither ingenuous nor overly critical, but open and receptive. Second, “religious conviction,” which means commitment to one’s own faith. Third, openness to truth. The document notes that “the fullness of truth received in Jesus Christ does not give individual Christians the guarantee that they have grasped the truth fully” (#49). In other words, we might still learn something from other religions. Fourth, a “new dimension of faith:” “Their faith will gain new dimensions as they discover the active presence of the mystery of Jesus Christ beyond the visible boundaries of the Church and the Christian fold” (#50). In my experience not many persons have the right combination of not only openness, but also of commitment to their own faith tradition, to be successful in interreligious dialogue. Too many want to prove the other wrong, or else they are relativists, who think that one religion is as good as another. Neither of these is suitable for Muslim Christian dialogue. If I thought that one religion was as good as another, I would not be a Christian or a Catholic, and could not represent the Catholic position; if a Muslim didn’t really believe in Islam, he could not represent Islam.

Next Dialogue and Proclamation discusses obstacles to dialogue. It lists a number of factors:

insufficient grounding in one’s own faith;

insufficient knowledge and understanding of the belief and practices of other religions, leading at times to a lack of appreciation for their significance;

socio-political factors or some burdens of the past;

wrong understanding of the meaning of terms such as conversion, baptism, dialogue, etc.;

a lack of conviction with regard to the value of interreligious dialogue;

suspicion about the other’s motives;

 a polemical spirit when expressing religious convictions;

intolerance;

the present religious climate—e.g. growing materialism, religious indifference, etc. (#52)

Dialogue and Proclamation addresses all interreligious dialogue from a Catholic point of view. Consequently it stays on a general level; it does not address Muslim Christian dialogue specifically. But Muslim Christian dialogue faces all of these obstacles. It requires that we know our own faith well, and are convinced of it; that we know the other faith well; that we are open to listening without leaping to judgments; that we are not polemical; that we trust each other; and that we are willing to seek commonality in our dialogue, rather than picking excessively on points of difference.

Let’s consider what Dialogue and Proclamation politely calls “socio-political factors or burdens of the past.” The past history of Muslim Christian relations has been fraught with conflict. After the death of Mohammad in 632, Islam expanded its territory by military action; it took the middle east, north Africa, Spain, and was finally stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732, in France, by Charles Martel. After centuries of battles, Constantinople was taken by Mohammad II, nicknamed “the conqueror” in Turkish, in 1453. This ended the Byzantine empire—the Christian Roman empire which had endured for 1100 years.

Now, I said that the expansion of Islam was an expansion of territory under Islamic rule; the goal was to spread Islamic hegemony, not necessarily to force everyone in Islamic territories to convert to Islam. Jews and Christians were not so forced, though I think polytheists were. There is still a large population of Christians in Egypt, the Copts. Generally, Christians in Islamic lands converted to Islam slowly, over hundreds of years, because of social pressures, taxes and other reasons.

The main Christian response to this was the Crusades, Christian attempts to retake the Holy Land. These were particularly bloody affairs. They lasted for hundreds of years, and Muslims certainly have not forgotten them.

More recently, in modern times, is the history of colonialism, beginning with Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1799. Many Muslim states, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Iran, were occupied by European colonists until they gained their self-determination in the twentieth century.

Furthermore, the warfare goes on. The Iraq war was a disaster for Muslim Christian relations. From the perspective of many in Islam, it looked like a Christian attack on Islam, even though many Christians, including the Catholic bishops and the pope, strongly opposed the invasion. Recently there has been much concern in the Catholic press about the fate of Christian communities remaining in Muslim countries; Christians are under severe pressure in places like Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, and so on. And now we read that Muslims are being driven out of the Central African Republic by the so-called Christians there.

Now I realize that this sketch of conflict is not the whole story. There have been periods when Muslims and Christians lived in relative harmony even in Islamic countries. One of our Islamic visitors, from Jordan, brought us a picture of a walled courtyard in Damascus, which had a mosque on one side of the court, and a Christian church on the other side. But nonetheless, the reality of conflict colors our dialogue. This is the burden of the past under which we labor in pursuing Muslim Christian dialogue. It takes a lot of forgiveness on both sides to be able to enter into dialogue at all. So the ability to forgive is a major requirement of dialogue.

In addition to outright conflict, there is the history of polemics between Christianity and Islam. For example, John of Damascus, who died c. 767, about a century after Mohammad, in his The Fount of Knowledge includes “the heresy of the Ishmalites” in his list of heresies. Sidney Griffiths comments in his book The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: “John’s approach is entirely polemical … he actually caricatures those aspects of Islamic teaching and practice that he mentions. His purpose is to discredit the religious and intellectual claims of Islam in the eyes of inquiring Christians” (The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque, 42). There are however some exceptions to the polemical attitude. Griffiths cites Patriarch Timothy I, patriarch of the Church of the East from 780-823. Timothy said, in debate with the Caliph al-Mahdi, the following: “Muhammad deserves the praise of all reasonable men because his walk was on the way of the prophets and the lovers of God. Whereas the rest of the prophets taught about the oneness of God, Muhammad also taught about it…Then just as all the prophets moved people away from evil and sin and drew them to what is right and virtuous, so also did Muhammad….Therefore he too walked on the way of the prophets” (The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque, 104-105). However, after the Crusades, Christian views of Islam seem very negative. Dante in his Divine Comedy put Muhammad and Caliph Ali in hell, as sowers of discord. For St. Ignatius and Luther, the Muslims were infidels—unbelievers, who had to be converted.

Behind the conflict, both physical and verbal, stands what Scott Alexander, in a recent talk at UST, called triumphalism. This is the belief that because one’s own religion is ultimately true, others should be converted to it or it should be imposed by force if necessary. This leads to conquest, colonialism, and a polemical attitude, that the other is just wrong, and we have nothing to learn from him or her. It leads not to a dialogue mentality but a win/lose mentality: we need to convert other religions to our way of thinking. I would distinguish this from a more dialogical attitude. In this attitude, one can still hold that his/her religion is the fullest expression of God’s revelation. But one might still find truth and value in other religions. Muslims believe that the fullness of revelation was given through Mohammad and the Quran, yet they can acknowledge revelation in other traditions especially Judaism and Christianity, the People of the Book. Christians believe that the fullness of revelation was given through Jesus the Christ, but can still acknowledge revelation in Judaism, and in Islam and other religions as well. John Paul II implies this in Dominum et Vivificantum, where he refers to the universal action of the Holy Spirit in the world both before the Christian dispensation and today, even outside the visible body of the Church (53) (cited in Dialogue and Proclamation #26).

There are also particular doctrines which raise difficulty in Muslim Christian dialogue. The Quran specifically rejects the Trinity. Muslims find it impossible to accept the divinity of Jesus; for them he is a prophet, indeed, one of the greatest prophets, as messenger, but not divine. And the Quran seems to reject the crucifixion of Jesus, implying that another was crucified in Jesus’ place. Christians, for their part, have difficulty acknowledging the prophethood of Mohammad, or the presence of revelation in the Quran. And these are only some of the obstacles to Muslim Christian dialogue.

Topic IV: The hope of Muslim Christian Dialogue

The obstacles and challenge of Muslim Christian dialogue indeed can seem overwhelming, and it is easy to get discouraged. Nonetheless I believe there are reasons for hope.

First, there is the experience of Christian ecumenical dialogue, which I have already mentioned. After centuries of hostilities, the turn to focusing on what various Christian denominations hold in common, and building trust, then addressing differences, bore much fruit. Catholics and ELCA Lutherans have signed together the so-called Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, in which they come to a basic agreement on what constitutes justification. This was a seemingly intractable issue, which Luther thought to be the main source of division in the Reformation. But today it is not a church-dividing issue, at least between Catholics and ELCA Lutherans. Because of Christian ecumenism, today Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and others teach and work together here at St. Thomas. We have even authored a theology textbook together. Differences remain, but they are not so great as to prevent our working together.

Jewish-Christian dialogue teaches us a similar lesson. Somehow, it seems that Christians forgot that Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the first apostles were all Jews. Now recent scholarship focuses on Jesus the Jew, like John Meier’s extensive biography of Jesus, A Marginal Jew. And relationships between Jews and Christians have improved greatly in recent decades; the work of the Jay Phillips Center here at UST is one testimony to this.

So perhaps we could hope that the same transformation could occur in Christian Muslim relationships. This will take a lot of time, and will depend on the Holy Spirit of God, but it could happen. We can see it happening in a small, local way even at our center, and to some extent in our dialogues with Turkish and Iranian theologians. After all, as Taher Golestani, my first contact in Iran, said, it is up to the theologians, rather than the politicians, journalists, and demagogues, to heal the breaches between our religions. To help bring this about, Taher has founded, in Qom, Iran, a center devoted to Muslim Christian dialogue: MCID, Muslim Christian Interfaith Dialogue, he calls it.

Another source of hope is the document A Common Word, probably the most important document yet in Muslim Christian relations. It was authored by Muslims in Amman Jordan, and signed at first by 138 Muslim scholars and theologians, and sent to Christian religious leaders of the various Christian churches. You can access this document at www.acommonword.com. This document responds to the call in the Quran: “Say, O people of the book. Let us come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God and that we shall ascribe no partner to him, and that none of us shall take for others for Lords beside God” (3:64). It analyses the Bible and concludes that the command to love God and love neighbor is the core of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament. But it also finds these same themes in the Quran and in Mohammad’s teaching. It cites the Quran: Surah 6:Aya 162-3: “Say, Lo. My worship and my sacrifice and my living and my dying are for God, Lord of the worlds. He has no partner” (6:162-3). From this and other passages it concludes: “Love of God in Islam is thus part of a complete and total devotion to God; it is not a mere fleeting, partial emotion…. It demands a love in which the innermost spiritual heart and the whole soul, with its intelligence, will, and feeling, participate through devotion.” It also cites Mohammad’s hadith (words): “None of you has faith until you love for your brother what you love for yourself” and “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” From these the document concludes:

Thus the Unity of God, love of him, and love of neighbor, form a common ground upon which Islam, Christianity, (and Judaism), are founded….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….we therefore invite Christians to consider Muslims as not against them and thus with them….So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with one another only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to one another and live in sincere peace, harmony and goodwill.

By now this document has been signed by many hundreds of Muslim scholars and clerics. One Muslim told me that it is so widely received (in Sunni Islam) that it is close to becoming a consensus document. Furthermore, it has received very positive responses from leading Christian authorities, such as Rowan Williams, when he was the archbishop of Canterbury. So it is widely accepted by both Muslims and Christians. Certainly this is a reason for hope.

And yet it is striking that A Common Word is not well known in the US. Most people have not heard of it. There has been little coverage in the media. One would think it would have made the front page in the Star Tribune, which religiously covers every terrorist incident worldwide. But so far as I know A Common Word has not been featured in the pages of the local papers. We held a panel on it here at UST, and there was one at Bethel, but that was about it, I think.

This tells us something about our perception of Muslim Christian relations. Muslim Christian dialogue is going on all over the US and all over the world, but we seldom read about it in the local media. Muslim groups such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, working out of Los Angeles, regularly condemn acts of terrorism, and applaud acts of civic virtue, with an aim to enhancing Muslim American participation in the political process, but even though they often testify before Congress, we do not read about their work in the local media. So our perception is warped, partly because of the media. We hear about the worst of Muslim Christian relations, such as terrorist incidents, but not about the best. We need to be aware that the media portrait is, as it were, an optical illusion. Ask yourself, if your only impressions of the Catholic priesthood came from the Star Tribune, what kind of impression would you have? An accurate, balanced impression? I doubt it.

I am also encouraged by the extensive Muslim Christian dialogue going on here in the Twin Cities. The Islamic Center of Minnesota has sponsored Muslim Christian dialogue for over 18 years, and their sessions are well attended. The Islamic Resource Group, formed of local Muslim volunteers, offers presentations on Islam and Muslims to schools and universities, faith organizations, community centers, corporations, law enforcement agencies, educators and the media. The Twin Cities Interfaith Network and the Saint Paul Interfaith Network sponsor many events at churches and elsewhere on interreligious dialogue generally.

I am very encouraged by the success of our own Muslim Christian Dialogue Center. We have many Muslim and Christian leaders on our Board of Advisors. Local Muslims have been very supportive of our efforts; so has the administration at UST. Most encouraging have been our international dialogues. I still remember Dr. Zamani’s words, spoken at our first meeting in Rome with the Iranians, before the papal representative: “We Shias believe that at the end of history, Jesus Christ and the Mahdi (the twelfth Imam) will return to establish a kingdom of justice and peace. We believe our dialogue is helping to bring this about.” One could hardly ask for a stronger endorsement than that.

In our dialogue we have the strong support of Vatican II. Many readers are probably familiar with the words of Vatican II concerning Muslims, but I will repeat them here. Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, says this: “Upon the Muslims too the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all powerful, Maker of heaven and earth, and Speaker to men. They strive to submit wholeheartedly even to his inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet…. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will give each man his due after raising him up. Consequently they prize the moral life, and give worship to God, especially through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.” (Nostra Aetate, #3).

At a minimum this seems to affirm that Muslims worship the One God who made heaven and earth and who will judge us on the last day, in other words, the same God that Catholics worship. John Paul II said this explicitly in his general audience of 5 May 1999: “We Christians joyfully recognize the religious values we have in common with Islam. Today I like to would repeat what I said to young Muslims some years ago in Casablanca: ‘We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to perfection. The patrimony of revealed texts in the Bible speaks unanimously of the oneness of God. Jesus himself reaffirms it, making Israel’s profession his own: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.’”

Now if Muslims and Christian worship the same God, as John Paul II affirmed, then we have a lot in common, enough so that in spite of differences we ought to be able to work together to bring ourselves and others to a deeper conversion to God. Indeed, this is one of the goals of dialogue mentioned in Dialogue and Proclamation, a “deeper conversion of all to God” (#41).

I would say that in both Islam and Christianity the fundamental conversion is to God. Jesus came peaching the kingdom of God—his core message. And Mohammad, like Moses and Jesus, came to turn the hearts and minds of the people—polytheists in the case of the Arabs—back to the one God. So the fundamental aim of both religions is to bring about a deeper conversion to the one God.

Both Jesus and Mohammad brought distinct ways to get back to God. Christians worship God through Jesus and Jesus’ way; Muslims approach God through the Quran and the Sunna of Mohammad. But the goal of each way is God. I think we have been sidetracked into thinking over the centuries that the fundamental conversion was not to God, but to Christianity or Islam. But both Christianity and Islam are ways to God. They are not the ultimate end; they are ways to that end. But to make them the object of our deepest conversion is to commit idolatry: we put Christianity or Islam in the place of God. This is the root cause, I think, of the conflict between the two religions. The religions themselves, meant to be ways to God, become the end. This cannot help but cause strife between the religions.

But if we think that the ultimate end is conversion to God, then I do not see why Muslim and Christians cannot work together towards this end. As A Common Word says: “We therefore invite Christians to consider Muslims not against them and thus with them…” In saying this I am not endorsing relativism, the idea that either religion is as good as the other. As a Catholic I believe that the fullness of revelation came through Jesus the Christ. My Muslims colleagues believe that the fullness of revelation came through Mohammad and his Sunna. But that does not mean that we cannot work together to bring people to God, and to oppose the many forms of godlessness and materialism that prey upon our society.

Thus I think that in working together in dialogue, ultimately to bring ourselves and others into a deeper communion with God, we are in fact working to bring in the Reign of God, as Jesus commanded us. But we can do this together, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. In the past, it was thought that to bring in the Kingdom of God we had to convert everyone to Christianity. But in our pluralistic society, we can see that that is not going to happen, and that this desire to convert others to our religion has been one of the causes of much of the strife between us. My proposal is that we can work towards the kingdom of God together, as Christians and Muslims, each within our own tradition. This is my best hope for Muslim Christian dialogue. If I depended on what I see in the media, I would despair of this. But I can see it happening in a small way in our center, where Christians and Muslims work together in amity for the larger common good. 

In the end, our hope lies in God. As Paul wrote, “One plants, another waters, but it is God who gives the growth.” And as the Psalmist wrote: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). So I ask myself, is our dialogue furthering God’s work? I believe it is. The ends we seek in dialogue are mutual understanding, mutual collaboration, good will, harmony, peace, justice between us, and a deeper conversion of each and all to God. But these ends are similar to the fruits of the Holy Spirit. What we are trying to overcome is hostility, misunderstanding, hatred, strife, oppression, war. But these are from the flesh, not from the Spirit.

It is easy to get discouraged in Muslim Christian dialogue. But if we think of it as Muslim and Christians working together to bring in the reign of God, it is more hopeful. In the end, the powers of evil will not prevail over the love of God. That is the root of our faith, indeed of our common faith, and in that we can place our hope.

 

 

Dr. Terence Nichols