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Christian W. Troll {*}

Irenic Interpretations?

An Analysis of the 'Letter of the 138 Muslims'


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 8/2008, P. 403-408
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In November the first meeting of the Catholic-Muslim Forum is to take place in the Vatican. Also the so-called "Letter of the 138 Muslims" with which Muslim leaders have answered the Regensburg Lecture of Benedict XVI will be a topic there. Which issues must be discussed particularly from a Christian point of view?


The relations between Christians and Muslims began with the birth of Islam about 1400 years ago. They are, so to speak, "engraved" in the early genesis of Islam. In the long history since then there has never been a comparable initiative like the "Letter of the 138 Muslims", as now this document is often called in a shortening way. On the occasion of the festival of Fast-Breaking in 2007 (13 October 2007) 138 leading Muslim religious personalities and scholars signed and published this "Open Letter and Call".

Despite - or perhaps even because of - its provocative content the meanwhile famous lecture of Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg (12 September 2006) seems to show a widely noticeable effect. On 12 October 2006 38 Muslim scholars and representatives of many different Muslim communities and institutions of Islam already sent a letter to the Pope, which directly and critically dealt with some of the issues treated in the Regensburg Lecture. That letter was not answered by the Holy See. But now a permanent, broadly based dialogue seems to develop.

The Letter of the 138 does not only address Pope Benedict XVI but inter alia also the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the heads of the Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed and Baptist world associations. It compares selected Koranic and biblical texts and comes to the result that both Scriptures emphasize the primacy of total love and devotion to God, together with the love of one's neighbour.

Muslims and Christians, it continues, amount to more than half of the total population of the earth. The relationship between them is therefore "world-wide the most important factor in contributing to a meaningful peace". "As Muslims we say to Christians that we are not against them - as long as they do not because of their religion wage war on Muslims, oppress them, and drive them out of their homes" (see Sura 60:8).


Invitation to Dialogue

With this initiative we become witnesses of the emergence of something like an inner-Islamic "ecumenical" movement. The broad representation and the impressive number of signatories are remarkable. It meanwhile increased to almost 250. Among the signatories are the Grand Muftis of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia, Croatia and Syria, the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OCI), the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, and the founder of the Ulama organization in Iraq. Also two ayatollahs and further dignitaries of the Twelver Schiites, the Ibadis and the Ismailis are included. Just as for the letter of the 38 scholars in 2006 also for this letter the initiative came from the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic thought in Amman in Jordan. One of the driving forces is the leading intellectual Aref Nayed from the Interfaith Programs of the University of Cambridge. He describes the letter - not without evident exaggeration - as a "consensus" of Muslims worldwide, as "a milestone".



History will tell us what it is about the group's identity, strength and cohesion regarding fundamental issues and how many of those who signed the letter are really ready fully to commit themselves to this matter and in the way of that letter. A critical Muslim and as regards Islamic science sound examination on the part of those who refused to sign the document is to my knowledge still pending. Yusuf al-Quaradawi, the famous Egyptian TV preacher and -mufti who operates from Qatar and London is missing among the signatories, also Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the Sheikh of the influential al-Azhar University in Cairo and the theologically and politically leading ayatollahs in Qom and Tehran.

The letter is an invitation to the dialogue between Christians and Muslims about the themes negotiated. Now it is neither the task nor the right of Christians to dictate to Muslims what genuine Muslim positions are and what not. The most important thing will be the written, scientific intra-Muslim exchange which the document will hopefully cause. But the Christians too are invited and also well advised to study the letter with utmost attention and in this process to formulate their critical comments and questions.

The text begins with Sura 16:125, the verse of the da'wa calling Muslims to invite others to accept Islam as the "Path of the Lord" - and that with wisdom and beautiful exhortation and by "disputations in the best manner". Muhammad and all Muslims with him are to call people "in the best way" to Islam and to invite them to accept Islam. Islam, the religion of truth "(Sura 9:53, dîn al-haqq), which, as the name says, consists in the devotion resp. submission to God, is according to Muslim belief the natural birthright of all human beings. It is therefore the duty of Muslims to invite all people to "claim" for themselves what already belongs to them on the basis of their birthright, Jews and Christians are included in this invitation. A double reward is even promised them when they convert and recognize Muhammad's prophethood ("He will give you two portions of His mercy", Sure 57:28).

The letter has three parts: The first part is titled "Love of God" and divided into two sections: "Love of God in Islam" and "Love of God as the first and greatest commandment in the Bible." The original Arab text reads "in the Gospel." By using the word "Bible" in the English text, however, the Jewish faith can be included in the discourse. The second part is titled "Love of one's neighbour" (hubb al-jar). It is again divided into two parts: "Love of one's neighbour in Islam" and "Love of one's neighbour in the Bible." The third part interprets the invitation "Come to a common word between us and you" (Sura 3:64).


Qur'anic formulations are mixed with specific Christian expressions

Samir Khalil (Beirut) has pointed to the fact that the letter uses a Christian and no Muslim vocabulary. The word "neighbour" (according to the Christian meaning: "brother and sister, neighbours who are in need of help) does not exists in the Koran. The Arabic text of the letter does actually not use the term for 'neighbour' as brother/sister but the term jar which has, as it were, a sole geographical meaning (like: a neighbour who lives next door).

Regarding God the word "love" (hubb) is in the Koran rarely used. It is not even one of the "99 Most Beautiful Names of God". It is never said that God was the lover (al-muhibb). It's true though that there are in the list of "99 Most Beautiful Names of God" less "strong" synonyms, as e.g. the "friendly: al-wadjud; al-latif; ar-ra'uf", whereas God in the Arabic of Christians is often characterized as "al-muhibb" (e.g. ya muhibb al-bashoar: Oh, lover of mankind) and is so addressed in the liturgical prayer.

Besides, it is also clear from a thorough reading and analysis of the first part of the letter "Love of God in Islam" that the letter, as regards content, actually describes what we Christians would call "obedience to God" but not "love". The authors of the letter have probably rendered these Quranic contents by using the term "love" in order to bring them in line with the language of the New Testament and the Christian faith.

In Islam the topic 'love' is prominent only in the language of the Sufis, who on the one hand through the centuries until now have been judged extremely critically and often exclusively negatively by the main current of Islam but who on the other hand in many regions of the Muslim world had resp. have a lasting effect on the life and teaching of the Muslims as well as on scholars and preachers.



In any case, to speak about love of God, as the letter does regarding the core of the Quranic and Islamic message, is a novelty. Perhaps the letter deliberately wants to take up the topic of the Pope's first encyclical letter "Deus Caritas est".

Also in other cases the Arabic version of the letter uses a terminology that is so not found in its French, Italian, German and English versions. Regarding e.g. Christ the versions of the letter in the Western languages read "Jesus Christ", whereas the Arabic version reads "'Isa al-Masih". This expression does not exist in the Koran. On the one hand it is the result of the way in which Muslims, following the Koran, call Jesus ('Isa) - the Arab Christians call him YasuŽ - and on the other hand of the Christian definition of "al-Masih", 'Christ', which can be found in the Koran. The wording in the Koran reads: al-Masih ŽIsa ibn Maryam (the Messiah ŽIsa, son of Mary), whereas the normal Christian formulation is: Yasu al-Masih (Jesus Christ). The text of the letter is actually full of Quranic phrases mixed with specifically Christian expressions.

With regard to the way in which the authors of the letter quote the Koran and the Bible they use different standards. When they quote from the Koran they say: "God said / has spoken", as every good Muslim does. But when they cite verses of the Bible they say, "As it says in the New Testament" or "As we read in the New Testament", etc. This means that with quotations from the Bible they choose a scientific, so to speak objectively distant way to speak, whereas with quotations from the Koran they use the traditional terminology of those who believe in Islam - a manner of speaking, therefore, that as such cannot be adopted by non-Muslims.


Break with the traditional Islamic teachings?

In addition, the letter contains a number of biblical quotations. It comments them positively and assumes, as it were, as a matter of course that these texts as belonging to the Bible are the word of God. That too is a relative novelty. The Koran admittedly asserts on the theoretical level that the words revealed to the biblical prophets are God's word. But in the concrete reality the Muslims almost always interpret the relevant Quranic statements to the effect that they declare the text of the Bible, as it is used and recognized by Jews and Christians, changed by later interventions and manipulation of the Jews and Christians. What the genuine nucleus of the biblical message is the Koran determines.

In opposition to that in connection with explaining the true understanding of the term "heart" the letter goes so far as to quote even Paul as authority for a correct understanding of this central religious concept (note 4). Commonly Paul is categorically rejected by the vast majority of Muslims. He is regarded as a traitor to the authentic message of Jesus, a message which originally, before it - not least by him - was misunderstood and changed, had been a genuinely "Islamic message". Muslims not rarely maintain that the message of Jesus of Nazareth had been identical with the core message of the Koran, but just by Paul's influence the teachings about the Trinity, the salvation through the Cross, and the rejection of Moses' Law as path of salvation had been introduced into Christianity.

Thus the question arises: Does the way how the letter uses the biblical texts mean something like a break with the traditional Islamic teaching according to which the Holy Scriptures of Jews and Christians (as they exist in their present form) are regarded as modified, even manipulated forms of the scriptures initially revealed by God? As a consequence of that view the vast majority of Muslims up to now regarded the text of the Bible as unreliable and generally showed little interest in its contents (except for polemical purposes).


Has Jesus taught the monotheistic purity of Islam?

In any case, the Muslims have not recognized the biblical text, as it is with us, as a common basis for the interreligious dialogue and research. So for example, according to the testimony of the Koran to the Prophet David was given by God "zabur" (see Sura 4:163, 17:55). According to the general view of Muslims with it from time immemorial the Book of Psalms is meant, but nevertheless the Book of Psalms of the Hebrew Bible has until today not been recognized by Muslims as Holy Scripture revealed by God. Consequently, Psalms are neither to be found in the liturgical prayer nor are they of considerable importance for the private piety and meditation of Muslims.

So the question arises: Do the authors of the letter try to understand the quoted biblical texts in their respective authentically biblical context? Or could it be that these biblical texts are only accepted and quoted by Muslim scholars in so far as they agree with the message of the Koran? At any rate, the Islamic doctrine of the deliberate change of the biblical texts by Jews and Christians, which is of enormous importance for the Judeo-Christian-Muslim dialogue, is in this letter neither mentioned nor expressly modified and certainly not called into question.



The Koranic verse 3:64, which is repeated as heading of its third part, serves as title of the whole document: "Say: O followers of the Book! come to an equitable proposition between us and you that we shall not serve any but Allah and (that) we shall not associate aught with Him, and (that) some of us shall not take others for lords besides Allah; but if they turn back, then say: Bear witness that we are Muslims."

These verses have a particular context in the Qur'an. It is by far the predominant opinion among Muslim commentators that the first about 80 verses of this chapter were revealed at the moment when in the year 630 a delegation of Christians of the oasis Najran came to Medina to visit Muhammad. Muhammad invited them to accept Islam. But they insisted that they were true believers, and that long before Muhammad's coming. At the end of the dispute the Christians were allowed to return home in safety and to hold on to their (from Muhammad's point of view erroneous) faith - under the condition that they recognized Muhammad's and Islam's supremacy.

Now the Letter of the 138 simply passes over the words of the Koran, "and we will attribute to him no partners (or: and we will put nobody with him)" by saying that these words refer "to the unity of God". But the classical and modern commentators who take this context seriously regard those just quoted words of verse 3:64 as a clear affirmation of the non-divinity of Jesus. So the question must be asked: How do the authors of the Letter of the 138 imagine that Christians who believe in the Trinity of God could with the full integrity of their faith come to this "common word" the Koran speaks about? Several commentators of the letter on the website "A Common Word" have already pointed to the irenic interpretation of those passages by the authors of the letter.

Muslims who want to lead a real dialogue with Christians as Christians have to understand that the Trinitarian monotheism is of central importance for the Christian faith and worship - and not just an aspect of Christianity that can be negotiated away. In this respect in the letter on hand several uncertainties exist, points at which a Christian can certainly get the impression it was suggested to him these differences were ultimately of no great importance. While the warm tone of the letter to the Christians is enormously encouraging, it would be desirable that this tone is accompanied by an attitude of its authors that takes those points seriously in which Christians and Muslims differ.



Otherwise, it might be that this letter is understood as an encouragement diplomatically to avoid these differences. The dialogue would in fact suffer by such a proceeding.


An answer based on the Christian understanding of love of God and love of one's neighbour

Another important point is: For the letter and its authors as authentic Muslim believers the absolute criterion for the concrete understanding of the love of God and of one's neighbour as the Koran teaches them is Muhammad, his life and his interpretation of the divine word entrusted to him. Life and teachings of Muhammad as the "beautiful example" (Sura 33:21) are of crucial importance for Muslims in their efforts to orientate their individual and collective lives towards the will of God.

In this respect a detailed consideration of Muhammad's action towards Jews and Christians was necessary. The Letter of the 138 totally ignores it. An analysis of that question should consider the increasing tensions in Muhammad's later years between him, the umma and the "people of the book " as they are, inter alia, reflected in Sura 9 - that late Sure which as the only one does not begin with the words "In the name of God the merciful Lord of mercy". With it above all Muhammad's response to the Jewish tribes' refusal to join forces with him and his community and to recognize him as the final prophet is to be considered but also Muhammad's manner to deal with his critics as well as the methods used by him in order to extend the area of his rule into the north of the Arabian Peninsula.

Part of a deepening of the topics in the letter necessarily only indicated must be the clarification of the terms. A term like "love of God" is central for our understanding because it determines the content of terms which are derived from this central concept, as e.g. "love of God" and "love of one's neighbour". Many verses of the Koran that are directly relevant reflect a contractual understanding of the concept, i.e. attached to conditions, when it for instance says: God loves those who obey him, serve, worship and love him, but not those who rebel against him or adore someone different from God, although no life can exist or continue to exist without the preserving merciful love of God by whom we have been created and are maintained in existence.

What would be necessary here is the comparison with God's unconditional love that is rather understood from the loyalty to the covenant: a God who according to the New Testament's point of view loves absolutely steadily the worst offender as well as the greatest saint. The view on these questions has direct effects on answering the question whether our 'love of one's neighbour' does not apply to those "who wage war against us" (see Sura 60:80), or whether on the contrary we are called upon "to love our enemies" (see Mt 5,44-45) - because it is true: "God is love" (cf. 1 Jn 4, 9). In some of the comments the question of the centrality of love in the Islamic system has already been raised: e.g. in the writings of Mevlana Rumi (1207-1273) that is the dominant tone. Muslims who take their position on other parts of the spectrum would differently see and answer that question. They would regard justice and subjugation of the human will to the divine will as the absolutely central message of the Koran.

By suggesting to take a Koranic verse like Sura 3:64 with its categories and statements as framework for a fruitful dialogue between Muslims and Christians the letter causes the danger that one side practically says: "Let us meet, but on our conditions". Pre-condition for a real dialogue is that each of the two sides formulates the fundamental position of its faith, as "difficult as it may be to be digested" for the partner in the dialogue - what of course does not mean that these premises are outside the range of critical questioning and debate.

The letter should not be criticized for its passages on the Muslim understanding of the love of God and love of one's neighbour, which do possibly not take into consideration all possible dimensions of the question. But the Christians' immediate task is not to answer the letter sentence by sentence. The task is rather that the Christian interlocutors take up the topic 'love of God' and 'love of one's neighbour' suggested by the authors and then formulate a response that is based on a Christian understanding of these terms.

A Christian understanding of 'love of God' must in any case be incarnatory and sound out the concept and content central for the Christian faith and the Christian theology. For it is the belief in God's love initiative, revealed in the Incarnation, that profoundly determines the Christian faith and the Christian conception of man. From (this) it results, for example, that Christians as Church are "People of the Revelation Incarnate" and not simply "People of the Book."

Christians must speak about a theology of grace, including the antecedent grace, because for them it is God's gracious love that enables them, who know that they are subjected to the "law of sin" and "disobedience to God", to live a loving answer to God and their neighbour. From a Christian point of view a reflection on 'love of God' can not and must not be separated from the belief in the Kenosis (self-sacrifice, self-humiliation) of Jesus Christ and from the vulnerability of God's incarnate love that appears in it (Phil 2, 6ff.).



In addition to that Christians must bring their Pneumatology into the discussion and sound out what it means, here and now to live "in the Risen Lord". No Christian answer would be complete without a discussion of the non-violent, self-sacrificing, atoning, redeeming and unconditional love of God and the free response to it in faith and life made possible by God's grace. All this would be the context for a discussion on the universal love of one's neighbour that tries to imitate Christ and his radical boundless love which is received as a pure gift.


    {*} Christian W. Troll (born in 1937) in 1963 joined the Society of Jesus. He studied in Bonn, Tübingen, Beirut and London. From 1976 to 1988 he worked as professor for Islamic studies in New Delhi, taught then in Birmingham, and from 1993 to 1999 at the Papal Oriental Institute in Rome. Since 2001 he is a member of the subcommission of the German Bishops' Conference for Interreligious Dialogue. He works as honorary professor at Sankt Georgen, Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt/Main.


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