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Christian W. Troll {*}

New Beginning with Dialogue

The First Conference of the Catholic-Muslim Forum


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 12/2008, P. 605-610
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In early November the newly created Catholic-Muslim Forum met for the first time in the Vatican in order to intensify the discussion with each other after the confusion over the Pope's Regensburg Lecture and after the "Letter of the 138". What are the results? And how are they to be assessed in view of the current Christian-Muslim dialogue?


The number and weight of the signatories of the meanwhile famous "Letter of 138" of 13 October 2007, that appeal of Muslim religious leaders, are remarkable. Even more their emphatic statement impressed: the love of the One God and the love of one's neighbour were part of the "absolutely fundamental principles of both beliefs", which "again and again can be found in the Holy Scriptures of Islam and Christianity". "In obedience to the Koran", it says summarising at the end of the letter, "we as Muslims invite Christians to meet with us on the basis of what is common to us, the essence of our faith and its practice: the Two Commandments of Love."

The "Letter of the 138" indeed represents a considerable initiative and a new approach in the process of the Christian-Muslim dialogue (see HK, August 2008, 403ff.). Here suddenly a clear invitation to the Christians organized in various churches is in the air: Take seriously, that also for us from our belief in God and His Koran essentially it is all about the realization of love!

Ad the same time it was also clear: The letter does not only address Christians but indirectly and perhaps even primarily young Muslims across the world, who are looking for a religiously convincing and spiritually nourishing Islam, and who do no longer feel addressed by a purely politically oriented and ideologically acting Islam.



It will be a delightful task to explore whether and to what degree the "Letter of the 138" and the dialogue initiatives proposed by its authors have triggered debates in the majority-Muslim societies and among Muslims in general.

In Christian circles the vigour with which the letter called upon them to come to the "common word" defined by the Koran had admittedly rather a dampening effect. The quotation from the Koran put into the centre of the letter reads: "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." (Surah 3:64).

Through the centuries virtually all interpretations of that verse make only too clear that it is here about an invitation to Christians to give up the Trinitarian monotheism, which has, seen from the Koran's perspective, polytheistic features, and instead of it to adopt the "pure" monotheism of the Koran as "common word", in order to create so with the Muslims a common basis for the divine worship and for the practical cooperation for the benefit of all people.

It is plausible: If Christians let themselves in for that appeal and in this way established religious peace, this would be tantamount to abandoning their central beliefs. Dialogue, however, just means to talk about and to look for shared views and to show respect for the faith vision of the partner, though a real dialogue will rightly time and again critically question the respective religious beliefs of both partners.


The Anglicans' Dialogue Initiative

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury has already by the wording of the title of his theologically profound response to the "Letter of the 138" of 14July 2008 ("A Common Word for the Common Good") adroitly related the Qur'anic expression "common (or equal) word" to the "public weal", which is the task of Christians as well as of Muslims, and has so lifted the conversation to a level that is acceptable to Christians (and other believers and people of good will). The Anglican Archbishop therefore says: Christians and Muslims can and should before God together think about what they regard as people's common good and how they can contribute to its realization, always respecting also beliefs in which they hold different or even contradictory opinions.

From 12 to 15 October 2008 in Cambridge and London (Lambeth Palace) the international Muslim-Christian conference on the theme "A Common Word and Future Muslim-Christian Engagement" took place, which had been convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury. About 40 Muslims and Christians paid tribute to the exactly one year before released "Letter of the 138" and discussed it in the light of the aforementioned Archbishop's response. But above all was discussed what issues should be on the agenda of the Christian-Muslim dialogue on a medium- and long-term basis.

As I said in Cambridge, starting from the basis of the double commandment of love, in future the following things are urgent for the joint Muslim-Christian commitment: First, the double commandment of love is, at least in the New Testament's view, based on the primacy of God's love. It is first God's love alone, given man without his merit and without condition, which liberates him from godlessness and self-centeredness, heals and enables him to practise the loving devotion to God and the neighbour. Seen in this way, the double commandment of love first assumes the form of the loving response to God's initiative and proves its worth as conversion and as prayer for inner purification through acts of justice and mercy. Also the constant striving for honest individual and corporate self-criticism before God and one's fellow human beings fundamentally belongs to the loving commitment to God and one's neighbour.

In his letter Williams had also pointed to the substantial differences in the Christian and Muslim understanding of their respective Scriptures as well as to the different standing that they have in the whole of the respective theologies. At the same time he had stressed that "a joint study of the Scriptures (...) was a fruitful element." On the path of a thorough study of the religious traditions and their sources in the medium of a theological dialogue, resolute efforts of the Muslim and Christian partners are indispensable indeed.

Such studies should, however, equally be moulded by empathy and the ability to accept criticism and try to understand the individual doctrines within the overall view of the other person's faith. But are there on both sides enough thoroughly trained theologians? It would be important that more and more devout Christians studied Islam in the way as Muslims ideally understand and differently interpret it, but also how they de facto have realized it and realize it today in their lives.



But this would also conversely mean that more and more devout Muslims explore, in an attitude of critical openness, the normative teachings as well as the empirical reality of the Christian faith tradition.

Doctrines such as the "change of the biblical writings by Jews and Christians (tahrif)", the "incarnation of God in Jesus the Messiah," "the Trinity of God," "the Quran's non-created existence [Ungeschaffenheit]", the "Doctrine on Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets (khâtam to-nabiyyîn)" could so be better assessed - also from those who do not believe in them. Where the spirit of a loving understanding is missing among religious leaders and preachers in our faith communities, we betray the imperative of the double commandment of love and do harm to our credibility as religious communities.


The Meeting in the Vatican

From the double commandment of love furthermore the task results to anew consider the human rights. The Christian churches as well as some Muslim organizations and groups have revised in principle their teaching on the human rights: They have become supporters and defenders of the human rights. God himself, they argue, has implanted the human rights in man's nature. That for them is the decisive reason why according to their opinion these rights call for the unconditional recognition by the state as well as by the religions.

God's rights and human rights can here not be played off against each other. The human rights give expression to the minimal conditions which protect the human dignity owed to the human person as God's creature. Seen in this way recognition of and respect for human rights means nothing else but obedience to the will of God. There are in fact not a few devout Christians and Muslims for whom the dedication to the universal and effective respect of human rights is nothing else but obedience to the double commandment of love.

In the light of those developments since the middle of last century it would be important to learn whether those who have written or signed the "Letter of the 138" recognize without ifs and buts the human rights, including active and passive religious freedom. The word "Islam" means "devotion or subjection to the will of God." If the human rights correspond to the will of God, does that then mean that Islam is today obliged to recognize them, together with all people of good will?

The clear demarcation of the sphere of the state from that of the religions was and probably always will be above all a fruit of differently coloured historical, regionally-influenced experiences. The question to the authors and signatories of the "Letter of the 138" is nevertheless legitimate: Does the conviction that in plural societies and states those areas must be separated in principle not ultimately come from the firm intention to practise the commandment of love? Genuine love of one's neighbour will insist that the religious and denominational identity of the other person must be respected and legally protected, even if the doctrine connected with that identity may be rejected as inadequate or wrong.

The thought about the State determined by the love of one's neighbour will today oppose without ifs and buts any attempt to prescribe an Islamic or Christian order of the state for the religiously and ideologically so differently moulded citizens of today's societies and states. Moreover, such thinking is convinced that the religiously and ideologically neutral role of the state critically uncovers the State's exaggerated pseudo-religious conception of itself and prevents religion resp. religions to use power and violence in their own interest.

At last it proves to be fruitful just from the perspective of the double commandment of love again to reflect together on the ways how in our increasingly pluralistic societies emphasis and persuasiveness can be given to religious beliefs and values, and what importance here unilateral pressure by political power and threat of extreme violence should have or not.

In Cambridge a practical proposal admittedly met with no immediate response but early in November it was then positively picked up in Rome. In the joint final declaration of the Catholic-Muslim Forum (4 to 6 November) it says, "We have agreed to examine the possibility of establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim Committee in order to be able to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergencies" (No. 14).


All Members of the Muslim Delegation more or less Moulded by Sufism

Already during the preparatory meeting of five representatives of the initiative "Letter of the 138" with five representatives from the Catholic side in early March this year it was agreed under pressure from the Catholic side that at the conference planned for November not only the double commandment of love should be under discussion, which from the Catholic point of view is not problematic. Taking as starting-point this commandment it should rather be clarified what the common declaration and effort of Christians and Muslims can and is to be in concrete terms: the concern for human dignity, respect for others and therefore the recognition and enforcement of human rights, including the full freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.



The title of the conference was therefore, "Love of God, Love of one's Neighbour: Human Dignity and Mutual Respect." The first day with a paper on fundamental principles by a Christian and a Muslim theologian as well and extensive discussions was dedicated to the theological and spiritual foundations of the double commandment of love, the second day to the theme of human dignity and mutual respect.

On the morning of the third day a Muslim and a Christian summary of the discussions of the first two days was put up for discussion and then the joint final document was adopted, the draft of which had been formulated by a Muslim-Christian editorial committee. Speeches by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor at the George Washington University (Washington) and Mustafa Ceric´ Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina at the encounter with the Pope and his speech followed. The conference ended with a public meeting in the auditorium of the Pontifical Gregorian University with summaries - one from the Muslim and one from the Catholic side - and the reading out of the joint final document and answering questions from the floor.

The members of the delegations (pro side 24 full members and four advisers without speech permit) both sides could themselves appoint. On the Muslim side people predominated who came from the United States and Europe (among them by the way four converts to Islam) or have there for a long time had the centre of their life and work. Some members of the Muslim delegation are as preachers and writers well known especially in the younger generation of Muslims but also beyond it. That applies e.g. to Tariq Ramadan (formerly Geneva, now Oxford) and Seyyed Javad Khoei from Nejef (Iraq).

Finally it became apparent, not least through personal conversations, that almost all members of the Muslim delegation are moulded more or less intensively by one or another Sufi order. This being at home in the mystical dimension of Islam also explains, inter alia, why the "Letter of the 138" puts the double commandment of love into the centre of its main message. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the Muslim main speaker on the first day, and Timothy Winter, alias Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad stand quite decisively for that mystically and philosophically-esoterically oriented Islamic world view (ma'rifa), the outstanding classical representative of which is Ibn 'Arabi (1165-1240 ). Outside a Sufi context it would have rather suggested itself - more corresponding to the Qur'anic message and language - to focus on God's mercy (Rahma).



On the Catholic side one had visibly set great store on a balanced mix of international, also among Muslims recognized Islam- and dialogue experts and religious leaders (cardinals and bishops from the Vatican, but above all also from four dioceses which lie in the midst of countries with a Muslim majority [Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan]). On the Muslim side only Mustafa Ceri, the Grand Mufti and leader of the Ulema of Bosnia and Herzegovina has a position within the organized Islamic world comparable to that of cardinals and bishops.


Disputed Issue of Religious Freedom

In spite of the aforementioned initiative of the Letter and the dialogue process caused by it one should therefore not overestimate the possibilities of the Muslim delegation directly to influence the development in Muslim-majority countries and their major religious institutions (al-Azcar, Cairo; az-Zay-tüna, Tunis; Darul Uloom, Deoband, India, the theological schools of Qom and Nejef). Only the future will show how far these and many similar institutions and the personalities affiliated to them identify with the statements of the final document of the Catholic-Muslim Forum.

Because of the cultural affinity of many participants on both sides the members of the two delegations came quickly to a deep and mutually challenging exchange during the two-day working session of the conference. The Christians expressed their gratitude for the key message of the letter, which is quite remarkable in the light of the traditional self-representation of the mainstream Islam through centuries. They however made clear that for them the affirmation of the primacy of the love of God, as it appeared and is interpreted in the person and in the life of Jesus Christ counted. Number 1 of the final declaration expresses in a concise way the Catholic position on this fundamental point, number 2 the view of the Muslim side, which in the course of the meetings of the editorial committee had once again been specially expanded in response to the Catholic representation of the point in question.

The exchange in the conversation absolutely included also moments of tension, especially with the issues of human dignity, mutual respect and human rights and with the conversation about the question to what concrete, measurable consequences the commitment to the double commandment of love must lead - particularly in relation to people, even fellow-citizen who in matters of religion or ideology deliberately take no Islamic position or even no religious position at all.

It was agreed with regard to the recognition of human life as God's most precious gift to every man and the duty to preserve and honour it in all its phases, the respect for every human being's dignity; the full respect for the identity and freedom of individuals and communities by governments, supported by a civil legislation which safeguards the same rights and the full citizenship, the concern that human dignity and respect are equally extended to men and women, respect for the person and his/her decision in matters of conscience and religion and the right of individuals and communities privately and publicly to practise their religion, respect for religious beliefs and practices of minorities, the right to own places of worship, the conviction that special care must be given to those who are less privileged and pushed to the edge, providing a sound education in human, civil, religious and moral values and the promotion of correct information about the other religions, and the promotion of harmony among the believers and for mankind as a whole, the rejection of oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism especially on the part of that perpetrated in the name of religion, and finally upholding the principle of justice for all.

Directly related to the current global financial crisis the final declaration calls upon the faithful to stand up for the development of an ethical financial system in which the government mechanisms especially give attention to the situation of those who are most dramatically affected by that crisis. Another urgent task is emphasized: it must be made possible that the young generation, which increasingly lives in multicultural and multireligious societies, gets a solid training not only in its own tradition but also the most objective information about other cultures and religions. The conference agreed on organizing in about two years a follow-up conference, then in a majority Muslim country.


Defend the Common Heritage

Perhaps most impressive was how the discussions during the conference time and again brought up the question of equality of all citizens as well as of minorities and freedom of religion. The fact that four of the participants were Catholic bishops from majority Muslim countries caused that both sides talked about these issues in an urgent manner and that in the editorial committee was intensely struggled about details in this matter. The Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina for instance most urgently stood up for the right to the public exercise of worship and adoration of God, which had first been rejected by other Muslim participants as not enforceable in some parts of the Muslim world.



The speech of Benedict XVI at last reflects in an astonishing way the main points of the joint final declaration. The key message read: "We should therefore stand up together for the fundamental respect, for the dignity of the human person and the fundamental human rights, even if our anthropological perspectives and our theologies give different reasons for it. There is a large and broad field in which we can work together to defend and promote moral values belonging to our common heritage."

With regard to the direct impact of this first Conference of the Catholic-Muslim Forum the problem remains that the members of Muslim delegation were to a great extent Western and in the West working Muslims. Representatives of the "Islamic institutions", i.e. of those institutions that train imams and Muftis, issue legal rulings (fatwas) and until today mould the theological and legal thinking were not present. Likewise prominent representatives of the extreme Islamist movements naturally did not take part. You should therefore not overestimate the immediate possibilities of the Muslim dialogue partners.

Even though many of the Muslim participant in Rome are personally convinced by the statements of the joint final declaration you can have reasonable doubts whether they are able to bring about significant changes regarding the main points of the final declaration. As academic teachers, writers, preachers and modern disseminators, personalities as e.g. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Tariq Ramadan and Mustaf Cherif have an influence that should not be underestimated, but they represent not the institutions which until today decisively shape the Islamic world.


    {*} Christian W. Troll (born in 1937) in 1963 joined the Society of Jesus. From 1976 to 1988 he worked as a professor of Islamic Studies in New Delhi and then taught in Birmingham and from 1993 to 1999 at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. Troll took part in the Catholic-Muslim Forum and was a member of the editorial committee of the final declaration.


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