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Dialogue with Muslims: Sensitive Topic 'Mission'


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2010, P. 225-227
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In interreligious dialogue the respective understanding of mission is one of the particularly explosive issues. The "Theological Forum Christianity - Islam", which is established at the Catholic Academy of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, has recently dealt with this subject.


One of the biggest hurdles with regard to interreligious discussions is the concern that the dialogue would be conducted with missionary intentions by the other party, as it were, a soft version of a targeted conversion campaign for gaining new followers. These fears - as subliminal as they may be - occasionally also exist where Christians meet with Muslims.

Within a short time, both world religions have actually spread far beyond of their place of origin, partly by using violence. On a global scale, the number of believers is growing still today. The obligation to grow is part of their identity. With even more emphasis from there the question arises, what are the objectives of both sides in the interreligious dialogue - if one for the time being abstains from clarifying the conditions of peaceful coexistence.


Remarkably Unagitated Discussions

Against this background, it was quite daring that the "Theological Forum Christianity - Islam", which is located at the Catholic Academy of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, has recently in early March discussed the respective understanding of mission under the title "Testimony, Invitation, Conversion - Mission in Christianity and Islam".

At the "Theological Forum Christianity - Islam", which is now an important institution in the Christian-Muslim dialogue (see also the publication series brought out by Friedrich Pustet, Regensburg), since 2005 year after year Christian and Muslim theologians meet in order to get to know each other better and the respective other religion. There is a continuously growing number of participants who, by intensive academic studies, have proved themselves to be experts in the relationship between Christianity and Islam. Due to reaching the capacity limit interested people must be rejected. After all, now about 45 percent Muslims take part, especially with Turkish and Bosnian background - however, the range of ethnicity is broad.

Given the sensitive topic of this year, the discussions of the relevant issues ran remarkably calmly. The fact that a number of necessary distinctions were made already in the opening speech has contributed to it.

The Protestant missiologist Henning Wrogemann, Professor of missiology, religious studies and ecumenics at the Bethel College Wuppertal, reminded of the diversity of missionary efforts both in Islam and Christianity (see also Missionarischer Islam und gesellschaftlicher Dialog. Eine Studie zur Begründung und Praxis des Aufrufs zum Islam, Verlag Otto Lembeck, Frankfurt, 2006).

Already in the early days of Islam, you had therefore to distinguish the militarily secured expansion of the dominion from the spread of religion. Islam has also been spread peacefully by merchants or members of the Sufi Order. However, a constant pressure for conversion was caused by the Islamic system of government, because Jews and Christians were as protegees in many respects only citizens of inferior rank.



But Wrogemann immediately added that similar restrictive measures against members of other religions existed in states that were influenced by Christianity.

After all, even the Islamic revitalization movements from the early 20th century set quite opposite trends: in addition to the goal of political rule there were currents that wanted explicitly to clean Islam from such ambitions. On the one hand one would strive for the Islamization of culture, on the other hand one would demand to entrench Islam as part of modern pluralism.


No Apologetic Profiling at the Expense of Others

Conversely, also Christianity knows a diversity of forms of missionary zeal. Unlike in Islam, there had admittedly been a long period in which the new religion was to spread without political support. But where it then became the state religion Christians, too, have used violent means. Even here, however, distinctions are indispensable. For the Crusades - contrary to the Muslims' common awareness - had never been Mission wars, and forcible conversions had occurred only in exceptional cases, whereas in the later colonization both occured: forced baptisms as well as peaceful missionary work based on voluntariness. From the 19th century it is characteristic that the missionary orders with their commitment (schools, charities, Christian journalism) have de facto exported also the European-Christian civilization to Muslim countries.

In view of this complexity, it should not come today to an apologetic profiling at the expense of others, said Wrogemann in his conclusion. Improper comparisons, e.g. by trying to quantify historical processes, would be unfair. In contrast, he called for the willingness to practise criticism of ideology and self-criticism. One had to be ready to expose oneself to legitimate moral questions that could definitely be painful.

It should also be taken into account that the concept 'mission' has only recently been adapted in Islam. The Muslim tradition rather speaks of "tabligh" (preaching) or "da'wa" (call). On the Muslim side all the speakers and interlocutors emphasized in this context that mission is possible only with unrestricted respect for freedom of religion.

This was particularly noticeable in the Muslim opening speech of Ataullah Siddiqui, who teaches at the University of Leicester and at the Muslim Markfield Institute of Higher Education. In the spirit of the Anglo-American discourse on religion, which is characterized by its sensitivity to pluralism, he advocated the thesis that "da'wa" was less concerned with the call for conversion than for conversation or communication. Like many other Muslims in Stuttgart he referred essentially to the Koranic statement that there is no compulsion in religion (Sura 2:256).

Siddiqui pointed out that many Muslim countries were no free countries and the relationship to Christianity was unfortunately often described in friend-foe categories. As Christians should know more about Islam, so Muslims should strive to perceive Christians in a more differentiated manner. In dealing with the Western traditions, so his conviction, an "understanding and trusting atmosphere" would develop in the long run.


Avoiding Self-relativization

One has nonetheless not avoided the controversial points in Stuttgart. This became apparent e.g. after the lecture by Christine Lienemann-Perrin, professor of ecumenism, missiology and intercultural contemporary issues at the Protestant Theological Faculty of the University of Basel. She had presented a matrix of eight different understandings of Christian Mission, which were classified in detail with regard to the actors, methods, addressees and geographical distribution: From Evangelical revival movements, the traditional foreign missions and the newer offers of religious courses up to charitable commitment or the attempt to influence the public by political opinions of the churches.

But then the discussion was sparked off by an understanding of mission that was characterized by a kenosis spirituality, as e.g. with Charles de Foucauld and his followers. Hamideh Mohagheghi, who is the Chairwomen of the Muslim Academy in Germany and teaches at the University of Paderborn, asked e.g. whether an openness to other cultures would only be pretended here, but tangible mission interests were ultimately involved.

But conversely, the question was asked, how far in this case the Christian profile could be preserved at all. Lienemann called it a paradox, how one tried to realize non-intentionality, unselfishness and lack of calculation in such a manner that the underlying Christian intentions are not discredited. But how else could one gain a balanced understanding of mission?

This discussion made also clear the further great importance of the hermeneutical questions in the dialogue between Islam and Christianity - as e.g. how the relevant Bible passages of early christological key propositions can be understood in such a way that they on the one hand do not disparage others, and on the other hand relativization does not become self-relativization.

This applies equally to the interpretation of the Koran, where one has time and again to try to find out which passages, because they are historically conditioned, can or even must be interpreted anew in our time.



It was in this same spirit that Ömer Özsoy, Director of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Religion of Islam at the University of Frankfurt, was keen to establish - from the sources of tradition - a positive relationship of Islam to the plurality of world views (cf. Herder Korrespondenz Spezial, Die unbekannte Religion. Muslime in Deutschland, 2-2009, 35 ff.; see also HK April 2007, 193 ff.)

The Koran, too, assumed that people who had not become acquainted with Islam, can be saved if they - in a "metaphysical" sense - obeyed universal laws. The nature of man created by God transcends history. They were inherently in a position to understand God and to recognize his creation, and that's why compulsion to conversion is unneccessary.


Joint Mission?

In the final lecture Christian Troll, professor at the Jesuits' Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology University Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt, pleaded in favour of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, which was one of the essential elements of mission today and without which mission would be inconceivable. However, the dialogue must never be a strategy in order to produce conversions. "To be religious today means to be interreligious, in the sense that in a world marked by religious pluralism, a positive relationship with believers of other religions is imperative."

According to the tenor of the meeting he noted that the effective recognition and integral practice of religious freedom, including a genuine acceptance of the social and political order, which was based on fundamental human rights and the properly understood separation of church and state was the necessary condition of the possibility of positive and fruitful relations between Islam and Christianity.

The conviction, however, that in this context and in the spirit of the First Conference of the Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome in November 2008 also a "joint 'mission' of Christians and Muslims" exists is less taken for granted. "Muslims and Christians jointly profess God as Creator who gives right guidance to all people, and both are aware that they are personally responsible before God as judge of all men" (see also HK, December 2008, 605 ff.)

At the beginning of the conference, the Christian-Muslim team that is responsible for the meetings of the "Theological Forum Christianity - Islam" had admitted that the preparation of this year's conference had been "difficult." After all, it was possible to discuss the topic of mission in such a way that broad agreement could be achieved in the rejection of indoctrination, coercion and violence and in the commitment to respect, tolerance and religious freedom. Both sides repeatedly emphasized that anyway the decisive initiative must be ultimately left to God.


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