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Islam dialogue: Images of God under Discussion

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2011, P. 225-227
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    The monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam believe in one God and yet have different ideas of God. At the recent meeting of the "Theological Forum Christianity - Islam", their similarities and differences were now in the center of the discussions.

 

It is central for the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to refer to the biblical patriarchs - and thus also to the common roots of belief in God. The "Abrahamic" religions nevertheless differ from each other in their essential statements of faith. Not least their conceptions of God are so differently shaped that - dependent on the spiritual tradition of the respective world religions - the similarities cannot always be recognized at once.

In the Christian-Muslim dialogue the marking of overlaps and differences of the respective speaking about God belongs therefore to the tasks of the research on Islam, which recently has become more intense. Under the title "The ever greater God", the "Theological Forum Christianity - Islam", which is located at the Catholic Academy of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, now in early March had a focus on the different conceptions of God, after it had in the past year dealt with the sensitive topic of the concept of mission in the two world religions (see HK, April 2010, 225ff.).

In these talks it proved to be a common understanding that religious speech, whether in Christianity or Islam, is essentially metaphorical speech. Its meaning cannot readily be understood literally but requires interpretation. This conviction determined the whole range of topics of the meeting.

In this regard, the keynote speech of the Bosnian theologian Resid Hafizovic, professor at the Islamic faculty of the University of Sarajevo was particularly remarkable. It had to be presented and commented by Esnaf Begic, research associate at the center for Intercultural Islam Studies at the University of Osnabrück.

Hafizovid could not attend the meeting, because he and his family were recently exposed to hostility from Salafi groups in Bosnia, due to his relatively liberal theological position. Against a superiority of speculative theology, so his thesis, what mattered today was to take the symbolic language of Revelation more seriously and to learn also from the mystical traditions in Islam.

 


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In his short welcoming speech, Erol Pürlü, who in March was still spokesman of the Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany, started from the assumption that God would only then be rightly understood if he would be located beyond all images and ideas. Quite in the spirit of the Jewish and the Islamic ban on images, God's majesty made all theological attributions appear to be problematic. That's why we first and foremost have to refer ultimately to the "primary" sources of religion.

With a different accentuation, in the final speech of the meeting Ahmad Milad Karimi, Freiburg expert in Islamic studies and Quran translator insisted on the fact that the Muslims' holy text is primarily a spoken and not a written word. It must be recited as "God's living word". And this recitation must be understood as a "declaration of love" to the people. As any confession of this kind it would be completely poetic - even though among Muslims this interpretation of the Koran is still controversial.

The theological discussion about the contents of the respective speaking about God was often focussed on the relation between God's omnipotence and the mercifulness attributed to him. Ulrike Bechmann, Professor of Comparative Religion at the Catholic Theological Faculty in Graz, emphasized for the Christian side that the Bible - despite all inconsistency of different images of God - deliberately begins with the Creation of the One World. All positions that want to exclude the respective other positions must allow to be measured by them [images of God].

With a view to the as "dark side" of God experienced violence in the Old Testament, she emphasized that God's justice leads to the Last Judgment for man's sake - exactly in the sense of Mt 25:40 ("in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me"). However, where only the relation of man to God is at stake, God grants mercy. The hope of Christians is of course that in the eschaton the suffering on the cross turns out to be God's mercy on every human being. Also in this way, the result is the de-limitation of salvation, which corresponds to the foundations laid by the theology of creation. But what does this mean for God's possibilities to intervene in the world? According to Reinhold Bernhardt, professor of systematic theology at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Basel, the assertion of omnipotence does not imply that God ignores man's freedom, with which he would otherwise be in competition - quite apart from the question as to whether it intensifies the theodicy problems. God must rather be understood as transcendental cause, i.e. as the ultimate ground for everything that exists. In the middle of the world God is transcendent; God works often through his sheer presence; his power is thus that of his presence.

Mouhanad Khorchide, Professor of Islamic Religious Education in Münster, for his part, presented a Muslim doctrine of God which was based on very similar convictions. He emphasized that God's compassion must be accessible, tangible and perceptible for man. God has committed himself to be merciful. That's why coercion and manipulation are not compatible with the Islamic self-understanding. God grants the freedom of man. This is his way to intervene in the world, and to be able to bring about goodness.

 

Theological Conversation at Eye Level

After all, God has revealed his mercy not only in the Koran but in the Creation. Every act of mercy in this world can therefore be understood as a manifestation or revelation of God's mercy. In this sense, the ever greater God is the merciful God. Anger and punitive justice are subordinated to this absolute mercy. Khorchide could incidentally refer to a hadith, where the Prophet Muhammad represents a position that directly reminds of Jesus' speech in Mt 25.

In view of an often requested enlightenment of Islam, this approach of Muslim theology is an example of an emerging "anthropological turn" in the thought on God in Muslim theology - at least in a European context. Already Bülent Ucar, Professor of Islamic Religious Education in Osnabrück, had beforehand quoted the Koran sura 50.16 ("We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein"). He called the attention to the fact that also in the Muslim theology the reflection on man promotes the thought on God - without, as a result, inevitably falling into a kind of pantheism.

 


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Karimi, however, was the one who in his remarks at the end of the meeting marked equally clearly the difficulties of the Christian-Muslim dialogue. For Muslims, who have studied Aristotle and his Principle of Non-Contradictio, is is simply incomprehensible how God as the Wholly Different should become a human being. In view of this Christian dogma, Islam proves to be virtually an "enlightened intellectual religion."

Quite in this sense, on all three days of discussions, the Christological and above all the Trinitarian axioms of Christian faith were, at least subliminally, the real problem for Christian-Muslim dialogue - with definitely significant constellations. For while the Muslim interlocutors sometimes vehemently asked for an explanation of the Christian theological teachings on the Trinity, the Christian side - just for the common level of discussion's sake - rather sought to avoid that these differences became the focus of attention. In several speeches of Christian theologians one felt - not least due to the variety of theological approaches - a certain uncertainty regarding the question of how this proprium of one's faith could be best put in a nutshell.

The "provocation Trinity" (Christian Troll) was most intensively treated in one of the workshops. In other workshops the traditions of mystical experience of God, the surprisingly similar feminist theological objections to the history of God's male predicates, or the problems of violence in the two monotheistic religions were on the agenda.

Felix Körner, Dean of Faculty of Missiology of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, explained there his approach (see also: Kirche im Angesicht des Islam. Theologie des interreligiösen Zeugnisses, Stuttgart 2008). "Theological teaching on the Triune God does not describe a property of God but is the insight that God has bound himself to Jesus and his people" was his main thesis, which he unfolded carefully. He repeatedly called the attention also to the preliminary, imperfect, and only in the eschaton perfected hope of the Christian faith. Only where all people in freedom share this belief, God's reality has reached its fulfilment.

This year the "Theological Forum Christianity - Islam" has for the first time achieved that half of the more than 120 theologians were Muslims, among them also many women. A number of interested Christians could not participate for reasons of space. However, the meeting was attended by many graduates of the Christian-Islamic study week for young scientists, which in recent years took place each summer at the Catholic Academy.

Besides the intensive work on the theological topic of each annual meeting, the Forum as a whole has developed into a remarkable 'trading floor' for the theological dialogue between Christians and Muslims. In Stuttgart it was possible also this year to present not only a number of university- and other research projects but also practical dialogue projects. The Forum is thus also of importance in view of the junior staff for the subject of Islamic theology, who have to be trained in the coming years. As co-initiator Ucar emphasized that this due to the fact that already the preparation of the meetings takes place at equal eye level between the Christian and Muslim organizers.

 

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