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Islam Dialogue: Are Church and Umma comparable?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2013, P. 225-227
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    To what extent Islam sees itself as a community of faith cannot so easily be identified. In its recent meeting, the "Theological Forum Christianity - Islam" has dealt with this issue and inquired after the mutual inspiration of Umma and Church.


In its annual meeting, which was held in March for the tenth time in the Catholic Academy of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart Hohenheim, the "Theological Forum Christianity - Islam" has recently dealt with the issue of how in Christianity and Islam faith and community are precisely related to each other. For three days, more than 150 participants, nearly half of them were Muslims again, dealt with the question of which inspirations Church and Umma might offer each other.

Already at the very beginning Christoph Bochinger, Professor of Religious Studies at Bayreuth, pointed out that Muslims are not less affected by the societal modernization processes, which are a challenge for every religion. He pointed out that, for example, the phenomenon of individualization in Islam could easily be seen from the emerging Internet portals: everyone could pick out here the "fatwa" which is convenient to his personal situation.


'Umma' is an oscillating term

Overall, however, it became apparent that forms of socialization which make it possible to speak of Umma among the Muslims are already more difficult to identify than it seems at first glance. As much as 'Umma' seems suitable as synonym with the topos 'Church' in Christianity, it is ultimately neither easy to define it nor theologically of an equivalent, central importance. That's why precisely the intra-Muslim conversation, which resulted from the lectures and the contributions to the discussion on this issue, made the appeal of the event.

In Islam, the ambiguity has above all to do with the fact that, as in the other two monotheistic religions, the ideas of community oscillate between the specific situation of people who hold, more or less, the same beliefs and the utopia of a united humankind. Both ideas, so Silvia Horsch Al Saad, postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Islamic Theology in Osnabruck, can be found in the Quran: It opens the area of tension between the community of Muslims, which is identified as the "best" one (Surah 3: Verse 110), and a comprehensive community of all people (e.g. 2:213).



Maha El Kaisy-Friemuth, as of recently holder of the Chair for Islamic-Religious Studies with Practical Approach at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, emphasized in her opening speech about the semantics of "Umma" in the Koran that this term, which is used at least 64 times, is understood not only as a universal religious community, but it is already reflected religio-theologically ("And if Allah willed, He could have made them [of] one religion"; 42:8).

In the background, Judaism with its idea of the 'people of God' had definitely had an influence on the Prophet in Medina. And also the decidedly ethical qualification, that the Umma is the community of those who seek the good and avoid evil, fits in here. In this context it is interesting that even if the Jews were always differentiated from the Muslims, they were at least at the beginning regarded as part of the Umma.


Plurality of Islamic Theology

Compared with this, however, the idea of a community of those believers who refer to the Prophet Muhammad is at least equally powerful. The Umma is here not only understood as supportive community of all Muslims today but also through the ages - from Adam until today. This view is of importance also in the other monotheistic religions.

It is thus not said where the borderlines of the Umma exactly are. This is rather inevitably controversial, and is even aggravated by the fact that no "normative representative institution" exists, because Islam upholds the immediacy of God for the individual. But according to the thesis of Mohammad Gharaibeh, Scientific Coordinator of Annemarie Schimmel College, University of Bonn, there are nevertheless strategies for appropriate boundaries, namely exactly by the way in which religious knowledge is handed down. In Sunni Islam, the scholars played the crucial role. On the one hand, they participate in the mission to proclaim the divine message and on the other hand they form a chain of bearers.

From this point of view, the validity of beliefs is guaranteed by the "trans-regional network of Muslim scholars." Due to the upheld immediacy of God to the individual, the key point is that since the time of the Prophet in this individual-centered tradition structure the Islamic theological knowledge is bound through the issuing of teaching licenses (igaza): the handing down of knowledge happens by authorization.

Plurality would therefore be the characteristic of Islamic theology. It had always to deal with majority decisions. Each historically found consensus would be binding. The following generations had at least to deal with this element of tradition, which could no longer be eliminated. In this way the process of handing down would guarantee both the theological identity and the visibility of the Umma.

Interesting in this context was the reference to the great energy that is occasionally used in order to get close to the Prophet with as few steps as possible within the chain of tradition - similar to the Catholic idea of apostolic succession. According to Gharaibeh, the problem of Salafism was precisely that it wanted directly to skip to the first three generations of the message bearers. In the time between, it would see only aberrations, and ultimately come to a problematic ahistorical understanding of the faith.

Against this background, i.e. the importance of the processes of tradition in Islam, which can hardly be overestimated, Mouhanad Khorchide, Professor of Islamic Religious Education in Münster, also pointed out that, apart from the political and legal dimensions, especially the theological differences between Sunnis and Shiites but also between the reform-oriented and traditional movements in Islam would be the greatest challenge for the "Dream of Unity".


The Purpose of the Institution 'Church'

Now, this is also on the Christian side not without parallels. In view of this topic, also the basic differences in ecclesiology between Catholics and Protestants and thus also the internal differentiations must naturally become more noticeable in the discussions than it is otherwise the case - especially in an ecumenically organized discussion forum.

Quite in the line of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic theologian Johanna Rahner, currently Professor of Systematic Theology in Kassel, defined Church - and here not only the own - from her sacramentality. She is precisely only "'sign and instrument of God' in the world." And in this sense, she is wholly determined by her function to provide individuals with resources of meaning for their own possibilities of faith.

The institution must ultimately serve the believers, and strengthen their freedom to make faith in its social dimension effective. As historically changing entity, the Church is the "abiding presence of God's promise of salvation in Jesus Christ through the Spirit." The Church must be both "sign and fragmentary realization of what she indicates" - precisely because God wanted to act for the salvation of men also outside the Church.



The Protestant theologian Ulrich Dehn, Professor of Missiology, Ecumenism and Religious Studies in Hamburg, on the other hand emphasized what the dilemma of Christianity precisely is: it is more dream than reality. There is the need to allow heterogeneity and a certain amount of syncretism, in order not to endanger exactly this unity.

This applies of course also to the Catholic Church, as Hans-Joachim Sander, Professor of Dogmatic Theology in Salzburg stated with a view to the specific difficulties of self-assertion in view of globalization. The frequently invoked unity of the Church would therefore be "an excellent raw material in order to express the theologico-political special interests of powerful minorities."

Here then the similarities with the politicized Islam are apparent: In the same way as the Catholic 'Communio' is "an excellent fiction for the symbolic representation of the Vatican," the idea of 'Umma' would promote phases of fundamentalization. However, while 'Umma' rather reminds of the image of "God's people" with its network metaphors, the 'Ecclesia' mode would even lead to a "specific opposite position to the established public-political leadership."

With a view to the processes of tradition in religions, Sander emphasized that the in the Catholic Church often invoked authority is de facto rather the result of historical events than the "property of the ecclesial ministry." "It can not be claimed by the person concerned but is awarded by others." Even if the Church had long denied that this applies also to her, her form of networking people by faith is generally only historically possible. "Church is therefore always relative. She is always relocatable; and in the end she will be fundamentally be relativized by the Kingdom of God."

That's why authority cannot be established by those who are afraid of losing it. The Church, as religious form of socialization, is always in danger to lose authority - but paradoxically, this would definitely be the case where she shuns this risk. In this context, the Church has still to learn to understand herself from the perspective of others, even other religions.


Umma as Inspiration?

The relation between religion and politics was mainly treated in the workshops: from the question of the separability of the two spheres in Islam (Assem Hefny, Marburg) up to a pronounced Protestant association of Christianity, public sphere and constitutional state (Christian Polke, Hamburg).

Thus, while Muslim and Christian theologians within their own religion already grapple with the correlation between belief and world, religion and politics, in the interreligious dialogue in Stuttgart the question was paramount what is the role of the community for the salvation of the faithful.

In Stuttgart in this context the concept 'chosenness' was discussed, since the chosen ones are fond of referring it to themselves. The connotation that in this way others are excluded appeared many of them as too awkward. As Rahner insisted, this would theologically not necessarily be the case as regards the idea of 'God's People'. It should be avoided parading one's own chosenness for the purpose of polemics; those who are chosen by God are not privileged but taken into service by the universal salvific will of God for everybody. Moreover, Bochinger urged to pay here attention not only to followers of other religions but also to non-believers.

In addition there were numerous contributions to the discussion which see in the Christian-Islamic dialogue also opportunities that Christians will by the encounter with Muslims be inspired to an immediate relationship with God: the Umma is virtually seen as inspiration for the common priesthood of the faithful; the latter was repeatedly emphasized. Despite all the problems posed by a politicized and radicalized Islam, the in major parts of Islam more relaxed dealing with pluralism could prove to be more inspiring than this is noticed by the majority of believers.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'