Different parts of my extended family are atheist, Christian and Muslim, with my ethnic background being somewhat more complicated. But I am not particularly enthralled with the “interfaith movement”; it served to establish good relations between small numbers of people, but they have always been held back in two ways.
The first is that religious authorities never took the same route as the interfaith community in terms of dialogue. The second is linked to the first. Often, due to the absence of high-level authorities in interfaith discussions, the groups come to a hodgepodge of well-meaning but ultimately meaningless positions of “multifaith eclecticism”. The essential message: we are all the same, and there are no real differences between us. That’s a theological confusion that does not satisfy any believer.
But the interfaith movement has taken a new turn of late. In the aftermath of the Pope’s regrettable statements about Islam in 2006, a number of Islamic scholars and intellectuals wrote a letter to the Vatican. The same small group that initiated the Amman Message, a first in history, bringing Sunni and Shia together in a way that had never been done, led this. In 2007, they had another “first”: the Common Word.
Hundreds of the most senior Muslim scholars signed a message to the leaders of the most significant Christian Churches. Muslims and Christians, it said, were united on two solid principles – love of God, and love of the neighbour, and it called for dialogue on the basis of real commonalities at the highest levels. It received a resounding reception.
As one of the signatories, I travelled last week to Yale University for the first conference dedicated to the Common Word. I wondered, as I flew across the Atlantic, what I might find. Would this be an initiative that would go down in history: the first high-level, sustainable, interfaith discussion between the world’s two largest religious communities? Or would it be yet another “talking shop”? The stakes were high. If some of the highest religious authorities and intellectuals could not make progress, what hope was there for the laity?
There was a very particular specificity to the Yale conference: a strong evangelical component. Many Christian intellectuals argue that non-Christians can find salvation without accepting Christ. Not so the evangelical movement; on the contrary, the basis of their movement is to proselytise to the “heathens” to save their souls.
This is somewhat different from the Muslim tradition, where there exists an urge to deliver the message, but it is less of an essential sacrament and more of a side effect of living a sacred life. Moreover, Islam admits possible salvation for those who do not believe in the Prophet.
Throughout the conference, there was an underlying query on this point; in the midst of good interfaith relations, what possibilities were there for evangelicals to send missions to the Muslim world? At least one evangelical leader defended his participation on the basis that one could “bear witness” through dialogue. There were probably many who shared his view. (I suspect not all: Christian minorities within the Muslim world are usually the most avowed opponents of missionary activity. Not surprising: they’ve been Christian for 2,000 years and don’t take well to being told they got it “wrong” by modern evangelical movements.)
None of these issues were resolved at Yale. And they weren’t meant to be. These were religious people; they weren’t interested in diluting their faiths. And in that, a type of sincerity emerged that was perhaps the greatest benefit of the initiative. That was combined with a healthy respect for each other as people who believed in a loving God and loving one’s neighbour.
Never in human history had that happened before. For that alone, the Common Word is significant – whether it stays as such is down to every faithful Muslim and Christian. But one thing is sure, it’s long overdue. The UAE can be proud that it was due in no small part to a Muslim scholar who has found a home within its borders: Al Habib Ali al Jifri.
The Muslim and Christian delegations, represented by Prince Ghazi of Jordan, and Miroslav Wolf of the Yale Divinity School, ensured that this initiative did not come away without concrete achievements. A declaration affirmed the unity and absoluteness of God, and declared: “No Muslim or Christian should… tolerate the denigration or desecration of one another’s sacred symbols, founding figures, or places of worship.”
That was put to a vote – and unanimously accepted. That’s no small achievement. If the Common Word had achieved nothing else, it would have sufficed – but the conference opened up the possibility for much more in the future. Time will tell.
Dr. H. A. Hellyer is the Director of the Visionary Consultants Group and Fellow of the University of Warwick. A member of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies of the University of Oxford, he has just completed a six-month research project on Muslim European communities. This article previously appeared in The National (UAE).