world council of churches

An Assessment of Christian-Muslim Dialogue
Walid Saif

Over the last ten years, our Muslim-Christian dialogue under the auspices of the WCC has well surpassed/overcome the old conception, or rather misconception, that dialogue is an exercise of interreligious theological debate whereby each side tries to prove his religious truth in contrast with the other. Instead, our dialogue has been based on mutual respect, understanding, and recognition of the differences as both a condition of human existence and a manifestation of divine wisdom. Thus we read in the Holy Qur’an:
Of thy Lord so willed, He could have made mankind one people. 11:118

O mankind, We created you from a single [pair] of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribe, that you may know each other [not that you may dispute each other]. 49:13

And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and color. Verily in that are signs for those who know. 30:22

Perceiving differences is better served by Muslims and Christians faithful to their respective religions. Muslims or Christians are not expected, or required, to give up any of their basic religious beliefs in order to make good participants in a constructive dialogue. This may seem too obvious to be emphasized. But in reality many people are still skeptic, hiding to the misconception that dialogue may lure them into compromising some of their convictions to appease their partners in the dialogue or to reach middle grounds. In such mental frame, dialogue is confused with debating or, worse, negotiation, and thus the concept "middle grounds." This misconception may be understandable, but not justifiable, in view of another conceptual confusion whereby Muslim-Christian dialogue is wrongly located with Muslim-western power relations. In this context, some Muslims tend to identify Christianity with the dominant West, thus casting anti-western sentiments on the dialogue between Muslims and Christians, which may, accordingly, be viewed as lacking the condition of equality and balance; the rational being: how could dialogue be engaged by the dominant and the subordinated?

I believe that our dialogue over these years has well surpassed such misconceptions and difficulties, liberating the meaning of the dialogue from the negative shadows of debate or negotiation between parties of different conflicting interests. It has drawn a clear line between Christian-Muslim dialogue on the one hand and Arab-western or Muslim-western relations, on the other. Therefore, the idea of reciprocity which was proposed by certain European groups was opposed by a unified stand on our part: Muslims and Christians in this setting. Reciprocity as proposed thereof suggested that Muslim minorities in European countries should be treated in accordance to the conditions of the Christian minorities in predominantly Muslim countries. Obviously, such proposition reinforces the misconception of identifying Christianity with the West, suggesting that Arab Christians, for instance, are an extension to the West, which only serves to reinforce fears and doubts. It also demarcates the world and societies along religious lines, which runs contrary to the concept of equal citizenship -- a concept which our dialogue has repeatedly emphasized as a common principle which cuts across religious and ethnic boundaries within the same society. Arab Christians are no less Arab citizens in their own Arab countries than the Arab Muslims. And in the context of Arab-western dialogue, both Arab Muslims and Christians represent the same party. This is not to deny one the right of religious affiliation which may extend beyond national boundaries, but this should not be used to undermine common and equal citizenship within the overall national identity. After all, multiple identities are as much a fact of human life as they represent a common principle to be cherished, without one serving to overrule the other.

Yet, Arab Christians may be seen as much facilitated to play a special role in furnishing dialogue between Arabs and the West, not as a neutral medium, but rather as an active part of the Arab World with an added asset in this respect.

The surpassing of theological debate, together with the acknowledgment of differences on both a human condition and a divine wisdom, should not, on the other hand, obscure the common values and principles grounded in both our religious traditions. Preoccupation with protecting a threatened identity, as is the case among many Muslims, often leads to the definition of the collective ‘self’ in terms of differences and contrasts, often leading to enclosure and exclusion. On the other hand, the more one is secure in his/her own identity, the more is he able to be more inclusive. It remains with us, through dialogue, to more appreciate and focus on our common and shared religious principles and values, and therefore to utilize these common resources to tackle common practical issues and problems, and to make significant contribution to solving them for the well-being of humanity.

One cannot but notice that, so far, religious discourse has been lagging behind secular humanistic discourse regarding major issues of both international and local concern, such as human rights, democracy and political participation, social justice, women’s rights, the environment, etc. It seems that we are often more concerned about defending and advocating our religious ideals, in response to the dominant secular tradition, than with drawing on and utilizing our religious principles and values to furnish practical initiatives regarding specific problems. Yet, experiences have shown that moral messages and theoretical frameworks gain more credibility and communicate a more persuasive message when they are put in the service of people, without exclusion and without any hint of proselytism. Moreover, experiences have also proven that theoretical and conceptual revisions are often triggered by practical encouragement and realistic constraints in the field of action. It can well be said that the challenges posed by concrete realities, and even by secularism itself, are, partly at least, responsible for many Muslims and Islamists to revisit, debate and revise old ideas which, for long, have been considered undisputable religious facts, while, in reality, they are part of the socio-cultural traditions, or the product of interpretive efforts situated in time and space.

Thus, I have often tried to draw attention to the fact that the ongoing debates within the Islamic arena are probably more significant and far-reaching than the debate between Islam and other doctrines. Obviously, the outcome of this intra religious debate eventually reflects strongly on interreligious dialogue. On the other hand, the dialogue itself serves to promote our awareness of so many issues, otherwise outside our conceptual gaze. It helps us surpass many of the stereotypes, preconceptions and misconceptions about the ‘other,’ which only serve to promote fears, skepticism and exclusion. Consequently, it motivates us to reconsider ideas and concepts within our own tradition, certainly without compromising our religious constants and foundational convictions.

It is often said, and rightfully so, that ignorance of the other breeds enmity and resentment. But it is also true that ignorance or misunderstanding of one’s own religious resources is often responsible for misconceiving and thus mistreating the other; each feeds into the other.

Through face-to-face dialogue -- through personal interaction -- the common tendency to view the ‘other’ as an undifferentiated collectivity defined in terms of essential ahistorical features, gives way to more understanding, inclusiveness, and appreciation of both diversity and commonalities.

I believe that our dialogue has made a notable achievement in this regard. We can even note that the intra religious debates (say, within the Islamic thought) have extended beyond its internal space, to manifest in the Christian-Muslim dialogue.

This reflects significant achievement of the dialogue. Participants have come to feel enough secure, confidant and trustful within the dialogue space to argue their competing understandings and interpretations of their own religious resources, in response to the challenging issues brought up in the dialogue.

Yet, lagging behind secularist discourses and initiatives regarding major issues of common concern, may often result in negative attitudes and stands among people of faith. Some may tend to ignore such issues: no matter how just and urgent they are, only because they have first been pressed and addressed/advocated in liberal secularist and seemingly non-religious terms. Instead of considering such issues and causes on their own right, and in their own terms, as just and legitimate, they are perceived as means for promoting westernized secularist and non-religious perspectives. Attitude towards the initial singer casts dark shadows on the song, and the message is contaminated by the sender. Some may even go further to feel religiously obliged to resist a conspiracy threatening cultural identity and promoting a western model under the pretext of universality. The issues of democracy and women’s rights in some Muslim states are a case in point.

Under such circumstances, the best that can be done by the more enlightened is to try to catch up with what will look like a fashionable common trend, and thus to contrive to host the concerned issue in the religious framework, to offer legitimization in retrospect, while striving to cleanse the issue from its secularist semantics. All in all, the result remains in the circle of reaction, apology and defense.

Muslim-Christian dialogue should not be promoted by common and shared fears from non-religious or anti-religious discourses. Our common grounds and concerns should be defined in positive terms, stemming from our own initiative as faithful Muslims and Christians -- from our awareness and moral obligations dictated by our religions. We do not meet to defend our religions, but rather to defend the rights and welfare of all people out of our religious ideals, and exactly through that we extend our religious message and promote our religious advocacy. Great ideals and convictions can only be communicated through tangible models. And we can, somehow, observe with some rejoice and confidence, the growing revival of religiosity throughout the world as a testimony to the everlasting endurance of religions in the face of materialism and extreme secularism. But, exactly at this point, we may want to stop fearing for religion from secular extremism, and start fearing for our religions from religious extremism. I strongly believe that the growing religious sentiments in different parts of the world lays more responsibility on our Muslim-Christian dialogue as on each of our religious communities; and both intra religious and interreligious efforts are certainly interlinked. The harm which can be done to religion by religious extremism may well surpass any such harm by secular extremism. In fact, historical experiences show that anti-religious trends often breed on and gain, or regain, legitimacy from the atrocities and injustices made in the name of religion. If not rationalized by enlightened and inclusive religious perspectives, the growing religiosity may well be translated into both interreligious and intra religious conflicts, exclusion and coercion. The most dangerous division may not be religious vs. anti-religious, but rather religious vs. religious. Religious freedoms across religious communities or within the same community can be more suppressed by zealous, narrow-minded and exclusivist interpretations of religion.

Extremism is a mental frame created by a composite of social, economic, political and cultural factors. As such, it can manifest in various ideologies and doctrines. Yet, although it is not inherent in religion or confined to religious trends, the strong feelings associated with religiosity, together with the potential tendency to identify the absolute divine truth with one’s own interpretations -- all can create the condition of possibility for religious extremism. This is why, in our dialogue over the past ten years or so, we have always emphasized the distinction between religion as presented in the revealed text, scripture, and the religious subject which manifests in competing interpretations, not withstanding the foundational constants.

Yet, understandably many people tend to perceive religion as embodied in the religious subject and his\her mediating representation. How could we then differentiate between right and wrong in the different representations of religion? How could we protect the integrity of religion from the possible excesses of religious zealots? An old Arab saying is this: "A wise and rational enemy is better than an ignorant friend." Better still is the saying by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) on pious, yet extremist Muslims: "There will come people of your faith, whose prayers far surmount yours, and whose fasting far outdoes yours; their acts of worship are as large as mountains, yet they stray away from Islam as the arrow flies throughout the prey." The Holy Qur’an warns against religious extremism:

O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion. 4:17

Say: O People of the Book, exceed not in your religion the bounds [of what is proper] trespassing beyond the truth. 4:77

However, some differentiating and defining criteria may be agreed upon in the way of distinguishing rightful and wrongful interpretations of religion. One is respect to the principle of freedom of conscience and choice which is the precondition for taking responsibility and receiving judgment before our God. For how can we be tested and therefore be judged without first having a choice and will? This should be taken as foundational in religion. Compared with other creatures, this is both our greatest asset and our greatest burden, at one and the same time. This is what can either make us the dignified humans as meant by God, or break us and reduce us to the beasts we may choose to be at our own will, therefore lacking the moral excuse of the beasts which have no choice and bear no responsibility.

The Holy Qur’an includes numerous verses ensuring freedom of will and conscience, including religious freedom:

Let there be no compulsion in religion. 1:256

If it had been your Lord’s will, they will all have believed -- all who are on Earth! Will you then compel mankind against their will to believe! 10:99

Say, "The truth is from your Lord." Let him who will believe and let him who will reject [it]. 18:29

To respect freedom of conscience as a basic religious principle is to display inclusiveness as yet another differentiating criterion. The message of religion and the moral obligations dictated thereby, extend far beyond the members of one specific religious community, to encompass the whole world and the well-being of all its inhabitants. This is what I read in the following Qur’anic verse:
We sent you not but as a mercy for all creatures. 21:107
And the paradox is this: as much as we strive to forcibly homogenize the world along our own convictions we create conflicts and divisions; on the other hand, as much as we respect diversity and differences we create unifying and common grounds. Respecting diversity furnishes inclusion, and inclusion implies convergence and commonality. Instead of promoting conflicts, differences can then be directed towards competitive action in the way of good, hence the following Qur’anic verse:
To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but [His plan is] to test you in what He has given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters, in which you dispute. 5:48
Of course, it is inherent in religiosity, and part of religious freedom for one to believe that his/her religion is the truest one. But for this belief not to breed exclusion it should never imply that the believer is the truest. Religion and religiosity is not one and the same. No one can claim to be the sole and exclusive representative of God. And one’s belief in the absolute rightfulness of his/her religion is no guarantee that s/he is always the rightful, and therefore the just, side in any interactional engagement. To think otherwise is to slip into the chosen people doctrine.

It follows that justice is an absolute value which should be taken to cut across all religious and ethnic divisions. Any interpretation of religion that legitimizes or causes injustice cannot be other than ill interpretation that deviates from religion. This is another differentiating criterion for evaluating religious representations. And to take side with the oppressed, irrespective of his religious community is not only to defend basic human rights, but also to defend the integrity of one’s own religious principles.

Muslims are ordered by the Prophet (peace be upon him) to offer support to their fellow Muslim whether he is the oppressed or the oppressor. When asked by his companions: "How could we support him when he is the oppressor?", the Prophet replied: "By preventing him from doing injustice. This is how you support him."

In the Holy Qur’an we read:

Give just measure and weight, nor withhold from the people the things that are their due. 7:85
And even with enemies, Muslims are ordered to maintain justice as an expression of piety:
O you who believe! Stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety, and fear God, for God is well acquainted with all what you do. 5:8
Not only are we ordered in the Holy Qur’an not to start aggression, but also to meet aggression against ourselves with only equal measures, lest we turn into aggressors:
And if you catch them out, Catch them out no worse than they catch you out. But if you show patience, this is indeed the best course for those who are patient. 16:126
Such differentiating criteria for evaluating competing representations of religion are not humanistic constraints on religious expression, as much as they are basic guidelines grounded in religion itself safeguarding it against misconceived religiosity. While grounded in religion, these criteria may be taken as common universal values, and thus can help to reconcile tension between universalities and cultural specificities in the context of human rights, including religious freedoms. Unfortunately, universalities in this respect are usually associated with secular humanistic discourse which, in turn, is associated with the dominant western model. As such, they are often viewed by many Muslims to be a means for western domination within double-standard politics, and even as part of western crusade to undermine Islamic traditions which are, in contrast, associated with cultural identity. People are then left to lose on both accounts. On the one hand, universal values are undermined and made dubious by the abusive power of the international big brother; on the other hand cultural specifics are equally undermined by the abusive power of the local big brother who uses them as a pretext to deny people human rights in the guise of protecting cultural and religious traditions. The irony is that the local big brother remains all the year faithful to his western mentor, implementing his dictated policies, until the issue of human rights is raised, where then, and only then, he remembers and reminds us that the West is the West and the East is the East and they can never meet.

By developing a religious discourse on human rights, grounded in each of our religions, yet inclusive and universal, we can make a significant contribution in the way of reconciling common universal values with religious and cultural specificities. It is understandable why nature was found more inclusive than culture for grounding universal human rights within a humanistic discourse. But nature has never spoken for itself. It was the human subject who conceptually defined and mapped it through his mediating representation. As such it may be seen as yet another historical, socio-cultural and political construct manipulated differently/variably over time, sometimes as a liberating force, and sometimes as an oppressive one. But if the universal nature has to be contrasted with the specific culture, it does not have to be in contrast with religion if we really believe that both nature and religion have come from the same divine source. We can here invoke the Islamic concept ‘fitra’ which is the built-in human nature supposed to be catered for by religion itself. It combines both physical and spiritual aspects of the human being in harmony. Therefore, grounding universal human rights in religion implies grounding them in fitra as designed by its creator and defined/reflected in His religion.

To reconcile universal values with religious and cultural traditions along such guidelines is certainly a major task for our dialogue. And I believe we have already accomplished much in this direction. However, it remains with us to work hard together towards creating public awareness of those ideals, and transforming attitudes at the grassroots. This is perhaps our greatest challenge.

Paper given at a Christian-Muslim Consultation sponsored by the WCC in Amersfoort, Netherlands November 8, 2000.

Walid Saif, a professor of linguists and writer from Jordan, has been active in Christian-Muslim relations in Jordan, the Middle East and with the World Council of Churches.

Go to A report on two Christian-Muslim meetings
Return to Current Dialogue (36), December 2000

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