Who speaks for Islam?
The answer to that lament, heard often in the West since 9/11, came last week in the form of a letter from mainstream Muslim leaders to leaders of the world's Christian churches.
The open letter from 138 prominent Muslims – including imams, ayatollahs, grand muftis, sheikhs, and scholars – said "the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians," urgent language indicating a concern that tensions between the two faiths are in danger of spiraling out of control.
With its call for finding common ground in the foundational principles shared by the two faiths, the letter presents a significant counterweight to the voices of radical Islam on the global stage and is being heralded by Christian clergy and scholars as of historic import.
The 29-page document, "A Common Word Between Us and You," calls for Muslim-Christian dialogue, prompting several Christian leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury to respond immediately and positively. In the United States, leaders are hastening to develop a common response and lay the groundwork for a joint gathering.
"The conversation has begun, and e-mails are flying this way and that," says the Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, head of interfaith relations for the National Council of Churches. Yale Divinity School wrote a lengthy statement that has been cosigned by leaders at Harvard and Princeton seminaries.
The Muslim signatories are authoritative, representing all major schools of Islamic thought, as well as influential at the grass-roots level, say scholars of Islam.
"They are saying, 'Look, we represent a global cross-section, and we want to address the critical issue of the relationship between Islam and Christianity,' " says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.
'Our common future is at stake'
The two faiths account for more than half the world's population, the letter notes, and with "the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict.... Our common future is at stake."
Most striking, perhaps, is their message that "the basis for this peace and understanding already exists ... love of the One God, and love of the neighbor." The letter explores passages in the Koran and the Bible that develop these two principles and that reveal fundamental shared values in Islam and Christianity.
Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School praised the letter's depth, calling it "historic, courageous, and marked by deep insight and generosity of spirit."
Spearheaded by the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute in Amman, Jordan, the initiative is not a one-time gathering of signatures, but rather builds on a major effort in 2005 within the Muslim ummah, or community. That effort sought to address the issue of tolerance within Islam, to end the practice of some Muslims of declaring others as deviant or non-Muslim. It brought together clerics and scholars of various Muslim sects across the world – and engaged the Muslim public – in producing the Amman Message (www.ammanmessage.com).
"In a time of conflict, it showed that mainstream groups and ordinary Muslims reject intolerance," says Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America and a signatory of the letter. "This initiative comes on the heels of that one, saying it's time to move to relations between Muslims and Christians."
A message to Muslims, too
While the document is a message to Christians everywhere, Dr. Esposito says, it's also a message to Muslims everywhere. The letter states that "justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part of love of the neighbor." To those who "relish conflict and destruction," it warns that "our very eternal souls are at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace...."
For Muslims already engaged in dialogue with Christians, it's a confidence-builder, Dr. Mattson adds. "It gives each of us a greater sense of hope ... that we are part of a global movement to get beyond the misuse of our religion and to make an impact in the world."
Along with the early enthusiastic Christian responses, a few show some hesitation. A Vatican spokesman was positive but noncommittal, calling the letter "an encouraging sign" and "a spiritual approach to dialogue." The Roman Catholic Church has taken a more conservative approach to Islam since the death of John Paul II in 2005, supporting diplomacy but not theological discussion.
The Evangelical Alliance in Britain welcomed the letter's call for peace and understanding, but also pointed to differences between the two faiths.
The Muslim leaders are looking not only for a Christian response, but for a meeting of major leaders of both faiths. Many Christian leaders are eager for the same. For some, the letter has taken just the right approach.
"They aren't bringing in the historical baggage," Esposito says. "They're saying, 'Let's look at our scriptures, and the fact that our two traditions share in a common love for God and neighbor, and then let's build from that.' It's brilliant."