Top-tier religious leaders in the Muslim world are emerging as major proponents of dialogue with Christians and other world faiths. With two distinct initiatives this month, they are breaking new ground and sending signals to Muslims and others globally that interreligious understanding and joint action are Islamic values.
Those involved see the initiatives, if sustained, as breaking down misperceptions, strengthening mainstream religious voices on the world stage, and diminishing the influence of extremism.
This week, Yale University hosts the first of four meetings between prominent Muslim and Christian leaders from across the globe, with discussions rooted in foundational principles of the two faiths. The conference beginning Tuesday is the first fruit of "A Common Word between Us and You," the letter sent last fall by 138 Muslim leaders from 40 nations to the leaders of the world's Christian churches.
It follows a separate initiative, held earlier in July in Madrid, called by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who surprised the world by urging 200 Muslims, Christians, Jews, and people of Eastern religions to gather together for purposes of dialogue and reconciliation. While some people expressed skepticism because of the Saudi kingdom's continued restrictions on other faiths, many conferees were encouraged.
"When the king says publicly that diversity is a sacred notion in Islam ... that's a big deal," says Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld, president of the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership in New York, who attended the conference. "It's world-changing."
Genesis of 'Common Word'
The 29-page letter that Muslim clerics from the major sects sent to Christian churches said "the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians." It invited Christians to join with them on the basis of "what is common to us and most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments" – love for God and love for one's neighbor.
"A Common Word represents a global Islamic consensus, and that means this engagement will have implications throughout the Muslim world," says Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for the Muslim group and director of SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research in Ankara, Turkey.
The Christian response was positive, leading to planning for four conferences: Muslims with Protestant leaders in New Haven, Conn., this week; with Anglicans at Cambridge University in October; with Catholics at the Vatican in November; and finally, at Georgetown University in Washington next spring, where the social and political implications of the dialogues will come to the fore.
"Common Word has taken on an active life with a lot of potential impact ... which should lead eventually to joint projects in several areas," says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown.
The dialogue begins with theological interaction at Yale. "We'll be discussing our core religious commitments, which are important because they define who we are," says Miroslav Volf, director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. That is a foundation for "addressing a wide range of very practical and very difficult issues."
The 150 leaders participating include Evangelical and mainline Protestants (i.e., president of the National Association of Evangelicals), Muslims from several continents (Sunni, Sufi, and Shiite, including ayatollahs from Iran), and a few Jewish leaders.
While exploring concepts of God and the two commandments, discussions are expected to touch also on current issues, such as the implications for how Muslims and Christians speak about each other.
The Yale conference is starting "an intensive conversation between Christian and Muslim communities," not only globally but also nationally and locally in the US, says Antonios Kireopoulos, director of interfaith relations with the National Council of Churches (NCC).
After receiving the Muslims' letter last fall, the 35 member denominations of the NCC embarked on a theological study of the document and have prepared a response, which will be ready in September, he says. They intend to disseminate the Muslim and Christian documents to their churches so congregations can initiate dialogues with local mosques.
The materials will highlight commonalities and differences between the faiths. "It's important to highlight those, too, and to learn that though we have differences, that doesn't mean we can't talk to one another," Dr. Kireopoulos says.
In February the NCC also formalized dialogue with the Islamic Society of North America. The two plan to meet twice a year to foster education about the other faith and to address any issues that arise, such as hostile rhetoric or hate crime.
Jordan's lead role
The Common Word initiative has been spearheaded by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, who heads the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought. Jordan has also reached out to major Christian churches by inviting them to build houses of worship at the site along the Jordan River where John the Baptist is said to have baptized Jesus. Several are under construction.
"The dedication of the site scheduled for next spring, which will be a global religious event, symbolizes in another way Muslim outreach and leadership," says Dr. Esposito of Georgetown.
The long-term impact of the Saudi-sponsored Madrid conference seems less certain, tied to whether follow-up events materialize. But given the king's stature as custodian of the Muslim holy sites, "the conference will likely have ripple effects throughout the Muslim community and other communities," says Shanta Premawardhana, who represented the World Council of Churches. "It gives legitimation to Muslims around the world to do similar things."
Others say these developments should encourage those in the West who still wonder what Islam is really like and whether there's a real chance for dialogue.
"Our hope and expectation is that there will be more lines of communication opening and a trickle-down effect as Christian and Muslim leaders ... speak to their constituencies and [foster] more understanding and respect," Dr. Kalin says.