A Common Word

A Common Word

One of the questions we are most often asked by members of our congregations and others is, “Why don’t we hear Muslim leaders speaking out against terrorism?”

One of the questions we are most often asked by members of our congregations and others is, “Why don’t we hear Muslim leaders speaking out against terrorism?”

Here in Turkey we regularly hear religious leaders condemning terrorism, particularly since Turkey has suffered from terrorist attacks. So it depends on where you are and who you choose to listen to. In our case, the Muslim voices we hear are overwhelmingly positive and denouncing violence.

Our letter is not about terrorism but is about one of the positive voices. We urge you to visit the website of A Common Word: http://www.acommonword.com/, which is hosted by The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Interfaith Studies in Jordan.

You’ll find an open declaration originally signed in October of 2007 by 138 international Muslim scholars, including some from Turkey. Addressed to Christian leaders everywhere, the full title of the declaration is “A Common Word between Us and You.” The point of this unprecedented letter is to identify where these Muslim scholars see common ground between Christians and Muslims. In doing so, these scholars have looked seriously at the Christian scriptures and have identified the following words of Jesus, rooted in the Torah, as the place to start talking together about peace and justice:

Jesus answered [the question as to which commandment is primary, saying], ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12:29-31)

The number of Muslim scholars who have signed onto “A Common Word” has now grown to 256, from a variety of countries.

The title of the declaration comes from the Qur’an, the Holy Book of Islam, where God gives the following command:

O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. (3:64)

In their letter, the Muslim scholars see an effective parallel between the First Great Commandment identified by Jesus on the one hand, and the Qur’anic words, “we shall worship none but God,” on the other. As for the Second Great Commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves, the Muslim scholars understand this instruction as part of obedience to God’s will as known in their tradition. In short, these scholars believe that these two commandments of love are central to the faith of Muslims and Christians, and essential to the practices of both communities.

During the past few decades many Christians have often pushed for interfaith dialogue and relations and wondered why Muslims haven’t taken similar initiatives. At first some Muslims have been suspicious that “dialogue” is only the latest sneaky technique by Christians to proselytize Muslims, to convert them. But “A Common Word” is an action arising from Muslims themselves, showing a welcoming confidence in themselves and others.

There have been many responses by Christians, both individual and collective, to “A Common Word.” The Vatican and some Muslims scholars, one of them from Turkey, have recently begun a dialogue initiative called the Catholic-Muslim Forum. Its first meeting will be in Rome in November of 2008. A similar step is being taken by Muslim and Christian leaders in the US, with the involvement of the National Council of Churches and the Islamic Society of North America.

Dialogues and declarations, no matter how well intentioned, must always face the reality of power discrepancies: the participants don’t come to the table under equal circumstances; the playing field is not level. It is a fact that media from wealthy countries have a disproportionately loud voice. They frame how religious issues are to be viewed and discussed in many parts of the globe. In recent years these media have been putting about the term, “moderate Muslims” and “moderate Islam.” It’s not clear what is meant by this term: is it to identify Muslims who reject terrorism? or who reconcile the Islamic tradition with modern life? or who are friendly to non-Muslims?

At first we saw Muslims in Turkey repudiating this “moderate” terminology: who wants their faith to be called “moderate”? It has the connotation of “lukewarm” or “not that important.” In this sense Christians wouldn’t want their faith to be characterized as “moderate.” But the persistent use of the term by global media from Europe and the US steamrollers over any objections.

We think the point is worth arguing: enterprises like “A Common Word” from Muslims, and interfaith outreach by Christians, are the result of deep belief and trust in God. They are not moderate but radical because they stand up against forces on all sides that would limit the truth and claim God is only on their side.


Ken & Betty Frank

Ken & Betty Frank serve with the American Board in Istanbul, Turkey.  They share the job of General Secretary of the American Board.  They also serve on the board of the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP).