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A Common Word 4

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian

Sunday, 27th January 2008

A Common Word is divided into three sections: Love of God (which speaks of Love of God in Islam and in the Bible; Love of the Neighbour in Islam and in the Bible; and a section entitled ‘Come to a Common Word between us and You’.

The notion of ‘A Common Word’ comes from the Qur’an. As the letter says,

In the Holy Qur’an, God Most High tells Muslims to issue the following call to Christians (and Jews—the People of the Scripture):

Say: 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. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him). (Aal ‘Imran 3:64)

What is striking to me is that this friendly approach is made by our Muslim brothers and sisters in obedience to the Qur’an – and it appears that for the command to be fulfilled there must be agreement between Muslims, Christians and Jews. The appeal is made to us – in peace and humility – to help them fulfil the Prophet’s command. Our ready response is needed – and we must give it, as we search for ‘a common word’.

In a note, it is suggested that the word ‘common’ can also be translated ‘just’ and ‘fair’ – a ‘just’ word or a ‘fair’ word. It may be, then, that any verbal understanding between Muslims Christians and Jews would not be in the precise words of any of the sacred scriptures – but it might be a ‘just’ or ‘fair’ statement of common understanding. As I said in the first sermon, in an open process of dialogue all the participants are changed, and all the participants must be prepared for surprises as new understanding emerges.

A little later in the same section, the letter continues:

Finally, as Muslims, and in obedience to the Holy Qur’an, we ask Christians to come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions … 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 … (Aal ‘Imran, 3:64). Let this common ground be the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us, for our common ground is that on which hangs all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:40).

I hope I shall not be misunderstood as wanting to create difficulties when I say there are problems for Christians with this proposal.

Firstly, a shift has taken place. Earlier in this section, the letter says, ‘Thus the Unity of God, love of Him, and love of the neighbour [my emphasis] form a common ground upon which Islam and Christianity (and Judaism) are founded’. Later the suggestion is that ‘the common essentials of our two religions … [are] 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‘. ‘Love of neighbour’ is not mentioned here. There is a lack of clarity about whether ‘love of neighbour’ is regarded as one of the ‘common essentials’ of our two religions. Certainly, if ‘love of neighbour’ - beginning with love of neighbour as the one who shares with me in the dialogue – were not regarded as a basis for inter-faith dialogue, something would be seriously wrong. I don’t think there’s a problem here, but we need to know whether ‘love of neighbour’ is fundamental or not.

Secondly, there is the vexed question of what it means to ascribe a ‘partner’ to God. A Common Word suggests that the common ground which should be ‘the basis of all future interfaith dialogue should be ’ … 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 … (Aal ‘Imran, 3:64)’. So, the question as to what it means to ‘ascribe no partner’ to God becomes vital. I suspect there is a problem here. We need to know what ‘partner’ means in this context. (Earlier in the letter the word ‘associate’ is used.) For Christians, God is one (albeit with the kind of differentiated unity we call ‘trinity’) and there is no other God but the one true God. However, the Greek word for partnership (koinonia) is several times used for the relationship between Christians and God. For example, in the First Epistle of John, we read, ‘Truly our koinonia is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 Jn 1:3). At the centre of our faith is the invitation to this koinonia with God in and through Jesus Christ. It is the incarnation that makes possible the coming together of humanity and divinity in friendship, fellowship, partnership and love. For Christians, it must always be possible to say that human beings are in this sense ‘partners’ with God.

But I suspect that is not what is meant by these words from the Qur’an, and this needs to made clear. I suspect that the language here is about the understanding of God as Trinity, and possibly an early misunderstanding of Christian teaching, as though Christians believe that there are in some sense three gods, who work in a kind of ‘partnership’. This is not the case with orthodox teaching about God as Trinity and it never has been. One of the early texts written to correct misunderstandings about God as Trinity (by Gregory of Nyssa) has been entitled ‘On Not Three-Gods’.

It is because the very heart of the Gospel is the invitation for human beings to enter into covenant-partnership with God that I do not think these words from the Qur’an could serve as a ‘basis of all future interfaith dialogue’. Neither do I think that words from the New Testament could or should serve in that way. The most fruitful basis for all future interfaith dialogue, I would suggest, lies within the text of A Common Word and within the Old Testament. It lies in the words recited every day by Jews in prayer, quoted and affirmed by Jesus, and according to A Common Word, perhaps, through inspiration, restated and alluded to, by the Prophet Muhammad: the words of the Shema: 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 strength. Hopefully, we could, as A Common Word itself suggests, add to that the command, also from the Old Testament: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’.

To say this is nothing more than to say that ‘A Common Word’ offers a well-founded and promising basis for inter-faith dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims, such as I have never before seen. I sincerely thank God for it and hope that in many places we shall build on this foundation; and that, as we build, we shall find deeper love both for one another and for the one God whom we all worship and seek to obey.

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