Dialogue aims for understanding, mutual respect

MILWAUKEE — Muslims and Catholics gathered May 21 at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee Elementary School to learn how to relate to each other.

“A Common Word Between Us and You,” sponsored by the Muslim-Catholic Women’s Dialogue, drew about 100 people interested in understanding and mutual respect.

Scott Alexander, an associate professor of Islam and the director of the Catholic-Muslim studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago offered a brief history of the interreligious studies between the Muslim and Christian faiths, with an emphasis on Catholicism, and the importance for both religions to continue dialogue with each other and those of other faiths.

The second speaker was Irfan Omar, an assistant professor of Islam and world religions in the theology department at Marquette University. Specializing in Islamic thought and interreligious connections between Islam and other religions, he is also the editor of “A Muslim View of Christianity: Essays on Dialogue,” and “Islam and Other Religions: Pathways to Dialogue.”

In an interview with your Catholic Herald, Omar discussed “A Common Word Between Us and You,” an open letter to the leaders of all the world’s churches, written in 2007 by 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals which reaffirmed the common ground between Christianity and Islam.

He described the letter, which represented every major Islamic country or region in the world, as a form of invitation to Christian leaders.

It was a follow-up to an “Open Letter to the Pope,” delivered Oct. 13, 2006. That was a response to Pope Benedict XVI’s address one month earlier at the University of Regensburg in Germany, during which, while speaking on faith and reason, the pope quoted a Byzantine emperor on the errors of Islam and jihad, or holy war. That remark provoked outrage in the Muslim world. Thirty-eight Islamic authorities and scholars representing all denominations and schools of thought delivered an answer to the pope in the spirit of open intellectual exchange and mutual understanding. In their open letter, they spoke with one voice about the teachings of Islam.

“So in the language of the common word is a built-in sense that, this doesn’t mean (they) only want to talk to Christians, but this is the way they want to begin because, often with Christians, they are obviously a large community in the totality of the world population, and so that’s a chunk of humanity,” he explained.

The letter focuses on two “golden” commandments found in the Quran and the Bible: Love of God and Love of Neighbor. It’s an invitation for Muslims to join with Christians for the sake of world peace and harmony, Omar said.

“The kind of items or the kind of topics discussed in the common word, of course, are connected to the core of what Christianity is, the Christian faith,” Omar said. “Out of respect and dignity of other human beings and an act of contrition and so on and so forth. The differences between churches, Roman Catholics and Protestant denominations, may not be such a big problem because they all agree on those core values about what Christianity is. That’s also very significant, looking at it from the widest possible angle and drawing a lot of response from different Christians, including evangelical Christians.”

According to Omar, the writing of the “Common Word” was a huge step for all religions, especially Islam and Christianity.

“This common word is as much an interreligious moment as it is an intra-religious moment, because (Muslim leaders) were all able to come together to consensus about this document. So I think these are some of the major points that we can look at, but as far as the importance for Christians (and) Muslims are, it could be seen as a giant step forward and changing the whole dynamics of how Christians and Muslims relate to each other,” Omar added.

“It’s about empowerment, too — empowering the local community,” he said about how the letter has made an impact on the two major religions. “So that again, too, empowers the local Catholic Church in Wisconsin, and saying, ‘Well, you know, we have this mandate. We need to go out and act on it and embody these values.’ And in the same way, the Muslim community is forced to think. Even though they were already thinking about some of these issues, they now have a voice of consensus from so many different scholars of all (sides).”

The reasons behind the importance of mutual understanding are simple, according to Omar.

“There is a general consensus that peace is what we all want to work for,” Omar explained. “And the goal of interreligious dialogue is not to just have wine and cheese receptions but to define ways to actually find ways in which we can minimize friction, minimize conflict, by addressing those issues that are part of the problem.

“As far as that is concerned, interreligious dialogue has to be connected to the actual problems that we face, not just a theological hairsplitting about whether Jesus died or didn’t die, what did Jesus look like, those kinds of things that theologians often tend to do,” he added.