Friday, 9 May 2008

Muslim proposal needs critical observations, says German Jesuit

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- Welcoming the invitation to dialogue proposed by 138 Muslim scholars, Christian theologians must demonstrate they take the initiative seriously by highlighting its promises and acknowledging potential pitfalls, said a German Jesuit expert on Islam.

Jesuit Father Christian W. Troll, a professor of Islamic studies, spoke May 6 at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University about "A Common Word," the letter Muslim scholars sent to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders in October.

The letter outlined their proposal for a new level of Christian-Muslim theological dialogue focused on common teachings about faith in one God, love of God and love of neighbor.

"We must be the first to recognize the beauty of the form and content of this letter," Father Troll said.

But "together with gratitude, esteem and trust, this kind of dialogue requires study, criticism and the desire to learn from and inform the other; otherwise it is just a spectacle without dignity," he said.

Asked why so much of the Christian reaction to the letter seemed to move immediately from hailing it as a breakthrough in Christian-Muslim relations to pointing out problems or omissions, Father Troll said respect for the Muslim scholars' seriousness required Christian scholars "to translate this esteem for Muslims into constructive and even critical observations."

One common criticism, reflecting a concern of Pope Benedict, is that the letter failed to raise the topic of religious freedom.

Father Troll said that while Christians and Muslims in many parts of the world are engaged in serious dialogue and cooperative projects, "which are more important than an occasional dialogue in the Vatican," dialogue can take place only where both Christians and Muslims are free to practice their faith.

"This is why I ask my Muslim friends to do what they can to defend religious freedom," Father Troll said.

Father Troll and Jesuit Father Christiaan van Nispen, a professor of Islamic studies who teaches in Cairo, Egypt, said one of the most important things about the letter is the number and variety of Muslim scholars who signed it.

Father Troll said, "With this initiative, we see the emergence of something like an intra-Islamic ecumenical movement," bringing together Sunnis and Shiites from all over the world.

Father van Nispen said, "I find it interesting that, at least until now, there have not been attacks against this letter" from other Muslims "even though it represents a new approach" to Christianity.

"In Islam, there is no 'magisterium,' no doctrinal authority, but what is most important is consensus" among community leaders and more broadly among believers, he said. "This letter is certainly an expression of a certain consensus -- at least 240 scholars have now endorsed it."

Another element the priests identified as interesting was the Muslim scholars' use of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

Father Troll said it was "a highly significant fact" that the letter quotes the Bible and does so with a positive tone.

"Does this indicate something of a break with classical Islamic doctrine, which regards the Jewish and Christian Scriptures as corrupted forms of the original revelation of God?" he asked.

Father Troll said that if the scholars intended to demonstrate a willingness to recognize the Jewish and Christian Bibles, even if differences of interpretation remain, they should have said so explicitly.

Father van Nispen said it is essential that Christians remember "there is not just one form of Islam, just as there does not exist one form of Christianity; even though all the Christian churches are centered on the person of Christ, deep doctrinal differences exist."

And, he said, "if among different Christians theological dialogue is not easy," people should not expect Christian-Muslim dialogue to be easy.

The Muslim scholars' letter, he said, is an important part of creating "a climate which will allow us to meet in all our diversity."