Wednesday, December 18, 2013

No Opposition between Orthodoxy and Islam?

Echoes of Muslim 'A Common Word' initiative promoted at International Forum on Coexistence in Russia.

by Ralph H. Sidway

During an international forum on coexistence being conducted in Russia, a Muslim speaker made these assertions:

There is no opposition between Orthodoxy and Islam. We meet and find common ground. It is another matter that conveying this picture to the masses is a matter of great difficulty – as for why, one needs to ask the media. 
Muslims are actively in need, through preachers and teachers, to hear an assessment of social events and to understand how to relate to them. But today many Muslims remain left to their own resources and as a result ultimately fall prey to extremist preachers... 

Not so; it is false to say that Muslims are "left to their own resources" and that is why they "fall prey to extremist preachers." In the U.S., 80% of mosques preach violent jihad and replacing the Constitution with sharia; in Europe 75% believe in only one interpretation of the Qur'an, 65% think sharia supersedes secular law, and a new Pew Forum poll of 11 Muslim nations found strong support for terrorism and suicide bombings. The Mufti's statement above is self-contradictory, and flies in face of the fact that the vast majority of Muslim mosques and preachers teach jihad and Islamic supremacism, which is rooted in the Qur'an and the Sunnah of Muhammad.

Along with the administration of Moscow, one needs to think about transforming the program of constructing 200 Orthodox churches into a collaborative program pertaining to other religious confessions. (Rushan Abbyasov, Deputy Chairman of Council of Muftis in Russia.)

This specific reference is clearly an attempt to blunt or reverse the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has experienced a resurrection since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the ending of seven decades of open persecution of Christianity by the militant atheists, and has embarked on a project to build 200 new churches over the next few years.


Regarding Mufti Rushan's statement — "There is no opposition between Orthodoxy and Islam" — and the Muslim approach to interfaith dialogue to which it belongs, it is very similar to and may be a direct offshoot of the 2007 Muslim initiative, 'A Common Word Between Us and You'.

'A Common Word' was the open letter to global Christian leaders sent by 138 Muslim clerics and scholars. It sets the same reassuring tone as Mufti Rushan's statement, asserting the need to find "common ground." But when analyzed, we find 'A Common Word' is instead a subtle work of Islamic dawah, or proselytizing, calling on Christians to embrace such key Islamic doctrines as tawhid, the absolute oneness of God, which, when followed to any degree, demands the rejection of foundational Christian dogma concerning the Holy Trinity, the Divine-Human nature of Jesus Christ, and a complex matrix of issues concerning theology, anthropology, and salvation.

Simple, uncritical acceptance of such Muslim overtures leads Christians onto shaky ground, which is why education in Christian theology is so essential, and why even a basic awareness of Muslim beliefs and methods of preaching and dialogue are advised. Many Christians encountering the 'A Common Word' document for the first time melt with relief and gratitude that their hopes for a peaceful, moderate Islam are finally validated, but the truth of the matter is quite different.

Dr Mark Durie is a theologian, human rights activist and Anglican pastor, who has published many articles and books on the language and culture of the Acehnese, Christian-Muslim relations and religious freedom. He has prepared a range of materials and original articles in a Christian orthodox response to A Common Word which I highly recommend exploring. He sums up his general conclusions as follows:

A Common Word Between Us and You is a letter addressed to Christians by 138 Muslim scholars. It invites Christians to agree on certain ‘common ground’ with Muslims as the foundation of interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding, for the sake of peace in the world. Key points addressed in these notes include:
  • The letter presupposes that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
  • It has the appearance of being an exercise in da‘wa or Islamic proselytism. 
  • The letter uses a ‘bait and switch’ tactic whereby Christians are invited to agree with Muslims on loving God and loving one’s neighbour, but this is exchanged by the end of the letter for an invitation to agree on tawhid, the Islamic understanding of the unity of Allah. In effect, Christians are being asked to accept Islamic monotheism as the foundation for interfaith dialogue and peaceful relationships.
  • However Islamic monotheism explicitly denies the incarnation, and is incompatible with other aspects of Christian belief. 
  • This letter appears to be an attempt to Islamicize Christian-Muslim dialogue. True dialogue can only proceed by respecting the integrity of the other’s position.
  • The letter misleadingly offers the Islamic Jesus (Isa) as evidence of Muslims’ good will towards Christians.
  • The letter overlooks calls in the Qur’an to fight Christians, and the reality of human rights abuses against Christians in so many Muslim countries.
  • The discussion of ‘love thy neighbour’ is particularly weak. In Islam, calls to do good for one’s neighbour are traditionally taken to refer to one’s Muslim neighbour only. 
  • The letter makes no reference to God’s love for humankind as a whole.
  • Crucial verses are cited without acknowledging traditional anti-Christian interpretations. For example:
  • the ‘common word’ theme verse of the letter (Sura 3:64) is associated with a declaration of war against the Byzantines, and is part of an anti-Christian polemic in the Qur’an,
  • the Sura Al-Fatihah is presented as the ‘greatest chapter’ in the Qur’an, but this chapter denounces Christians as those who have been ‘led astray’,
  • verses which are cited as ones which speak well of Christians (Sura 3:113-115) are traditionally understood to refer to converts to Islam,
  • the important Sura 112 – the Islamic Shema ­– is cited only in part, omitting the verses which denounce Trinitarian faith.
  • The letter’s warnings of conflict if the invitation is not accepted could be read as a threat. This is unfortunate. Christians should be wary of accepting the presuppositions behind these warnings.

In addition to Dr Mark Durie's extensive work, I recommend reading the specific reply to 'A Common Word' of His Holiness Patriarch Alexey II of Moscow and All Russia, who writes as follows:

Christianity and Islam are engaged today in a very important task in the world. They seek to remind humanity of the existence of God and of the spiritual dimension present both in man and the world. We bear witness to the interdependence of peace and justice, morality and law, truth and love. 
As you rightly put in you letter, Christians and Muslims are drawn together first of all by the commandment of the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor. At the same time, I do not think it is worthwhile for us to identify a certain minimum that seems to fix our convergences in faith and to be theologically sufficient for the individual’s religious life. Any doctrinal affirmation in Christianity or Islam cannot be viewed in isolation from its unique place in the integral theological system. Otherwise, one’s religious identity will be obliterated to give rise to a danger of moving along the path of blending the faiths...

After presenting a summary of the Christian faith in the Holy Trinity as three Divine Hypostases united in a single nature as one God in an "eternal movement in love" (the words of St Maximus the Confessor, a significant saint to quote in this context!), Patriarch Alexey goes on to bear witness to Jesus Christ as Lord and God who brings the love of God to us and instills that love within us:

The Christian teaching on the incarnation of God the Word in Jesus Christ is also a natural manifestation of God’s love of human beings. “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved god but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). 
Man created in the image and after the likeness of God (Gen. 1, 26), is able to experience Him in himself and, thus, come to know the love that God has for him. God’s love is communicated to human beings to become their inner property, their living force that determines, penetrates and forms their whole lives. Love in man arises in response to God’s love. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1). God expects from man not so much a slave’s devotion as filial feeling of love. Therefore the maim prayer that the Lord Jesus Christ has taught Christians to say (Luke 11:2), man appeals to God as his Heavenly Father.

One of the main distinctions between Christianity and Islam is how they view man's relationship to God. Patriarch Alexey concludes his theological portion of his response with this point:

The manifestation of man’s true love of God is possible only if man is free. This freedom makes it possible to do good by fulfilling the will of God by choice, not only out of fear or for the sake of reward. The love of God inspires in man the selfless desire to fulfill His commandments. For, according to St Isaac the Syrian, “Because of His great love, God was not pleased to restrict our freedom but was pleased to draw us near Him through the love of our own heart”. Therefore, human freedom increases, extends and grows stronger as human beings grow in love of God, which is the core of human religious and moral perfection. Those who love God seek to emulate their Creator in their actions: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). 
My letter does not have the aim of setting forth the entire Christian theology. I only offer an example of reflection on God’s love of man and man’s love of God, which underlie the whole theological system of Christianity and which cannot be reduced to a few laconic formulations...

There is much more in his rich and carefully composed letter, so do read the entire response here.

In conclusion, I would suggest that there most certainly is an inherent opposition between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, but Jesus Christ came to break down the "dividing wall of partition" (cf. Eph 2:14-15). The Gospel and Eternal Life are open to all people, including Muslims, who turn to Jesus Christ, believe in Him as Lord and God, are baptized into His Body, the Church, and who dedicate themselves to working out their salvation within the saving envelopment of this mystical Eucharistic community.

There is always opposition between Truth and falsehood, but the Good News is that those in falsehood, who languish outside the Way of Truth, Life and Light, may until their last breath (remember the wise thief on the cross) repent and be united to that Way, Truth and Life, and may shine with that Light. While there is life, there is hope.

Indeed, based on the numerous conversion stories coming out of the Muslim world, it is clear that the Lord Jesus Christ is reaching out to and calling many of our Muslim cousins to unite them to His flock.

It is only through Jesus Christ and His Church that the opposition can be, and is, dissolved.