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Forging a new path of Christian-Muslim rapprochement

Asma Afsaruddin | Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Recently, 138 Muslim scholars and clerics from various backgrounds and countries, including the U.S., drafted a letter addressed to all the major Christian religious leaders of the world emphasizing beliefs common to both religions. These central beliefs are the love of God and of one’s neighbor – beliefs that immediately resonate with Christians. The Christian leaders addressed included Pope Benedict XVI, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and evangelical Christian leaders.

Although the letter did not receive overwhelming attention in the world press, it touched a chord among many Christian interlocutors. Since the letter’s circulation, a number of representatives of various Christian denominations, including a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, have responded graciously, reciprocating the Muslim desire to seek common ground between the two faiths on the basis of shared beliefs and values. This reciprocity signals a potential sea-change in Christian-Muslim relations.

Never has the time been more propitious for seeking a Christian-Muslim rapprochement and building a solid alliance in confronting religious extremism and the violence it often engenders that so plague our world today. The alternative is grim. Religious rivalries in the past have led to bitter wars and other forms of conflict, contributing to the perception that the creation of a common ground between Islam and Christianity must remain a pipe dream.

For those of us who study the historical trajectory of these religions this is anything but a pipe dream. Current efforts at seeking a Christian-Muslim rapprochement represent a rather belated recognition of the historical fact that the destinies of these two world religions and civilizations have been and continue to remain conjoined. In a seminal work entitled “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization,” historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University has remarked that, “[l]ooked at as a whole and in historical perspective, the Islamo-Christian world has much more binding it together than forcing it apart.”

Much of Muslim and Christian history in fact cannot be fully understood in all its dimensions in isolation from the other. While a part of this intertwined history has bequeathed painful memories, part of it continues to inspire hope in the present and into the future. Moving past the jihads and the crusades, we would do well to remember, for instance, that the sharing of learning between Muslim realms and Christendom kept the intellectual legacy of classical antiquity alive in the pre-modern period and contributed to the European Renaissance. Islamic civilization finds its roots in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and Greco-Roman intellectual legacy as much as Western civilization does.

We are at a historic crossroads. The prophets of doom and damnation are plentiful on both sides, overshadowing the less sensational efforts being made by a growing number of Christians and Muslims of good will to build bridges based on shared ethical and moral values. Among such shared values is protection of human life and of the environment as God’s custodians on earth, as Archbishop Celestino Migliore, who will visit Notre Dame this week, has stressed.

We can choose to capitulate to the prophets of doom because they are louder and often have better access to the bully pulpit, or we can choose to succumb to the love of God and of neighbor – as the best of our traditions insist – and chart a better, more hopeful future.

Asma Afsaruddin

Associate Professor, Arabic and Islamic Studies

Department of Classics

Nov. 13