The God of Christianity

January 2008

Recently the Syrian-Orthodox Archbishop Mor Eustathius Matta Roham of Mesopotamia (Syria) brought to my attention an open letter to the Christians in the World from a number of Muslim scholars with the title "A Common Word between Us and You". It was published mid-October on the occasion of the end of Ramadan. The 138 authors originate from 43 countries and represent many Muslim denominations: liberal as well as extremists. The letter is therefore to be considered as representative for many denominations of Islam. The title of the letter is a quotation of Sura 3,64, in which ‘people of the book’ (Jews and Christians) are summoned – in case they do not want to or cannot become Muslim - to serve God alone, and not to acknowledge other gods.

The letter says that the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world, as Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. With many quotations from the Koran the letter is substantiating these thoughts. The letter looks like a heartfelt and urgent plea for a better understanding between Muslims and Christians to prevent an apocalyptical struggle between the two main religions. Therefore the letters deserves serious attention. I nevertheless want to make a few comments.

First it surprises me, that the appeal is aimed only to Muslims and Christians and not to Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists or non-believers - they do form a considerable part of the world population. Can religious peace between Muslims and Christians be a solid base for peace in the world? Is peace not better served by a broader appeal to all people of good will, preferably on the base of a clear common commitment? In other words: what is wrong with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

What astonishes me even more (in the second place) is the fact that in the letter the Jews (clearly monotheistic as well) are completely ignored. Indeed the Shema, the main creed of Israel about the oneness of God is mentioned several times, but only once with a reference to the original text in Deuteronomium 6,4. This creed is mainly cited as a quote from Jesus. I wonder why in the letter Christianity is seen separately from its Jewish roots. Has it to do with the fact that in the Muslim world it is common practice to consider the Jews as the worst enemy of Islam? In my opinion it is impossible for Christians to ignore Jewry in any interreligious dialogue.

My third comment concerns the love for the neighbor. The letter suggests that Islam and Christianity have this in common, which is a popular misunderstanding. The definition of the neighbor in Christianity and Islam is, as it happens, different. In Christianity the neighbor is fundamentally every human being. In Islam the neighbor whom you must love is only the fellow Muslim of the same tradition. Jews and Christians must be submitted, non-believers converted or killed, renegades killed and heretics fought.

My last comment: the letter implies that Allah, as defined in Koran, and the God of the Bible are one and the same, at least that the concept of god in both religions is similar. I do not agree with that. For me as a Christian it is impossible to speak about God without taking in consideration the biblical testimony of Israel and the testimony of the New Testament concerning Jesus Christ. And exactly that is rejected in the letter. The letter seems to be a beginning to dialogue, but is in fact a recall to accept the Islamic, Unitarian, concept of god. It is significant that the title of the letter is a quotation from Koran that has always been interpreted as a call to deny the Trinity and the deity of Christ.

For me the believe that the Name of which the Bible speaks received a face and a clear profile in the person of Jesus Christ is crucial. No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (John 1,18) As a Christian I can find my religious orientation only in this truly Son of Israel, who shows us the way, so that God can happen also here and now. A peace of religions which leaves no space for such ideas seems very frail to me.

Rev. Ynte de Groot