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MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN DIALOGUE. Intentional, structured encounters between Muslims and Christians are generally termed “Muslim-Christian dialogue.” Interfaith dialogue is a conversation in which two or more parties seek to express their views accurately and to listen respectfully to their counterparts. During the second half of the twentieth century, organized dialogue meetings have proliferated at the local, regional, and international levels. The meetings vary significantly in their organization, focus, and venue, as well as in the composition of participants.

Several motives have propelled the dialogue movement. These include desires to foster understanding, to stimulate communication, to correct stereotypes, to work on specific problems of mutual concern, to explore similarities and differences, and to facilitate means of witness and cooperation. The pragmatic need for better understanding and cooperation among adherents in the world’s two largest communities of faith-Christianity and Islam-is particularly acute. Together Christians and Muslims comprise approximately half the world’s population, so the way in which they relate is bound to have profound consequences for both communities and for the world.

The dynamics of interfaith encounter between Muslims and Hindus, Muslims and Jews, or Muslims and Christians are distinctly different. Their historic relationships as well as their major theological, social, and political concerns vary markedly. Contemporary initiatives in Muslim-Christian dialogue can be understood best when seen in the larger context, which can be established by a brief overview of dominant themes in Muslim-Christian encounter.

Historical Background. Muslim-Christian dialogical encounter dates to the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Rooted in the monotheistic tradition of the patriarch Abraham, Muslims and Christians share a common heritage. For more than fourteen centuries these communities of faith have been linked both by their theological understandings and by living in close proximity. The history of Muslim-Christian interaction includes periods of great tension, hostility, and open war as well as times of uneasy toleration, peaceful coexistence, and cooperation to achieve shared goals.

Islamic self-understanding incorporates an awareness of and direct link with the biblical tradition. Muhammad, his companions, and subsequent generations of Muslims have been guided by the Qur’an, which they have understood as a continuation and completion of God’s revelations to humankind. The Qur’an speaks of many prophets (nabi; pl., anbiya’) and messengers (rasul; pl., rusul) who functioned as agents of God’s revelation. Particular emphasis is laid on the revelations through Moses (the Torah) and Jesus (the Gospel) and their respective communities of faith or people of the book (ahl al-kitab). [See People of the Book.]

The Qur’an includes positive affirmations for the people of the book, including the promise that Jews and Christians who have faith, trust in God and the Last Day, and do what is righteous “shall have their reward”

(2.62 and 5.69). The different religious communities are explained as a part of God’s plan; if God had so willed, the Qur’an asserts, humankind would be one community. Diversity among the communities provides a test for people of faith: “Compete with one another in good works. To God you shall all return and He will tell you (the truth) about that which you have been disputing” (5.48).

The Qur’an makes clear that “there shall be no compulsion in religious matters” (2.256). Peaceful coexistence is affirmed (106.1-6). At the same time, the people of the book are urged to “come to a common word” on the understanding of the unity of God (tawhid) and proper worship (e.g., 3.64, 4.171, 5.82, and 29:46) Christians, in particular, are chided for having distorted the revelation of God. Traditional Christian doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity are depicted as compromising the unity and transcendence of God (e.g., 5.72-75, 5-117, and 112.3) There are also verses urging Muslims to fight those who have been given a book but “practice not the religion of truth” (9.29).

While the Qur’an provides a framework for Muslims’ understanding of Christians and Christianity, particular political, economic, and social considerations have shaped the encounter in each setting. Christians living under Islamic rule normally were treated as “protected peoples” (dhimmi); the practical implications of dhimmi status fluctuated from time to time and from place to place. Even in the best of circumstances, however, it was difficult for Christians and Muslims to engage one another as equals in dialogue. [See Dhimmi.]

With few exceptions, most Islamic literature focused on Christianity has been framed in the language of polemics. The writings of the celebrated fourteenth-century Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328) illustrate the point. In his book Al-yawab al-sahih li-man baddala din al-Masih (The Correct Answer to Those Who Changed the Religion of Christ), Ibn Taymiyah catalogs the major theological and philosophical points of contention between Muslims and Christians: altering the divine revelation, propagating errant doctine, and grievous mistakes in religious practices.

The advent of Islam presented major challenges to Christians. In the short space of a century, Islam transformed the character and culture of many lands from northern India to Spain, disrupted the unity of the Mediterranean world, and displaced the axis of Christendom to the north. Islam challenged Christian assumptions. Not only were the Muslims successful in their military and political expansion, their religion presented a puzzling and threatening new intellectual position.

John of Damascus (d. c.750) provided the first coherent treatment of Islam. His encounter with Muslims in the Umayyad administrative and military center of Damascus led him to regard Islam not as an alien tradition but as a Christian heresy. Subsequent Christian writers, particularly those not living among Muslims, were even harsher. Most tended to focus on malicious and absurd distortions of the basic tenets of Islam and the character of Muhammad. This trend is especially evident in Europe following the Crusades.

The Crusades, launched at the end of the eleventh century ( 1906), cast a long shadow for many centuries. In the midst of their stories of chivalry and fighting for holy causes, medieval writers painted a picture of Islam as a vile religion inspired by the Devil or Antichrist. The prevailing sentiment in Europe is illustrated in Dante’s Inferno, where a mutilated Muhammad is depicted languishing in the depths of Hell because he was “a fomenter of discord and schism.”

There were a few more positive voices among medieval Christians. St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), who visited the sultan of Egypt in the midst of the Crusades, instructed his brothers to live among Muslims in peace, avoiding quarrels and disputes. Deep animosity toward Islam was pervasive, however. Martin Luther (d. 1546) wrote several treatises attacking Islam, the Qur’an, and Muhammad, motivated in part by the threat of Ottoman Turks advancing on Europe. Luther reflected the longstanding view that Islam as a post-Christian religion was false by definition.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Several developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries set the stage for contemporary Muslim-Christian dialogue. First, constantly improving means of transportation and communication facilitated international commerce and unprecedented levels of migration. Second, the academic study of religion propelled scholars to gather a wealth of information on the world’s various religious practices and belief systems. Although Western studies of Islam and other religious traditions in the East tended to be far from objective, significant changes have occurred. With more accurate information in hand, many non-Muslim scholars concluded that Muhammad was sincere and devout, challenging the prevailing Western view of Muhammad as a shrewd and sinister charlatan. Similarly, the scope and reliability of information on Christianity has broadened the horizons of many Muslim scholars during the past century. [See Islamic Studies, article on History of the Field; Orientalism.]

A third major factor contributing to the new context arose from the modern missionary movement among Western Christians. The experience of personal contact with Muslims (and other people of faith) led many missionaries to reassess their presuppositions. Participants in the three twentieth-century world missionary conferences (Edinburgh in igio, Jerusalem in 1928, and Tambaram in 1938) wrestled with questions of witness and service in the midst of religious diversity. These conferences not only stimulated debate, they also paved the way for later ecumenical efforts at interfaith understanding under the auspices of the World Council of Churches or WCC, founded in 1948.

Dialogue Movement. The dialogue movement began during the 1950s when the WCC and the Vatican organized a number of meetings and consultations between Christian leaders and representatives of other religious traditions. These initial efforts resulted in the formation of new institutional structures. In 1964 Pope Paul VI established a Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions to study religious traditions, provide resources, and promote interreligious dialogue through education and by facilitating efforts by Catholics at the local level. In 1989 the Secretariat was reorganized and renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

The WCC established its program subunit for Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies (DFI) in 1971. As with the Vatican, Muslim-Christian relations were a primary focus from the outset. The DFI concentrated on organizing large international and smaller regional meetings, providing educational materials, working with the more than three hundred WCC member churches, and facilitating Christian theological reflection on religious pluralism. The WCC and the Vatican publish books, articles, reports, working papers, and reviews by both Christians and Muslims.

By the 1980s and 1990s, many other regional and international bodies had participated in or developed their own formal and informal programs for dialogue between Muslims and Christians. The Muslim World League, the World Muslim Congress, and the Middle East Council of Churches are among the organizations active in this process.

At the local level, hundreds of interfaith organizations have organized or taken part in Muslim-Christian dialogue programs. These programs are difficult to characterize because they vary substantially, even within a given setting. Detailed information and analyses of activities in specific countries and organizations is accessible through the periodical resources listed in the bibliography; the following examples illustrate the breadth of activity.

In India and the Philippines, Christian institutions study Islam, and Christians and Muslims have pursued dialogue programs for many years. Over the decades these academic programs have stimulated particular initiatives by churches and Muslim organizations.

The Muslim community in Great Britain numbers approximately two million. The large influx of Muslims since 1950 has led to the creation of numerous local and national Islamic organizations, many of which are engaged with their Christian counterparts in local churches or through programs of the British Council of Churches. Focal concerns range from local education and health care to Middle East peacemaking.

Diverse groups of Muslims and Christians have lived together in the area of Mt. Lebanon for more than a millennium. The unique history and political structures of Lebanon were central factors in the multisided civil war that plagued the country from 1975 to 1992. In the midst of the strife, religious and political leaders, scholars and neighbors continued to meet, exchange views, and even negotiate ceasefire agreements across confessional lines.

Muslim-Christian dialogue programs can be found throughout North America, in Nigeria, Indonesia, Tunisia, France, Tanzania, and elsewhere. While the nature of the encounter differs from place to place and over time, most organized efforts fall within the scope of one or more identifiable types of dialogue. Meeting together on equal footing in order to improve understanding is a worthwhile goal. As the interfaith dialogue movement developed, however, organizers and participants have developed several distinctive, yet interrelated modes.

“Parliamentary dialogue” is the term used for the large assemblies convened for interfaith discussion. The earliest example was the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Such gatherings became more frequent in the 1980s and 1990s under the auspices of multifaith organizations such as the World Conference on Religion and Peace and the World Congress of Faiths. These sessions of several hundred participants tend to focus on better cooperation among religious groups and the challenges of peace for people of faith.

“Institutional dialogue” refers to the organized efforts to initiate and facilitate various kinds of dialogue meetings. In addition to the immediate focus, this approach also seeks to establish and nurture communication between institutional representatives of religious organizations. Institutional dialogue encompasses much of the work carried out through the Vatican and the WCC, with numerous variations at the local level.

“Theological dialogue” includes structured meetings in which theological and philosophical issues are the primary focus of discussion. Muslims and Christians, for example, may concentrate on their respective understandings of God, Jesus, the nature of revelation, human responsibility in society, and so forth. Theological dialogue can also refer to the wider discussion of the meaning of one’s own religious tradition in the context of religious pluralism. Here, as with most other types of dialogue involving several participants, the dialogue occurs both within and between Muslims and Christians.

“Dialogue in community” and “the dialogue of life” are inclusive categories concentrating on practical issues of common concern-for example, the proper relationship between religion and the state, the rights of religious minorities, issues arising from interreligious marriage, appropriate approaches to mission and witness, or religious values and public education. Frequently this type of dialogue is designed to encourage common action. Another important function of dialogue focused on life in community is difficult to measure: organizers often express the hope that it will stimulate more intentional and informal interaction between Muslim and Christian neighbors in daily life.

“Spiritual dialogue” is concerned with developing, nourishing, and deepening spiritual life through interfaith encounter. Here too there is considerable latitude for exploration. The least threatening approach might include observing the worship of others or sharing perspectives on the meaning of fasting or prayer for Muslims and Christians. A more radical approach might include participation in joint worship experiences.

Obstacles. The organized dialogue movement represents a new chapter in the long history of relations between Muslims and Christians. Intentional efforts to understand and cooperate with one another are a hopeful sign, particularly for religious communities whose interaction frequently has been characterized by mistrust, misunderstanding, and mutual antipathy. Muslims and Christians who advocate and engage in dialogue still face many obstacles. Many Muslims are wary of the entire enterprise owing both to the long history of enmity and the more recent experiences of colonialism. Contemporary political machinations involving the United States or other major Western powers also create problems for many would be Muslim participants. Still other Muslims suspect that dialogue is a new guise for Christian missionary activity.

Although the primary impetus for organized dialogue originated largely with Christians and church-related bodies, many conceptual and theological obstacles remain. Some Christians argue that dialogue weakens or undermines Christian mission and witness. For many, the perception of Islam as inherently threatening is deeply ingrained; they are unwilling or unable to move beyond stereotypes or to distinguish between sympathetic and hostile counterparts in the other community.

The newness of dialogue and the absence of conceptual clarity has required a good deal of experimentation. Questions about planning, organization, representation, and topics require thoughtful consideration and careful collaboration. Through trial and error, advocates of interfaith dialogue in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America have continued to refine the process. Many local, regional, and international dialogue groups have developed and published guidelines to address common concerns and avoid pitfalls.

[See also Christianity and Islam; Muslim-Jewish Dialogue.]


Brown, Stuart E., comp. Meeting in Faith: Twenty Years of ChristianMuslim Conversations Sponsored by the World Council of Churches. Geneva, 1989.

Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Research Papers. Birmingham, ca. 1975- Series sponsored by the Centre, and a primary source for contemporary research and reflection. Other Centre publications focus on Europe and Africa. Cragg, Kenneth. The Call of the Minaret (1956). 2d rev. ed. New York, 1985. Pivotal book challenging Christians to take Islam seriously and on its own terms.

Current Dialogue. Geneva, 198o-. Publication by the World Council of Churches, featuring articles, reports, reviews, and bibliographies.

Encounter: Documents for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Rome, 1965-. Publication of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Ibn Taymiyah, Ahmad. A Muslim Theologian’s Response to Christianity. Edited and translated by Thomas Michel. New York, 1984. Islamochristiana. Rome, 1975- Scholarly annual journal produced by the Pontifico Instituto di Study Arabi e d’Islarnistica. Articles, notices, and reviews are in English, French , and Arabic.

Kimball, Charles A. Striving Together: A Way Forward in ChristianMuslim Relations. New York, 199i. Brief, accessible introduction to major obstacles and opportunities in dialogue.

The Muslim World. Hartford, Conn., 1911- Indispensable quarterly journal devoted to the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations past and present.

Rousseau, Richard W. Christianity and Islam: The Struggling Dialogue. Scranton, Pa., 1985. Collection of twelve major articles and reports by Christian participants in dialogue.

Southern, Richard W. Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Mass., 1962. Highly readable survey by a noted historian.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Christian-Muslim Encounters. London and New York, 1991. Contemporary reflections by a prominent scholar.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/muslim-christian-dialogue/

  • writerPosted On: October 1, 2014
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