Contextualizing the Common Word—Dialogue or Conflict?


[This is the thirteenth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on approaching the Qur’an and Sunnah held in Herndon, VA. These notes are raw material for an edited report I will write on the conference later and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. The Minaret of Freedom Institute thanks IIIT for the grant that makes the publication of these notes possible. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone.]

Session 13. Moderator: Aisha Musa
Paper Presentation by Sami Catovic
“Contextualizing the Common Word—Dialogue or Conflict?”

The controversy over the Pope’s comments at Regensburg led to the issuance of the “Common Word” initiative, but are the verses behind the initiative really appropriate for an invitation to an interfaith dialog? The Pope’s comments had been historically criticized on four grounds: that the verse “No compulsion in religion” was not a Meccan verse, made when the Muslims were weak, as the Pope had claimed, but a Medinan verse made when the Muslims were ascendant; the Pope’s selection of the literalist Ibn Hazm to typify the Islamic view on reason was unreasonable since he is a “respected but marginal figure in Islamic thought” compared to, say, al-Ghazali; interpreting jihad to mean spreading the religion by the sword is not part of the Islamic discourse; when war is justified, it is subject to strict conditions and limitations.

The verses cited in the call to the common word appear to have been revealed in the context of the visit to the Prophet of a Christian delegation from Najran. The Christians attempted to persuade the Prophet of the divinity of Jesus. The Prophet didn’t respond, but awaited the revelation, which called for a mubâhala (3:61), which the Christians declined. The histories differ as to whether they decline because they know that Muhammad is a Prophet, because they deny he is a Prophet and fear his political authority, or because they are uncertain and reason that participation will lead to bad consequences for them either way. The positioning of the common word verse after the verse of mubâhala is problematic as understood by Ibn Ishak for it appears to be more a verse of confrontation and debate than of interfaith dialogue. Muhammad Ghazali saw the Christians’ refusal to engage in mubâhala as the source of subsequent Christian-Muslim hostility. Fakhruddin ar-Razi sees the incident as a progression that begins with debate on the merits, turns to a challenge of sincerity, and ends with “a just approach” that turns “away from binding arguments and proofs.” Other commentators attempt to separate the common word verse from the Najran context, noting that the language applies to both Christian and Jews.  The “common word” document seeks mutual understanding and love rather than confrontation. The Najran meeting was a political meeting that evolved into a religious debate. Only if we divorce the common word verse from the Najran incident can it be used as a basis for interfaith dialog.

Discussant 1: Louay Safi

I like the effort to understand the verse in line with other verses, and the paper provides a good background. When we talk about asbâb an-nazûl, it helps us to understand the circumstances of revelation but it should not limit us to those circumstances. Why stop at the context of mubâhala, we should consider all verses relevant to this issue. I read the common word slightly differently. For me it establishes a principle that doctrinal differences need not be a source for hostility and aggression. The verse calls for establishing a peace based on freedom, and an openness to resolve doctrinal differences through dialogue, debate, and expression of differences.

Discussant 2: Imad ad Dean Ahmed

I appreciate this paper because demonstrates how we can use a proper methodology to understand and apply the Qur’an. … I am especially impressed by ar-Razi’s three phases analysis. It harmonizes what on the surface seem to be three different approaches (argumentative, confrontational, and respectful coexistence) into a logical progression that that defuses the proslytization of the Christians. I think that the progression is helpful to bear in mind when we consider purpose of interfaith dialog. We may come to it seeking to convert or confront the interlocutors, but instead of progressing through phases of argumentation and confrontation to end up at the common word, we could go through understanding our differences, accepting our sincerity, and moving forward on our common base.

Response by Sami Catovic

I didn’t intend the paper to be a guidebook to inter-religious dialog.  I only wanted to ask how pertinent it was to select these verses as the basis for inter-religious dialog. The occasions of revelation must be looked at, though I agree they should not control. I also agree with the intention of the verse. The Imad-ad-Dean’s reading of ar-Razi is interesting and I think it allows the principle behind the challenge of mubâhala to live on.

Imtiyaz Yusuf: I teach at a Catholic school and whenever they talk about the Regensburg speech they note that Muslims mistook the speech, which was about reason and not about Islam.

Catovic: The initial letter to the Pope did argue the role of reason in Islam, although I admit the initial Muslim response may have been unreasonable.

Ayoub: The Pope’s speech would have stood on its own without the reference to Islam. He has articulated his hatred for Muslims elsewhere, like his correspondence with an Italian priest. According to some commentators, the first 80 verses of surat-Imran were revealed about the Najran incident, but I think this is an exaggeration. The word sawâ was interpreted by some commentators to mean “just” or “of equal significance.”  The Prophet allowed the Christians to pray in the Prophet’s mosque over the objections of some of his companions. The Qur’an states that all the places where God’s name is mentioned are permissible places of prayer. Umar would not pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher only because he did not want to provide Muslims with an excuse to convert it into a mosque.

Catovic: I think Najran is a problem taken as a whole because it was a debate that ended in subjugation.

Ayoub: No. It was a peace delegation. When the Prophet challenged them with the mubâhala they declined, I think not for the reasons given by the commentators, but because they saw no good purpose to be served.

Barzinji: But why would they decline unless they had at least a scintilla of doubt about their views?

Ahmad: I think that Allah intended the mubâhala to be declined; that it was a rhetorical challenge.

Ayoub: No. It was the Prophet who started the debate.

Ahmad: The paper suggests otherwise.

Catovic: I am not certain.

Barzinji: In any case, the curse is only on those who lie; why would they fear this? Why is mubâhala not a last resort in cases of mula`ina or muqasilla?

Catovic: It is a plea to people’s tawhîd, I don’t think it was meant to be accepted.

Ahmad: It is a violation of Christian protocol to pray to curse someone. The reference to Islam in Pope’s letter was gratuitous; the target of the Pope’s speech was the Franciscans.

Ayoub: The Christians of Najran were not the only delegation to come. Ilâf al Quaraysh refers to the alliances the Quraysh made with tribes along the trade routes to assure their safety. When the Prophet was not decisively defeated at Uhud the tribes came to negotiate with the Prophet. The Christians, because of their sense of superiority over the other tribes, came in fancy clothes, but the Prophet would not meet with them. There was no sense of hostility. The Christians say we are Muslims, but they “worship the cross and eat pig meat.” The hadith say on his return Jesus will break the cross and kill the swine, but this is symbolic. It is put in the mouth of the wisest of the delegation to say do not accept this.

Catovic: My whole point is that our position is different from that of the Prophet and Najran is distinct from our position today.

Ayoub: But there is much to learn from it.

Safi: I think the Prophet was not above engaging in inter-religious dialog. As to the return of Christ, the Qur’an makes no mention of it although some ahad hadith mention it.

Catovic: Of course the Prophet was interested in dialog, but it is different for him because he is a prophet.

Hisham Altalib: It seems to me that the purpose of the delegation is to seek peace. If you look at the history of the St. Katherine’s monastery in Egypt, the Prophet granted them inalienable rights to the end of time. They are not required to alter their beliefs or make any payments; it is a document of rights without duties, freedom of religion, work and person, etc.

Catovic: Ibn Kathir has a similar letter to the bishops in the context of the Najran event.

Ahmad: There is also the Ottoman sultan’s invitation to the Jews of Spain. Are you saying that all the hadith about the return of Jesus are ahad?

Catovic: Yes, but ahad doesn’t mean a single source, only that it is not mutawattar.

Ayoub: Qur’an says Jesus will be a sign of the end, which is interpreted to mean he will return at the end of time. Ahad does not include all non-mutawattar hadith; it means a chain that goes back through a single source. Khabar al wahid.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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