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Book reviews >

Shared practices and values

Simon Ross Valentine finds hope in focusing on what two faiths have in common

A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on loving God and neighbour
Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad and Melissa Yarrington, editors

Eerdmans £6.99
(978-0-8028-6380-5)
Church Times Bookshop £6.30

RELATIONS between Islam and Christianity stand as one of the main challenges of the 21st century. In an attempt to defuse tension, and establish co-operation and trust between the two faiths, there have been various interfaith strategies, chief among which is the “A Common Word” initiative.

In October 2007, a group of Muslim scholars — including a dozen grand muftis, an ayatollah, and a Jordanian prince — signed a letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You”, affirming that the two great commandments of Jesus (namely, to love God and to love one’s neighbour) were affirmed by the Prophet Muhammad, thereby forming the most basic attitudes, values, and practices that Christians and Muslims share.

Various writers from different Christian traditions responded to this Muslim initiative by signing another letter, “Loving God and Neighbour Together: A Christian response to ‘A Common Word Between Us and You’”, which, although recognising the differences between the two faiths, indicated a willingness to enter discussions towards establishing peace and understanding.

Challenging and stimulating, this book, which has a foreword by Tony Blair, presents the content of the two letters, and some of the papers delivered and discussed at the “A Common Word” Conference, held at Yale University in July 2008. Well known and respected Muslim authors, such as S. H. Nasr, Reza Shah-Kazemi, and the popular Yemeni spiritual teacher Sheikh Habib Ali al-Jifri, discuss the idea of love and mutual respect, in the Qur’an and Hadith (traditions).

Christian writers, including Harvey Cox, David Burrell, and Miroslav Volf, respond with similar analyses of “love in practice” in the Bible. The book concludes with a speech given by Senator John Kerry describing the part played by interfaith dialogue in global peacemaking efforts.

Among other things, the book reminds us how, in a world of growing globalisation, and ever-increasing interdependence among peoples of different nations and faiths, there is an obvious need for respect and understanding. It emphasises that interfaith dialogue means not denying differences — and there are fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity — but understanding each other accurately, and, when necessary, agreeing to disagree, in love.

I read A Common Word with hope for the future, in the belief that Christians and Muslims can live in peace with one another without compromising their own identities or disrespecting others’. This book is essential reading for everyone interested in building bridges, not only with Muslims, but also with followers of all the other world faiths.

Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a writer on Islam, and serves as a Methodist local preacher.

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