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September 13 2011 09:00 | Rathaus, Großer Sitzungssaal

Islamic-Christian Dialogue: a New Era by Mustafa Cerić

Mustafa Ceric

President of the World Bosniak Congress, Bosnia and Herzegovina

O mankind! We have indeed created you from a male and a female, and made you nations and tribes that you may come to know one another. Truly the noblest of you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing among you. Truly God is Knower, Aware. [49:13]

Muslims, Christians, Jews, wherever we live, we share a common heritage, that is, God’s revealed Word which we are entrusted with, though in different ways, different languages, at different places and different times.

We Muslims believe that the Holy Qur’an is the last and final Word of God revealed and sent down to us. When we say that it is the last and final Word of God, we admit at the same time that it is not the only Word of God, but that there are others, too, others that according to the Holy Qur’an not only precede(d) it, but proclaimed the same message. From the Holy Qur’an we learn:

[4:163] We have revealed to you as We revealed to Noah, and the prophets after him, and We revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac, and Jacob, and the Tribes, and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron, and Solomon, and We gave to David the Inscribed Book.

These preceding others, however, are not declared obsolete, and they are also not invalidated. Right to the contrary, they have meaning for Muslims, too. From a Prophetic Hadith transmitted by Abu Huraira we learn: 

Abu Huraira reported: One day the Messenger of God (may peace be upon him) appeared before the public that a man came to him and said: “Prophet of God, (tell me) what is Iman (faith)?” Upon this he (the Holy Prophet) replied: “That you affirm your faith in God, His angels, His Books, the encounter with Him on the Day of Judgment, His Prophets and that you affirm your faith in the Resurrection hereafter.” 

(al-Bukhārī, al-ğāmi’ as-Sahih, Book. II: k. al-īmān, Nr. 48 and Book. LX: k. tafsīr al-Qur’ān, Nr. 300)

Narrated Abu Huraira: One day while the Prophet was sitting in the company of some people, (The angel) Gabriel came and asked, "What is Iman (faith)?" God’s Messenger replied, “Faith is to believe in God, His angels, His Books, (the) meeting with Him on the Day of Judgment, His Prophets, and to believe in Resurrection." 

 (Muslim, al-ğāmi’ as-Sahih, Book I: k. al-īmān, Nr. 4 and 6)

According to the Qur’an, these Divine Books which we are to affirm faith in comprise: (1) the „Leaves (suhuf) of Abraham“ (Surah 87,18–19) and other Prophets; (2) the „Torah (taurāt) of Moses“ (Surah 2,53; 11,17; 46,12); (3) the „Psalms (zabūr) given to David” (Surah 4,163; 17,55); (4) the „Scripture (al-kitāb) given to John (the Baptist) (Surah 19,12); (5) the „Gospel (inğīl) of Jesus” (e.g. Surah 5,46) und finally (6) the „Arabic Qur’an“, sent down to the Pro¬phet Muhammad (e.g. Surah 12,2). 

It is, thus, the Qur’an and those Scriptures that are otherwise called Bible which we are instructed to believe in. The reason for that is that these other, preceding, Scriptures too are of Divine origin, the revealed Word of God, and as such regarded as light and guidance to people, and the truth they contain is confirmed.

[3:3] He has revealed to you the Book, containing the truth and confirming what was before it, and He revealed the Torah and the Gospel [3:4] before, as guidance to people, and He revealed the Criterion. As for those who disbelieve in God's signs, for them awaits a terrible chastisement; God is Mighty, Lord of Retribution.

Qur’an and Bible are placed in one line that might be described as a chain of unfolding revelations: each subsequent revelation, though superseding its forerunner, confirms at the same time its truth: 

[5:44] Surely We revealed the Torah, wherein is guidance, and light by which the prophets, who had submitted, judged for those of Jewry, as did the rabbis, and the priests, according to that which they were bidden to observe of God's Scripture and were witnesses to. […] [5:46] And We caused Jesus son of Mary to follow in their footsteps, confirming the Torah before him; and We gave to him the Gospel, wherein is guidance and light, confirming the Torah before it, and as a guidance and an admonition to the God-fearing. […] [5:48] And We have revealed to you the Book with the truth confirming the Book that was before it and watching over it. So judge between them, according to what God has revealed, and do not follow their whims away from the truth that has come to you […]. 

Torah, Gospel, and Qur’an – a chain of tradition, a chain of unfolding revelations. According to this concept the Bible has meaning for the Qur’an as the Qur’an gives meaning to the Bible. Therefore, it is not without reason that the Prophet once was instructed, “So, if you are in doubt concerning what We have revealed to you, then question those who read the Scripture before you [i.e. Christians and Jews]. Verily the Truth from your Lord has come to you; so do not be of the waverers. [10:94]”

Qur’an and Bible are interrelated in a similar way Torah and Gospel are. Studying the interrelatedness of Torah and Gospel, a few years ago Rabbi David Novak developed the idea of the unfolding two covenants and suggested to see the Torah as the document of the God’s first covenant and the Gospel as the document of God’s second covenant. In view of this idea of the two following each other covenants I feel encouraged to come up with the idea of a third covenant and understand the Qur’an as document of God’s third and final covenant. 

Common Values

Because of this common heritage, we also share certain values, basic values and derived from them rights, human rights in particular, laid down in the Qur’an and Bible as well. The Bible calls them the Ten Commandments; the Qur’an describes them as the content of the two tablets handed over to Moses (7:144-145; 6:152-154; 17:23-39).

These values include the value of life and respect for its integrity, the value of religion and respect for the differences of its expressions, the value of freedom and respects for its limits, because my freedom ends where the other’s freedom begins, the value of property and the respect for the possessions of others, and the value of human dignity and respect for the otherness of the other.

Though religious in their essence, it is for long that these values and derived from them rights, human rights, have become not only European but universally accepted values and rights. They are European as much as they are universal, and they are universal as much as they are common to all human beings, irrespective of their ethnic belonging, religious commitment, cultural background and / or political orientation. 

Take e.g. the value of life and respect for its integrity. What is more common to all of us than the value of life? You shall not murder, which not only means: you shall not commit holocaust, you shall not commit genocide, you shall not commit ethnic cleansing, but also: you shall not commit suicide-bombing, because killing others by committing suicide does not make you a martyr, but a twofold murderer, a murderer of others as well as a murderer of yourself. 

Or the value of religion and respect for the differences of its expressions. The Qur’an instructs us: “To every one of you, We have appointed a divine law and a way. If God had willed, He would have made you one community, but that He may try you in what He has given to you. So vie with one another in good works; to God you shall all return, and He will then inform you of that in which you differed” (5:48; cf. 5:69). The value of religion and respect for the differences of its expressions is not only our common, European, value, but includes the freedom and the right to choose one’s religion, as the Europeans have had in their history when they encountered many religions that have been arriving at the their continent throughout history – Judaism, Christianity, Islam as well as many other Eastern religions, and we have to be aware of the fact of history that none of the religions that today are regarded Europe’s main religions have originated in Europe. All of them have come from the East. God the Almighty has not sent any Prophet to any of the European peoples.

Common to all of us is the value of freedom, because without freedom our life has no real meaning. Thus, the road from slavery to freedom has been one of the most important journeys in human history. But it is not an absolute, unlimited freedom. When God took the Children of Israel out of the House of bondage, He gave them the Ten Commandments that they may conduct their life accordingly, that is, in accordance with the requirements of the Divine law. The same, when Muhammad and his companions arrived at Madina. The freedom of the individual is limited, because it is the freedom of the other, of my neighbour, that sets the limits to my freedom. 

The right of property and the respect for the possessions of others is not only a means of decent human life that should be asserted as a common value to all human beings, but includes also that communities and states have the right of self-definition with their self-definition being respected by others. 

And finally: the value of human dignity and respect for the otherness of the other(s), irrespective of whether they are males or females, blacks or whites, young or old, Muslims, Christians, Jews, or followers of other religions. Though this value is certainly accepted as a common value, we see, however, the need that it be developed further in many parts of Europe and beyond, especially in terms of the fight against discrimination and denying equal rights to men and women, against xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia etc. 

Common History

Writing in 1751, Voltaire described Europe as “a kind of great republic divided into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed... but all corresponding with one another. They all have the same religious foundation, even if divided into several confessions. They all have the same principles of public law and politics, unknown in other parts of the world.” (Norman Davies, Europe: A History, Pimlico, London, 1997, 7). 

And in his attempt to demonstrate the unity of European culture, T.S. Eliot claimed writing in 1946: “The dominant feature in creating a common culture between peoples, each of which has its own distinct culture, is religion... I am talking about the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is, and about the common cultural elements which this common Christianity has brought with it... It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe – until recently – have been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true; and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all ... depend on (the Christian heritage) for its meaning. Only a Christian culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith” (Ibid, 9) 

An unbiased look into European history, however, proves the opposite. Thus, in regard to the relationship of Europe with other cultures and religions, Hugh Seton-Watson had more inclusive approach when he wrote in 1985: “The interweaving of the notions of Europe and of Christendom is a fact of History which even the most brilliant sophistry cannot undo... But it is no less true that here are strands in European culture that are not Christian: The Roman, the Hellenic, arguably the Persian, and (in modern centuries) the Jewish.” (Ibid, 15). Only with regard to Islam Hugh Seton-Watson had doubts saying: “Whether there is also a Muslim strand is more difficult to say.” (Ibid, 15).

Wolf Lepenies goes a step further, when in his Frankfurt Peace-Price speech on October 8, 2006, he spoke about “the historic insight that the West [i.e. Europe] and the Islamic world were, and still are, closely intertwined”, adding that Europe has its roots not only in Jewish-Christian heritage and ancient Greco-Roman culture, as often claimed, but has been shaped no less discernibly, and equally lastingly, by the Islamic civilization. 

And more than that. In his History of Europe (300-1400 CE), Michael Borgolte convincingly proved that Europe, when taking it as a whole, never was purely “Christian”. From the beginning of Muslim invasion in Spain in the early 8th c. onwards, there were always Muslims living in Europe, if not in the West, then in the East and / or South East. Since long before Central and Eastern Europe were Christianized in the 13th/14th c. Muslims from Central Asia had immigrated into these areas invited by kings and dukes and settled in what is now Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine, followed shortly after by Muslims advancing into the Balkans. Indeed, in a number of European countries, in Bosnia, Lithuania, Poland, Muslims have been present not only for centuries, but are there and constitute an integral part of the history, past and present of those countries and their societies. Even in this country, Muslims are in some way not really newcomers. As you may know, the first Muslim community in Germany was established already in 1731/2, and the oldest Muslim cemetery in Berlin dates back to the year 1788. So, it is for long that Muslims proved their “Europeanness”.

It is, however, not only the physical presence of Muslim that should be taken into consideration in this context; it is also the spiritual and cultural imprint which Islam and Muslims left on Europe.

Even though Sylvain Guggenheim wrote in his book Aristotle on Mount St. Michel (recently translated also into German) that the Europeans had no need for what-so-ever Arab-Muslim mediation in the transmission of ancient Greek knowledge to develop their own culture, as often claimed, because they always were able to study the ancient texts in their original languages, it cannot, and should not, be overlooked that hundreds of ancient Greek and sometimes Latin texts were known in Europe thanks to their Arabic translation from which they were translated into Latin and other European languages, copied and later on printed, some of them, many times, and thus contributed to the development of European culture. Wolf Lepenies is certainly right when he says that Arab-Muslim civilization and intellectual heritage too served as a source of inspiration for the renaissance no less than for the enlightenment.

Next year, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the promulgation of the “Law concerning the recognition of the Followers of Islam according to the Hanafi School as Religionsgesellschaft (Religious Community)”, adopted on July 15th, 2012, by the Austro-Hungarian Reichsrat. Like the Charter (Privilegium) issued by the Lithuanian Grand Duke in 1397 granting the Muslims in Eastern Europe equal rights and the freedom of practicing their religion (building mosques included), the 1912 law granted the Muslim community in the Austro-Hungarian Empire equal rights with the Christian Churches. It is here certainly not the time and place to go into further details, we should notice, however, that this recognition had also a strong impact on the Muslims living under Austro-Hungarian rule, as has been explained by my colleague Prof. Karčić in his book “Bosniaks and the Challenge of Modernity”.One of the outcomes of this encounter with “Austro-Hungarian modernity” is the founding of an Islamic theological faculty nowadays affiliated to the University of Sarajevo, proving that Islamic theology too can be studied and taught in an European academic context, using the same methodologies and measures. The recent Tübingen inititaive for Zentrum für islamische Theologie has demonstrated that the academic spirit of Freiheit für Lehren und Lernen at Tübingen is well alive. Naturaly, the Tübingen University is one of the oldest universities in Germany and one out of fifty oldest universities in Europe. Furthermore, Tübingen is the place where great German minds and spirits such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (d. 1831) and His Holiness  the Pope Benedict XVI, as well as professor Hans Küng have left their intellectual, spiritual and  academic legacy for humanity. I am glad that the Islamic faculty of Sarajevo has been invited to be the part of this unique process of Islamic academic study in Germany that will for sure be a model for Europe, that will certainly open new perspectives in the Muslim-Christian relation and that will undoubtedly provide the opportunity for young generation to build a new Europe based on the Westphalia tradition and beyond.  

Common Tasks

Irrespective of the debate, which sounds to me somehow artificial, whether “Islam belongs to Germany” or not, Muslims are here and will stay here, like in any other European country, too. That means, as in the past, Muslims have, and will have, their part to play in the shaping of the future of Europe as well. In other words: The future of Europe will be the outcome of joint, Muslim / non-Muslim efforts. To quote Wolf Lepenies once again: Not a rather “naïve and wishful ‘coalition of civilizations’ is the alternative to the irresponsible construct of a “clash of civilizations”, but the awareness of the common history and the lessons drawn from it. Or, as Aimé Césaire, the famous Martiniquan poet, once put it: “The shortest way into the future is contemplating the past”.

The increasing ethnic, religious, cultural diversification of our societies (due to migrations for whatever reason) requires from all their members an increased inter-cultural, inter-religious competence that is essential to peaceful coexistence, and living together. This competence is not for nothing, but is to, and can, be learned – through dialogue, but through a dialogue that can be described as cross-cultural learning and inter-religious encounter of people who are, and remain, faithful to their respective religious and cultural traditions, but share the respect for the identity of the others, a dialogue that takes the differences serious, but does not make different religious commitment, different cultural backgrounds, and / or different political orientation an obstacle to inter-cultural, inter-religious understanding. 

And do not dispute with the People of the Scripture unless it be with that, bettering the most virtuous way, except [in the case of] those of them who have done wrong; and say: ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. Our God and your God is one [and the same], and to Him we submit’. [29:46]


Munich  2011

of H.H. Pope
Benedict XVI

09.11 - Destined to live together: New York - München
Destined to Live Together
Semptember 11, 2001
Link New York-München 

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