RESPONSE TO OPEN LETTER AND CALL FROM MUSLIM RELIGIOUS LEADERS TO CHRISTIAN LEADERS, 13 OCTOBER 2007
To mark the end of Ramadan this year "An Open Letter and Call from Muslim Religious Leaders" was published, dated 13th
October 2007. The letter was addressed to Pope Benedict XVI and 26
other named heads of Christian denominations as well as to "Leaders of
Christian Churches, everywhere…." It is ostensibly a presentation of
Islamic teaching on love for God and love for one`s neighbour. (The
text of the open letter is available at [link])
The letter was organised by the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for
Islamic Thought, a non-governmental organisation based in Amman,
Jordan, supported by the Jordanian Royal House. It has been trying to
forge a united scholarly Muslim leadership that could speak for the
whole global Muslim community and become the international voice of
Following a year after a letter to the Pope signed by 38 Muslim
signatories (October 2006), the "Open Letter and Call" seems to signal
some urgency. Does it indicate a fear that the West is finally
awakening to the reality of Islamic intentions and therefore needs to
be lulled, even anesthetised, to the prospects of deliberate Islamic
expansion into the West? Or does it indicate a growing Muslim
confidence and self-awareness of Islamic power, the letter itself being
part of a strategy of Islamisation of the "Christian" world?
Furthermore, did the lack of response by Pope Benedict to the letter
from 38 Muslims prompt the new letter with 100 more names at the end?
A wide spread of Muslim leadership is represented amongst the 138
signatories, drawn from 43 nations and representing various Sunni,
Twelver Shi`a, Zaydi, Ibadi and Sufi constituencies. There are
traditionalists, Islamists and several liberal Muslims. Some of the
signatories are Muslim leaders well known for their moderation and
peaceful intentions. Among them are Professor Akbar Ahmed, Dr Alan
Godlas, Hamza Yusuf Hanson and Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
However, the list also includes some figures known for their
Islamist extremist inclinations who are Wahhabists, members of the
Muslim Brotherhood, or Deobandis. There are, for example, the various
Saudi Wahhabi dignitaries: Mohammed Salim Al-`Awa (Muslim Brotherhood
Egypt); Salim Falahat the Director General of the Muslim Brotherhood in
Jordan; Ikrima Said Sabri Imam of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem; and
Muhammad Taqi Usmani (Deoband). Some of these are on record as making
radical and aggressive statements against Christians and Jews and in
favour of global jihad.
While addressed to a specific group of Christian leaders, the fact
that it is an open letter widely disseminated by the world media means
that world public opinion is another intended audience. Furthermore,
certain terminology in the letter, as well as the choice of Qur`anic
quotations cited, suggest that the letter is also intended for the
global Muslim audience. It is not unusual in Islamic discourse for
different messages to be delivered to the different audiences. This is
permitted by the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya (dissimulation)
which allows Muslims to practise deception in certain circumstances. It
appears that the Christian vocabulary of the letter is intended to
guide Christian readers to the erroneous conclusion that Islam and
Christianity are basically identical religions, focusing on love to God
and to the neighbour. The hidden messages for Muslims are contained in
the many polemical quotations from the Qur`an.
Another example of the apparent use of taqiyya is the fact
that some of the words in the Arabic version of the letter differ in
meaning from those in the English version. For example, the word used
for "neighbour" in the Arabic version of the letter is jar, a term which carries only a geographical meaning. It is not equivalent to the Biblical Hebrew word for neighbour, which is re`a
(denoting kinship, even as close as a brother or sister). Yet there is
another word for "neighbour" in Arabic which is closer to the meaning
of the Hebrew re`a and which could have been used. This is the word qarib,
which is used in Arabic Bibles and which more closely translates the
Biblical original. It is also worth noting that Jesus Christ is not
given the name used by Arabic Christians (Yasu` al-Masih), but the
Islamic version (`Isa al-Masih).
The letter looks at the world as if comprised only of Islam,
Christianity and Judaism. There is no mention of other world religions
like Hinduism, Buddhism etc., or indeed of secular and agnostic or
atheist people in the world. This may reflect the traditional Islamic
classification of non-Muslims into Jews and Christians on the one hand,
and "infidels" or "pagans" on the other hand. While Jews and Christians
are seen in Islam as worthy of a place in an Islamic society, albeit
with a second-class status, infidels are not considered to have any
place at all (indeed, according to classical Islam, they should be
killed if they will not convert to Islam). This is perhaps why
"infidels" have been marginalised in this letter.
Of course a basic fallacy of this letter is the view that Western
states are basically Christian and that, when pursuing their national
interests, religious Christian motivations are foremost in their minds.
This is a very common Muslim misconception, and is an indication of how
much more important their faith is to an "average" Muslim than to an
Reading between the lines
On the surface the letter looks like a well intentioned and urgent
plea for a better understanding between Muslims and Christians, so as
to avert an apocalyptic war between the two largest religious blocs in
If Muslims and
Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace . . . the
very survival of the world itself is at stake . . . So let our
differences not cause hatred and strife between us.
However, the letter goes on to lay the blame for all wars in which
Muslims and Christians are involved on the actions of Christians.
As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them - so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes. [emphasis added]
This implies that the war against Islamist terrorism is a global war
of Christianity against Islam, and that Christianity is the aggressor
against Islam (which is the radical Islamist view). There is no sense
of sorrow or remorse for the wrongs inflicted by Muslims on Christians
historically, or indeed currently in many Muslim lands. There is no
recognition that in many places things may be the opposite, with
Muslims oppressing Christians and driving them from their homes (e.g.
in Iraq, Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan). There is no mention
of the Christian communities in Muslim lands suffering other kinds of
persecution and discrimination. There is no admission that Muslim
actions could have played any part in the alienation between Muslims
The liberal Muslim leaders who signed the letter seem to have agreed
with the Islamist argument which accuses all Christians of a tendency
to animosity, hatred and aggressiveness towards Muslims. So an
apparently moderate appeal for reconciliation actually contains a
subtext of warning and threat: "Do as we say, and you can have peace on
our terms." This in fact is the normal meaning of peace in Islam -
peace for those who submit to Islamic rule (and war for those who do
Classical Islam teaches that the world is divided into two parts:
Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) where political power is in the hands
of Muslims, and Dar al-Harb (the House of War) which is the rest of the
world. With this in mind, the "Open Letter and Call" is seen to be
reminiscent of the traditional Islamic approach to non-Muslims outside
the House of Islam. This approach consisted of a "call to Islam" (i.e.
a call to convert to Islam) including the threat that if the
non-Muslims do not convert they will be subject to a destructive
military attack (jihad) aimed at subjugating Jews and
Christians, and annihilating other non-Muslims. Hence the name "House
of War" for non-Islamic territory. Only if the non-Muslims embrace
Islam or submit to Islamic political power can they avert the attack.
In the light of this tradition, the 2007 Muslim warning to non-Muslims
about how to avoid war can be read in a very different way. Do some of
the Muslim signatories see it as the traditional call and warning
before an imminent attack on non-Muslims, an attack intended to win
Islamic supremacy? The very word "call" in the title of the document
drops a large hint in this direction, at least to Muslim readers.
Expression of Islamic mission (da`wa)
Although presented as interfaith dialogue, the letter can equally be viewed as a classical example of Islamic da`wa (mission). It is a call to accept the Muslim concept of the unity of God (tawhid) and therefore to reject the incompatible Christian views of the Trinity and the deity of Christ.
In their stress on monotheism and the unity of God, the Muslim
leaders quote a number of verses from the Qur`an which express the
Muslim concept of a God with no associates and no partners - verses
which have always traditionally been interpreted as a direct attack on
the basic Christian doctrines of the Trinity and of Christ`s deity. For
instance, Q3:64, quoted numerous times in the letter, calls the People
of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) to agree not to ascribe partners
to God and not to take other lords beside him.
Say: O People
of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we
shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto
Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if
they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have
surrendered (unto Him). (Aal `Imran 3:64)
This Qur`anic verse has always been understood as a call to deny the
Trinity and the deity of Christ. In the Saudi-sponsored English Qur`an
of Hilali and Khan (Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur`an in the English Language,
published in Riyadh by Darussalam) this verse has a footnote which
quotes the letter Muhammad sent to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius,
calling upon him and his people to embrace Islam and including the
threat that the rejection of this call would lead to severe
consequences. It may be that a similar frame of mind lies behind the
letter in which this verse is so often quoted.
Other Qur`anic quotations in the letter have a similar message about the unity of God: [emphasis added]
Yet there are men who take rivals unto God: they love them as they should love God. (Q 2:165).
Say: Lo! my worship and my sacrifice and my living and my dying are for God, Lord of the Worlds. / He hath no partner . . . (Q 6:162-164)
Hadith traditions are quoted to support the same theme:
The best that I have said-myself, and the prophets that came before me-is: `there is no god but God, He Alone, He hath no associate . . . (Sunan Al-Tirmidhi, Kitab Al-Da`awat, Bab al-Du`a fi Yawm `Arafah, Hadith no. 3934).
He who says: `There is no god but God, He Alone, He hath no associate,
His is the sovereignty and His is the praise and He hath power over all
things` one hundred times in a day, it is for them equal to setting ten
slaves free, and one hundred good deeds are written for them and one
hundred bad deeds are effaced, and it is for them a protection from the
devil for that day until the evening. And none offers anything better
than that, save one who does more than that. (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Kitab Bad` al-Khalq, Bab Sifat Iblis wa Junudihi; Hadith no. 3329.)
Say (O Muslims): We believe in God and that
which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and
Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which Moses and
Jesus received, and that which the prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them,
and unto Him we have surrendered. / And if they believe in the like of
that which ye believe, then are they rightly guided. But if they turn
away, then are they in schism, and God will suffice thee against them.
He is the Hearer, the Knower. (Al-Baqarah, 2:136-137)
According to one of the
oldest and most authoritative commentaries (tafsir) on the Holy
Qur`an-the Jami` Al-Bayan fi Ta`wil Al-Qur`an of Abu Ja`far Muhammad
bin Jarir Al-Tabari (d. 310 A.H. / 923 C.E.)-that none of us shall take others for lords
beside God, means `that none of us should obey in disobedience to what
God has commanded, nor glorify them by prostrating to them in the same
way as they prostrate to God`.
A hidden message for Muslims?
It is unusual to see Islamic scholars basing their presentation of
Islamic doctrines only on the Qur`an. Usually the scholars seek to
understand the Qur`an by reference to the hadith (traditions recording the sunna, that is the words and deeds of Muhammad and his Companions) and through tafsir (the Islamic science of interpreting the Qur`an) and other Islamic academic disciplines. There are few quotations from the hadith
in the main body of the letter (though there are several more in the
footnotes). However, all the Qur`anic verses quoted have
interpretations in hadith and tafsir,
interpretations which are well known to Muslims and which are usually
much more aggressive towards Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims
than represented by this letter. Therefore many Muslim readers would
detect in the very act of selectively quoting from the Qur`an a hidden
message that this is not a letter of appeasement, but a call to Islam
in the tradition of Muhammad and his Companions and of the early
Caliphs. There the call is always to submit to Islam and to accept
For instance, the fatiha (sura 1 of the Qur`an) is
quoted and presented as the greatest chapter in the Qur`an, reminding
humans of their duty of praise and gratitude to God for his mercy and
goodness. Included are verses 6 and 7:
Guide us upon the straight path. The path of those on whom is Thy Grace, not those who deserve anger nor those who are astray. [emphasis added]
In Muslim interpretations and
commentaries on these verses, it is explained that those who deserve
God`s anger are the Jews, while those who are astray are the
Christians. Indeed, the Saudi-sponsored English translation of the
Qur`an by Hilali and Khan explicitly incorporates this interpretation
in the very text of the Qur`an:
Guide us to the Straight
Way. The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the
Way) of those who earned your anger (such as the Jews), nor of those
who went astray (such as the Christians).
Most Westerners, reading the verse as
quoted in the letter, simply do not realise what it means. But for
Muslims reading the letter, the meaning is clear: a call to Christians
and Jews to avoid God`s anger and judgement by accepting Islam.
The letter suggests that Islam has much to say about loving God. For example, it quotes a hadith
of Muhammad describing God with a string of Qur`anic phrases: "He
Alone, He hath no associate, His is the sovereignty and His is the
praise". The letter asserts that each phrase describes "a mode of love
of God, and devotion to Him".
A similar assertion occurs at the end of the section about loving God, in a passage in which the phrase He hath no associate is repeated twice:
In the light of what we have seen to be necessarily implied and evoked by the Prophet Muhammad`s PBUH blessed saying: `The best that I have said-myself, and the prophets that came before me-is: `There is no god but God, He Alone, He hath no associate, His is the sovereignty and His is the praise and He hath power over all things` [Al-Tirmithi, Kitab Al-Da`wat, Bab al-Du`a fi Yawm `Arafah, Hadith no. 3934], we can now perhaps understand the words
`The best that I have said-myself, and the prophets that came before
me` as equating the blessed formula `there is no god but God, He Alone,
He hath no associate, His is the sovereignty and His is the praise and He hath power over all things` precisely
with the `First and Greatest Commandment` to love God, with all one`s
heart and soul, as found in various places in the Bible. That is to
say, in other words, that the Prophet Muhammad PBUH was perhaps,
through inspiration, restating and alluding to the Bible`s First
Commandment. God knows best, but certainly we have seen their effective
similarity in meaning. Moreover, we also do know (as can be seen in the
endnotes), that both formulas have another remarkable parallel: the way
they arise in a number of slightly differing versions and forms in
different contexts, all of which, nevertheless, emphasize the primacy
of total love and devotion to God.
In this part of the letter it is argued that Muhammad`s emphasis on
the unity of God who has "no associate" is a re-statement of the
Bible`s command about loving God with all your heart, soul and mind.
The letter states that these two concepts are similar in meaning,
although this is hard to derive from a straightforward reading of the
Perhaps the authors of the letter hoped that, by simply telling
Christians that two different statements were really the same, they
would be believed. Alternatively they could have had in mind the Muslim
belief that Christian and Jewish Scriptures have been distorted, and
that Muhammad`s statement is correcting the falsified Biblical teaching
to what it was originally meant to have been.
Presenting the theme of love of God and of neighbour as central to
Islam is again a misrepresentation of the truth. As stated in the
Appendix, love in Islam is but one theme among many, and is not among
the central themes of Islam. This is not to say that the Qur`an fails
to mention God`s love at all (for it does), but that the weighting is
very different from that in the Christian Bible where love is indeed
the central theme.
Love your neighbour
The letter suggests that loving your neighbour is a concept common
to both Islam and Christianity. But it ignores the fact that the Muslim
concept of love for your neighbour can only operate within the limited
scope of shari`a. Therefore in Islam there can be no absolute
love for all humans, as in Christianity. Islam treats specific groups
of people in specific ways: Christians and Jews are to be humiliated
and brought under Islamic dominion as second rate subjects; infidels
must accept Islam or be killed; apostates are to be killed if they do
not return to Islam; Islamic sects considered heretical are to be
fought and annihilated. Thus "neighbour" is a very limited concept in
Islam, i.e. limited to fellow Muslims of the same tradition.
As we have already seen, the Arabic word chosen for "neighbour" in
the letter is not one which carries the nuance of kinship as in the
Bible, but another which has only a geographical meaning.
Jews are ignored
Except for the fact that the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4,5) is
mentioned as a centrepiece of the Old Testament and of Jewish liturgy,
the Jews are ignored. This fits with other Muslim endeavours to shift
Christianity away from its Jewish roots. It also displays the
traditional use of "divide and conquer" tactics - as the Jews are
nowadays portrayed across the Muslim world as the worst enemies of
Islam, this would signal an attempt to create an alliance with
Christianity against Judaism.
Search for common ground or attempt to islamise Christianity
This letter appears to be part of an ongoing wider effort to
islamise Christianity. This project presents the Qur`anic Jesus as the
real historical Jesus. It presents Muhammad as similar to Jesus in
character (peace and love), and it denigrates the Jewish and Old
Testament roots of Christianity (Marcionism).
Thus we see that, in seeking common ground, the "Open Letter and
Call" suggests that the central Muslim concept of unitarian monotheism
and the central Christian concepts of love to God and love to neighbour
are beliefs held by both religions. It stresses that the two
commandments to love are the basis of what is common to both religions.
But presenting love for God and neighbour as central to Islam is a
misrepresentation of the truth.
The message is that if Christians will accept Islam`s concept of the
unity of God (thus denying the basic doctrines of the Trinity and deity
of Christ), Muslims will accept the Christian values of love for God
and neighbour as central to Islam. Thus a radical revolutionary change
in Christianity is demanded in exchange for a superficial change of
emphasis in Islamic perceptions.
APPENDIX: THE CONCEPT OF LOVE IN ISLAM
Introduction: the contrast with Christianity
God`s love is the central theme of the New Testament and therefore
of the Christian faith. Love is God`s main attribute and very essence.
The main message of the New Testament is that God is love in His very
being, and that this love was revealed in Jesus Christ and His supreme
act of love, His self-giving in his sacrificial death on the cross
(John 3:16; 1 John 4:7-12).
In Islam, however, the focus is on submission, so love is never more
than one of many minor themes. Modern Muslim apologists in the West
sometimes assert that God is a God of love. This is not a concept which
traditional orthodox Islam would accept, but appears to be a modern
stance of adaptation to the environment they find themselves in.
Love in Qur`an and hadith
Love is mentioned in the Qur`an over 50 times, mainly in the sense of love between persons and love of material things.
There are several verses that speak of humans` love towards God, for example:
Yet there are men who take (for worship) others
besides Allah as equal (with Allah); they love them as they should love
Allah. But those of faith are overflowing in their love for Allah. If
only the unrighteous could see behold they would see the penalty that
to Allah belongs all power and Allah will strongly enforce the penalty. (Q 2:165)[i]
A few verses speak of God`s love towards specific categories of humans (good Muslims). One of these is Q 85:14 "And He is the Oft-Forgiving, full of loving-kindness [al-wadud]". From this verse is derived one of the 99 Beautiful Names of God, Al-Wadud (The One who Loves, The Most Loving, The Most Affectionate, The Beloved). Wadud, from the root wdd, is somewhat akin to the Old Testament Hebrew word dod or dodim
(plural) used extensively in the Song of Songs for the pure love
between man and woman. From it we get the name David (the beloved).
However, the word most often used in the Qur`an for love is hubb and its derivatives (mahabba, yuhibbu, etc.). This is linked to the Hebrew Old Testament word ahabah (root ahb) which is the one mostly used to denote love, both God`s love to man and man`s love to God. For example:
"I have loved you," says the Lord. (Malachi 1:2)
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
Mahabba, the most common Islamic Arabic term for love,
denotes an affection inspired in humans by gratitude for God`s
blessings. On God`s side mahabba is usually bestowed as a reward for a good believer who follows Muhammad and submits to God.
Say: If ye do love God, follow me: God will love you and forgive you your sins: For God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Q 3:31)
Love in the Qur`an mainly means "liking" or "preference". It derives
from God`s will, rather than from His very nature. God loves the
… verily Allah loves those who act aright. (Q 3:76)
For Allah loves those who do good; (Q 3:134)
And Allah loves those who are firm and steadfast. (Q 3:146)
For Allah loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean. (Q 2:222)
For Allah loves those who are fair (and just). (Q 49:9)
Truly Allah loves those who fight in His Cause in battle array as if they were a solid cemented structure. (Q 61:4)
However, God does not love sinful people and he rejects his enemies.
… He loves not those who reject Faith (Q 30:45)
Verily He loveth not the arrogant. (Q 16:23)
Love appears also in the other main Islamic source, the hadith collections. In the hadith,
there are references to love for things, love for martyrdom, love for
God, and God`s love for Muhammad and for deserving Muslims.
Love in Islamic theology
According to Islamic teaching, God`s essence and nature cannot be
known. Therefore a statement like "God is love" (which appears in the
Bible, 1 John 4:8,16) would be theologically wrong in classical Islam.
Islam does teach that God`s attributes can be known, and these are
described in the form of the "99 Beautiful Names". Love is one of these
99, as we have seen above, but only one. The names emphasise much more
God`s omnipotence and omniscience, his mercy and compassion, his
sovereignty and inscrutable will.
In Islam God reveals himself mainly through his law (shari`a) which calls for submission and obedience.
While in Christianity God is personal and establishes personal
relationships of love with humans, in classical Islam God is seen as
totally self-contained and beyond personal relationships. In Islam,
although God loves certain Muslim people of whom he approves, he is not
bound to love them even if they deserve his love.
Ultimately God is not obliged to do anything, but acts as he wills,
sometimes in an entirely capricious manner.
Orthodox classical Islam is more concerned with God`s greatness and transcendence, with shari`a law and its applications, than with God`s love. God is absolutely other, unknowable, far beyond what can be known or imagined (wara`l wara
i.e. beyond the beyond). The role of humans is to submit, fear and obey
God and his law. For example, following the call in March 2005 by a
well-known Islamist scholar, Tariq Ramadan, for a moratorium on the brutal hudud
punishments still implemented in some Muslim states (amputation,
stoning, flogging etc.), several Islamic scholars opposed the
suggestion. Sheikh Muhammad al-Shinqiti, director of the Islamic Center
of South Plains in Lubbock, Texas, claimed that harshness was part of shari`a
and any attempt at softening it was giving in to Western Christian
concepts which were incompatible with Islam. Shinqiti stated that a
personalised faith, like that of Christians, leads to corruption and
immorality. He preferred the detachment and severity of Islam, citing
the Qur`anic verse
And let not pity for the twain withhold you from
obedience to Allah, if ye believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a
party of believers witness their punishment. (Q 24:2, translation not specified)
In this view, harshness rather than love and mercy are at the heart
of Islam. The inference is that Christianity is weak and contemptible
because it has love and mercy at its very core.
Love in Sufism
It was left for Islamic mysticism (Sufism) to try to redress the
balance and introduce the theme of love into Islam. Sufism offered an
escape from the dry and intellectual legalism of the orthodox Islamic
teachers and scholars. It focused instead on the human yearning for an
authentic personal experience of God. Sufism taught that this
experience could be had by a spiritual interpretation of the Qur`an
aimed at finding its secret meaning, and by the disciplines of
asceticism, repetition of God`s names, breath control, meditation and
Rabi`a al-Adawiyya (died 801) introduced the theme of Divine Love
into Sufism. She longed to love God only for himself, not for hope of
any reward in paradise nor out of fear of judgement and hell. After her
death the love theme became a dominant feature of Sufism, expressing
the Sufi`s endless search for unity with the divine Beloved. The
yearning for a love relationship with God was expressed by Sufis in the
language of human love, similar to the Bible`s Song of Songs and some
psalms. Sufi poetry described symbolically the relationship between God
the Divine Lover and the human person searching for his love. In
addition to the Qur`anic terms mahabba and wudud, Sufis coined the term `ishq for love. `Ishq denotes an unquenchable and irresistible desire for union with the Beloved (God).
While Sufism used to be found in every
branch of traditional Islam, the strict Islamist reform movements which
have developed in recent times have rejected much of Sufism as pagan
additions and innovations which should be purged from Islam. The
concept of love is downplayed by such movements and condemned as a
pagan, Christian or Western notion incompatible with true Islam.
Note: Most Qur`anic quotations in this Response are taken from The Holy Qur`an: Text, Translation and Commentary
by A. Yusuf Ali (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1975 and many other
editions) unless otherwise stated. Please note that different
translations of the Qur`an have slightly different verse numbers. So in
another translation it may be necessary to look at the verses just
before or just after the text references given here in order to find
the same text. However, where Qur`an verses quoted in the "Open Letter
and Call" are re-quoted here, the translation is not known as it was no
specified in the "Open Letter and Call".