Christianity and Islam: How Common is the Ground?

As this column goes to press, hundreds of presumably Muslim protestors in Sudan are shouting for the execution of a British school teacher. Her offense? Insulting Islam because her class of 7-year-olds named a teddy bear Muhammed. According to the New York Times report:

The protesters, some carrying swords, screamed, “Shame, shame on the U.K.!” and “Kill her, kill her by firing squad.” They were calling for the death of Gillian Gibbons, the teacher who was sentenced on Thursday to 15 days in jail. Under Sudanese law, she could have spent 6 months behind bars and received 40 lashes.

It’s events like this—and similar ones around the globe—that add to my skepticism about the value of a recent exchange pleading for peace between Muslim and Christian leaders.

Last September, 138 of the world’s most prominent Muslim theologians, scholars and leaders sent an “open letter” addressed to Christians worldwide. The document titled, “A Common Word Between Us And You” is an extraordinary communication from the Muslim world. In it the Muslim leaders plead with Christians to recognize in two of the world’s great monotheistic religions their essential “common ground” namely, love to God and neighbor. Only by recognizing this common ground, the letter submits, will Muslims and Christians learn to live in peace. (Of course, by the very existence of this letter, these Muslim leaders are assuming Christians are not at peace with Islam.) 

Ecumenicists around the world have undoubtedly leapt for joy at the offering of this “olive branch” to Christianity from Islam. As expected, there were quick and positive responses from the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury and several mainline American denominations.

In response to the “Common Word” document, Yale Divinity School drafted its own “open letter” to Muslims on behalf of Christians everywhere. (While most of the signatories of the Yale letter are a “who ’s who” of today’s theological left, there are a number of evangelicals on board.) The letter titled, “Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to ‘A Common Word Between Us and You,’” heaps praise on the representative Muslim scholars for their efforts to bring about peace among Muslims and Christians. In addition, the letter agrees that the essential “common ground” between Islam and Christianity is love to God and neighbor. A closer analysis of both documents, however, should give Christians pause.

The Yale-drafted response begins by begging for forgiveness from the Muslim community for the evils of the Crusades and the “excesses of the war on terror.” Can someone explain why American Christians are responsible for the Crusades? And as far as the “excesses of the war on terror”—when did the Christian world get together and vote to kill a bunch of Muslims in the name of the war on terror? (It is naïve at best to think that a group of Christians “admitting” that the war on terror has been at all motivated by hatred toward Muslims will somehow help pacify the hard-liners within Islam.)

This blatant political statement is followed by paragraph after paragraph of ecumenical jargon about “our common ground,” “your courageous letter” and “our common good.” Most concerning, however, is the following theologically unsound statement:

It is therefore no exaggeration to say, as you have in “A Common Word Between Us and You,” that “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians” … The future of the world depends on our ability as Christians and Muslims to live together in peace. If we fail to make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony you correctly remind us that “our eternal souls” are at stake as well.

The future of the world and our eternal souls depends not on interfaith dialogue, but on the sovereign plan of God (cf. Psalm 115:3, Isaiah 46:8-11; Ephesians 1:11). Our confidence is not in our ecumenical efforts, but in the finished work of Christ.

In addition, while the Muslim document is filled with quotations from the Qur’an proudly proclaiming that their god is the one, true god and indirectly attacking the deity of Jesus Christ, the Yale document uses almost no Scripture and omits a clear proclamation of the deity of Christ.

Finally, in the light of recent global events, it seems reasonable to question whether or not the heart of Islam really is love to god and neighbor in the same sense that Christianity teaches love to God and neighbor. True, the Muslim document does say that “Muslims, Christians and Jews should be free to each follow what God commanded them” and that justice and freedom of religion are a “crucial part” of love to neighbor. However, whether or not this sentiment is pervasive in the global Muslim community is vigorously debated today.

No true Christian desires conflict between Christians and Muslims. A Christian who follows the directives of the Bible will love Muslims and respect them—and seek to tell them about the saving love of God in Christ. They will not, however, compromise the truth of Scripture to start a dialogue, for to do so would not demonstrate love to God or love to our Muslim neighbors.


Bob Burney is Salem Communications’ award-winning host of Bob Burney Live, heard weekday afternoons on WRFD-AM 880 in Columbus, Ohio. Contact Bob at [email protected]

Posted: December 3, 2007