Dr Chris Hewer is the St Ethelburga Fellow in Christian-Muslim Relations. Chris has a background in Christian theology, education and Islamic Studies and has worked in the field of Muslims in Britain and Christian-Muslim relations since 1986. From 1999 to 2005 worked as the Adviser on Inter-Faith Relations to the Bishop of Birmingham. He is the author of the recently published "Understanding Islam" SCM 2006). Victor Edwin SJ speaks to Dr Chris Hewer on Christian - Muslim Relations.
Dr Chris, how did you get interested in Christian-Muslim Relations?
This was an act of Providence; one of those ways in which God takes a hand in our lives without our being aware of it at the time. In 1984, I was assigned to teach religious education in a state secondary school in Birmingham. There were 1250 pupils but only a handful had any kind of religious background. We were obliged to teach under the Birmingham Agreed Syllabus for RE, which required us to cover at least two and no more than three religions from a list of six, one of which had to be Christianity. We chose the religions that have a particular place for Abraham in their systems: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As I had spent nine years in the study of philosophy and Christian theology under a variety of tutors, I thought that I knew something about that. All students of Christian theology think that they know something about Judaism in the light of their biblical studies; until they realise that it has developed markedly over the last 2000 years! I had to improve my knowledge of living Judaism so that I could teach it. But I was aware that I knew nothing at all about Islam. This took me to the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Selly Oak in Birmingham, where I began an MA in Islamic Studies over two years in addition to teaching full-time.
My expectation was that afterwards I would concentrate on school-based education but I became involved in questions of the education of Muslims in Britain. After my MA, I reduced my teaching in school to part-time so that I could devote the next three years to negotiating a teacher training programme at Selly Oak whilst also writing my MPhil on "Controverted questions of Islamic Education in Britain". After this I joined the staff at the Centre and spent some years setting up and running the Muslims in Britain Documentation Project and eventually completing my PhD on "Fazlur Rahman: A reinterpretation of Islam in the 20th Century". Finally I joined the staff of the Anglican Bishop of Birmingham as Adviser on Inter-Faith Relations from 1999 to 2005.
As Fellow in Christian-Muslim Relations at St Ethelburga Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, how do you share your expertise and knowledge?
I am supported in my work by a syndicate of four charitable foundations, both Christian and Muslim, of which St Ethelburga's is one. My brief is to concentrate exclusively on adult popular education on Understanding Islam and Christian-Muslim relations across Greater London. Through the generosity of my funders, I am able to offer my services without charge for time or expenses. Each term, I deliver six ten-week courses on Understanding Islam simultaneously. These are generally hosted by churches, mosques, education centres, colleges and suchlike around the capital. I expect between 150 and 200 people in total between the six courses each term. We work our way through the material covered by my course book Understanding Islam: The first ten steps, London: SCM, 2006. In addition I deliver study days and occasional talks on the same material. Then there are specialised follow-up days on a range of topics, tailored training for various professionals and talks/courses on Understanding Christianity for Muslims.
How important is Christian-Muslim Dialogue for Europe, especially in the UK?
Over the last fifty years, Europe has undergone one of the most important demographic changes in its history. There are now some 15million Muslims in Western Europe, not to mention, especially in Britain, significant communities of Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. This kind of religious plurality is something quite new for us, although there have been Jewish communities in Europe for centuries; often treated with suspicion and discrimination by European Christians. We are in completely uncharted waters, both sociologically and theologically. In Britain, the overwhelming majority of members of these new religious communities are full British citizens, permanently settled and now in their third and fourth generations. We need therefore to ask first how we make space in our societies for people of other faiths to live with integrity under God within the context of a European culture that has deep Christian roots over the last two millennia.
Our European societies are in the process of change and development. The separation of religion and state in Europe means that we have to ask about the role of religion in our societies, especially as many Europeans do not today subscribe to a clearly defined faith commitment but would describe themselves as increasingly secular. As we move into this new situation, the religions face a new challenge. We need to explore what it is to live a life based on faith in God that shapes every aspect of our personal, family, economic, political and social lives together. We are forced to address the question of what we have in our great "treasuries of wisdom" built up over centuries and millennia, which can contribute to addressing the question: "What is it to be truly human and to live in a human society?" We are forced by society to discuss and define what we have to say about human values lived out under God that can make life truly worth living. Such discussions need to be conducted with fidelity to God and our on-going traditions, in a spirit of humility for God's sake, as St Francis of Assisi would put it, for the sake of the common good.
Has the Catholic Church in the last forty years (from the time of Nostra Aetate) improved its understanding of Islam and relations with Muslims? The Catholic Church has a particular position of strength in this matter based on the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which represents its highest teaching authority. This has its reflections in similar statements emanating from the Lambeth Conference, for the Anglican Communion, and from the World Council of Churches. However Vatican II's statements contained in Nostra Aetate (§3) and Lumen Gentium (§16) have the particular merit of stating explicitly that Muslims worship the One True God and live lives of prayer and charity in faithful service to God. This is a major step, which can be appreciated when one considers the history of Christian-Muslim relations, which were more often characterised by polemic, denunciation and apologetic. The importance of these documents as a first positive step cannot be over-emphasised but there were elements on which the Council was silent, for example on the place of the Prophet Muhammad and on the nature of the Qur'an. Such topics, which are absolutely central to Islam, spur us on to take further the process of study and mutual exploration, both intellectually and intuitively, as two communities of faith under God.
How important is theology for Christian-Muslim dialogue?
In this context, theology is the art of a person of faith trying to explain with clarity what they believe in words that can be understood without ambiguity by members of the other faith tradition. This is immensely difficult as often we do not share a common language and set of theological concepts, so manifestly it is easy for there to be misunderstanding. In this, we stand in the same position as Christian and Muslim theologians in Damascus, Baghdad, Spain and India in our history. However we now live in an age of mass popular education and mass communication, which has never existed in the past. It is now communities of believers who engage in this work and not remote scholars. Our work must be done in the light of world events and with the knowledge that, in an instant, documents, ideas and conflicts can be shared with an audience of millions via the Internet. What we do and say in Europe today has its influence and impact on a world-wide canvas.
As people of faith, our work must always be theological and not just sociological. We must take seriously what God has done in our respective communities and that we are accountable to God and humanity for what we do and say. This means that Christian theologians and believers must take seriously the question of what God might be saying to us about being faithful servants of God in and through the Qur'an, the lived example and teaching of Muhammad and the faithful lives of Muslims down through the centuries and today. Similarly, we must remain faithful to the unique revelation of God in Christ in the person of the Incarnate Word, our Christian experience of God as eternally relational in our Trinitarian understanding, and that Christ is the universal Saviour of the World with all that means to a Christian, in terms of redemption, to live now in the Resurrected Christ and the Christian vocation to be co-heirs with Christ to the Kingdom. This gives us an awesome responsibility under God to think, speak and act with clarity, so that we genuinely hear and learn what God is saying through believers and their tradition, and at the same time communicate without misunderstanding from our own unique perspective. This is the task and responsibility of theology in Christian-Muslim relations.
Many seem to complain that dialogue often remains at the initial level of exchanging compliments. Why do we fear leaving such familiar shores?
Perhaps one element of this timidity is a lack of a developed and lively faith on our part, coupled with human arrogance in not being willing to allow God to be God and instead wanting to confine God by imposing on God the limits of our own human understanding. Who am I to complain if God chooses to act in and through another faith community? Who am I to tell God that in my human frailty and paucity of vision, I must be able to understand the mind and will of God right here and now? There are huge areas of overlap between the faithful lives of Muslim and Christian (and other) believers that can only be valued and cherished experientially by sensing with the heart how the Spirit is at work outside the visible Christian community. We need to live, work, study and pray together so that we are open to the promptings of the Spirit in the life and faith of fellow travellers in another faith tradition. This requires prolonged and deep exposure in vulnerability, as Christ made himself vulnerable for our sakes, if we are to hear these promptings.
One of our human gifts is the capacity for rational thought and intellection. This is true for all human beings, in our various capacities, and especially for the trained scholars of different faiths so that we must seek to identify, articulate and live out the particularities of what God has done in us as individuals and as communities of faith. When I talk to Christians about Islam or when I speak to Muslims about Christianity, I ask them to take the bold step of empathetic understanding; to feel themselves in another paradigm that is quite different to their own. There are major and fundamental differences of understanding of God and of the God-human relationship between Christians and Muslims. These cannot be ironed out until they look the same, chopped up into small pieces to camouflage the difference, or insisted upon to the denial of the faith, humanity and dignity of the other believer. God understands the resolution of these differences and my duty is to bear faithful witness to what God has done in my life and in my tradition without the arrogance of usurping the infinite wisdom of God, whilst being open to the action and presence of God in the lives and faith of others.
To progress then beyond the initial level requires humility before God, who is the God of all humankind: Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and ultimate Resting Place. It requires truly knowing and valuing fellow believers in other traditions as Children of God, in our hearts and in our intellects, and then seeking ways to explore what God has planted through the gift of humanity and faith. This requires a sustained human, theological and spiritual engagement, in which we build from one step to the next in faithfulness to the findings, promises and experiences that we discerned at the lower level. Only then can we move off "square one" in our journey of Christian-Muslim relations.
Coming to the Common Word Open Letter, do you think that the text has the potential to carry forward dialogue between Christians and Muslims?
The Common Word Open Letter is to be welcomed as an initial step from a group of Muslim scholars as a way of opening up a dialogue. It can be seen as an attempt to shift the consensus within Muslim thought in a direction of seeking an agreed ethical base for Christian-Muslim action in the world. The Great Commandment, to love God and neighbour, is the heart of the Christian ethical system, not, of course, the heart of the Christian faith as such, which would be more in terms of the unique action of God in Christ reaching out to call, guide and save humanity through entering into a new relationship within the Trinitarian unity of the Godhead. We must not over-emphasise the magnitude of the step seen within this context. Like any bold document laid upon the table of public discourse it prompts discussion, agreement, disagreement, clarification and an on-going process of exploration. Like all good ethics, it requires the support of lived reality to give it its true value and meaning.
Any document with multiple signatories but without identified authors has a necessary degree of anonymity about it. We await the single-author monographs that explain and defend the positions taken against the backdrop of centuries of Muslim scholarship. Any document written to attract multiple signatories lays itself open to a variety of interpretations so we must await the bold scholars who will explain how they interpreted the text before deciding to append their signature. Again any document that is circulated for signature in more than one language carries the necessary ambiguity of language, concept and context that only time and further writing can clarify. Many eminent scholars around the world have not appended their names to the Letter; we await the internal Muslim critical writing which might help bring out, and indeed demand, further clarification and debate amongst Muslim scholars.
In the same way, the responses by Christian scholars and organisations have been of varying character. Some have been characterised by ebullient rejoicing rather than by informed critical scholarship. Some have seen flaws in argument or documentation that raise concerns in their minds. Many have genuinely embraced the opportunity that the document offers to reflect on and articulate Christian theological and ethical perspectives around the common theme proposed. The document and its responses are as yet in their infancy; perhaps with maturity something of greater value and abiding worth will grow from this initiative. As we say in English: every mighty oak grows from a single acorn, and as the Qur'an would counsel us: God does not withdraw a verse without bringing something better to replace it.
Does the Common Word Open Letter express a new approach towards Christian faith among the Muslim thinkers who signed it?
We are not at liberty to say what is in the mind of the Muslim thinkers who signed the document; they must do that for themselves. It is clear that the mere fact that the document exists is a positive step in Christian-Muslim dialogue based on a Muslim initiative and thus to be welcomed.
What do you think about the quotations from Jewish and Christian scriptures in the Common Word Open Letter in the light of Muslim understandings of tahrif?
The quotations from the Bible in the Letter are from passages that can be seen to agree with the teaching of Islam contained in the Qur'an. This is not a new step in Christian-Muslim interaction as Muslims are required as an article of faith to believe that Jesus received an authentic scripture from God, the Injil, and so it is quite plausible that some elements of it have been retained by Christians in the New Testament. The criterion for making a judgment on the authenticity of any particular element within the Bible must be the extent to which it agrees with the Qur'an, which is in Islamic understanding al-furqan, the Criterion. The mere citation of selected verses from the Bible that agree with the Qur'an therefore says nothing about the general principle of tahrif (distortion or falsification of earlier scriptures). It may indicate that the writers were taking the Bible seriously and with respect but it says nothing about authenticity. The fact that Muslim scholars in the present time are prepared in an Open Letter to cite from the Bible in a positive and respectful way is of course to be welcomed.
The Common Word Open Letter does not have many signatories from South Asia. Do you think that South Asian Christians and Muslims could contribute in the dialogue process in any special way in the light of this Letter?
It would be helpful for a scholar to calculate the number of Muslims from each country represented by a signatory and then to divide this number by the number of signatories from that country; this might indicate that the representational nature of the document is not as high as it at first seems, e.g. a relatively small Muslim population in Jordan is represented by fifteen signatories, whereas a massive Muslim population in Indonesia, larger than all Arab Muslims combined, is represented by only one. The Muslim populations of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh account for perhaps 40% of all Muslims currently on earth; this makes their voice of serious moment in such discussions. South Asian Muslim thinkers have a proud reputation in recent centuries and those who inherit their legacy today have a considerable burden to carry. Similarly there is a wide variety of Christians in these South Asian countries, who approach matters of relating to Muslims (and people of other faiths) quite differently to Arabs or Europeans. It is this genius of living for millennia in societies of diverse character (ethnically, religiously, culturally and linguistically) that needs to be tapped and brought to bear on questions of Christian-Muslim relations.