On welcoming the letter, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, noted how remarkable it was that the authors of the letter were aligned with so many currents of Islamic thought, most notably Sunni and Shiite. As John Borelli observed in The Tablet (10/20/07), the letter represented an explicit effort to build a consensus among Islamic scholars and religious leaders, a very unusual but theologically significant development for Muslims, who today have no unified religious leadership.
Equally significant, it seems to me, was the letters effort to establish a dialogue in terms Christians can understand. Hence the appeal to the double commandment of love. Islam, with the exception of Sufism, seldom speaks of love. While devotion to God is the cornerstone of Islam as a way of life, love of neighbor has not usually had the pre-eminent standing in Muslim thought that it has in Christian ethics. Still, the prophet says, None of you have faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself. Most important for interreligious relations, the letter affirms that justice and religious freedom are a crucial part of love of neighbor.
For many, the denial of religious freedom in some parts of the Muslim world remains a major stumbling block to deeper Christian-Muslim engagement. In recent months, for example, 45 staffers of the national and diocesan justice and peace commission in Pakistan have been arrested. The forced exile of Iraqi Christians due to persecution is world news. Thus, some are reluctant to respond positively to A Common Word because of ongoing persecution of and discrimination against Christians. That, of course, is not the strategy of the Gospel, which commands, Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you (Mt 5:44).
Pope Benedict XVI has rightly insisted on reciprocity or symmetry in the matter of religious freedom between Islamic countries and the secular (formerly Christian) West. But reciprocity will have to be won country by country, region by region, over time. Lack of reciprocity in some places need not preclude a broader dialogue, especially when the dialogue is producing an unprecedented affirmation of religious freedom, a profession not previously shared in public by a broad range of Muslim leaders. Rather, when dialogue and the struggle for reciprocity go hand in hand, they can be re-enforcing.
Again, Pope Benedict has indicated that the Ten Commandments, that is, common human morality, could be the basis for a Christian-Muslim exchange. Some, like the well-known Jesuit Islamist Christian Troll, have argued that this necessarily implies moving deeper to a universal, natural law philosophy. Perhaps, but it seems to me that each side has been exploring what kind of common ground there might be on the topic of morality: Catholics suggesting common morality in keeping with traditional Muslim practice; the 138 Muslim leaders, the love command in an appeal to the whole Christian world.
In the Middle Ages, it may have been possible to have a dialogue on morality in natural law terms, but for the Islam of more recent centuries, speaking largely from the Koran is more usual. Likewise, it is appropriate for Muslims speaking to Christians across denominational lines to use biblical (New Testament) language, because, no matter how universal Catholics intend appeals to natural law to be, for Orthodox, evangelicals and most Protestants as well, natural law is in practice an alien, peculiarly Catholic mode of thought.