Scintillating Christian Muslim Dialogue
in Washington

By Josh Hayden,
American University

Washington, DC: On Tuesday, October 12 2004 at Virginia Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, two prominent and distinguished men representing the Christian and Islamic faiths took the stage. Legendary Bishop of the Church of England and author of The Call of the Minaret, Kenneth Cragg joined in the dialogue with Dr. Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and author of the renowned book, Islam Under Siege. The purpose of the event was to promote understanding and compassion between the Christian and Muslim faiths in an era of harsh opposition and ignorance within both parties.
Several notable Islamic and Christian scholars, ministers, journalists, professors and community leaders were in attendance in the auditorium, drawn not only by the stature of the two men before them, but by the urgency and significance of interfaith dialogue.

Bishop Fredrick Borch introduced Dr. Ahmed, who delivered an articulate lecture on the historical progression of the relationship between the Abrahamic faiths. He emphasized the interrelatedness between Muslims and Christians, dating thousands of years ago, but nearly forgotten today. The notion of one God, values derived from the Ten Commandments, sharing prominent prophets, a holy book, the role of religious ‘mystics’, and the afterlife were the similarities he drew. Where Christianity and Islam differ fundamentally, he said, is that Islam centers on an idea (‘Islam’ means ‘peace’), whereas Christianity derives from a person, Jesus Christ.

As Dr. Ahmed began to describe the historical relationship, his remarks focused on the role and debate around the identity of Jesus as the “Spirit of God” and reverence for him by the great Muslim mainstream thinkers called “Sufis.” He quoted Hafiz, a famous Persian poet, among others, “I am a hole in a flute by which blows the breath of Christ, listen to this music.”
Dr. Ahmed traced three phases of the Muslim-Christian relationship through the centuries; the period of linkage and synthesis, the period of conflict (the Crusades, colonization and the decline of Muslim intellectual civilization and vitality) and the phase of chaos and confusion marked and begun by the tragedy of 9/11.

On the present state of affairs, Dr. Ahmed pointed to the arrogance and ignorance of understanding between the faiths and the lack of discussion among leaders about putting an end to this. Muslims have been called idol worshippers and terrorists, an image largely propagated and damaged by the media. Ahmed pointed out the absurdity of Bin Laden becoming a role model in his call of killing Christians and Jews.

The way forward b etween the faiths, Dr. Ahmed concluded, is to begin the process of understanding each other, visible dialogue at a privileged moment in history, creating friendships, and beginning the process of the rediscovery of the meaning of one’s faith on both sides. He said that we must revert back to the fundamental linkages and apply them to our present situations. “I want Muslims to rediscover Jesus and I want Christians to rediscover Jesus. Jesus symbolizes compassion and peace,” he stated. Just before he exited the podium, he told the audience that we must use Jesus as the key to the 21st Century in a world of Christian-Muslim confrontation.

Bishop Kenneth Cragg, who spoke earlier that day at the seminary, followed Dr. Ahmed at the podium with the same passion and eloquence. Contrastingly to Dr. Ahmed, he emphasized the differences between the exclusive claims of the faiths, but similarly called for greater understanding and interaction. He began by stating that there is a fundamental crisis in the West : the interrogative attitudes, economic dominance, greed and arrogance in the West have contributed to what he termed a ‘political crime.’ Bishop Cragg condemned war as an answer to terrorism and said the problem must be confronted on moral terms. He called for humility, patience, unison of heart and purpose and a “coalition of the truly persuaded” working towards this end.

Bishop Cragg, a scholar on Islam himself, used two Islamic cities, Medina and Mecca, as symbols to describe the crisis in the heart of the Muslim faith. Mecca, the city of pilgrimage for the Islamic faith, was held as a symbol of compassion whose faith and devotion is to be commended. Medina was associated with the power equation of Al Qaida and the ideology whose destiny is to dominate. Cragg exhorted the return to the priority of Mecca and challenged Muslims to push for civic and social equality and “fulfill it to the common good” in the providence of God.

Both men discussed the wonder of the Taj Mahal in India as a means of understanding culture and faith, although through divergent perspectives. Dr. Ahmed described it as a monument to art and intellect, revered for its beauty and the imagination of its creator. He contrasted it with a loss of Muslim respect and vitality. Bishop Cragg pictured the Taj Mahal as a monument to human grief and the love of man for woman. The geometric patterns, orderly and cohesive in structure, said Cragg, are an image of Muslim ideology. According to Bishop Cragg, the deeper significance and meaning behind the emblematic structure brings us back to the Christian answer to the nature and problem of pain. It points to another human story, he said, that lies with the tragic and it is the brokenness of the cross and the love of Christ.

On an evening at Virginia Theological Seminary purposed to close the gap of understanding between two faiths, the audience emotionally rose to a standing ovation immediately following both addresses. While Bishop Kenneth Cragg stressed his concern for the distinctiveness without contention between the faiths and “commending not imposing” and Dr. Akbar Ahmed underlined and proposed a charge to return to the foundations of interrelatedness between the faiths, the two distinguished men joined in unison to be a voice of victory over ignorance and arrogance that often pervades both religious faiths. Both advocated further attempts at similar interfaith dialogue and underscored the urgency of Muslims and Christians to again become a community where love and mutual understanding are embraced.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.