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Issues in Christian-Muslim Relations: Ecumenical Considerations

In 1979 the WCC produced a document entitled "Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths" which sought to identify and discuss the major practical and theological issues in interfaith relations. While it addressed some of the overall aspects, it recognized the need for more specific "guidelines" or ecumenical considerations on Christian relations with each of the major faith communities in the world. This document results from the attempt to follow this up in the area of Christian-Muslim relations. It draws on the experience gained from the considerable work carried out over the years. All the meetings between Christians and Muslims organized by the sub-unit on Dialogue during the past twenty years have been documented in the WCC publication "Meeting in Faith". These meetings, however, are only a small part of a much richer history of relations and numerous dialogue encounters in many places. The document that follows is itself based on five regional meetings between Christians and Muslims organized in different parts of the world. These meetings helped to identify some of the important issues which Christians and Muslims need to reflect on and continue to consider together in the years ahead. Many qualified persons in the field of Christian-Muslim relations were consulted in the process.

01 January 1992

Ecumenical Considerations


In 1971, the WCC formed its sub-unit on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies. From its inception the sub-unit on Dialogue has worked in close collaboration with its counterpart in the Roman Catholic Church, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Today a number of regional and national ecumenical bodies and churches have incorporated dialogue into their life and work.

In 1979 the WCC produced a document entitled "Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths" which sought to identify and discuss the major practical and theological issues in interfaith relations. While it addressed some of the overall aspects, it recognized the need for more specific "guidelines" or ecumenical considerations on Christian relations with each of the major faith communities in the world.

This document results from the attempt to follow this up in the area of Christian-Muslim relations. It draws on the experience gained from the considerable work carried out over the years. All the meetings between Christians and Muslims organized by the sub-unit on Dialogue during the past twenty years have been documented in the WCC publication "Meeting in Faith". These meetings, however, are only a small part of a much richer history of relations and numerous dialogue encounters in many places. The document that follows is itself based on five regional meetings between Christians and Muslims organized in different parts of the world. These meetings helped to identify some of the important issues which Christians and Muslims need to reflect on and continue to consider together in the years ahead. Many qualified persons in the field of Christian-Muslim relations were consulted in the process.

A first draft was produced under the title "Ecumenical Considerations on Christian-Muslim Relations". It was circulated widely and numerous comments were received. It was submitted to the Executive Committee for discussion (Santiago, March 1992), and subsequently revised.

The Central Committee (August 1992) reviewed the document stating that: "Although this is not a policy document, it provides careful analysis and thoughtful insight for Christians interested in inter-religious relations. It recounts the development of the WCC concern for a constructive dialogue between Christians and Muslims around the world.

"It offers a few succinct and helpful reflections about Islam and Muslims to inform Christians at various stages of contact with their neighbours, underlining the importance for people in both faith communities to learn more about each other and from each other.

"The document also presents seven critical areas of ongoing relevance in relationship between Christians and Muslims ..."

The Central Committee received this document and referred it to the churches for study and appropriate action.


Christian-Muslim relations have been an issue since the historical rise of Islam, more than fourteen centuries ago.

From the beginning there have been two dimensions to the question. The first is related to the practical living together of individuals and communities of the two faiths, and the second to theological challenges. These include questions of Christian self identity and self-expression in relation to Islam as well as those of understanding its significance. These issues have engaged Christians through the centuries.

Christian-Muslim relations have a complex history sometimes marked by rivalry or war, but equally in many cases - though frequently forgotten - characterized by constructive living together. A striking feature of our historical memories has been the way in which conflicts overshadow the peaceful experiences. This has been parallelled at the level of theological thinking, where polemics drown the voices of frank and honest interchange.

The last few decades have seen some concerted efforts towards a new understanding in scholarship and dialogue. But, current developments, political and otherwise, may be threatening to build up new attitudes of distrust and hostility. This imposes a new urgency in our consideration of Christian-Muslim relations and of our priority in dialogue and cooperation. Our response should build on much of what we have learned in the last decades. The sense of urgency should not divert us from the long-term necessity of continuing to deepen our mutual understanding and trust.

We have learned and need to explore further the plurality of approaches, views and experiences across diverse situations.

We believe that we can no longer speak as if Muslims are not listening; everything we say and do must be in the knowledge that they are partners, whether directly or indirectly.

Our experience has confirmed that the search for dialogue and collaboration cannot bear fruit unless they are a two-way affair. We are therefore convinced that whatever challenges one partner is a challenge mutually to both partners.

I. Christian-Muslim Encounter

Christianity and Islam have been in contact for over fourteen centuries. As a religion which began after the time of Christ, and therefore after the New Testament had been completed, Islam has always presented a theological challenge to Christians especially in relation to Muhammad's status as Prophet and the Qur'an's status as Revelation.

The history of Christian-Muslim encounter is highly complex. Christians have viewed Islam in a variety of ways. For example, the attitudes of Christians in Europe and North America, living until very recently at a distance from Muslims, have differed from those of Christians who lived historically amidst or in proximity to Muslims. The experience particularly of Christians living within the Muslim world has varied widely from time to time and from place to place. There are examples of harmonious, fruitful exchange as well as of conflict. The former include situations where Christians and Muslims have collaborated in struggling towards shared political goals - for example, in the Indonesian independence movement and in the cause of early Arab nationalism. In many instances, however, political, economic and theological factors have combined to polarize Muslims and Christians into mutually antagonistic communities.

False images of the other developed in both communities which have resulted in fear and misunderstanding. Consequently, Christians and Muslims have often inherited ideas, images and stereotypes, mostly negative, which marked their mutual perceptions.

Christians have often (but not always) perceived Islam as a political, economic and theological threat, and have painted Islam in negative hue, in contrast to their own positive self-image. Many Muslims, likewise, have been inclined to regard Christianity and Christendom - often identified with each other and with the West - as engaged in an ongoing crusade against the Muslim world. The mass media continue with few exceptions, to perpetuate such images.

In the process of rethinking their approach to Islam, many Christians accept that much that has passed for "objective scholarship" in past years was not free of bias and untruth. More recently still, during the last twenty-five years, dialogue between Christians and Muslims, such as that initiated by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican, as well as Muslim organizations at both international and national levels, has seen the beginning of a new understanding based on a reciprocal willingness to listen and learn.

Dialogue is not only conversation (dialogue of ideas) but is also an encounter between people (dialogue of life). It depends on mutual trust, demands respect for the identity and integrity of the other, and requires a willingness to question one's own self-understanding as well as an openness to understand others on their own terms.

Dialogue is primarily an encounter of commitments. The World Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (San Antonio, para. 28, 1989) expressed our Christian commitment in this way: "Dialogue has its own place and integrity and is neither opposed to nor incompatible with witness and proclamation. We do not water down our commitment if we engage in dialogue; as a matter of fact, dialogue between people of different faiths is spurious unless it proceeds from the acceptance and expression of faith commitment ... In dialogue we are invited to listen in openness to the possibility that the God we know in Jesus Christ may encounter us also in the lives of our neighbours of other faiths."

There are Muslims who have expressed reservations about dialogue - seeing it as a covert form of Christian neo-imperialism or as intellectual colonialism. Also, there are Christians who consider dialogue with Muslims as marked by naive romanticism, which fails to confront the perceived threat of Islamic fanaticism.

Although such criticisms may be understandable, seen from particular current or historical situations, they are not justifiable as generalizations.

In any event, dialogue, like all Christian engagements of faith, involves risk.

II. On understanding Islam and Muslims

Christian views of Islam have been shaped, transmitted and perpetuated since the seventh century, sometimes through direct encounter but also, especially for those who do not interact routinely with Muslims, through polemical and apologetic literature. Islam, is viewed by some Christians as inherently intolerant, violent and menacing. This view tends to disregard the fact that Islam has been and remains a dynamic tradition which inspires and nurtures the lives of hundreds of millions of Muslims.

Christians also tend to assume that Islam is monolithic - the same in Morocco and in Malaysia. In fact, both historical and contemporary Islam, present considerable diversity in theological, philosophical and legal schools of thought. In addition, the rich texture of popular piety results in a religious community which is far from homogeneous. History, political structures, minority/majority composition of religious communities, are all factors which need to be considered as part of any attempt to understand Islam in any given context.

However, whilst Islam is no more uniform than Christianity, there are strong common convictions affirmed by all Muslims. Islamic belief takes its cue from the fundamental conviction that God is the source of all life and of everything that exists. Traditionally, Muslims call God by 99 Beautiful Names, which describe God's particular qualities and attributes.

Belief in God's One-ness results in Islam's rejection of any concept of plurality in God and in fierce opposition to honouring as divine anyone or anything other than God. God's Sovereignty implies God's absolute Lordship over creation - as well as God's Omnipotence and Omniscience. God's Sovereignty embraces everything. That God is Just means that God desires the human being - whom God has appointed His steward (Khalifah) on earth - to know and to do God's will. Because God is Merciful God has ensured, by sending a succession of messengers, that all people know God's will. Thus Islam teaches that from the very beginning of history, God has revealed god's will to humanity.

The prophets, many of whom are the great figures of the Bible Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist and Jesus Son of the Virgin Mary - all brought essentially the same message. Ultimately, God sent Muhammad as His final Prophet, confirming and validating the messages of all earlier prophets and entrusting him with the Qur'an, the literal, complete, perfect revelation of God's message and will. Consequently, Islam claims to be at one and the same time both universal and particular. Every child born into the world is by nature a "Muslim", for Islam is held to be the primordial and natural religion. In the Qur'an, figures like Abraham, Jesus and his disciples, who lived before Muhammad, are called "Muslims". In this sense, "Muslims" means those who fully surrender themselves to accepting and carrying out God's will, in distinction from the normal use of the term referring to a member of the Islamic community.

The Islamic message is addressed to all human beings. Islam calls all people to recognize the Qur'an as God's final revelation and to acknowledge the significance of Muhammad's life as an exemplary source of guidance (see Q.33.21). From the earliest times, faithful Muslims have endeavoured to preserve the accounts of the words and deeds of their prophet (Hadith).

Basing their view on the Qur'anic statement that God has never left any people without a prophet, many Muslims recognize a certain validity for other religions. Normally, Muslims consider it more desirable for people to be Muslims, but they affirm the Qur'anic dictum that "there shall be no compulsion in religious matters" (Q.2.256) and that people of faith should "compete with one another in good works", trusting that in the end the Merciful and Just God will tell us the truth "about that which you have been differing" (Q.5.48). The Qur'an also affirms that Christians and Jews worship the same God whom Muslims worship (e.g. Q.29.46). In fact, there are many explicit references in the Qur'an to Jews and Christians, who, with the Sabeans, are called "people of the book". Some references pass negative judgments but several form the basis of the traditional Islamic view that "peoples of the book" do not need to embrace Islam.

There are many points of convergence between Christian and Islamic beliefs - both understand God as Creator and Sustainer, as Just and Merciful, as a God who reveals His word and who will call people to account for their stewardship over creation. Both communities of faith stress the centrality of prayer, and share common values and ideals such as the search for justice in society, providing for people in need, love for one's neighbour and living together in peace. Both Muslims and Christians often fail to recognize these points of convergence because they tend to see themselves in terms of the ideal and the other in terms of the actual.

However, there are also real and substantial differences between Christian and Islamic teaching - many of which stem directly or indirectly from our respective scriptures. For example, Muslims often identify Christian belief in the Trinity with Tritheism. Muslims affirm that God does not beget and therefore condemn Christian belief in Jesus' divine Sonship. While the Qur'an represents Jesus as one of the greatest and, in some respects, unique among God's messengers, it denies his crucifixion and resurrection. Numerous passages warn against such teachings which are seen as compromising God's Unity (tawhid); many of these are in fact addressed to Arabian polytheists and pseudo-Christian sects. Conversely, since the gospel chronologically preceded the Qur'an, Christians have difficulty in dealing with Islam's claim to be a divinely revealed religion. While in Christian faith God has revealed himself definitively in Christ, in Islam God's complete and final revelation is given in the Qur'an. This can be problematical in the conduct of Christian-Muslim dialogue, especially since many Muslims hold that Christians altered their scripture in order to justify Trinitarian doctrine and Jesus' divine Sonship.

Given these and other differences, it is essential for the continuing improvement of relations that both Christians and Muslims make greater efforts to learn more about each other's faith.

It is worth recognizing that a number of churches and theological institutions have taken the initiative of promoting objective knowledge about Islam. We also recognize that a number of similar efforts have recently been made in some Muslim institutions. We are aware of the difficulties but we call for greater efforts on both sides to ensure that each faith is presented on its own terms.

III. Some issues in Christian-Muslim relations

In what follows we choose, out of a complex of concerns, some issues which are of particular importance and which should be discussed frankly by Christians and Muslims as they live together as neighbours.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of modem society is its pluralistic nature. No society in the world today, whether traditional or technologically advanced, is homogeneous. Everywhere we find social groups made up of people of different backgrounds, in terms of language, culture, ethnic origin, socio-economic class, race and religion.

In some cases, one group is in a numerical majority and others form numerical minorities. It would be a mistake, however, to view the relationship among groups solely on the basis of their numerical strength. Other factors, such as access to political power, economic resources or social influence, affect the positive or negative interaction between the various groups. In some countries, a minority may dominate the political system, while another may control the economic field. There are countries where a minority group is made up of "newcomers", "strangers", " guest workers", or "foreign residents". This status has strong repercussions on their relationship to the host society. In some other countries the original inhabitants have been reduced to a minority of "natives".

We cannot here deal with the many situations in which Christians and Muslims live together, each of which requires detailed analysis and invites dialogue in its own right. We can, however, offer considerations on some of the issues which may arise when Christians and Muslims live in close proximity to each other.

1. There are situations where national unity and communal stability are in grave danger. Different groups fear that their interests or rights are being violated or threatened by others. Such rivalries or contradictions are often portrayed as being based on religious differences. Religious sentiments are easily used as a tool to assert identity and mobilize people in the search for political power.

In some situations, the interplay of religious ethnicity and citizenship results in antagonistic national movements.

Christians and Muslims need to explore seriously models of governance that further a balance between individual and community rights. Such situations also challenge us to develop new forms of political involvement. This involvement necessitates an ability to liberate religion from narrow sectional interests, with the aim of engaging critically in issues of human rights and social and political justice and striving towards peaceful resolution of conflicts.

2. In many secularized societies where Christianity has historically shaped the collective identity and remains culturally influential, Muslims are confronted with the choice between integration and self-asertion. Many strongly affirm their human rights against all forms of racism and xenophobia, call for a greater participation in public life, and seek, at the same time, a recognition of their particularities as individuals and communities.

Reconciling all these claims is not always easy. This is illustrated by the opposition Muslims sometimes voice against any civil law that would infringe upon their rights to practising their traditions and bringing up their children as Muslims.

3. In a number of countries where Muslims constitute a majority, there are political movements, religious leaders and intellectuals who call for the application of Islamic law (Shari'a), seen as a criterion of government legitimacy. This meets with opposition from some Christians and Muslims who, as citizens, object to a rigid political model which they deem restrictive of civil rights and hindering society from coping with modem challenges. This call generates fear among many Christians, who cannot accept being put in the position of aliens or second-class citizens in their own nations. Christians often complain that the Shari'a, even when it protects the freedom of Christian worship and practices and guarantees their right to have their own personal law, leads inevitably to their marginalization.

The advocates of Shari'a implementation and its opponents, however, do not form monolithic groups. Dialogue among them is possible. There are misunderstandings, uncertainties and divergences on both sides. In this context, major questions are already being discussed, and call for further examination. Among such issues are:

    • the relationship between principles or aims (maqasid) of the Shari'a and its applications or prescriptions;

    • the historical character of legal systems;

    • the interpretation of Sliari'a precepts from the standpoint of the community's need (darura) or interest (maslaha).

    4. It is true that Muslims often affirm that Islam is all-embracing and does not distinguish between religion and politics. It is equally true that Christianity does not propose a particular socio-political model. Yet the notion, still current in many Christian circles, that the Islamic community cannot discern a de facto distinction between political power and religious authority is not borne out by careful scrutiny. Nor can we attribute to Christianity the assertion that religion is entirely a spiritual and private affair. Although in two different ways, Christianity and Islam both bear witness to the fact that the truths of revelation enlighten and guide the involvement of their followers in social, economic and political life. Faith cannot be separated from the realms of society and state.

    The problem of the complex relations between religion (din), the world (dunya) and the state (dawla) calls for greater dialogue, especially among Christians and Muslims living together in the same society.

    One of the main objectives of dialogue is the common search for a viable model of society and cooperation in building a really human community which in law and practise guarantees equality for all, safeguards religious liberties and respects differences and particularities.

    5. In the context of religious pluralism, whether rooted in a long history, or experienced in more recent times, interfaith marriages can provide opportunities for inter-religious understanding; they can also raise many difficulties, not the least of which is the question of the religious upbringing of children.

    Partners coming from different faith traditions bring their distinctive spiritual gifts to their lives together, and when shared in a spirit of mutual respect, these will enrich, religiously and otherwise, the life of the household.

    There are, however, differences among Christians and Muslims in their views on marriage, its legal implications and how it affects parent-child relations. This is also true of the legal status of women. Such differences tend to aggravate the social and cultural problems that may be encountered by partners of different faiths. Muslims affirm that Qur'anic principles protect women, ensure their freedom and respect them as marital partners. Yet Christians, especially women, are critical of traditional practices as well as what they see as discriminatory regulations in Islamic personal law, such as in the cases of divorce and child custody. There are also Christians who have difficulty in understanding the restrictions imposed by Islamic law on interfaith marriages. It is also pointed out that the rights of Christian spouses to practise freely their religion, guaranteed by Islamic law, are not always respected. In any event, adequate information and pastoral counselling should be more available.

    Christians and Muslims in dialogue are left with three challenges. They are:

      • reaffirming the personal and familial values promoted by their respective religions,
      • developing a common consciousness of the promises and limitations of interfaith marriages, and
      • committing their communities, families and couples brought together in inter-religious marriages to cooperate with each other in addressing pastorally the social and legal complexities experienced in specific situations.

      6. In the various types of pluralist society there are broader issues that are of a particular concern to women. The problems of integration and identity affirmation, impact strongly on their lives. Existing family laws as well as the call to Islamicizition of society and the implementation of Shari'a, affect women often more significantly than their fellow citizens.

      These problems should be addressed in an effort of dialogue, as women strive in many societies to work together in defending their rights and promoting their role in society. Such a dialogue cannot be constructive unless its seeks to go beyond prejudices and stereotypes and listening attentively to each other's experience in its socio-cultural specificity and drawing the necessary distinctions between religious and non-religious factors.

      7. A frequent cause of tension between Christians and Muslims arises from the fact that both Islam and Christianity are da'wah or missionary-oriented religions; both believe that they have a divine call to invite others to join their respective faiths. This right and duty is not to be denied. Yet in their eagerness to spread their faiths and bring others to the knowledge and worship of God, they should attempt to exercise their mission or da'wah in ways that respect the freedom and dignity of persons and maintain harmony between the communities.

      Muslims often suspect that Christian educational, medical and philanthropical activities, especially among poor Muslims, conceal the hidden objective of proselytism. But diakonia is a form of witness that has its own integrity. Therefore, Christians are constantly called to preserve that integrity, and to be seen as engaged in disinterested and loving service. "Our ministry of witness among people of other faiths presupposes our presence with them, sensitivity to their deepest faith commitments and experiences, willingness to be their servants for Christ's sake, affirmation of what God has done and is doing among them, and love for them. Since God's mystery in Christ surpasses our understanding and since our knowledge of God's saving power is imperfect, we Christians are called to be witnesses to others, not judges of them. We also affirm that it is possible to be non-aggressive and missionary at the same time - that it is, in fact, the only way of being truly missionary." (San Antonio, para.25)

      IV. Living and working together

      Christians and Muslims comprise nearly half of the world's population. The nature of the relationship between these two communities is of considerable significance for the welfare of the whole human family.

      Significantly peace is at the heart of both Christianity and Islam. Christians call Jesus the "Prince of Peace". Their prayers for God's peace is at the heart of their spirituality. In Islam "as-- salâm" is one of the ninety-nine most beautiful names of God. When Muslims meet they greet each other with "as-salâm alaikum" (peace be upon you). In the face of the deadly threats that today confront both humanity and the earth itself, there is an important contribution which these two faith communities can make. There are enormous possibilities for collaboration between these communities to work together for social and racial justice, for the defence of human rights and people's rights, for safeguarding and promoting religious freedom, for resolving conflicts peacefully, for addressing the plight of refugees and displaced people.

      In the communities where they live, Christians and Muslims can also share spiritual insights, sometimes hand-in-hand in the face of common threats or in struggling together towards shared social and political goals. There are places in the world today where such interchange is part of the day-to-day experience of Christians and Muslims. In the process each gains new insights about the God whom they worship and discovers fresh resources which help them become more humane, more sensitive to the needs of others and more obedient to God's will for all creation, thus fulfilling the purpose for which God has created humankind. Ultimately, this exchange and mutual transformation could lead to the enrichment of the whole human family.

      WCC documents relevant to this text:

      1. Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths. Fourth printing, revised 1990, WCC Publications, Geneva.

      2. Meeting in Faith: Twenty Years of Christian-Muslim Conversations Sponsored by the World Council of Churches, compiled by Stuart E. Brown, WCC Publications, Geneva 1989.

      3. Five regional Christian-Muslim meetings: Religion et Responsabilité, Porto Novo, Benin, March 1986. Advancing Together into the Next Century, Kuta, Bali, Indonesia, December 1986. Religion and Society, Kolymbari, Crete, September 1987. The Challenge of Pluralism, New Windsor, Maryland, USA, March 1988. Religion and Life, Usa River, Tanzania, June 1989. Some of these reports are available from WCC team on Interreligious Relations.

      4. The San Antonio Report. Your Will be Done: Mission in Christ's Way, Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, San Antonio, Texas, USA, May 1989. WCC Publications, Geneva 1990.