- Response to Leonard Swidler's "How the Idea of a 'Global Ethic' Arose—And a Christian's Reading of the Qur'ānic Basis for It"
I was pleased to read your reflective statement about Islam and Muslims in the context of interreligious dialogue and the global ethic. I have had the privilege of being your Muslim dialogue partner since 1979, when you invited me to join the pioneer Trialogue of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars, which you coordinated under the auspices of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics in Washington, DC. Our dialogue continued through several years of the Trialogue, followed by many other interreligious and intercultural interactions in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pakistan-Bangladesh subcontinent.
I know how hard you always tried to find "critical" Muslims and engage them in interreligious dialogue. From your essay, I can see that you have been listening carefully to your Muslim dialogue partners and also taking a serious look at the Qur'ān, which is the highest source of authority for the majority of Muslims. In terms of your understanding of Islam/Muslims, you certainly have come a long way since 1979, and I applaud your consistency of purpose and your diligent endeavor to find common ground between Islam and (Catholic) Christianity. I respond here to several of the important points you raised in your essay.
In Section VI, you referred to the famous story of Muslim refugees and King Al-Najashi of Abyssinia as follows:
As a historical background, I wish to note that, while Muhammad was still being challenged in his teaching by some in his Meccan Quraysh family, he [End Page 301] sent several of his followers—including Uthman, who became his third successor as head of the Muslims—to Abyssinia [Ethiopia] because he had heard that the Christian King Al-Najashi allowed Muslims to live there in peace; in fact, that turned out to be the case, as King Al-Najashi subsequently rejected the protestations of Muhammad's enemies and allowed his Muslim followers to live in peace in Abyssinia. Thus, an early bridge between Muslims and Christians was built.
The story you have related is indeed important in the context of the persecution of the followers of Prophet Muhammad by the pagan Quraish leaders of Mecca and the Prophet's decision to send a group of Muslims to seek asylum in Abyssinia, whose Christian king had a reputation for being just. The fact that the king refused to accede to the plea presented by the emissary of Meccan leaders who appeared in his court laden with gifts to seek the extradition of the refugees is also of historical significance in Christian-Muslim relations. Since I am sure you would like to know the details of this story, I share with you an account of this incident given by my United Kingdom-based Egyptian friend, Professor Yasmin Amin, a notable scholar of Hadith, in her M.A. thesis titled "Umm Salama and Her Hadith." (See Appendix A.)
You have also cited some qur'ānic verses to support your viewpoint that Muslims are instructed to have a positive attitude toward other religions and to engage in interreligious dialogue with persons of diverse religious groups. Your viewpoint is supported not only by the verses you have cited but by qur'ānic teachings as a whole. Before reviewing your interpretation of the verses you have cited, which have been selected randomly, I will validate my statement by drawing attention to some qur'ānic texts that articulate foundational ethical and theological principles. I will begin by clarifying how Muslims see the Qur'ān.
I. How Muslims See the Qur'ān
Muslims believe that the Qur'ān—which means "what is read or recited"—is the actual Word of God transmitted by the Archangel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad. The qur'ānic revelation started in the year 610 c.e. when Prophet Muhammad was forty years old, and continued until his death in 632. The Qur'ān is also called al-Kitab (the Book) which has 114 units [End Page 302] called surahs, each of which consists of a number of ayats or verses. In Surah 16...