A Christian Scholar’s Dialogue with Muslims

by Hans Kung

Hans Küng is director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research at the University of Tübingen in West Germany.

His article was translated by Leonard Swindler, professor of Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue at Temple University in Philadelphia. This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 9, 1986, pp. 890-894. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The image of the stubbornly dogmatic Muslim is as foolish a cliché as it is a fatal one. There can be no peace among nations without peace among religions. Peace is indivisible!

Dr. Küng was invited by the Goethe Institute in collaboration with the Ministry for Islamic Affairs to travel to Tehran last March to speak on Islam and Christianity. As the first Western theologian to be invited to Iran after the Islamic revolution, he had the opportunity to engage in theological discussion with leading ayatollahs and Muslim scholars concerning the relationship between Christianity and Islam. He reports here on his personal experiences with Christian-Muslim dialogue in various lands.

Despite the escalation of the war, Professor of Islamics Josef van Ess, a Tübingen colleague of mine and I considered it important to accept the invitation to this colloquium in order to see and hear for ourselves, there on the spot; it is obviously better to receive information directly rather than simply to sit and criticize or speculate in one’s easy chair.

"With which Muslims do you wish to carry on a dialogue? I don’t know any, " a well-known publicist stationed in the Near East said to me a short while ago in a television discussion concerning Christianity and World Religions, a new book by van Ess and myself. This lack of acquaintance is widespread since Islam drew itself back into its traditional values in an Islamic renaissance that is not unique to the Shiite Iran of Imam Khomeini, but is also happening in some Sunni lands. With whom, then, should a Christian ecumenical theologian speak if he or she is concerned about dialogue not only among the Christian confessions but, in a time of growing world unity, also among the world religions, especially with the other two Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam? "Muslims who are prepared to dialogue are people from yesterday, not from today," commented even such an important expert on contemporary Islam as Peter Scholl-Latour.

And yet this impression is deceptive. Dialogue is possible even under today’s more difficult conditions, and in fact it takes place. Of course, the until-now traditionally European-centered Christian theologians -- like the often too politically, militarily and economically oriented news correspondents, who hardly ever made contact with the really decisive spiritual representatives in Iran -- have taken practically no notice of that fact. At the same time, one would have to admit that theological Germany has not found itself precisely in the vanguard in dialogue among the religions. In the theological faculties of both Christian confessions, this dialogue, often disconcerting and demanding, is largely avoided. Of course, for some time now there has existed the "Standing Conference of European Jews, Christians and Muslims," which under the inspiration of Rabbi Lionel Blue (London), Dr. Salah Eid (Cairo) and Pastor Winfried Maechler (Protestant Academy of West Berlin) launched its efforts in the early 1970s. However, until now, it has received far too little public attention. Since the oil crisis and the collapse of the strongest, most Western-oriented power in the Near and Middle East, Iran, as a result of the Islamic revolution there have been many conferences on Islam, particularly in the Protestant and Catholic academies. Individual Muslim participants have been invited to them.

Nevertheless, in comparison to what takes place in North American universities, for example, this progress is much too meager. Since theology and religious studies have for a long time not been so sharply and dogmatically divided in North America as they are in Germany, the overcoming of the isolation of Christian theology and the establishment of ongoing dialogue is much more solidly based there. In the past year I have participated in public dialogues with Muslims at the University of Toronto and at Harvard and Temple universities, where stimulating discussions on central theological differences took place and in which clear positions were expressed by all sides with sympathy and mutual understanding. In addition, within the framework of the American Academy of Religion there exists a working group which pursues the "trialogue" among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Of course, the question remains: What is the situation of dialogue in the Islamic countries themselves? Is there even the least openness to a dialogue which is worthy of the name? Answer: Islam is no monolithic block, no closed system. There are gigantic differences among the Islamic nations, each of which would have to be handled separately. But by even the grimmest assessment, there are certain positive signs that cannot be overlooked. Many agree with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was murdered by Muslim extremists, that peace is impossible in the Near East without a resolution of the religious problematic. At least in the moderate Muslim lands, including Jordan, where leading representatives of the country have recognized the significance of religious values and of interreligious dialogue better than have some Western statespeople, there is already no small degree of openness to an honest dialogue with Christians who are capable of looking beyond the borders of their own religion. In England I recently took part, along with Josef van Ess, in a several-day-long symposium conducted between leading Muslims from the moderate countries (from North Africa to Malaysia) and high-ranking Christian church leaders (even a representative from the Vatican!), as well as theologians and religious experts. This dialogue will be renewed very shortly in the Near East.

And in the conservative Islamic countries in which the "Islamicization’’ has taken drastic forms? I have no illusions concerning the scarcely democratic political conditions of these countries, which have difficult times behind them and probably -- as the present war in the Middle East underlines -- lying before them. The Western press has written much about re-Islamicization -- in the view of the Iranians. often with little fairness and with unwarranted indignation. So thought Minister for Islamic Affairs Erschad Khatami in Tehran, in a long conversation in response to my complaints (which nevertheless were not retracted). I especially took exception to the reception given Christian pastoral work in Iran and the scandalous treatment of the Baha’i. Khatami argued that it is hypocritical of Western politicians, particularly those in the United States, to become excited over the violations of human rights in Iran, which in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution and in the midst of war finds itself in a transitional phase. Iran has already improved a number of situations. In their own spheres of influence, from Korea to South America to Africa, Western powers have long supported brutal dictatorial regimes with all means available and have shrunk from violent interventions in insubordinate countries just as little as the Soviet Union has.

In fact, it is only through the power of the United States that a regime like that of the Muslim Gaafar Mohammed Nimeiri in the Sudan was able to stay in power. It was he who recently hanged one of the most important Islamic reformers of our time, the engineer, legal expert and mystic Mahmud Taha, often called the "Gandhi of Africa." at the age of 75. After many more arrests, Nimeiri carried out still further public executions under the eyes of the press and television. Islam has thus often -- exactly as Christianity has -- become a force for repression and a legitimation of the existing power relationships, whereas it could and should be a force for liberation.

I do not deceive myself about what the immediate theological results of such conversations with Muslims in these lands might bring. The goal of such interreligious conversations clearly is not conversion experiences, but rather genuine dialogue conducted with accurate knowledge and trust with a view to long-range effects.

In Pakistan. where I was one year ago. I found an extraordinary interest among leading scholars in dialogue with those of other beliefs. This interest persisted, or perhaps was even newly awakened under the present authoritarian regime. In Pakistan, unlike the nearby Soviet Union, there is complete freedom to carry on public dialogues and to report on them in the press. It is evident that the Goethe Institute does well in Iran not to limit its public activity to musical or purely literary presentations and "harmless’’ lectures. Philosophical and theological ideas, which can sometimes be more tactfully raised by foreigners than by the local scholars, are often of much more burning interest.

In any case, the unusual presentation of the Goethe Institute in Lahore, featuring a number of Islamic personalities in public life, drew a large audience. The discussion was conducted in an extremely pleasant atmosphere, without the feared eruption of arguments. The same can be said of the programs which have been put on by the Institute for Islamic Culture and the Islamic Philosophical Society, both likewise in Lahore; of a meeting at the Christian Studies Centre in Rawalpindi; of conversations with professors at the Quaid-e-Azam University and with theologians at the Islamic University in Islamabad, as well as a discussion at the Quaide-e-Azam Academy in Karachi. Everywhere the difficult theological differences between Christianity and Islam came under debate, and everywhere there was manifested an extraordinary readiness to listen, to enter into arguments and to make a contribution to understanding. An Islamic-Christian dialogue group was shortly thereafter founded, and its publications are being prepared. The image of the stubbornly dogmatic Muslim is as foolish as it is a fatal cliché.

Concerning Iran: "Instead of dispute, dialogue." This is the astounding phrase that I heard in Tehran right at the beginning of a seminar at the Institute for Philosophy, in which a number of ayatollahs, leading members of the Revolutionary Council of Culture, of the Ministry for Islamic Affairs and also of the family of the leader of the revolution, Khomeini, took part. The counsel to carry on dialogue is indeed a new insight after all of Iran’s aggressive revolutionary slogans. The new mood might be partially motivated by a political concern to break out of isolation: nevertheless. I am convinced after the very personal conversations I had that it is primarily religiously motivated, that it will persist after the present time of war and that it will bear fruit in the not-distant future.

Does an interreligious dialogue, however, have any meaning whatsoever for believing, conservative Muslims, who no less than traditional Roman Catholics hold fast to the conviction that they possess the true doctrine, indeed, the whole of truth, and are convinced that their religion is a da’wat, an "invitation" to all of humankind to become Muslim?

Of course, Muslim theologians also proceed on the assumption that humanity is pluralist and that the thought worlds of millions of human beings are different from theirs in speech, culture and religion. How then should Muslims under these circumstances make their Islamic faith understandable to non-Muslims when they are not able to confront their concepts, their ideas or their teachings with those of Christians? According to Muslim interpretation, as was persuasively portrayed in the foundation-laying lecture by a mullah who knew Germany quite well, something like a table of comparisons between the concepts, ideas and teachings of the two religions is needed, which, however, cannot be put together by Muslims alone if it is to be objective. No, Christians must determine what their own concepts, ideas and teachings mean. Only thus can it be meaningful when people come together and in trusting conversations compare, clarify and evaluate.

What could Muslims set from such a dialogue? Three points of view were expressed in Tehran:

First, such a dialogue would enable Muslims to understand Christianity better, for there is taking place within Christianity a very significant transformation, concerning which most Muslims are scarcely aware, though it is extraordinarily important even for them.

Second. in the process of secularization, modern Christianity has had negative as well as positive experiences which Islam in its unavoidable modernization quite possibly might also have lying before it. That is particularly true in regard to dealing with the modern critique of religion, as, for example, by Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.

Third, numberless theological misunderstandings (with regard to the essence and the externals of Islam, the person and the significance of the prophet and qur’anic revelation) and also the religious wars (all the way from the earliest conflicts through the Crusades up until the most recent confrontations) have poisoned the relationships between Muslims and Christians throughout the centuries. Such misunderstandings, indeed hostilities, could be clarified only through encounters and scholarly solutions. What has occurred already to a great degree in Western oriental studies and theology must be expanded through corresponding Muslim efforts.

If Judaism, Christianity and Islam are in fact religions of the one God and religions of the Book -- and Muslims place a great weight on this -- then they have a common basis of faith: the three Abrahamic religions would be able to know and recognize each other as religions of the "unity of God" only if they had come to understand each other as such. Without broad mutual information, without human contact, without dialogue in its various forms this cannot happen. Therefore contacts with Western scholars should he multiplied and deepened.

First, we Christians can no longer look upon Islam as a path to hell -- as did the earlier Catholic teaching and as many conservative Protestant churches still do today. Rather, we should view it as one possible path to eternal life (which, since Vatican II, is possible for the Catholic Church, but is still disputed by some within the World Council of Churches). Islam, too, is therefore a path of salvation.

Second, we may no longer dismiss the prophet Muhammad as a false prophet, but rather must pay conscientious attention to his prophetic function, which has been extraordinarily successful in bringing hundreds of millions of human beings who live in the gigantic area between North Africa and the Soviet Usbekistan and from there to Indonesia to the faith in one God. Muhammad, therefore, is a post-Christian prophet, a "warner" of the one God of Abraham.

Third, we may not discredit the Qur’an as a derivative mixture from old Arabic-Jewish-Christian ideas, but rather we should place its obvious power as the word of God for the faithful in a correct light: the Qur’an is an effective word of the all-forgiving, merciful God for believing Muslims.

Until now all of these positions have been little discussed by a very self-aware, but in reality quite provincial German theology. Even "political theology." largely concentrated on Latin America, expresses only limited world-political dimensions. Without intensive scholarly wrestling with the existing questions. no headway can be made in dialogue. And only if one takes the demands of the Muslims seriously has one the right to put questions to them -- as I did in the discussions in Tehran: In what sense can the Qur’an be viewed as the word of God? Is this holy book in fact literally dictated by God to the prophet Muhammad, as this was also earlier unquestioningly assumed by Christians in regard to the "five books of Moses’’ (concerning creation, the fall of humanity, the history of the patriarchs and the people Israel)? Is, therefore, only a literal understanding of the Qur’an allowed, or can one also view the Qur’an seriously, if, like the Bible, it is not to be taken literally? Is perhaps the Qur’an not also at once the word of God and the word of humanity: the word of God in human words? All of these are questions of the greatest practical and also political relevance. For how should the often much-too comprehensive interweaving of faith and politics in Islam, as well as the gruesome medieval Islamic penal law, be corrected if everything in the Qur’an (and also the therefrom derived Shar’ia, or Islamic canon law) -- to the chopping off of hands and feet -- is literally a command of God which may not be touched? Politicians should also note that to try to approach Muslims with solely political, juridical or social-psychological arguments is to miss the decisive point.

The discussion in Tehran, which even on these questions that have been vigorously disputed for centuries between Christians and Muslims did not result in the feared explosion, uncovered as they expanded into the still more difficult questions concerning Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity a genuine willingness on both sides to learn, a search for new solutions, a clear will to understanding. If only political conferences now and again could take place in such a spirit!

What are the immediate results of this first theological contact after the Islamic revolution? One, the dismantling of a mutual mistrust and the creation of a good trust basis for a further exchange of thoughts between Muslims and Christians. Two, the publication of all presentations in the Persian language. Three, the continuation of contacts with German scholars and consideration given to establishing a dialogue center in Qum, the "holy city’’ of Islam in Iran.

It is to be expected that other Islamic lands will likewise show an interest in a more intense interchange with Western scholars. My experiences in Tehran should encourage theologians to take advantage of every opportunity for dialogue wherever it presents itself. Of course, academic theologians who are invited to such dialogues have it easier than the local Christian churches, which are struggling for their status. I am convinced, however, that such dialogues will also work for their immediate benefit. And one may not say that as a theologian, I misread the political realities of the country and might possibly be used in order to cover up the true religious-political relations. Whoever speaks in favor of going to East Berlin, Prague, Moscow or Peking should not be morally or politically indignant over a journey to Tehran which had clear, limited goals. Whoever is interested in the relaxation of Iranian political tensions (in both domestic and foreign affairs) must also speak up for the relaxation of religious tensions. Indeed, perhaps a relaxation of political tensions can come about only if a relaxation of religious tensions begins to take place. This one point is clear: there can be no peace among nations without peace among religions. Peace is indivisible!