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Interfaith Dialogue ( 15 Jun 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Mission in Christianity and Islam: The Claim to Truth in a Plural Society

By Susanne Kappe

Proselytising means in part to impose one's faith on others. In a book of collected essays Muslim and Christian theologians explore together how the profession of faith can be lived out appropriately in today's world. By Susanne Kappe

Both Christianity and Islam can look back on a history of the spread of religious faith reaching back thousands of years. Nevertheless, one should under no circumstances make the mistake of applying the phenomenon of the Christian mission to Islam in an undifferentiated fashion – something made amply clear by the collection of essays recently published by the a theological working group, which took place in March 2010.

In this discussion forum, inaugurated by the Catholic Academy in Stuttgart-Rottenburg, Germany, theologians and Islam scholars address issues arising in connection with the relationship between Christianity and Islam.

Even though the idea of the "mission" in Christianity and Islam is not identical, the Islamic concept of da'wa, literally "invitation" or "call", is closely related to the Christian mission. Most authors take da'wa to mean a respectful invitation to a discussion of religious contents, emphasising the communicative dimension of a dialogue. But there are also other concepts comparable to the Christian mission: tabligh ("transmission") for example, the God-given duty not to leave humankind ignorant of divine revelation.

Historical burdens

Religion and imperial arrogance: The prevailing image amongst Muslims today is still that of the mission as a Christian strategy to convert all those of other faiths. Pictured: Danish missionary priest baptising in Brazil, 1910

The concept of the Christian mission was approached with a great deal more scepticism in the forum, owing among other things to the abuse-ridden history of the colonial missionaries as well as the missionary intentions harboured by certain groups in the field of Orientalism. The prevailing image amongst Muslims today is still that of the mission as a Christian strategy to convert all those of other faiths.

By contrast, the Islamic expansion in the Middle Ages did not have the goal of converting all the subject peoples. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians were incorporated into the community as wards of the state (dhimmis), obliged only to paying a poll tax. Islamic da'wa activities did not arise until the 19th century, as reaction to similar Christian missionary efforts.

In Indonesia, for example, the Muhammadiyya movement, preaching an orthodox Sunni Islam, came together in deliberate resistance to Christian influences, while at the same time imitating methods of social relief initiated by the missionary societies. Theologically speaking, da'wa in Islam carries nowhere near the same weight as the mission in Christianity, where it is among the religion's fundamental theological principles.

"Explosive theme of the mission": Participants of the Islamic-Christian theological working group in Stuttgart, 2010

This Islamic perspective has to do in part with the way the Koran treats Jews and Christians as a single group. There are diverse passages in the Koran dealing with the so-called "people of the book", at times extremely critically and at other times in a more conciliatory manner.

According to the Islam scholar Hüseyin Inam from the Association of Muslim theologians Germany, the Koran condemns the claim to absolute truth made by the Jewish and Christian creeds and instead invokes an earnest belief in one God without declaring Islam as the only path to salvation. Bülent Ucar, professor of religious pedagogy at the University of Osnabrück, comes to the conclusion that the Koran underscores the commonalities between all religions, calling for interreligious debates to be conducted in a reserved manner and "in the most pleasant way".

Mission and dialogue – a contradiction?

In Islam in particular, conversion is a sensitive topic, as the Islamic legal systems in some countries still include laws imposing the death penalty for apostasy. The Muslim authors point out in this connection that, in the early days of Islam, conversion was closely associated with political high treason and was for this reason censured in the Koran. Reference is made there only to a condemnation at the time of the Last Judgement, however. Earthly sanctions are accordingly unjustified and would not longer correspond to today's mainstream interpretation of the Koran.

What is actually at the heart of the explosive theme of the mission, or da'wa, is the way it at first glance seems to contradict the ideas of pluralism and dialogue. The claim to universal truth on which the motive of the mission is grounded aims at a levelling of pluralistic faiths in order to push through a single religion that alone is regarded as offering salvation.

The consequence of this attitude is to prevent a respectful dialogue between partners who are conceived of as equals, says Naime Cakir, a social educator at the University of Darmstadt. For it would seem nearly impossible to take seriously the arguments of a conversation partner one deems to be misguided and not worthy of salvation.

The book shows what a broad field is already covered by the interreligious discourses on the theme of mission and da'wa among a comparatively homogenous group of learned German-speaking scholars. The great mass of believers are normally not privy to such discourses, however, exposed instead to frequent reports in the media about Muslim extremists who call for "holy war" against the infidels, or of Christian priests burning the Koran.

That this form of mission is long since discredited amongst theologians, who instead understand the idea of mission or da'wa as a testimony to one's own faith within a respectful dialogue, is something the wider public has yet to learn. In this respect, the book makes an important contribution to educating the public about the various forms taken by the mission and da'wa.

This article translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor