Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism. By Paul Heck. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. 2009.
A vitally important question confronting contemporary society is the degree to which the religions of Islam and Christianity share common ground. Discerning the degree of commonality between these faiths has tremendous importance, since if overlapping theological convictions exist on sufficiently important questions, so might the basis for a deeper and more fruitful coexistence between the two faiths. Such an outcome would be especially welcome in an era of increasing religious diversity and enduring tensions among adherents of both traditions. In addressing the issue of religious pluralism and the promise of common ground, it is essential to explore the status of human rights. A central question for scholars is whether Islamic theology either explicitly or implicitly affirms the importance of human rights. Are there elements in Islamic thought that can be interpreted as supplying support for human rights? Conversely, do aspects of the Islamic tradition militate against the affirmation of rights? At the same time, are there elements in the Christian tradition that can readily be construed to support human rights, elements not present or less emphasized in Islamic thought?
A tremendous resource for exploring these questions is Paul Heck's recent work Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism. Common Ground is a superb piece of theological analysis. Heck deploys his impressive mastery of the history and current trends within Christian and Islamic theology to re-think the promise of religious pluralism and the prospects for a fuller understanding of religious tolerance. His central thesis is that Islam and Christianity hold much deeper commonalities than often are recognized. With its vast erudition and sophisticated treatment of primary source material, the work is a must-read for serious students of comparative theology today.
In this essay I first discuss briefly Heck's assertions concerning the existence of significant common ground between Islam and Christianity and his thoughts on the status of human rights in Islamic thought. I then argue that the common ground detected by Heck is especially that between Catholicism and Islam, and that those commonalities are less substantial when Islam is viewed in contrast to influential elements in the Protestant tradition. In doing so I define several key points where Islamic thought in all its major forms diverges more widely from Protestant than from Catholic thought. I conclude the piece with reflections on the significance of these divergences for our understanding of the status of human rights in Islamic thought. I do so by situating this discussion in the context of recent defenses of human rights set forth in the field of political philosophy.
Human Rights and Theological Common Ground
Heck asserts that Islam and Christianity share common ground to a larger extent than usually recognized. At times, however, the claims to common ground developed by Heck can strike the reader as underwhelming. The common ground, he relates at one point, is simply that believers are rational: "In the end what can be said is that for Muslims and for Christians, piety is not irrational" (72). Thus Heck affirms that "believers are rational in the way they comprehend and articulate beliefs. Therein lies the common ground" (223). What is more, believers are frequently called, he asserts, actually to engage rationally their own religious convictions: the rationality of their piety is not present simply in latent form. A person could in principle be capable of reasoning about one's beliefs and could see one's views as amenable to rational proof, without actually having to engage for oneself those reasons in any meaningful sense. One can suspect that many devout believers have precisely such a view of their faith: they have, in other words, confidence that someone else can provide the rational foundation for the faith they hold as true. …