Do we need “A Common Word”?

by Sheikh Ali Gomaa
28 October 2008
Cambridge, England - Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt, spoke at Churchill College, Cambridge University on 12 October 2008. The gathering was organised by the Radical Middle Way, a Muslim grassroots initiative articulating a mainstream understanding of Islam, in partnership with the Cambridge University Islamic Society. This is an excerpt.

I greet you all with the greeting of Islam: peace be with you all.

I would like to present you with some statistics from the Qur’an and the Sunnah (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad). The Qur’an has roughly 6000 verses. Three hundred of those verses address matters of law–roughly 5 percent.

We have about 60,000 Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). Out of those, 2000 speak to matters of law – about 3%.

So what do the rest of the Qur’an and the Hadiths speak to? They speak to matters of etiquette. And these matters of etiquette and manners, in the realm of the shari’a (Islamic principles), are connected with theology.

This means that 97 percent of our religion is composed of etiquette and manners which are related to matters of faith.

At the pinnacle of our faith and theology is the concept of the oneness of God. And at the top of the list of values are the values of compassion and mercy.

We say before reciting or reading any part of the Qur’an, “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

So the concept of mercy is repeated twice. God has many different attributes – there are attributes of greatness and there are those of beauty. It is very possible for God to begin the chapters of the Qur’an with an attribute of this and an attribute of that: for example, “In the name of God, the Avenger, the Compassionate.”

But God says instead, “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” This means that man’s relationship with God is between Mercy and Mercy.

A Hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) says, “The merciful ones receive mercy from the Merciful, exalted be He.

Show mercy on earth and you will receive Mercy from the One in Heaven.” In this Hadith, the Prophet is telling us to show mercy toward one another.

So mercy is the basis for etiquette and manners in Islam, and what is borne out of this concept is the attribute of love.

When we speak with others, we speak about the manners and etiquette that are linked with our faith because this is the foundation upon which our religion is built and this is the common ground between others and us.

Speak to them about this 95 percent or 97 percent of our religion.

This is what drove us clerics, scholars and intellectuals to write the document, “A Common Word”, which declares the common ground between Christianity and Islam. It is based on love of God and love of one’s neighbour. We have to remember that this is the basis of our religion.

That is why this is a good method of correcting some of the misconceptions people have about Islam. And it clarifies, to ourselves as well as to the world, who we are.

The word wasatiyya, or middle way, in the Qur’an has a very gentle and subtle meaning. God says, “We have appointed you a nation of the middle way so you can be witnesses unto mankind, and so the Prophet [peace be upon him] can be a witness unto you” (Qur’an 2:143).

Some of the scholars say that this word, wasat, or middle, is the pinnacle of the mountain. As you ascend the mountain and then descend, the pinnacle is in the middle. And while we are at the top of mountain, we can see everyone and everyone can see us.

Another word used in this verse is “witness”, which in Arabic means the one who is seen, and is not restricted to the one who is seeing. It is a strange word that brings both these concepts together.

It indicates interaction between you and others. This idea of witnessing, of being a witness, has a very deep civilisational meaning.

We have to understand that we are a people of an open religion; we have no secrets. Our relationship with others is based on this good example. This is what is meant by love of God and love of one’s neighbour.

“A Common Word” is a long-term strategy for Muslims living in the 21st century. It does not create a veil between the Creator and creation.

We do not dispute or argue with God that he has created differences amongst people – we do what He and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) command us to do. The Prophet is the one who said, “Narrate from me even if it may be [just] one verse.”

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “The Archangel Gabriel kept reminding me of my neighbour to the extent that I thought he would inherit from me.” He has given us a programme of change, on how we can change our lives for the better.

He said begin with yourself and then with those close to you. He said, “Will you see the small error in the person in front of you and forget the huge error in yourself?” So we should return to the Prophet’s example and begin with ourselves in this change, and open our arms to others the way our religion calls for.

An open heart was the basis for constructing this document and this initiative: “A Common Word”.


* Sheikh Ali Gomaa is the Grand Mufti of Egypt. For more information on “A Common Word”, visit This adapted article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Radical Middle Way.

Source: Radical Middle Way, 12 October 2008,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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