By Tim Brys, Martin Accad and Brent Hamoud
When COVID-19 hit Lebanon in February 2020 bringing the country to a near standstill, the team at the Institute of Middle East Studies was challenged to rethink its peacebuilding initiatives in light of new social-distancing realities. This was quite difficult for programs built on facilitating human-to-human engagement. One initiative, the Friendship Network for Church and Mosque Goers, has grown over the past few years into a nationwide network of religious leaders of Sunni and Shi‘ite, Orthodox and Maronite, Evangelical and Druze faiths. It was decided to leverage these connections to bring a message of hope and unity to the Lebanese people by producing a video featuring several of these leaders sharing in a prayer to God interceding for Lebanon during this difficult time.
As Lebanon is in the midst of not just a single crisis but multiple crises, we believe that faith must inspire us to reach out to others in order to “focus on those things that bring us together,” as explained in the introduction to the video. A gathering of prayer is an invitation for all to know one another, share the Source of our hopefulness, and work towards redemptive futures. In a land of division and during a time of distancing, God is inspiring us to prayerfully invite others to come closer and seek the grace and mercy this world so badly needs.
Having said that, a four-minute video meant to bring hope in the midst of Lebanon’s unprecedented crisis cannot delve into the full complexity of inter-faith peacebuilding. It may seem strange to some that we gloss over the significant differences that exist between us to pray together in this video. One may think that venturing into these waters teeming with potential misconceptions is more risky than rewarding for faithful witness. After all, significant amounts of theological debate and disagreement could be avoided if we simply stuck to religious isolation rather than attempt interfaith engagement. But a holistic embrace of the gospel compels us to accept risk in order to sow seeds and nurture grounds that can foster the common good for our neighbors and ourselves.
While the prayer video was generally well received, some of our friends in the region expressed concerns about the initiative. The objections can be summarized by the following two reactions: “We don’t pray together with worshippers of false gods,” and “this is working towards a one-world religion.” These reactions are understandable, and some years ago a few of us at IMES may have reacted similarly.
The reactions point to two important theological questions regarding the substance of the prayer video:
Both questions beg more than a simple yes or no answer.
The prayer video starts with an introduction by Martin Accad, Director of IMES, describing Christian and Muslim leaders lifting their prayers to the one “God of heaven.” Religious leaders from the Friendship Network then proceed to address their prayers to the “God of heaven,” using words like “Rabb” (Lord), “Ilah” (god of), and “Allah” (God). Both Christian and Muslim faith leaders use these same three terms; no outside terminology is being injected into any tradition.
The last term can be controversial to some unfamiliar with the Arabic context, as Allah is often described as “the god of Islam.” This, regrettably, reflects a common misunderstanding. As literature and liturgies of Jews and Christians in the Arabic-speaking world overwhelmingly testify, the two communities have used “Allah” to refer to the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus since long before the time of Islam. Theories ascribing the name to a pagan divinity are unconvincing. Linguistically, the combination of the first aleph (“A” letter) with the following lam (“L” letter) in the name through a “fattening” of the sound with the tongue (at-tadkhim in Arabic) never occurs in the Arabic language. This sound occurs only as a result of two consecutive gutterals and the lam is not a guttural. “Allah,” which is always pronounced with this “fattening” sound, except when it follows a word ending with a kasra (genitive case ending), can be found in no other word in the Arabic language. This is a strong indication that the word “Allah” is a foreign word adopted into Arabic. In Aramaic, on the other hand, Alaha, the common name of God, is always pronounced this way. As attested in Aramaic and Syriac versions of the gospels, Jesus used Alaha to refer to his heavenly Father. A first point to note is thus that Arabic-speaking Jews, Christians and Muslims are in agreement on the terminology for God.
Of course, Muslims and Christians differ meaningfully in their understanding of the one God, such as in thinking of the Trinity and Jesus’s nature as well as salvation. Yet Christians and Jews also differ over these issues and there is little debate as to whether or not the God of Christianity and Judaism is one and the same. At the same time, Christians and Muslims (and Jews) agree that there is only one God who created everything, who is very different from his creation, who is good, who commands us to love him with our whole being, and who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Miroslav Volf argues in his book Allah: A Christian Response that this is sufficient cause to confirm that Christians and Muslims indeed worship the same God. 
Furthermore, if we take the example of Jesus and Paul and their inter-religious interactions, we see that neither Jesus in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well nor Paul in his speech to the Greeks in Athens rebuked their conversation partners for worshiping a false god. Rather, both indicated that they wanted to impart a greater revelation of the one God they believe was already being worshiped.
Can we then say that the Christians and Muslims in this video pray to the same God? What we can definitely affirm is that, as they pray, their minds are set on the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Does that mean that they understand God in the same way? There are already differences in the way that two Christians understand God as they pray to him. How much more, then, between Christians, Jews and Muslims, when Jesus is not present as the fullest expression of God in Jews and Muslims’ minds as they address the God of heaven? We must not pretend that this is not important. And this brings us to the second theological question we need to address.
Even granted that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, does the video not purposefully gloss over the significant differences that exist in the understanding of God between Christians and Muslims (and Jews), thus promoting a syncretistic understanding of their faiths? Indeed, we do purposefully gloss over these significant differences in the video, although not for the purpose of syncretism or compromise.
In general, the kind of peacebuilding we at IMES advocate for and try to apply in our initiatives is not one where you check your faith at the door, pretend that we all believe the same thing, and sing “kum ba yah.” We believe that true interfaith dialogue is only possible when people bring their whole persons and their full faith commitments to the table. Both Islam and Christianity are missionary religions and there is no need to pretend otherwise in order to engage in dialogue and peacebuilding. That is at least our belief and experience after many years of peacebuilding in Lebanon.
Yet, as noted above, a four-minute video produced in the midst of multiple crises cannot address the full complexity of inter-faith peacebuilding. That is why we gloss over the significant differences that exist between us.
This is a time to stand together on our common ground as Christians and Muslims. Tomorrow – and this day is already here – we continue discussing how and why we differ.