Conversation Guide #13: Exclusionary Texts in ‘A Common Word’ – by Gé Speelman

In Muslim-Christian encounter, exclusionary texts both from the Qur’an and the Bible play a role. Often, Christian authors have tried to give their interpretation to Qur’anic texts about religious others. Also, Christian authors try to understand biblical texts about people who do not follow Christ.

The same is true for Muslim authors. How do they interpret their own Scripture, especially the Qur’an, and how do they interpret Christian scriptural texts about religious others, that might be read as exclusionary texts?

A Common Word

In October 2007, an open letter entitled ‘A Common Word Between Us and You’ was sent by 138 Muslim scholars to 27 Christian Church leaders. The sending of this letter was part of a carefully planned media-event. The letter was published on the internet (, as were the subsequent reactions by church leaders and others.

The appeal to Christians to enter into dialogue with Muslims in A Common Word is supported by a theological argumentation that uses texts from the Qur’an, Hadith and Bible. The authors of A Common Word stress the common ground between Biblical and Qur’anical texts. They claim, using as their starting point Jesus’s double commandment (love of God and of the neighbour) as their frame, that the core message of the Qur’an and Hadith is not essentially different from the Christian core message. They hope to set up conversations and forms of cooperation between Muslims and Christians worldwide on the basis of the structural similarities between their sacred Scriptures.

Exclusionary texts are common, both in the Bible and in the Qur’an. In both Scriptures, there are many texts distinguishing good people from evil people, and groups of faithful believers from groups of unbelievers. The former are walking with God, whereas the latter are excluded from the community of the faithful. In this sense, many sacred texts offer the opportunity to exclude contemporaries or fellow citizens from the in-group. The presence of such texts is not surprising. It is the use of each text, their interpretation in the present context that is of importance.

How do the writers of A Common Word deal with such exclusionary texts? In order to answer this question, I will look in more detail at one verse quotes from the Qur’an, and then at the way the authors interpret three texts from the Gospels.

The interpretation of Sura 3:64

Building on this assumption of common ground, it is argued on the basis of the Qur’an, that people of the Scripture should come to a common word. This is supported by the quotation of sura 3: 64:

Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him). (Āl ‘Imran 3:64)

This is potentially an exclusionary text, and has often been so explained  in the Islamic tradition. According to many Muslim exegetes, the admonition to come to a ‘common word’ assumes that the Jewish and Christian contemporaries of Muhammad did, in fact, ascribe a partner to God (the Christians) or that they took others for lords besides God (the Christians and the Jews). So, the turning away of Muhammad’s conversation partners in sura 3:64 apparently is the expected outcome of the conversation. The ‘we’ in the clause ‘We are they who have surrendered’ consists, according to the traditional exegesis of this passage, of the group of Muhammad’s followers: they are the true worshippers who have surrendered (aslama) to God and are therefore ‘muslims’ (muslim is  the participal derived from the infinitive of the verb aslama, to surrender). The writers of a Common Word, however, give a slightly different interpretation to this potentially exclusionary text. They connect the clause ‘that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him’ to total devotion to the one and only God, a devotion they also see in Christians.

For the second injunction, ‘that none of us shall take others for lords beside God’, the writers of A Common Word follow the exegesis of the classical scholar Al-Tabari, who says that this part of the text should be read as an injunction ‘that none of us should obey in disobedience to what God has commanded, nor glorify them by prostrating to them in the same way as they prostrate to God’. The writers of A Common Word see this as an appeal for believers to follow the dictates of their own conscience instead of submitting to coercion from religious authority. Jews, Christians and Muslims, they write, ‘should be free to each follow what God commands them, and not have “to prostrate before kings and the like”.’ Political pressure to accommodate the majority belief in a society is out of the question, because that would mean a submission before ‘kings and the like’, instead of an assent out of free will to serve God and God alone. To reinforce the implication that this part of 3:64 is dealing with freedom of conscience, the writers of A Common Word make a connection with a Qur’anic quotation from sura 2:256: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ And this quotation is in turn linked by them to the second biblical commandment ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. The implicit reasoning that underlies this arrangement of texts is that justice and love of the neighbour are closely connected, and that freedom of religion is an important component of justice. The beginning of the verse ‘Come to a common word between us and you’ can be interpreted, as indeed Tabari does, as meaning to ‘come to a just (ādil) word between us and you’, making the verse into a call by God to cooperate for the sake of justice. Thus, a traditionally more common exclusionary interpretation of sura 3:64 is transformed into a plea for freedom of religion.

The interpretation of Mark 9:40, Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23

The authors of A Common Word also pay attention to possibly exclusionary texts from the New Testament. They quote from three passages from the Gospels and discuss these texts (ACW, p. 15).

Is Christianity necessarily against Muslims? In the Gospel Jesus Christ says:
He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters abroad. (Matthew 12:30)
For he who is not against us is on our side. (Mark 9:40)
… for he who is not against us is on our side. (Luke 9:50)

Here the writers of A Common Word put in juxtaposition one possibly exclusionary text (Matthew 12:30) and two possibly inclusionary texts (Mark 9: 40 and Luke 9: 50). How to combine the messages of these texts? Are the Gospels in contradiction with each other? In traditional polemics between Muslims and Christians, Muslims accuse Christians of falsification of their scriptures (tahrīf). Internal contradictions between Gospel texts is an argument that plays a major role in these polemics. The authors of A Common Word do not refer to this background in their analysis. Rather, they assume that there must be an underlying reason for the apparent contradiction, and try to clarify it.

In order to do so, they make use of the Christian commentator Theophylact of Ohrid (1055–1107).  This commentary is very popular in Eastern Orthodox churches. Theophylact reasons that there is no contradiction between the three gospel texts. They only address different contexts: ‘The first statement (in the actual Greek text of the New Testament) refers to demons, whereas the second and third statements refer to people who recognised Jesus, but were not Christians.’ (ACW, p15)

The argument of Theophylact goes as follows. In Matthew 12, Jesus is in discussion with the Pharisees who accuse Jesus of using the power of Satan to drive out demons. The answer of Jesus is referring to the demons themselves (they are not for Jesus, therefore against him) as well as to the Pharisees (they are the ones who scatter abroad, and who sin against the Holy Spirit by assigning Jesus to the realm of Satan). The text excludes not only demons and Satan, but also those who emphatically deny the divine power of Jesus. In Mark and Luke on the other hand, Jesus is in conversation with his disciples who are troubled because another person has driven out demons in the name of Jesus, but refuses to join their company. In these texts, there is an inclusion of outsiders, but under certain conditions. Those outsiders are speaking in the name of Jesus, that means that they do not deny His divine powers but align themselves with them, without becoming fully-fledged members of his movement. The authors of A Common Word are connecting these benevolent outsiders with Muslims. Like the healers in Mark and Luke, Muslims to some extent acknowledge the divine powers of Jesus without becoming part of the Christian community. In this way, an inclusionary text from the Gospels is interpreted as potentially also including Muslims. They write:

Muslims recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah, not in the same way Christians do (but Christians themselves anyway have never all agreed with each other on Jesus Christ’s nature), but in the following way: ‘…. the Messiah Jesus son of Mary is a Messenger of God and His Word which he cast unto Mary and a Spirit from Him….’ (Al-Nisa’, 4:171). We therefore invite Christians to consider Muslims not against and thus with them, in accordance with Jesus Christ’s words here. (ACW, p. 15)

The writers of A Common Word here open up the inclusion of Muslims in the group of people who are ‘not against and thus with’ Christians, at the same time affirming the enduring differences between Muslims and Christians when it comes to the nature of Christ. A remarkable feature of this passage is that so far, both the terms ‘Muslims’ and ‘Christians’ seem to refer throughout the document to stable and unified entities. Nowhere are there  signs of a recognition of the diversity and lack of consensus on some issues within both communities. But in this passage, there is a reference to Christian internal diversity. This diversity may create a space for Muslims – who generally do not acknowledge the divine nature of Christ – to include unspecified groups within the Christian communities within their religious in-group. It also opens up the possibility that among Christians there may be a movement of convergence with the Muslim viewpoint on the Divine nature of Christ. The religious other is seen as someone who resembles ‘us’.


  1. How do you interpret exclusionary texts in the Gospels? Would they hinder you from opening up to your neighbour who has a different religion or life stance?
  2. How would you explain the differences between Matthew, Mark and Luke in the passages above?
  3. What we see in A Common Word is a group of Muslim scholars interpreting three Gospel texts. In the movement of Scriptural Reasoning, where Jews, Christians and Muslims read together out of each other’s Scriptures, one of the basic rules is: Feel invited to explore others’ texts. And also invite others to explore your texts. (See: Would you agree with this rule, or would you argue that the Christian community is the ‘owner’ of the interpretation of the Gospel text, just as much as the Muslim community is the ‘owner’ of the Qur’anic text?
  4. Would you agree with the writers of A Common Word that stressing commonalities is a good starting point for Muslim-Christian encounter, or would it be more helpful to start acknowledging and exploring our undeniable differences in tradition?
  5. How could a group of Christians and Muslims begin to understand each other’s religious texts? What is needed for that understanding?


This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Gé Speelman, which can be found here: Exclusionary Texts in ‘A Common Word’.
Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.