Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism
By Paul L. Heck
(Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2009), p. 240.

Reviewed by Wyndham Whynot, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History, Livingstone College.

Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations argues that conflicts between specific civilizations are predicated on religion and culture. Whether or not his thesis is correct, religion is an important element within these various societies. During the recent era, the so-called battle between Islam and Christianity has, at times, reached horrifying extremes, as seen in the verbal and physical responses that adherents of both religions have made toward those with whom they disagree.

Based on a series of lectures given at John Carroll University in 2007, Heck’s Common Ground is an effort to examine “the insight into Christian-Muslim thinking,” (p. 3) and “to invite reflection on religious thinking pluralistically”(p. 4). However, readers seeking an expansive and exhaustive look at the ways in which the two religions are similar will be extremely disappointed.

Heck notes that Muslims and Christians need to rethink how they approach religion as an issue of identity and focus instead of celebrating religious pluralism. Although admitting that some significant theological differences exist, he argues that the two religions share more qualities than many of their adherents believe. Heck divides his work into three sets of two chapters, each set examining important issues. His first section examines aspects of religious revelation; the second takes up issues of ethics; and the third focuses on matters of politics. Not only does Heck offer a point-and-counterpoint type of argument about the broader themes in each chapter, he also provides some examples of early, and some later, Islamic theorists’ views that seem to parallel Christian thoughts on each topic in an effort to show how the religions are comparable.

While adherents of Christianity and Islam argue that God’s message is unique to their individual religion, Heck argues that the actual revelations are not necessarily in opposition as one might think. Rather, both focus on the role of the prophets and their message: that one must understand “God, God’s will, and the consequences of failing to live up to God’s will” (p. 10). Heck also discusses the rising religious skepticism found within societies, noting that neither holy book deals with elements within the modern world. He notes that, in the field of ethics, both religions have gradually shifted certain standards to make their revelations fit within the modern era.

Human rights and democracy are hallmarks of modern society and are often associated with the Christian West, while Islamic states are seen as both limiting human rights and opposing democracy. Heck argues that, both historically and in the present era, Islam is neither inherently anti-democratic nor opposed to respecting human rights. Although examples of Islamic opposition to both ideals do exist, similar opposition occurs in the predominantly Christian regions of the world as well. Heck notes that Islamic belief that all are equal in God’s sight forms a basis for democratic principles and that the Shari’a and the hadiths often serve to protect human rights.For example, in modern times the concept of jihad has become a loaded term, often used by Westerners and some Muslims to refer to Islamic holy wars. However, the majority of Muslims continually point out that the term actually means to strive or struggle to remain true to God. In this context, the question arises: do Christians engage in jihad? Heck notes that at times Christians have participated in acts of religious violence, but he also argues that the Greater Jihad is quite prevalent throughout the Bible. Scriptural figures such as the Apostle Paul discussed the internal struggles they faced in order to do as God commands. Furthermore, he argues that overall jihad needs to be reassessed and placed within its proper place of serving God by maintaining morally based societies.

Despite the changes in religious thought and increasing skepticism within the world, Heck concludes that both religions seek to expand man’s relations with God. Religious scholars have long known that Christianity and Islam share similar theological and ideological viewpoints on a number of issues; thus, Heck’s work is not necessarily groundbreaking on a broad level. However, this book does a very good job of analyzing and harmonizing the specific areas that he chose to focus on. Although generally well-written, some readers might find the author’s style difficult. Heck’s work is well researched, with extensive primary and secondary sources used; even so, his choice of supporting evidence regarding Christianity’s views shows some minor bias towards Roman Catholic documents or evidence. This bias is also evident when Heck discusses various aspects of theology.

Although Heck takes up a discussion of the particular theological and doctrinal differences between these two major religions, the book’s focus is not on the minutiae, but rather the overarching similarities between Islam and Christianity. Individuals wanting a thought-provoking and more in-depth look at Christian/Islamic similarities, especially different views on God’s message, the Greater Jihad, human rights, and democracy, will find this book useful.