Muslims and Christians do not fully understand each other says Rowan Williams: The Archbishop of Canterbury says theological differences separate Islam from Christianity

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, admitted yesterday that the Christian and Muslim faiths are so fundamentally different that both sides are still unable to understand each other properly. Dr Williams, speaking at an interfaith conference in Cambridge, said that it was possible for Islam and Christianity, two of the three Abrahamic faiths, to agree around the imperatives to love God and “love your neighbour”. Muslims and Christians agree about the need to alleviate both poverty and suffering, he said. But at a theological level there was still massive disagreement. Dr Williams contrasted the “self-emptying” aspect of Christianity, a faith built on the failure and weakness of its founder through his death on the cross, to the Islamic narrative of “trial and triumph”. The Archbishop said: “Even in its narratives of Jesus, [Islam] questions or sidelines the story of the death of Jesus as Christians tell it – an issue that is still a live one as between our faiths.” He said that the two faiths’ concepts of martyrdom were also different. In Christianity, martyrdom was a way of validating failure while in Islam, it constituted part of the “struggle” in fighting evil. “And how far an Islamic ethic would see love of neighbour as essentially involving the kind of self-abnegation privileged by Christianity is a point worth exploring,” Dr Williams said. The Archbishop was criticised earlier this year following a BBC interview in which he suggested that the adoption of some aspects of Islamic sharia law in the UK seemed “unavoidable”. His lecture in Cambridge, however, illustrated a clear understanding of the issues at stake between the two faiths. Dr Williams did not in any form come across as an apologist for Islam but as someone using his formidable intellect in an attempt to bridge the divide. Dr Williams was one of a number of leading Christian and Islamic scholars addressing the conference, A Common Word at Cambridge University. It marked the first anniversary of the publication of A Common Word Between Us and You, a letter from 138 Islamic scholars, clerics and intellectuals promoting understanding and tolerance between the two faiths. Ruth Gledhill reports.