originally published on Issue 45, March 2017
Hujjatul Islam Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali- the director of the Islamic Centre of England – together with some members of the Hawza Ilmiyya (Islamic Seminary) of England, visited Sophia University Institute in Loppiano, Italy, 12th to 14th January 2017.
His visit represents one of many ongoing encounters between Shi‘a Muslims and members of the Focolare Movement – a grassroots Catholic organisation based in Italy with a presence in many countries across the world. The dialogue between the two groups, which began more than 19 years ago, has recently focused on a new initiative which will involve closer cooperation and deeper and more meaningful interaction between members of the two communities. The initiative, formally named ‘Wings of Unity’, will attempt to move away from the formalism and elitism often associated with formal interfaith activities. The first round of Wings of Unity discussions took place in July 2016 and the second was planned for Jan 2017.
During the Wings of Unity II conference, Prof. Coda delivered a talk entitled “An Epochal Change: The Culture of Unity in Chiara Lubich”. After this talk, Dr Shomali presented on how love for God leads to love for one another. This was followed by a fruitful exchange of comments and ideas by participants who come from a variety of backgrounds.
The message of unity was reinforced, and the programme concluded with a planning session for future collaborations, including an upcoming summer course in the city of Trent, where Catholics and Shi‘as will have the unique opportunity to experience the “dialogue of life” and build on their understanding of unity of God and unity in God.
In addition to Wings of Unity II, Dr Shomali, was invited to deliver a series of three lectures on Islam, Unity and Peace. The first series were delivered in April 2016. On the eve preceding his academic engagement, Dr Shomali (along with other guests who accompanied him) attended a Q&A session with members of the Focolare community, including students of the university. The theme was “Frontiers in Interreligious Dialogue.” The guests were warmly welcomed by Prof. Bennie Callebaut who briefly explained the purpose of their visit before asking Dr Piero Coda, the President of the Institute, to say a few words.
After welcoming the guests, Dr Coda explained in a very personal and heartfelt tone that Dr Shomali’s visit goes beyond the academic engagement. Below is the text of what Prof. Coda said:
“I only want to say that we are very happy to have Dr Shomali here. This is the second time he has come to give lessons here and we consider him a member of the faculty; our visiting professor. He will give some lessons tomorrow on a course we have, where different religious representatives explain how they are working for peace and fraternity. This is a lovely experience and quite a unique course on the university stage. In addition to this, I have to say that we have another initiative, a kind of gift from God. Today before dinner we prayed together and we renewed our pact of unity that we made in July. In this beautiful place God has made us feel the friendship and brotherhood. Last year when Dr Shomali came to give his lectures, he came to my office, and I am not sure how it happened but we spoke for two hours and we came to the realisation that we needed to deepen this dream that is a reality of the Unity that comes from God and makes us walk together. Something clicked. I remember that Bennie was also there. We said that we must do something together. I felt that this was something coming from God and that we have to do something about it. We looked at the calendar for a possible date for a meeting. I felt this was something God was asking us to do. July came up as an agreeable date. We asked ourselves: What shall we name this new initiative? This walking together to understand the source of Unity that is God, who is present in all of our religious experiences, where we share in the charism of Chiara.
We all identify with it because it is not only Christian but belongs to all. To this question Mohammad without hesitation said, “Wings of Unity”. So the Wings of Unity initiative was born in Sophia. We met for 3 days in July with a small group from the seminary – 12 people. We deepened our understanding of unity from our two points of view. This was an experience of profound unity from which we were motivated to go forward and transmit to the new generations this passion and this path for unity. This also gave birth to the idea of having a summer school where 20 Muslims and 20 Christians will study together. This will be held 90% at Tonadico where Chiara first had this inspiration for unity. Therefore, Shomali is here not only to give his lesson but to continue our walk, and in the following days we will explore other ways to deepen our experience. This is a beautiful thing that brings the Islamic Centre of England and Sophia University Institute closer together; God has placed a pearl in our hands.”
Below is a summary of the Q&A session that followed.
Q: [Pietro from Bologna]. I am studying Trinitarian Ontology. Could you tell us why you got involved in interreligious dialogue and what dialogue means to you?
A: Our interest in dialogue came very naturally. We did not have any kind of training, any kind of mandate, or any experience. In 1997 we were in Manchester, UK, and we thought that since we’re living in a prominent Christian country, we have a good opportunity to learn about Christianity. So in addition to our studies, we tried to find friends among Christians with whom we could have dialogue. At the time we were just looking for friends, but we ended up finding brothers and sisters. Interestingly, it was through the Focolare that we were introduced to Christianity, the Catholic Church, and other denominations.
Now almost twenty years after our initial involvement in interreligious dialogue, I can see that although we had no experience or prior knowledge, God helped us to come together. In the process, we found many people in our community who also appreciate having dialogue and they have joined us in our journey; and thanks to God, we can now go forward.
We have reached a point that not only do we look at interreligious dialogue as a necessity in our lives in the 21st century, but we also see it as a deep responsibility towards God and humanity. We hope that through this important initiative, ‘Wings of Unity’, in Sophia, we will be able to prove to God our deep thirst for understanding what He asks of us in order to pave the way for the unity of humanity.
If we really struggle in the way of God, He will help us, and this means using all of the resources at our disposal; holding discussions with you and trying to benefit from you, your resources, and your wisdom. And the same goes for you. I cannot only be active in my own circle and communicate with my Muslim sisters and brothers and then tell God that I have exhausted all my energy in understanding what He wants from us. But if we work together with openness and humbleness, then we no longer bother about whether the initiative comes from me or you – that won’t be important at all. It is important that we open ourselves to God and He will help us to understand what the next step is. So I think this is a great gift of God, and if He finds value in us, He will help us to share this gift with other people who are very much in need of knowing about these initiatives.
The very fact that we are so close and we feel like one family, the intensity and strength we get from our unity is what the people of the world should know about and I hope that with your support, energy and input the next generation will go even further.
Q. [Trisha from Madagascar]. Could you tell us about the differences between the Shi‘a and the Sunni traditions?
A: One of the moments in my life that I remember well is in 2004 when I went to Tehran airport to welcome four Catholic friends who were coming from the UK. One of them was the Jesuit Michael Barnes from Heythrop College. It was two in the morning when he asked me about the difference between Shi‘a and Sunni.
I answered him in a way that he remembered, and referred to it later on many occasions. I said, “Of course, I am very much committed to Sunni and Shi‘a unity, and I don’t want to appear as someone who is proud of being Shi‘a and underestimates the greatness of Sunnis. We are all brothers and we have a lot in common, but something that I have noticed and I have shared with many people is that while we do have some theological differences related to the issue of the successor to the Prophet, the Shi‘a have a kind of trinity. We believe in spirituality, rationality and the search for justice. Spirituality is very important for us, but spirituality joined with rationality. We have a great interest in philosophy, logic and intellectual reasoning; even in our seminaries we spend years studying philosophy, and we believe that reason and revelation supplement each other; they don’t replace or contradict each other. We believe that God guides us both through the intellect and revelation.
Also, we are very concerned about social justice. So if you can combine spirituality, rationality and seeking justice, you are in spirit a Shi‘a even if you are a Sunni or a Catholic. And if you don’t have these three, you are not a Shi‘a even if you are called a Shi‘a. I believe that these three elements are something that all religious traditions may find useful because if we only have spirituality without rationality, we might isolate ourselves from the realities of life. And sometimes our spirituality can be very superficial too; rationality without spirituality becomes very dry. I cannot think of any religion that is without spirituality. And if we have spirituality without bothering about social justice, the issue of poverty, lack of opportunities for a great percentage of the people… this also would be a deficiency. So we should have all these together. If we have these three, we can also avoid extremism.
Q. [Andrea from Turin, studying at Sophia University]. How can we confront the causes of extremism in religion and its consequences? What initiatives are taking place in the Muslim world? How can Christians and Muslims cooperate for changes in this area?
A: It is a sad reality that in the course of history many sacred ideas have been misused. Religions, science and technology can all be misused, and Islam is no exception. Especially now that Islam is widely spread, and there is vitality and an energy in the Muslim population. So it is possible that some people, even if only one individual, do wrong and that can have an impact. So despite the fact that Islam is a religion of peace, you find people who have such a misunderstanding that they think they have a call from God to use force and violence against people of no faith or other faiths – to the extent that even Muslims, their co-religionists, are victimised. It might be difficult for you to understand but I think you can imagine how this might happen since you also had a similar experience in Christianity. For these people, Muslims who are not with them are hated more than people of other religions. For example, for them killing a Shi‘a is better than killing a Christian or a Jewish person. They are told that if they kill a Shi‘a, they will go straight to Heaven. How can this idea exist? Is it because of Islam? No, because if religion was the cause we would have had a high percentage of Muslims who are like this. In reality, these people do not make up even a small fraction of Muslims. This behaviour is due to a mentality; they happen to be Muslim but could well have been Christians, Buddhists, Jews, or atheists. Today no religious tradition is immune. Extremism can come to any household. It can enter any religion; no matter how spiritual, peaceful or committed to loving you are, extremism can come.
So there are many things that we have to do. First of all, as you mentioned, religious people have to work together and not allow anyone to use us against each other. That is the worst thing that can happen. It would be a waste of our energy and it can also give excuses to these people. They don’t want us to be friendly; the worst things for terrorists are these kinds of meetings. Terrorists want to show that we are enemies, but we are insisting that we are sisters and brothers.
So we should work together on interfaith and interreligious programmes. Each community has to work hard on offering a proper education. When you listen to the story of some youths who are involved in terrorist atrocities, you will notice that they were not religious people. They didn’t go to mosques or attend Islamic lessons. Some of these people have no religious background. That is why they are prone to be manipulated and brainwashed. They have a deep sense of guilt for not practising their faith. That guilt has been building over the years, and now all of the sudden they want to go to Heaven.
Education is very important; we need to invest in education as well as a good family environment. We need to safeguard families. One of the greatest challenges is the break-down of families. There is evidence to suggest that those involved in acts of atrocity are people who are not brought up in good families. They spend more time with their peers than their brothers, sisters and parents.
Another important factor is the community. If Muslims, as a minority in the West, belong to a strong community that looks after its members and is concerned about individual development, then it can be very helpful.
This is a very serious issue. Certainly everyone, including Muslims, has the responsibility to think about it and we have to do our best to deal with people who are already affected and most importantly, to prevent the spread of these ideas which can spread in any tradition or ideology. What we need is ‘sophia’ or wisdom. We don’t need weapons or bombs; that will just add to the problem. Nothing can spread violence but extremism. Extremists feed on this, so we have to be very careful.
Q. [Donmarco Leone from Sicily]. We know that you are conducting an academic activity of dialogue and research together with the Sophia Institute. Can you tell us how it is progressing? And what should we expect in the future from the dialogue between Christians and Muslims?
A: This is a very good question that does not have a brief answer. Based on my theological and spiritual reflections and experiences, I believe that the future of the world very much depends on how Christians and Muslims work together. I am not saying something that I don’t understand the implication of. It is a huge claim to make, but it is something that I’ve thought about very carefully.
Unfortunately for the most part throughout history, Christians and Muslims did not work together as partners. There are many examples of peaceful existence but not fellowship. Perhaps on academic or business levels Islam continued on its own path and so did Christianity. In some cases, they even had competition – like two suppliers who look at the same market and say this market is yours or the other is mine and we have to fight over it. This is a sad reality but the plan of God is not this. His plan is not to give us different books or religions to fight among ourselves, or merely to tolerate each other. In fact, God’s plan is to have all of us together around the truth. But He does not force his plan.
I humbly look at the world today and think of the future, and I believe that there won’t be any future for us if we continue in this way. There are so many challenges for us in the world today that affect all of us. If we want to work on our own and rely solely on our own resources, then we will not be able to cope with all of these trials.
I don’t believe that in any part of the history of religions you can find faith and accountability before God being as ridiculed as it is in today’s world. I don’t think we have ever had so much immorality presented to us as ‘normal’ as well as a matter that we should not dare question, let alone criticise.
The only way forward for us is to get together and offer a joint testimony of faith in God to the people of the world. If Muslims and Christians work together and show how faith has brought unity, solidarity and brotherhood, then other people will be interested too. But if we boycott each other and attack each other’s ideas, then there won’t be any future for Islam or for Christianity.
Sometimes I count our blessings for these outside pressures and attacks on us because it has brought us closer together, and now we are realising that the danger and realising that we cannot tackle it on our own.
For the last three years that I have been based in London, my real challenge has not been, for example, how to deal with a Shi‘a becoming Sunni, a Christian or a Hindu. My challenge is our youth. Are our youth appreciative of our traditions? Are they able to be successful citizens of this society and at the same time have their own identities? Are they able to uphold family values? Are they able to maintain human relations in an age in which everything is digital and social networking and human relations are very much affected? These are the main challenges. The challenge is in helping those whose name or affiliation is Islam have the true spirit of Islam. I think it is the same for Christianity.
Inter-religious dialogue is not something we do because it’s fashionable or because we want to avoid war or fighting; rather, it is a necessity and it comes naturally to us. It is only one of many levels of work that we have to do. We have just started with this dialogue but we don’t end it here. Thanks to God, we have gone very deep into this sense of unity with the Focolare in particular. It is much more than just dialogue.
I remember last time when we had the 7th round of Muslim-Christian dialogue; we said that perhaps instead of dialogue we should say ‘dia-love’. We don’t just talk to each other. We love each other.
I am sure this dialogue will happen, sooner or later, and we will see Muslims and Christians very close to each other. But I wonder in which generation we will be able to achieve it? God is patient; He gives us the opportunities. I believe that if we act properly and we have sophia [wisdom], it wouldn’t take as long.
The Qur’an says, “Indeed they see it to be very far, but we see it to be very near” (70:6-7). If we follow the path of God, then it is very near, but if we follow the path of humanity, then it is very far. So we ask God to give us from His own wisdom so that we may make this journey short.
[The session was closed with some reflections/prayer from Dr Piero Coda which reflects the atmosphere of the event.]
“We should thank each other for having opened ourselves to God, and this maybe is the most important thing for the world today. Whenever two or more people get together in the name of God, He will make His presence felt. When God shows Himself, all reality become present in that place. In Him, we have been present here this evening as brothers and sisters in a world that cry, scream, suffers hunger, war, loneliness, prisoner of ideology, violence, poverty… In doing what we can by creating spaces in which God is present, He makes us His witnesses. We have laid a stone in the construction of unity and peace for all the world. The places in which this materialises, becomes, in that moment, the centre of the world where God is present. We thank our guest for having brought this reality; this gift that without you, your presence and effort only to build this unity not for money or human glory but for building together the presence of God which means simplicity, fraternity, liberty, and purity. This is Unity. Therefore, we thank God who has willed this; He has ‘put His tent among us’ to use an expression from the Hebrew scripture. Now we do not wish to undo it wherever we are. This is the tent of wisdom. We thank you for giving us this presence of God that we have experimented and carry with us in our hearts and will keep for days to come.”
Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years. Download the full pdf here: