An interreligious visit to the Hawza Ilmiyya of London

Roberto Catalano, co-Director of the International Office for Interreligious Dialogue, Focolare Movement – Rome (Italy), visited the Hawzah Ilmiyya on the 14th of November. The following is an English translation of an article published on his Italian blog

The Hawza Ilmiyya, London,  is a Shi‘a Islamic seminary  in London. Inaugurated in  1997, it is a college where  traditional Islamic subjects are taught  with the aim of training scholars and  researchers in the fields of learning  and knowledge. Here, the teaching is  intended to provide an insider’s  perspective on Islam – not always  observed according to the founders of  the Islamic College, in academic  institutions, both public and private  where Muslims’ culture and religion  have been taught for some time.  To introduce me to this increasingly  multicultural and multi-ethnic world  in the heart of London, which seen  from this angle makes Brexit appear  rather anachronistic, is Dr  Mohammad Ali Shomali, director of  the Islamic Centre of England. The  Centre is about ten minutes by car  from the Hawza Ilmiyya. Dr Shomali, a  great friend for many years, is also the director of the Seminary.  Our appointment is at the office of  the Islamic Centre where we arrive by  train in a pleasant journey that takes  us to an area that judging from  the shops and the  environment is visibly  multicultural.  I have been told  that this area is  inhabited by Shi‘a  Muslims coming  from India, Iraq,  Pakistan and  obviously Iran. In fact, Iranians, Iraqis,  Pakistanis and Indians  make up the staff of the  Centre whose doors immediately open  up to reveal a large prayer hall. The  offices, together with the library, are  located at the rear where I am taken  by one of the staff members.  In the evening, together with my  colleague Paolo Frizzi with whom I  teach Interreligious Dialogue at the  Istituto Universitario Sophia (Italy), we  are invited to talk to the students of  the Islamic seminary. We are taken by  car (from the Islamic Centre).  We find ourselves in a warm hall with  a soft carpet and about forty students  of various ages, men and women  appropriately separated by  moveable walls. Among them, there  are a couple of people I know.  One of the students who is quite  involved in interreligious dialogue  introduces all of the speakers. After  an adequate and articulate  presentation by Dr Shomali  about the role of the  Islamic seminary and  its objectives, it’s my  turn to introduce  our experience in  the dialogue of the  Catholic Church  and more specifically  the Focolare  Movement.  I am impressed by the  attentiveness of the  participants. My forty-minute talk was  followed by my colleague from Sophia  University, Paolo, who brilliantly presents the aims and methodologies  of our university, emphasising the  aspect of dialogue, both as a lifestyle  and as a teaching methodology and, of  course, as a subject of study.  After the presentation, it’s the time for  Q&A with the students with whom we  open a fruitful dialogue. First to ask  questions is a young woman seated on  the first row in front of me, followed by  questions from several men before  concluding with the women. No  question is taken for granted.


The questions range from wanting to  know what are the methods to  reconstruct the relationship between  men and women, especially in the  university environment, whenever it  cracks or breaks, to the request to  explain how to act with people who  have no faith.  Some questions from the men move  from the wish to understand if the  ‘truths of faith’ of the respective  religions can be an impediment to  dialogue, to wanting to know the most  memorable episodes we have  experienced when in contact with  people of other faiths.  Some students are happy to express  comments, often with reference to their  experience with Dr Shomali, who  noticeably appears to represent not  only a didactic point of reference for  the students but above all, spiritual.  It is our friend, the director of the  Islamic Centre, who speaks first about  his experience of interfaith dialogue  with the Focolari; in England, Iran and  obviously in Rome during the trips  with students and his wife. This is a  lady with whom we share a close  spiritual friendship based on  experiences lived in communion. She  follows our presentation with great  interest and visible satisfaction.  I note a consonance with both her and  Israa, a young American student of  Lebanese origins, whom we have now  known for several years.

We feel closer  for the journey made together, the  experiences shared and the  establishing of a dialogue.  Once again I experience  a particular feeling,  especially while facing  these veiled women  with whom we have  never shaken hands,  something not done  by observing Muslims,  but with whom we have  built a spiritual and  human friendship that allows  us to talk about many aspects of  faith and life with freedom and  solemnity. I see how shallow, taken for  granted and far away from the truth  are western stereotypes promoted by  the media, that see in the wearing of  the veil a retrograde attitude and an  impediment to a personal relationship.  We conclude fifteen minutes later than  expected with many more questions  still coming in before some of us are  invited to a nearby room for an Iranian  dinner.  The food is delicious as if cooked at  home.

I remember the meals prepared  by our friend – Dr Shomali’s wife and  her relatives in Qum and Isfahan  during our visit to Iran two and half  years ago. I remind her of it, to which  she replied that due to lack of time,  this time the food was ordered from an  Iranian restaurant. We enjoyed it  nevertheless.  During dinner, a lively discussion  continues with everybody contributing  and discussing the forthcoming  programmes of dialogue that lie ahead.  Without a doubt, we come out of this  encounter deeply  transformed, convinced  that the dialogue is  possible beyond  stereotypes of  media wars  orchestrated by  more or less  occult powers  both in the West  and the East to  whom we all succumb  as sacrificial victims.  What is important is to have  the courage to go beyond the  impressions and as an American rabbi  friend said: ‘believe in the possibility of  the other just as the other’.

Roberto Catalano is co-Director of the
International Office for Interreligious
Dialogue, Focolare Movement – Rome (Italy)
He holds a Doctorate in Theology of Religions
and a Master’s Degree in Philosophy and Sociology.
He lived in India for 28 years where he was
actively involved in interreligious dialogue.


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