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.