Beyond just a Dialogue

On their visit to London Fr William Skudlarek and Fr Maximilian Musindai were invited to talk at the Hawza Ilmiya on their experience of interfaith activities. (Special Interfaith Edition Issue 65 - March 2019)

(Originally Published on Issue 43, January 2017)

Q: Fr William, could you explain the purpose of your  visit? 

When we met in Qum-Iran last May during the 4th  monastic interreligious dialogue it was decided not to leave  too much of a gap between the meetings. We had been  meeting back and forth between Qum and Italy for a while.  The first meeting was in Rome and the third one in Assisi.  In further discussions, it was suggested, that although it was  very impressive, interesting and important for us to go to  Iran, it was also difficult to obtain visas. I was told I was the  first American arriving in Iran without a visa.  Besides this, the fundamental question of whether or not it  was possible for our dialogue to be of benefit to others was  raised too. We then agreed that the whole question of the  relationship between Christianity and Islam in Africa is very  important since recently it has been marked by dreadful  incidents of violence. Then much to my surprise, Dr  Shomali said, that there is a large presence of Muslim  Shi’as in Kenya, which is also the country of Fr Maximillian.  So almost immediately we decided to have our next  gathering in Kenya. My initial suggestion was that we could  not repeat the same academic model where the participants  present papers and afterwards we publish them. So our visit  to London is partly to plan and organise the trip to Kenya.

Q: As a representative of the Catholic Church, what  internal discussions have you had with regard to your  engagement with members of the Islamic faith? Has  there been a shift in the importance given to these  encounters by the Catholic Church? 

It is obvious that the increased presence or visibility of  Islam in the West and by that I mean Western Europe and  the United States has provoked a kind of attention to Islam  that was not there as long as Islam was simply something  seen from afar. Some Americans associate Islam only with  the Middle East, forgetting that Indonesia is the largest  Muslim country and there is a huge presence of Muslims  also in India. But that recognition of the need to  understand, to get to know Muslims specifically, and Islam  as the principle, is evident, and also the recognition that if  we don’t come to understand and know one another better,  there is always an increased possibility of hostile  relationships between two groups of people. This has led, at  least for us in monastic interreligious dialogue, to an  awareness that it is not only a matter of getting to know the  religious traditions that are different to ours but that we  share a common interest in drawing closer to God and  letting God draw us closer to Him, because right at the  heart of the Christian monastic tradition is the sense of the  search for God: How we benefit from the way that another  religion tradition understands, what it means to search for  God or to be drawn to God or focus one’s whole being on  God.

Q: One of the major problems identified with interfaith  dialogues at ‘high levels’ is that it remains at those  levels, it does not trickle down to the rest of the  society. What strategy do you think should be taken to  involve ordinary people? 

One of the things I suggested for this meeting in Nairobi is  that rather than speaking at the intellectual/theoretical  level we share simple stories with one another. Stories of  good and also bad relationships between Christian and  Muslims and then we look at these stories almost as case  studies. We ask ourselves what we have learned about the  things that help us to come together and those that lead to  hostility. This was discussed with Dr Shomali who  suggested a theme for the next encounter in Kenya as ‘The  unity of God and the unity in God’. Concomitant with this we will also want to explore  the meaning of ‘mission’.  What does it mean to be in  a relationship with people  of another religious tradition  without immediately thinking  that the only reason we can  have a relationship with them is to  get them to accept that mine is the  right path? This raised big questions, what  does it mean to be a true and faithful Muslim or  Christian?

Q: Would your meeting in Nairobi be in a more public  setting? 

We are planning two public events; one to take place in a  Muslim (Shi‘a) setting and the other a Christian one. But  most of the discussions will be in small groups of perhaps  ten Muslims and 10 monastics, where we can talk more in  depth about these issues.

Q: How much is the leader of the Catholic Church;  Pope Francis involved in the interreligious dialogues? 

Very much. I should say that his keyword for interreligious  activity is ‘fraternity’. By that he means, to respect one  another, and he is very concerned about working together  for the good of humanity. He feels very strong and  supportive of this. He would not be, very much, for sharing  spiritual experiences, though.

Q: I was asked once what the purpose of these  interfaith discussions is? What good comes out of it?  Who benefits from it? How would you answer this?

I refer to a German philosopher, who says “one who knows  one language knows no language”. Or Shakespeare, who  remarked: “I hate a man of one book”. Yes it is true we  need to know our own religious identity, our own religious  roots, but unless I can understand how they differ from  another, I don’t really understand my own. So why should I get  involved? I would say so that I can be a better Christian or a  better Muslim.

Q: Fr. Maximilian, we understand you are conducting  important research in the field of Islamic Studies for  your PhD. Could you please explain how it all  started? 

A couple of years ago, the bombing of the American  embassy in Nairobi and in Dar es Salam caused a lot of  frictions among Muslims  and Christians in my  country, Kenya. A few years  later in 2001 came 9/11 in  the US, this was a  catastrophe and the society  became deeply divided into two,  Muslims and non-Muslims – the  latter includes Christians and those  with no religion. A question arose in my  mind: Are these acts, perpetrated in the name of  Islam in the world today, a representation of the true  character of the Islamic religion? This prompted me  towards researching more about Islam. At the time I had  not undertaken theological studies. Later, by the grace of  God, I was sent to Rome to start my theological studies. I  finished in 2009 when the congregation of my religious  community decided to answer my request to deepen my  knowledge of Islam. I realised that to understand Islam I  would need to start from the basics, learn the Arabic  language. That was when I began my Islamic studies. I was  sent to Egypt for one year to learn Arabic and then back  to Rome to The Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic  Studies to finish my Master’s Degree, after which I went  back to Egypt to start my Doctorate, and that is what I  have been doing up to now.

Q: What have you discovered so far about Islam?  What windows have opened up in your  understanding of Islam and Muslims?

I have gradually discovered that ignorance or little  knowledge of others is a dangerous thing. I grew up  accepting that this is the reality but without making  any effort to delve deeper and find out the  truthfulness or falsity of this idea. I have gradually  discovered that there is a lot to Islam that we,  outsiders, have come to know. A reading of the work  of contemporary Muslim scholars, who have come out  – especially after September 11th, shows that there is a  great willingness to go back into the Qur’an and find  in it the teaching materials that help them to interact  with members of other religions. This is because,  some traditional scholars, even contemporary ones,  tend to be exclusivist and divisive. What these new  scholars are doing is to understand what it is that  divides and makes some Muslims think in terms of  ‘us’ and ‘them’. These scholars basically want to bring  out the beauty of Islam and share it with the world so  that we can coexist. The Qur’an says that Ibrahim,  Joseph, Jacob were all Muslims and all prophets that lived before Muhammad were  Muslims, so let us go back the  original meaning and  understanding of Islam.

Q: During your encounter with  scholars of other major branches  of Islam what are the marked  differences that you have noticed,  and would your approach be the same  in terms of interaction? 

Absolutely not, the exchange has to be different. When I  talk to a Muslim Shi‘a I know that I am talking to a  religious person who accepts that in the matters of  salvation, and in Divine understanding, we need both faith  and reason. For this reason, there is a huge difference  between Shi‘as and Sunnis. I do not completely believe that  there is no Ijtihad (independent scholarly reasoning) among  the Sunnis, but it is more difficult to discuss it in public.  Among the Shi‘a it is different, we can sit and reason out,  challenge our faith, challenge even our sacred scriptures,  ask what is the meaning of different concepts? And what  was the condition in which it came about? Shi‘a scholars  will do this in public without any fear. I think this kind of  analysis can bring us closer.

With Shi‘a Muslims, we also share the concepts of  pilgrimage to spiritual sites. As you know in some Sunni  sects pilgrimages to shrines, are forbidden and considered a  bida‘, (innovation). Shi‘a Muslims believe in the sacredness  of the holy places where special men of God are buried.  They have the concept of intercession and seek God’s  favour through the help of role models such as Imam  Husayn, Imam Hassan.

Then another concept that we share with the Shi‘a Muslims  is the element of openness and authority. There is a welldefined  hierarchy of knowledge and authority, similar to  Catholicism, but it is not the same in the Sunni world.

Q: Fr William, Chronologically Islam is more than 500  years younger than Christianity. We can say that  Christianity had to face certain historical challenges  and developments. Do you think Islam has to go  through the same challenges that Christianity faced?  How do you see the direction that Christianity has  taken? 

Islam, today, is more or less where Christianity was in  1300[CE]. I always wondered if there is a certain historical  process in religious tradition, we have certainly seen it in  Christianity, perhaps there is a need to engage our traditions,  our sacred texts, with the mind. There is a sense that  Catholicism was all about  devotion with little engagement  of the mind. I read once an  appropriate sentence which  said: “Jesus came to take our  sins not our minds”. But you  have to put a brake on it too  because there is a risk one becomes  just a rationalist. Deep within our  Catholic Christian and Benedictine  tradition, is faith, seeking and understanding. Faith  is there, but faith not just in the sense of a blind acceptance,  faith in the sense of trust and then understanding of why I  trust. Why do I hand my life over to God? Why is this rational  thing to do?

Q: Christianity appears to have retreated in face of the  challenge of secularism, and Christian societies had to  adapt their practices and spirituality. How would you  assess the condition of Christian societies today? 

Well, just today we were walking down the street, going to big  huge St Augustine Church, built in 1898, splendid, imposing,  and now crumbling. Yesterday I went to the hotel lobby, and I  asked: ‘Do you have a list of churches in the area’, a young  lady looked at me as if… ‘why… churches?’ It was striking to  me. She probably thought, ‘what a crazy question to ask’.

Fr. Maximilian: We should remember that Islam is 600  years younger than Christianity, and if we look backwards to  where the Christians were 600 years ago. You know what has  happened until Pope John Paul II, during the Jubilee  celebration, came out and said that the church confesses the  sins it has committed against the Muslims. That was of very  historical importance. The world we see now is the outcome  of the mistakes we made as a religion.  The times are changing, the language is changing and inner  religion is changing. Christianity has come through a  particular culture, as has Buddhism and Islam, we have to  bear that in mind. When I see a Muslim putting on hijab, for  example, it is not for me to criticise, as I should first know  how it has come about. I have to know the culture behind  that hijab. Muslims have to do the same if a non-Muslim  does something. They have to go and find out how their  action has come about, what culture is behind it, before  criticising. There is also a need to change our theological  language. Christians, Muslims or members of other religions,  if we continue to use hard language, the language of division,  we shall remain with the same challenges. Language that  says this person is Kafir and non-believer or saying that we  are the only one who, through Jesus Christ, has been saved.  We have to go back and re-examine our theological  language.

Father William: Even some of the most basic parts of  Christian theological language we have to consider, words  with which we refer to God, such as Father, Son and the  Holy Spirit. That is a huge change. We have to be able to  say that so much of our language at the very core of  Christian faith and theology comes out under a very  particular worldview, Greek philosophy. But it is still very  delicate.  My knowledge of Islam is very little. But sometimes when I  read through the pages of the noble Qur’an when in so  many cases it says, God has no partners and this comes up  again and again, I am wondering is this a kind of statement  about the Christian way of talking about God that said God  is three? The contemporary Trinitarian theology may say  numbers has nothing to do with the trinity. But again the  way we talk about it gives that  impression and understandably. I  think the Holy Qur’an, the  revelation of Prophet Muhammad is  reacting and criticising that very  crass way.

Fr Maximilian: Sura Ikhlas is the  response to this.

Amir De Martino: We have no  exact understanding of those  Christians with whom the Prophet  Muhammad interacted with and  what their exact belief system was,  but it seems the response must  have come to that. They would have  been Christians of Arabia, Southern  Yemen and the region. However,  from a historical perspective, we  understand, the Prophet clearly  directed that the Christians in the  monastery should not be touched,  because he certainly recognised their belief system.

Q: What are the challenges ahead? How would you see  Christianity in 100 years? 

Fr. William: It would certainly be different. Again the pace of  change is so rapid with so many different forces at work but  this is not the first time a very secular spirit has arisen. Take  the French Revolution, think of Russia, when they said, ‘finally  we got ourselves rid of God’, ‘now is time for workers’, ‘for  common good’, and then all changed. Certainly out of the  French Revolution came a life of Catholicism, it just blossomed,  many new religious orders, great intellectual activities came  about, but if you look at 1789 -1793, religion was over, religion  was removed from our society in the name of Laicite.

Q: Fr Maximilian, how do you see the journey of  humanity, what is it moving towards? 

I believe things are changing but what kind of changes?  Human beings have a tendency to go beyond the limited  boundaries of their religious groupings, people are  embracing a global way of saying things and going beyond  themselves, that is why a Christian can sit with a Muslim  and share something that would not have happened a few  years ago. The tendency to reach the other is increasing.  We are moving towards one religion, a global religion. We’ll  converge.

Fr William: I try always to be an optimist, but I think  something also needs to collapse. I don’t know how the  economy is going to continue, but  this house of cards has to collapse.  I think different kinds of things are  coming. Ecologically, we face a  huge crisis and I think we don’t  really recognise that but suddenly  as the ocean level increases…,  again, I might be talking from a  Christian perspective, but before  there is going to be resurrection  there has to be death. Something  has to collapse. Then again who  knows?

Amir De Martino: It seems that  dialogue and religious exchanges  are of the utmost importance for  the future generations. I have this  image of the first community of  Muslims that took refuge in  Abyssinia where no one else would  help them. They were the guests of  the Negus, a Christian king who  gave them refuge until it was safe for them to join the  Prophet Muhammad(s) in Madina. They resided for several  years in Abyssinia were they lived in harmony with the host  nation.

Fr William is the General Secretary of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue.
Fr Maximilian is currently doing a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies.

They are both Benedictine monks and have
been involved in rounds IV, V, VI and VII of the
Catholic Shia dialogue.

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:

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