(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.
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: