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Dialogue of Religions or Clash of Civilisations?

A nice Roman Catholic nun recently invited me to speak about Islam to students living in her community residence. I accepted with some alacrity because I firmly believe in the idealism and sincerity of the young. All the more important therefore to engage with them on the burning question that is this article’s title. I made it clear from the outset that I would approach my subject from the point of view of religious dialogue. My ministry as a priest being one of friendship with Muslims, I wanted to make it clear that I reject the notion of a ‘clash of civilisations’, namely, that the West is at war with Islam. It is a pernicious idea advocated by extremists both in the Christian and Muslim worlds. In order to avert the danger of a deadly confrontation, dialogue between adherents of the two great monotheistic faiths is morally imperative. That was the line I took. In my presentations I tackled topics like: a) what Christians need to know about Islam; b) whether we can join forces working together for world peace; c) whether we can pray together; d) the nature of sharia’ e) the concept of the Caliphate; f) the problem of violence, e.g. ISIS; g) the difference between Sunnis and Shia’. I also spoke about the idea of prophecy in the two religions; Jesus and Mary in the Qur’an; common beliefs like angels, the Final Judgment, Heaven and Hell, a future life and immortality; halal and haram; the roles of reason and philosophy; whether Muslims and Christians have common enemies. Although, like many priests, I do not dislike listening to the sound of my own voice, I enjoyed most the Question and Answer session. The relations between Shia’ and Sunni was one the first questions put to me. A male student inquired as to the persecution that the Shia’ communities have often suffered in history. That cannot be denied. It resulted, amongst other things, in an awareness of the nature of evil, suffering and martyrdom which are, I think, one of the hallmarks of Shia’ spirituality and self-awareness. Today, however, authoritative Shia’ voices call above all for unity amongst all Muslims. The lethal perils of division and sectarianism, fomented by mischievous enemies of dialogue and peace, hardly need to be emphasised. Naturally, the matter of violence came up. I pointed out how it must not be forgotten that not only Christians but Muslims too are amongst the prime victims of that violence. One of my examples was that of Ahmed, the French police officer brutally murdered while lying wounded on the pavement by the extremists who slaughtered the journalists of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. I suggested how much of this violence, expressed in the obnoxious idea of takfir, can be traced back to figures like the medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyya and then, via Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi sect, finds its most brutal expression in the bloody actions of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. Declaring fellow believers unbelievers can only have the hideous results we know all too well. Is the Jesus of the Qur’an the same as the Jesus Christ of Christians? That was a challenging one. Islam’s holy book refers indeed to ‘Issa al Masih’, Jesus the Messiah. However, Muslims do not attach to the title of Messiah the same meaning as Christians do. Jesus in the Qur’an is a virgin’s son, he works miracles, raises the dead and so on. But the Qur’an also denies that Jesus is divine and that he died on the Cross. Still, he is called ‘Son of Mary’ and I drew attention to the fact that there are more verses about Mary in the Qur’an than there are in the New Testament. Furthermore, the figure of Mary is indeed especially cherished by many Sufis and Muslim women. We might then focus on the wonderful image of the Mother of Christ as a bond and link of unity between us. Why aren’t non-Muslims allowed to enter two of the holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina? Is there a hadith to that effect, as some claims? That there will be only one religion in Arabia? But if ‘Arabia’ includes Yemen, there was a very large community of Jews living in Yemen – some are still there – until 1949. Anyway, the holy cities are a special case. Is it a matter of asserting the supremacy of Islam over other religions? Of saying to others ‘you are unclean, you are not like us’? I cited the reasoning of a Wahhabi fellow who told me: ‘Just as you would not give me your Holy Communion, for the same reason I would not allow you entrance to the holy cities.’ My answer was: ‘Well, I would first want to know why you would like to partake of the Christian Sacrament. Were you genuinely searching for a spiritual insight into Christianity? An experience of the Sacred? If so, I might consider offering you Communion. Likewise, why shouldn’t a non-Muslim desire to enter Mecca and Medina in search of the Holy? If so, why would you ban them?’ A stimulating question came from a girl who asked whether the wearing of the hijab or head covering is mandated in the Qur’an or not. This is debated amongst scholars. I advanced the opinion of an Arab alim friend of mine. He argues that verse 59 in Sura al-Ahzab is addressed not to women in general but to the Prophet Muhammad’s wives. Most Muslim scholars will disagree. However, the general context of invitation to modesty and decency should be stressed, I said. Besides, whatever the scriptural origins of the hijab, it cannot be denied that many Muslims now consider it part of the Islamic traditions and customs. To ban it from certain areas of public life, like the French state does, appears arrogant, even oppressive. Prayer. Can we pray together? I related how often Muslims have asked me for my dua’, my praying for them. I always regarded it as a great privilege and obligation to comply. But can we also share a prayer space, praying at the same and in the same place? To answer this question we should distinguish which type of prayer we are discussing. There are prayers of formal worship, adoration, petition, intercession, confession and so on. We can certainly pray for, intercede for each other’s good. And we can adore the Creator mystically together, too, I believe. But some official and public prayers would be difficult to share. Prayers in the name of the Christian Trinity would be unacceptable to Muslims. But let us above all rejoice in the splendid fact that we are all believers in prayer. The wicked do not pray, let us bear that in mind. In both Islam and Christianity Jesus comes back at the end of the world. Are the two respective views of his return reconcilable? In answering that mighty question, even tentatively, it is important, I said, to consider how profoundly Jesus’ return may joyfully surprise us. Because it might well run counter to many conventionally ideas and expectations. Surely that is how it should be. He surprised, shocked his ethnic people, the Jews, when he came as Messiah. He may stun all humanity even more at his Second Coming. Did the students like what I said? I am not sure. Well, at least no one left before I finished!

Gelli

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