(Originally published on Issue 58 April 2018)
In February 2018 a group of six Christians and six Muslims met at the Focolare Centre for Unity in Welwyn Garden City. The meeting marked the first in series of informal sessions discussing moral andspiritual issues from Christians and Muslims perspectives.
The Following are an introduction by Dr Shomali followed by a presentation by Frank Johnson, and one by Dr Shomali on the subject of humbleness
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
I am very grateful to God for giving us the blessing of having this session tonight, which I think is an offshoot of our long-term relationship. The project that we started in Sofia, Wings of Unity, was an attempt to not just talk together but to think together and invite God to speak to us. However, we were not telling God that He should speak to one of us and then we tell the others; rather, we asked God to speak to anyone. So, thanks to God, that experience was extremely useful and beneficial. Thus far we have had four rounds of Wings of Unity, as well as a summer school in Tonadico. Many new ideas resulted from those fruitful discussions.
Some months back when Frank [Johnson], Noreen [Lockhart] and I had a meeting in Islamic Centre, I said that I think we need to learn how to overcome differences of language and differences of mindset to be able to think in the way which is not Islamic versus Christian, but something which is Islamic and Christian, but not Islamic and not Christian as such; hence, a language which is universal, a language which is the language of our innate nature.
I said that perhaps a good platform for that would be if a few of us who fully trust each other start talking and listening to some spiritual issues. Initially, it would be listening to a Muslim or a Christian, but little by little we want to reach the point that we just listen to one of us, not as Muslim or Christian. Therefore, we want to see how, for example, as an Imam, I can be prepared to talk to a congregation, which is half-Muslim and half-Christian, without thinking the Muslim ones are my congregation and the rest are outsiders or guests. I think when God sent prophets, the prophets looked at all people as their people, and not by partitioning people. Consequently, this is an attempt to learn. We do not know how it is going to work, and at the same time, we do not want to come with expectations that would limit us. However, we also have great hope that God would assist us further.
After another meeting with Liz and Frank, we thought we can start this initiative and perhaps discuss humbleness. Of course, not only would we talk about humbleness, but also express to God our humbleness and see how we can move together. Hence, it is different from many other events which ask a Muslim to talk about a topic and a Christian to talk about a topic, each of them representing their faith. This project is an attempt to move closer to each other and, little by little, see if we can remove the partition, but not by losing our identity or confusing our faith. I think each of our faith if it is good faith, has the capacity to make us universal. So, this is our hope and I think I am very much in need of learning how I can understand the will of God without any colour, shape and culture and how I can express the will of God without putting it into any culture or colour. So, this is the idea. Thank you.
Humbleness: A Christian perspective
by Frank Johnson (Co-director of the Focolare Movement in Great Britain)
The major fault that is present in all human beings is pride. It was pride that caused angels to turn into devils. It was pride that caused Adam and Eve to lose the earthly paradise. In fact, pride is at the root of all sin. Humility is the opposite of pride and the antidote to it. Unless we are able to acquire the virtue of humility, we will never make progress in spiritual life. The root of the words ‘humble’ and ‘humility’ is ‘humus’ which means ‘earth’ or ‘soil’.
Already in the Old Testament there many references to the virtue of humility. The Book of Proverbs is filled with warnings of those who refuse to be humble.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.
The Psalms too have many references to humility.
He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.
For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory
The New Testament is full of blessings for those who put others before themselves.
We know from God’s Word that he resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. How can we know that we are living in humility and ready to receive God’s blessings?
Humility is the ability to be without pride or arrogance and it is the main characteristic that should be seen in those who follow Jesus Christ. Jesus is the best example of someone who humbly followed God’s plan for His life.
When Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, he was giving an example to all of his followers of how he wants them to live.
Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet (John 13: 1-17)
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
St Paul too, speaks often about the importance of humility, as for example in Philippians 2:3-4:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
St James (4:10) says: Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
And Luke (14:11) says: For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
God himself is humble because he is love. God humbled himself out of love. Therefore, not only does humility open us to God: it clothes us with Christ, the humbled God.
Humility is the ornament of the Godhead. The Word clothed himself in it when he became a man. By it, he lived among us in the flesh . . . And anyone who wraps himself in it truly makes himself like him who came down from on high and clothed his grandeur and glory in humility, lest the created world should dissolve at the sight of him.
Isaac of Nineveh Ascetic Treatises, 20 (p. 76)
Chiara Lubich also spoke often about our need to be humble.
A virtue that unites the soul to God … is humility, the emptying of self. The smallest shred of the human that does not allow itself to be assumed by the divine breaks unity, and with grave consequences. The unity of the soul with God, who lives within us, presupposes a total emptying of self, the most heroic humility….
Humility also leads souls to unity with others: aspire constantly to the “first place” by putting self as much as possible at the service of neighbour.
Every soul that wants to achieve unity must claim only one right: to serve everyone because in everyone the soul serves God….
Like St. Paul, though free, make ourselves servants of all in order to gain the greatest number (see 1 Cor 9:19). The soul that desires to bring about unity must keep itself in such an abyss of humility that it reaches the point of losing, for the benefit and in the service of God in its neighbour, its very self.
It re-enters itself only to find God and to pray for its brothers and sisters and for itself.
It must live constantly “emptied” because it is totally “in love” with God’s will … and in love with the will of its neighbour, who it wants to serve for God. A servant does only what his or her Master commands.
This idea of being empty, nothing, in front of our brother or sister, and in front of God, is a constant theme in Chiara Lubich’s writings.
Humility may seem an impossible virtue to acquire, but if, in the present moment, I make myself completely empty in front of my brother or sister who is speaking to me, then, at that moment I am living humility. The acid test of my humility is how I react to criticism or negative comments made about me. Sometimes I may say to others that I am useless or no good at this or that. If I am humble I will be happy to accept such comments and agree with what is said about me by others, if I am still proud I will reject them and feel hurt and offended.
Humbleness: An Islamic perspective
by Dr Mohammad Shomali (Director of the Islamic Centre of England)
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
First of all, I think I can agree with everything you [Frank Johnson] said and I do not think there is anything problematic or that needs to be checked. In Islamic culture also the virtue of humbleness is extremely significant. In fact, I have always thought that it would be one of the few virtues that I can say are the most important virtues, as I mentioned some years back in a paper, “Key Concepts in Islamic Spirituality.” I discussed three virtues; humbleness was one of them. Thus, it is a very important concept which I have been constantly reflecting on.
There are many different angles to humbleness; first, it seems that we have to be humble before God. Unfortunately, many times even believers are not humble before God and think they can do what they like and somehow just please God minimally. Or, for example, sometimes even unconsciously we try to deceive ourselves by doing our own things, but in the name of God. Hence, it is extremely important to be humble before God.
Furthermore, it is also very important to be humble before the truth. Although it is easy to say, it is very difficult to be able to accept the truth regardless of who is telling the truth, even if he is my enemy. Indeed, it is not easy to be open to that truth; perhaps it is easier to accept it from a friend than a stranger, and certainly not from an enemy.
Moreover, we need to be humble before people. In my opinion, one of the beautiful things that we find in our spirituality is how a virtue like humbleness simultaneously helps you in your relationship with God and with people. Other virtues perhaps help us more with God or more with people, but humbleness is one of those virtues that help us in both areas. Similar to the saying you mentioned, “Be humble and you will be uplifted,” we have a hadith: “Whoever tries to be humble for the sake of God, God will raise him”.
It is not that he would be only raised in his relationship with God; he would be raised even in society because by nature people love humble people. I do not think anyone loves people who are too proud or arrogant, even amongst your children, you will love the one who is more humble.
Gratitude is similar; the one who is grateful is loved by everyone. Consequently, humbleness is a virtue which is so fundamental that it can help you with your relationship with God, your relation with others, and even your relation with yourself because it is humbleness that puts you in the best condition for learning, changing, improving and receiving ideas and criticism so that you can grow.
However, the problem is that it seems humble people are not many; so, it is a question why such an obvious thing is so rare. Maybe I am not very optimistic, but I think it is not unfair to say that if we ask people, for example, in your office or community to introduce humble people, they would not say “I do not know where I should start; there are so many humble people.” It certainly seems that there are not that many humble people. Although being humble is one of the greatest achievements and we all understand that it is very irrational to become proud and arrogant, for we cannot become proud and arrogant when we are completely dependent and needy, the reality is that most of us are not humble most of the time.
The question is why is this the case? It seems that we have a sense of worry, instability or insecurity which makes us arrogant. If someone does not feel confident or strong, he will try to secure his position by lowering other people and raising himself artificially. On the contrary, those who are confident and rich inside do not need to be proud or arrogant.
We have a hadith which states that the only people who need to oppress are those who are weak. A weak person would oppress because he or she has some needs and wants to meet those needs; because he cannot do it by himself, he oppresses other people. Hence, there is an emptiness that such people want to cover up by being arrogant. Although humbleness, in a sense, may look like poverty or emptiness, it is actually to be rich.
For example, if you are a new teacher or the subject is new, you become very worried when students ask questions. If a student asks a few questions, you think that he has a plan to destroy you in front of everyone. However, if you are a confident teacher, not only would you not be worried about these questions, you would actually love people to ask very difficult questions because that would make the class more interactive and give you the opportunity to teach more.
Therefore, if we really possess something valuable inside we should become more humble, and when you are more humble it increases your capacity for gaining more. As you said, God gives the gift of wisdom, for example, to those who are humble. We have traditions that, for example, God gives the gift of prophethood to those who are humble. For instance, one hadith states that God said to Moses, “O Moses, Do you know why I chose you over other people, gave you revelation and spoke to you?”
Moses said, “No my Lord I do not know.” He did not say, “Yes, there must be many reasons that He chose me. Which one are you talking about?” So God said, “I looked at the heart of people in and out and I saw none of them more humble before Me than you.” Therefore, Moses was the most humble person at that time and God thus chose him.
There is a story states that once God said to Moses, “Next time that you come to the appointment with Me, bring someone who is lower than you; so do not come alone, bring also someone who is lower than you.” So, Moses went everywhere and he could not find anyone that he could say he is lower than me. Then he saw an ill and ugly animal and said, “Maybe I can say this animal is lower than me, it is not a human being, but an animal,” but then he said, “I cannot even say this animal is lower than me because that animal has no guilt or sin.” Thus, he went to meet God without taking anyone and God asked, “Why did you not bring anyone?” He replied, “Because I did not find anyone lower than me.” God declared, “If you had brought that animal you would have lost your position.”
Consequently, humbleness is absolutely important, but at the same time, it is extremely difficult. If you are humble it means that you have already made great success since it is not easy for a beginner to be humble. However, when you do become humble you are put on a motorway which quickly takes you towards God and higher positions.
So, the important question is how can we become humble? Of course, being with humble people is very inspiring because you automatically and naturally are motivated to become humble. However, we may not find such people very easily or perhaps there are layers of pride within us that would not disappear by only being with humble people.
So, I think this is an area that we have to work together and bring our experiences and resources together so that we realise how we can be humble, especially as faithful communities. Unfortunately, sometimes we bring our pride and arrogance to religion, between two denominations or between two religions. If we were really humble, then we were in a better position to enter into dialogue and discussion and find similarities. However, when we are not personally humble and we put any cleric dress, that pride comes in the way of unity, causing difficulties. A Muslim might say that a Muslim must be the winner, or a Christian might say that a Christian should be the winner.
Hence, though we may think it is for the sake of God, in reality, it may not be for the sake of God. This might be the same selfish game people do in different names and now we do it in the name of God.
In summary, there is no doubt about the significance of humbleness in our traditions, but we really need to work hard on the practical side and try to achieve this humbleness. Moreover, if we do attain it then we should try not to lose it; as our fourth Imam says, “O God please do not raise me among people any rank unless you bring me lower in myself the same or more.” Perhaps as a first-year seminarian, I have enough humbleness, but when I go to the second year I need more humbleness. When I become, for example, a graduate I need more humbleness. Furthermore, when I become an Imam I need even more humbleness. Hence, humbleness is a virtue that we really need to work on, especially by seeing what we can learn from our spiritual and mystical traditions. Thank you.
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: