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Identity & the Other

Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali's address at the 28th Congress of European Professors of Islamic and Arabic Studies Palermo - Italy 12th September 2016 ( Special interfaith edition issue 65 March 2019)

Originally published on Issue 40, October 2016

Peace be with you. Salaamun Alaykum
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

I’m delighted to be here today with you in this beautiful, historical place, and also on a day that we celebrate the great Feast of Adha – or the feast of sacrifice when God accepted the offer of Abraham and indeed ransomed Abraham’s offer of sacrificing his son with a sheep. We know that this day will be a blessed day for all people, all over the world.
I have been to Italy many times. Since 1999 I have been coming to Italy but not to this part of Italy. So it is also a new experience for me to be here. I always love to come here because we keep talking about Sicilia in Iran but this is the first time I have the honour of being here. And therefore I am grateful to God the Almighty for this blessing and grateful also to Professor Pertili and the organisers of this conference.
What I would like to share with you are a few reflections. These reflections are something that I say, but not necessarily as a Muslim. I think these are reflections that we as human beings and as believers in any kind of revelation may share. I would be very delighted to receive your comments and ideas afterwards.
If we reflect on the way religions and cultures and traditions have developed, we realise that there has always been a central question, and that is how to keep your people – your adherents – together; how to convince them that by being and remaining inside the circle of this religion or tradition or culture, they will be better off; and how to make sure that they do not go away. This is very much related to the issue of identity, and understanding your position with respect to other people.
Unfortunately, many times – and I don’t think any religion or tradition here is an exception – many, many times, the way to prove and demonstrate that you would be better off remaining in this circle/religion/tradition was by distancing yourself from others. So instead of being more constructive and productive and saying what you are, the focus was on what you are not. And this, I think, is a problem. So for example, if I’m a Muslim or Christian or Jewish leader, in order to keep my community together and make sure that they don’t deviate or go astray, I will say, “If you are with us you’ll go to Heaven, if go to the other direction, you’ll go to hell.” “Do you want to go to hell?” “No.” So you remain with us.
So this is a type of identity which is based on fear and exclusion. And for sure, this type of understanding is not going to work in the world that we live in today. If it has worked in the past, it is because there were so many different types of distances – not only geographical, but cultural, communicational, and other types of distances.
The world was very divided. You could live in a town or even a country in which you have no people of other faiths.
This is not the world of today. And this type of fragile understanding of your identity and of your religious affiliation is not going to work in this world, and definitely not in the future. We need to have a different type of understanding that is based on what you have and what you can offer to other human beings, and what you can appreciate of what they have, and how to relate to them.
Being able to relate to other people is a very essential part of every person’s identity today. I cannot be a good Muslim today or a good Iranian today unless I know how to relate to other people, how to accommodate them in my own identity. And for sure for us as believers in God, this is also a very important part of our faith. How can we believe in God, the One, the creator of all mankind, and then fail to care for part of the creation of God?

For us, not only is every human being unique, and every human being carries the sign of God, but also every animal, every bird, every insect, every flower, every drop of water is significant because it is a sign and manifestation of God. So now, we need to rethink our understanding of our identity. Let me give you an example. If you look at the human body, for sure we have different organs and different parts. We have our eyes, our ears, kidneys, a heart. Every organ has some function; every organ has some identity. But if their understanding of their role is to exclude others, to boycott others, to attack others, then we are not going to survive. You can be a kidney, you can be an eye, you can be an ear, you can be a heart, you can be a brain, you can be a hand or leg, but you can only survive if you understand how to relate to others and define for yourself a role in a bigger unity. Or for example, we can be citizens of different cities in a country. We can, for example, be from Palermo, we can be from Rome, […] or Florence. There are two ways of understanding ourselves. One is that our city is the only city that matters in the world. We are special people. We are unique. We don’t bother ourselves with what is happening to the rest. Or we can be proud of being citizens of this city, but at the same time be respectful to other cities; help them develop and prosper because we know that in a more developed Italy, we would all be better off. Or we would be better off if we have a better Europe or a better globe. So, this type of understanding is, I think, what we need. And when I look at the Qur’an, I see that this is actually the plan of God. God has done lots of things in His creation and legislation so that we would move towards unity. But unfortunately, the sad reality is that even with the things that God has given us to unite us, we started fighting.
There’s a beautiful verse in the Qur’an which talks about people initially being a united nation: (Mankind were a single community).
There was a time when people were all united, but then they started differing. Then they started conflicting. And then God had to send prophets with codes of law to save them from those differences. But do you know what happened? They started differing on those codes of laws. So Moses came, Jesus came, the Prophet Muhammad came. They brought unity to people, but then afterwards their own followers started fighting over what was supposed to bring unity. And sometimes people of the same religion excommunicate each other, kill each other. And now you can imagine what they may do with people of other religions. Is this the plan of God? No. The plan of God is that humanity should get united around the truth. But He doesn’t want to force His plan: (Had God wished, He would have brought them together on guidance) Had He wanted, He was able to bring us all together around the truth by force. But God doesn’t do things by force. He gives us the idea; He helps us, He inspires us, but He also asks us to take over the job. And this is what we need. And I think one of the places in which we can try to establish a model of mutual recognition, mutual respect, mutual love, and unity, is in this part of the world around the Mediterranean. There are so many opportunities here, especially long history of living together and understanding each other’s language – not only the language that we speak but the language that we think in and the language of the heart.
As I listened to what the mayor of Palermo said and the way he respects the cultures of his fellow Muslim citizens, it gave me lots of hope. This shows that we can have this model of respect and unity in a place like Palermo. I think then, by showing this and offering this testimony to other people in other parts of the world, they would all be inspired because I think that what we very much lack today is good examples. Bad examples are there and they are also advertised, publicised, and magnified. But good examples, unfortunately, are not as well publicised. So I am grateful to God that we have such a beautiful cohesion between Islamic culture, Christian culture,
European, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean – all different types of cultures here. And I’m sure that if we understand how to relate to each other in a constructive way, each of these subcultures would be better off, and the unity that we establish would put us in a good position to be able to relate to the rest of the world.
Thank you very much for your attention. (In the end, our claim is that all praise be to God, Lord of the worlds).

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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