We have about 19 years of relations between Shiites and Catholics and so far we have had six rounds of discussions, the last one being in Assisi. The 7th programme will be in Qum in May 2016. We have published six volumes and the last three ones are called Monks and Muslim 1,2 and 3 which is coedited by myself and father William Skudlarek from the Monastic Interfaith Dialogue. Although I have been in contact with many Christian denominations but for some – perhaps- historical reasons and some theological reasons, dialogue with Catholic Church has become more advanced. I hope these meetings will be inspired by God Almighty as you are performing a great undertaking. You are thinking and planning about how peace in Europe can be helped and maintained.
What I want to share is a reflection on human history. Something seems to be a repetitive pattern in human history and whether we are religious or not we all face similar problems. Although religions come to help us to deal with these problems but we manage to create same problems and just give them a new form and shape, sometimes even deceiving ourselves. For example, one of the biggest problems for humankind is the lack of commitment to the truth. The Qur’an tells us in the second chapter, verse 213, that initially people lived a very simple life; we did not have a complicated community life. But people started disagreeing and arguing among themselves. They started fighting over ‘what is mine what is yours’. And God sent them prophets and books to help them to overcome conflicts. The idea was to benefit from the guidance coming through the revelation to get rid of these conflicts (ekhtelaf). Then God says, when the prophets came people started arguing about the message of the prophets. The same human problem has now taken the name of religion. So maybe in the past they fought over a piece of land – now they fight over religions for the minds of people. But the mentality is the same. What we find in human history is that no religious community is immune to these problems. Unless we equip ourselves with deep love for truth and God, we would not be immune from these problems.
A few years ago, when I was visiting Rome, it occurred to me how we suffer in this world, due to no love for God. Some people have no experience of this love. Religious people are not able to understand how someone suffers if they don’t have this love. This is akin to what an orphan feels, but if you are not an orphan you cannot feel it. Those who have no God in their lives, they are orphans in the real sense and they suffer. This could create real problems for them and others because there is no principle of love, of beauty, of justice and of the transcendent, the reality that regulates and guides their lives. But there are people who have love for God, but their love is not of good ones.
Sometimes love for God can be very destructive. There are two ways to love God. Some religious people, even maybe pseudo mystics, people who are very into spirituality, think they have love for God, but their love for God is possessive. They love God in a sense that they want to own God. Like people who love their car as a belonging. They want to own it, control it, and it is us who decide who can have it. This is destructive, because we bring God to the level of selfish human beings, and we put our own interest and ideas in the name of God. So whatever selfish act we want to do we say that is what God wants me to do. That is the God that tells us to kill, to get rid of other people. A god which is brought down to the level of a tribe has no interest in other tribes. A god, who is brought down to the level of one religion, does not care about other religious communities.
But there are other ways of loving God and that is instead of possessing God, you are possessed by God. Instead of bringing God down to our level we want to rise towards God and we have a Godly look at the world. Then no one would only be concern about their own tribe or religion.
So we have one of these ways to choose from. The sad reality is that in the most of cases we have possessive love for God. This possessive love can be for one person or one religion. There might be one billion people, but not for six billion people. This god can be the god of Christians or Muslims only, but not for everyone. This is the sad reality. But we have in all traditions, people who have really tried to love God, be possessed by God and rise to the level of being able to see everyone and have concern for everyone, in a Godly way.
Something which I believe comes with true spirituality is that you always measure your nearness to God by being humble and have concern for other people especially for people who differ from you. Love for God cannot be only measured with concern for my fellow mosque people or church people. If I am really trying to get close to God, it means I am really trying to expand my love for people, even for animals, plants and anything which is created by God. How can we think that we are true lovers of God, and remain narrow minded and only care for our own tribe or religion?
I think this is a very important issue that lies deep in secular forces or some extremist religious forces. They don’t have a real experience of love of God. If this love exists, it would be impossible to even see the suffering of others, let alone be the cause of that suffering. A true lover of God cannot see anyone being misplaced, lose their houses or jobs. So why do some people in the name of religion commit all these acts? Because they do not have this experience of the true love of God. I have said many times that actually what we see in extremists is that they are new to religion or have no proper religious background. Many of these people are not people who used to go to places of worship and learning regularly. These are late arrivals and they want to fast track. There is some gap in their life. Many of these people are not even very religious, but now there are a lot of big changes in the world and because they feel guilt they want to move fast to compensate and that is creating problems.
Originally Published on Issue 34, April 2016
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