Representatives of Muslim and Christian faiths gathered at Saint Augustine church in Kilburn, northwest London, on 9 September 2017, for an interfaith forum. The ornately decorated church, also known as the Cathedral of North London, served as the venue for the followers of Christ and Muhammad to compare and contrast each other’s approaches to the major preoccupations of modern man: God, eternity, the Hereafter, and the education of the laity.
Shaykh Muhammad Saeed Bahmanpour, who heads the research department at the Islamic Centre of England, presided over the forum.
Shaykh Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali said in his address to the forum that in Islam the ultimate mission of human being in this life is to know God. He went on to define ‘knowing God’ as ‘having intimate knowledge of the Creator’.
‘We call a mystic ‘arif , i.e. the knower, in our tradition because he has intimate knowledge of God,’ he stated.
As for getting closer to God, Dr. Shomali proposed that the best way to be more attentive in prayer and contemplation is to change one’s lifestyle.
‘Our lifestyles have a direct effect on the state of our mind during the prayer,’ he said.
One of the challenges facing a worshipper is forgetting about his own daily challenges during prayer. Dr. Shomali suggested a solution: ‘The best way to overcome this problem is to think that this is perhaps the last time you are given the chance to talk to your God.’
‘Mind and heart need to be engaged in the acts of worship. A hadith that shows the importance of contemplation in Islamic tradition states that an hour of contemplation is better than 70 years of worshipping,’ Dr. Shomali said.
Dr. Shomali suggested that the outward expression of piety is not necessarily a mirror of a person’s closeness to God: ‘There are people who are involved in actual acts of worship but we do not know what is happening in their hearts. The only yardstick by which we have to judge the individual is to see their truthfulness and trustworthiness.’
In his presentation to the gathering, Father Amos from Saint Augustine Church explained various aspects of the decorations and murals on the 147-year-old church. He said that the acts of worship in the church provide kinaesthetic learning for the participants.
Father Amos suggested that all the senses had to be engaged during acts of worship: ‘In every way, through the use of incense, oil, taste, sound, and touch, the Church has been teaching the laity.’
Another participant in the interfaith dialogue, Kathryn Kane, stressed the importance of education in Christian faith: ‘Christians believe that Jesus is the greatest teacher of all. In the Gospels, he is frequently referred to as “Rabbi”, teacher, and his followers are disciples, learners.’
‘There are fundamental reasons, rooted in the Bible, which have motivated centuries of Christian involvement in schooling in this country and around the world. God is concerned with everything related to education,’ she added.
Kane, who is a Religious Education and Collective Worship Adviser, added: ‘We are made in God’s image. We need to be educated in order to live in harmony with others. We need to use the brains God has given us. We should become all that God has intended us to be.’
Kane was not the only educator in the interfaith session. Her Muslim counterpart in the interfaith session was Aliya Azam, a seasoned educator and a Trustee at Al Ayn Social Care Foundation. In her address to the forum, Azam stressed the role of education in enhancing human beings’ connection to God: ‘According to the Qur’an, the human being is created to worship God. This means that one needs to know this relationship in order to be fully human. This is a natural condition for the human being, the din al-fitrah (i.e. the religion of innate nature). This is the goal of human life and thus provides the ethical framework for all education.’
‘Education is to bring out the natural goodness in people and direct it towards godly paths, this means that the teacher must have a clear understanding of the ways of God and what constitutes godly path,’ she added.
The participants in the forum took a break at noon for the Muslims to attend the Zuhr and ‘Asr prayers at the Islamic Centre of England and for the Christian participants in the church to take part in a Eucharist, a Christian service commemorating the Last Supper, in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed as sacrament.
Catriona Robertson, the co-founder of Multi-faith Forum in London, and Dr Chris Hewer, a Christian theologian who has been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims, guided the discussion during lunch at the Islamic Centre’s library.
Robertson stressed the role of food in bringing different communities together: ‘The words company or companion have at their root the Latin word panis, meaning bread. So in effect, by breaking bread together people from different backgrounds come together.’
The guided discussion began with a comparison of Islamic and Christian notions of the Hereafter. Shaykh Bahmanpour stated: ‘Because we are living in this material world as human beings, we are not fully equipped to perceive, in this life, what joys we will be experiencing in Paradise. But we cannot help ask ourselves in this lifetime what God has in store for those who go to Paradise?’
Dr Hewer stated: ‘There will not be any fear in Paradise. There, human beings will be experiencing only the ever expanding love of God in the human heart. We enter the divine sunlight in which we realise what we have done to ourselves and others.’
Bishop Paul Hendrix, from the Archdiocese of Southwark in south London, stated that according to Christian theology ‘saints will be singing the praise of God in Paradise.’ He added that: ‘We know that we will be in an ideal state in Paradise.’
A discussion then ensued on how to educate the laity and whether high level discourses which are full of ambiguity and perhaps doubts should be presented to the non-clerics.
Hewer lamented the lack of deep knowledge among the laity and called it: ‘the gap between the seminar room and the pulpit.’
‘This gap continues to be great as long as the religious educators consider the laity as babies who should only be fed milk and not meat,’ he added.
Shaykh Bahmanpour replied that the laity does not come to the place of worship to hear highly intellectual discourses and perhaps it would not be right idea to discuss problematic issues with them.
In conclusion, Shahnaz Safieddine, a participant in past interfaith sessions, reported on her recent trip to Kenya as part of a Muslim group to engage with Benedictine clerics. She said that her discussions with the clerics were quite instructive and inspiring.
‘We are forced to revisit our own tradition after being challenged during the interfaith dialogue,’ she added.