Originally Published on Issue 37, July 2016
What we learn from the Qur’an is that whenever there is darkness there will also be light, wherever there is difficulty there will be ease too. We are currently living in a world with many tensions, conflicts and wars, but thanks be to God, in the same world we have lots of people who are deeply committed to love, peace and charity, especially from among the believers in God. There are people who tirelessly work for unity and peace. For quite a few years we have come to know such groups of people among both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
We have had long-standing relations with some Christian movements and groups and despite our theological differences we have realised how many commonalities we have, not only in our understanding of God and humanity, but in understanding the priorities for the religious work of today. These are people who believe there is urgency to work for the sake of unity.
It is almost twenty years since we have established a relationship with the Focolare Movement during which we had many meetings and constructive discussions. This connection started initially in the UK but soon it expanded to Italy, Canada, Indonesia, Lebanon, Poland, the Philippines, USA and many other places. Here I just refer to our visits to Loppiano in general and Sophia University Institute in particular.
Our first visit to Loppiano was in 1999, on the eve of the new millennium. In May 2010, I took a group of PhD students from the Dept. of Religions of the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qom to Italy to visit some Pontifical universities and some Catholic institutions and organisations. A highlight of that trip was visiting Loppiano. An interesting development took place in May 2013 when my wife and I took a group of 10 female students from the Jami’at al-Zahra, made up of peoples from different nationalities, from Qom to Italy. Most of our programmes were arranged by the Focolare Movement. We had programmes and meetings in Rome, in Rocca di Pappa, in Castel Gandolfo and also Loppiano, a small village near Florence where the movement has a citadel known as a ‘Mariapolis‘. This is a place individuals attend for their own religious development. There are also families living there in a spiritual atmosphere of mutual cooperation and unity. On the last night of our trip we met the inhabitants of the town in a gathering held at the local auditorium and had a discussion centred on the concept of love. I personally experienced a great sense of unity as if our hearts where open to each other. I understand that the same was felt by many among those present.
In recent years the Focolare Movement have also established ‘Sophia University’ in Loppiano which offers post-graduate studies. After this meeting another turning point was the invitation of members of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue of Focolare Movement: Roberto Catalano and then co-responsible Christina Lee, together with Paul Lemarie, a member of the centre as well as a member of the Focolar from Loppiano and finally Stefania Tanesini. They visited us in Qom in April 2014 for one week where they were introduced to cultural, religious and spiritual aspects of the life of Shi’a Muslims.
That visit led to another trip in 2015 by about half a dozen sisters from Qom to Loppiano, to observe in more detailed some aspects of Focolare spirituality. The group travelled from Qom and Dearborn and was supposed to stay for four weeks. My wife and I also joined them from London and were supposed to stay with the group for a few days and then return. However due to the loss of my wife’s passport at the airport, our stay was extended unexpectedly which turned out to be most useful. On Friday 20th Feb 2015, our Focolare friends organised a programme at ‘Sophia University’ where we met staff and students. I was asked to say a few words and I decided to talk about ‘wisdom’ which in Greek is ‘sophia’ from which the university takes its name.
I explained the Islamic point of view on wisdom and how it is a universal value, as anything truly wise belongs to the whole of humanity. In my talk I also mentioned the founder of the Focolare Movement Chiara Lubich (1920-2008) and my opinion about her wisdom and her practical spirituality through which she was able, not only to bring spirituality to the ordinary people but to build concrete realities based on it. This is an expression of wisdom, because wisdom is to bring abstract ideas into reality.
In the same meeting, Professor Piero Coda, president of Sophia University, invited me to teach in a forthcoming course on interreligious dialogue. The course would – for the first time – feature lecturers from different religious backgrounds. He also invited me for a similar engagement in the Philippines.
In April 2016, I visited Sophia University and delivered four lectures of one hour each on interreligious dialogue from an Islamic prospective. At the end, in a meeting with Piero Coda, I emphasised the necessity of a closer relationship to achieve a better understanding of what true commitment to unity requires from us. I said that the issue of unity and in particular how to unite believers has preoccupied my mind for many years. I said that I believe that if we do our best, God would certainly guide us and teach us what to do next, but in order to make sure that we have done our best we need to share our resources and exchange our ideas; otherwise we would not be able to say that we have gone through every possible avenue for better understanding. I said to him if I talk and discuss only with my own people using only my own resources I cannot say I have done my best and the same applies to him. I referred to what God says in the Qur’an:
“As for those who strive in Us, We shall surely guide them in Our ways, and God is indeed with the virtuous”. (29:69).
Therefore I suggested further meetings every so often to allow us to have detailed conversations on common interests and hopefully by recording and documenting our understanding we may be able to see if there is further grounds to continue or not. But we have to be able to say we have done our best. Piero welcomed the idea and based on that we fixed the date for the first meeting to take place after the month of Ramadan. This was going to be a new and deeper initiative built upon our previous experiences. We agreed to call this new initiative ‘Wings of Unity’.
Our first ‘Wings of Unity’ meeting took place in Loppiano from 8th-10th July. A group of Focolare professors, staff and students from different parts of Italy also attended but there were more attendees from Sophia University and the Loppiano community.. From the Shi’a side there were five of us, from the UK, the USA and Italy. Piero Coda opened the meeting on the morning of the 8th July talking about the ‘Unity of God and in God’. He explained some of the mystical writings and experiences of Chiara Lubich. He referred in particular to the love for God the Father and love for one’s neighbours.
In the afternoon session I talked about the Unity of God and how in Islam tawhid (unity of God) shapes and forms every aspect of Islamic thought. I explained how over the years I have been thinking about the issue of unity to the extent that one could write a book on it and each chapter of this book can discuss one aspect of this unity. I started mentioning some titles for chapters of that book e.g. metaphysics and how in the ‘Transcendent Philosophy’ of Mulla Sadra we have a kind of monotheistic understanding of existence. I talked about ‘Illuminationist Philosophy’ of Sheikh Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi in his Hikmat ul-ishraq and his philosophical system, based on the concept of light. I talked about the Unity of God as the basis for morality in the Qur’an, as suggested by Allamah Tabatabai. This was followed by further discussions.
The next day started with a comment from one of the professors from Sophia University. He remarked that as a PhD professor he had been teaching interfaith dialogue for a number of years, but this new initiative was the first time that he felt the presence of so much unity. He said he always tried to understand the other or look at the other in a way that he himself wants to be seen but this gathering went further, as if there was no ‘other’.
On the second day, Roberto Catalano gave a talk titled ‘Humanity as one family in Chiara’. He explained how the Focolare Movement got involved in interreligious dialogue. Initially Chiara had thought that the Focolare spirituality was only for Catholics and then for the wider Christians but after some events she got the inspiration that this should be open to everybody. He mentioned how the movement got to know Warith Deen Mohammed, imam of the Nation of Islam and how she also visited Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) Mosque in Harlem – New York. He further described her travel to India and her interaction with the Hindus showing a video of the trip. In the afternoon I talked about my understanding of the plan of God for human guidance and the relationship between different prophets and religions.
On the morning of the third day two professors from Focolare spoke about Unity as Lifestyle according to the Christian Focolare perspective. I also presented our perspective about Unity as a lifestyle using some of the analogies or parables that we have in Islam such as the community being like one body or one building. I explained how I can see some of the qualities in some of the practices of the Focolare Movement that should be present in the believers, especially the helpers of Imam Mahdi(a).. For example, they act as members of the same family as if brought up by the same parents. My presentation was followed by further discussions after which some suggestions were made about our next steps.
Professor Piero Coda suggested we define the mission statement of the ‘Wings of Unity’ initiative therefore it was decided that there would be two co-directors, Prof. Piero Coda and I, coupled with a council made up of four Focolare members and four Shi’a Muslim members. God-willing, Wings of Unity will continue its discussions, joint courses and joint publications. There will be courses on theology and spirituality of unity for both Muslim and Christian youth, Imams, priests, monks and activists. A book will also be produced on unity, faith, identity etc. based on the questions which will be raised by the youths in the courses next summer.
In brief, I can say that this meeting and exchange in Loppiano was very special and a memorable experience. Everyone was deeply moved by this experience of unity and expressed a desire in its continuation. We thank God for this great gift of friendship and unity and request Him to help us to move forward.
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: