Personhood, virtue and moral cultivation; a Christian-Muslim workshop

Originally Published on Issue 37, July 2016

The first two days of June 2016 saw the university of Paderborn in Germany host a two-day workshop titled ‘Personhood, virtue and moral cultivation; a Christian-Muslim workshop’. This is part of a collaborative project by which the participants hope to enhance the mutual understanding of Shiite, Sunni, Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican moral traditions and the moral visions that these different traditions have formed, and also to explore the potential of these traditions to meet challenges that contemporary society is confronted with.
Strong academic relations exist between the Seminary of Qum and universities in Germany, especially Paderborn University. A number of regular visits and discussions involving PhD students, lecturers and postgraduate students from different German institutions and the Qum’s Seminary have taken place.

Recently the University of Paderborn has also launched a department of Islamic Studies, offering degree courses. The German academic system entails that any religious academics who are employed by universities should be approved by a recognised religious establishment. In the case of a Muslim lecturer they should be approved by the Muslim Council of the particular area or region. This applies also to representatives of other religions. So if a Jewish person wants to teach Judaism they should be approved by the Jewish Council of the area. There are currently three students from Qum studying for PhD and another Muslim lady undertaking post – doctoral research at Paderborn University.
This year the coordinator of Muslim Shia representation was Dr Javadi from the University of Qum while Dr Schmidt was the organiser from the German side. Among the participants there was also Professor Klaus von Stosch, Deputy Head of the department of Catholic theology. He is a Catholic philosopher with knowledge of Islamic Philosophy. He currently supervises Iranian students.

Of the fourteen participants seven were representing Shi’a Islam, five from Qum, one from Mashhad and Dr Shomali from London. Other participants were Prof. George Pattison (Glasgow), Dr Amber Griffioen (Konstanz), Andrew Massena and Bethany Slater (Boston), Dr Tuba Isik (Paderborn) the Sunni scholar who is currently conducting post- doctoral studies and finally Prof. Jochen Schmidt (Paderborn).

Presentations were about ethics and virtues of ethics. Every side presented a paper and the other side had one person to respond and vice versa.
Shia presentations were well received and sessions involved intense questions and answers. In addition to the presentation the delegates had many other informal discussions, including the planning for the next meeting which, God willing, will be held in Iran on ‘Truthfulness’, considered by Dr. Shomali as one of the most fundamental topics for discussion . Participants’ papers will be published as a journal at a later date.

In his presentation Dr Shomali said: “With an objective to understand the core of Shia Islam, the attention should be given to three major elements in a belief system. These are rationality, spirituality and social justice. Some people may have one or two but what gives you a balanced understanding of reality is a combination of the three”. Dr Shomali clarified that; “…everybody can have these virtues but Shia Islam scholars have been consistent throughout history in using these three elements.” While briefly describing all three elements, Dr. Shomali places his focus on spirituality.


With an objective to understand the core of Shia Islam, the attention should be given to three major elements in a belief system. These are rationality, spirituality and social justice. Some people may have one or two but what gives you a balanced understanding of reality is a combination of the three”


He explained: “For Shia Muslims, spirituality is very important. Religion is not just about performing rituals but it involves the intellect and the heart also. Spirituality is an essential part of a religious life”. Dr Shomali has been lecturing about spirituality to Muslims and non-Muslims for many years. After giving a basic framework for achieving spirituality according to the teachings of Shi’a Islam he referred the audience to his book ‘Self-development’ where he has given a breakdown on how to embark on the path of spirituality .
Dr Shomali clarified that the spirituality starts with yaqth (awakening). To begin the journey into spirituality a person should first be awake he added. He further explained how ghafla (heedlessness or inattentiveness) has been considered by Muslims as a main obstacle. He acknowledges that some people consider yaqth as the first station of the journey and some say it is ‘zero’ station since it is only after that that the journey starts.
Dr Shomali continued by stating that after awakening comes ma’arif al nafs (self-knowledge). He further elaborated on the significance of self-knowledge saying it is connected to ma’arif al Allah (knowledge of God). “If you don’t know God you will forget yourself”, explained Dr Shomali.
“So now that you are awake, and know yourself – knowing oneself, does not mean to know biographical data – but to know your potential, your talents, your capacity that God has put in us, then follows ‘self-care’”, said Dr Shomali.
“At the stage of self-care one has to work on one’s belief, action, the qualms of one’s heart, and try to keep close to God so that process never stops. So you cannot say I finished one stage and start another. All the stages require continuous attention. We divide these elements just to understand them better otherwise one does not finish and another starts”; explained Dr Shomali. He reminded the audience of the importance of not having bad feelings in their hearts as these will decrease the value of our good deeds and actions.
He further explained that among the good virtues and qualities of the heart some are more important than others, such as love, compassion but most important in Islam is commitment to the truth. He reiterated how he underlines this point when he teaches ethics to the Hawza students. He said: “I believe that based on Qur’an and traditions, the most important thing is sidq (truthfulness) and commitment to haq (the truth) – all else emanates from this. He pointed that love for God should lead to love for the sake of God, and that a sign of getting closer to God is that you start loving other people. If you get closer to God your relationship with others will be improved.”

Dr Shomali quoted an Islamic tradition which says: ‘if you sort everything between you and God, everything between you and people will be sorted out by God.’ Dr Shomali concluded with a few statements on love for God saying that some people want to possess God which is wrong, as one should rise to God. One should be possessed by God. We should have a Godly vision instead of bringing God to our own level.

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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