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Shi‘a Muslims and the World Council of Churches

The director of the Islam Centre of England, Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali, explains the background to Shi‘a Muslim relations with the World Council of Churches following his recent trip to Geneva

Originally published on Issue 39, September 2016

In the Christian world Catholics are centralised under the authority of the Pope while Orthodox and especially Protestant Christians have many different denominations. In Geneva, there is the headquarters of the World Council of Churches which is an umbrella organisation for 345 churches, both Orthodox and Protestant, with an executive committee that meets every three months. They have maintained a dialogue with Shi‘a Muslims for over 20 years.
In November 2015, I was part of a delegation participating in a dialogue looking at ways to prevent violence, especially in the name of religion. Among the delegates were members of the Anglican Church, the Armenian Church, the Church of Pakistan and Shi‘a Muslims from Iran.
I travelled from the UK and there were other participants from Germany, Iran Lebanon, Pakistan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and United States of America. The discussion was very positive and fruitful. I provided a Shi‘a perspective on how to address the problem of violence in the name of religion and explained that there are three elements in the Shi‘a Islamic teaching namely rationality, spirituality and search for justice that when applied correctly can help to avoid extremism and fanaticism. This point was unanimously accepted by all delegates who saw them as positive elements for any religious tradition to consider. In that round of dialogue, I gave another lecture on Muslim Christian relations.

Every summer WCC offers a three-week course for Muslims, Christians and Jews from different countries.Apart from studying it also gives them a chance to live together and experience and develop honest
friendship.

A few months ago, I was invited by the Ecumenical Centre of the World Council of Churches to teach in their annual summer course. Every summer they offer a three-week course for Muslims, Christians and Jews from different countries. Apart from studying it also gives them a chance to live together and experience and develop honest friendship.
The course is structured in a way that Muslims, Christians and Jews listen and attend each other’s presentations. My task was to deliver two sessions of 90 minutes introducing Islam followed by a Muslim lady, a scholar from Lebanon, who was supposed to talk about migration in Islam. Every year there is a theme and this year the theme was migration, reflecting the recent large scale exodus affecting Europe. The course also includes spiritual sharing and scriptural reasoning sessions as well as visits of the United Nations, the World Council of Churches, mosques and the Museum of the Reformation in Geneva.
Having accepted the invitation I travelled to Geneva from 26-28 July. There I met some of the professors and had informal meetings and discussions with the students but the main activity was to deliver the course. I started my presentation by providing some statistics about Islam and Muslims in general, giving an overview of the landscape of Islam followed by information on the historical background. This was particularly well received especially by non Muslims.
I made references to the Bible, in particular to Genesis, where the prophesy about the 12 leaders that will descend from Ishmael(a) is told and I also explained how from the two sons of the Prophet Abraham(a) we have the descendants of the Arabs from Ishmael(a) and Jews from Isaac(a). Then I explained how Islam was introduced by the Prophet Muhammad(s) as a continuation of the tradition of Abraham(a) and cited verses from second chapter of the Qur’an which describe Abraham(a), Ishmael(a), Isaac(a), Jacob(a) and their descendants as followers of one religion that is Islam, in the sense of submission to God. The Prophet Muhammad(s) therefore reinstated the religion of Abraham(a).

After this introduction I began to talk in general about the common beliefs of Muslims and also mentioned the differences among them where relevant. Using as a textbook my book, Islam: Doctrines, Practices & Morals, we began to discuss the sources necessary for understanding Islam. I explained that the Qur’an, the most important source for Muslims, represents God’s revelation word by word. If our Christian friends want to understand how important the Qur’an is for Muslims, it might help to think of the Bible and Jesus(a) all in one, since for Christians Jesus(a) is considered as revelation from God – “word was made flesh.”
Continuing with the Qur’an, I said that this book is the same for all Muslims across the world. I then discussed the meaning of the sunna (traditions) of the Prophet and the significance of the sunna for Muslims followed by an introduction of the Ahl ul Bayt(a) – The Prophet’s Family – and explained how respected they are by all Muslims, but emphasising the very special place it occupies in Shi‘a Islam. I also introduced the other sources of Islam like ijma‘ (consensus) and ‘aql (intellect)… Then I spoke about Islamic doctrines such as Tawhid (unity), explaining the meaning of ‘unity of God’ and how the unity of God is reflected in creation and revelation, meaning that the essence of revelations is the same, originating from the One God. I also explained how unity of God should be reflected in the unity of mankind. Then we discussed divine justice explaining that this is accepted by all Muslims but with degrees of difference existing among the various schools. We touched upon the importance of social justice and how the unity of God should be reflected in the unity of mankind.
Next we addressed the subject of prophethood. I said that God has provided guidance to humanity in the form of intellect but also by sending messengers to every nation. I said how some messengers came with specific scriptures like Abraham(a), Moses(a), Jesus(a) and Muhammad(s) and explained the relationship among the various scriptures and how the Qur’an is considered the last of God’s revelations to humankind. A discussion of the differences between the concept of Imamate according to the Shi‘as and the Caliphate for the Sunnis was included. I spoke about the Twelve Imams and the concept of the Mahdi who according to the Shi‘as was born around 869 CE and is still alive (but in occultation) while for most Sunni Muslims he is yet to be born. Both denominations have narrations that describe how the return of Jesus (a) will take place at the same time as the reappearance of the Mahdi(a).
Resurrection and accountability before God on the Day of Judgement were also discussed before going into an introduction of Islamic religious practices which included the daily prayers, almsgiving, fasting in other religions and in Islam, hajj (the pilgrimage), and the connection of this ritual to the prophet Abraham(a). I explained the meaning of the term jihad understood to be a struggle in the way of God in order to bring good to one’s personal life, family or the community/society. This can be carried out by ‘pen’, by ‘tongue’ or through ‘medical help’. Jihad can also include the defence of one’s country against invaders or helping oppressed people. All types of jihad should be conducted with pure intentions and only for the service of God, truth and not for any personal or sectarian gain. An introduction to the concept of ‘enjoining the good and prohibiting the evil’ was given explaining how every Muslim should try to help others in their journey towards perfection.
In the second session, I gave an introduction to the Muslim way of life based on moral virtues. Perhaps for some students this part was more interesting judging by the comments received afterwards.
I talked about those values that relate to our relationship with God like remembrance of God, trusting God, servitude to God, and repentance. Then we moved on to the relation with one’s self, how we should be controlled in our desires and emotions to make sure that they do not lead us into immoral actions. We discussed self-purification, reasoning, thinking, learning and busying oneself with one’s own problems instead of finding problems in other people. Then I moved to values with respect to other human beings in general, with our parents, our children, elderly people, the sick. Not to be missed was our relationship with the environment. At the end, we had a Q&A session.
Overall it was a very good experience for me and I hope also for the participants. People showed much interest in learning about the connection between Prophet Ismail(a) and Ishaq(a) and how the Prophet Muhammad(s) comes from the same line of Abraham(a). Particular interest was shown in the moral and ethical life; more specifically when I spoke about humbleness in the relationship between different divine Prophets and religions and how they are basically from the same substance. I also talked a little bit about my understanding of the relationship between Islam and Christianity and the importance of improving this relationship.
There was also an opportunity to discuss with the director of the ecumenical centre of the WCC the idea of having a workshop on interfaith for about 20 Shi‘as from the UK and other countries who are or would like to be active in this field. This would give them a chance to know the Reformation and Protestant movement more closely and also to visit the WCC and the Geneva HQ of the UN insha Allah.

A brief history of WCC
The World Council of Churches is an umbrella organisation established to promote ecumenical encounters among all Christian churches. Its formation was the direct consequence of the first national world assembly of churches held in Amsterdam in 1948. Initially it comprised only 147 Protestant churches and a few representatives of the Orthodox Church. These later increased to 340 adherents, including all denominations of the Orthodox churches.
Its current membership is 349 organisations. The membership is made up of most of the main Christian churches with the bulk from Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox denominations. The Catholic Church is not an official member although it is present in the various gatherings as an observer.
The WCC is based at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland. The organisation’s members include denominations which claim to collectively represent some 590 million people across the world in about 150 countries, including 520,000 local congregations served by 493,000 pastors and priests, in addition to elders, teachers, members of parish councils and others. The objective of the WCC is to move principally towards the unity of Christians, but latterly it has also established ecumenical activity with members of other faiths.

Video ‘Violence in the name of religion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_QZOPSC3Ls

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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