The Canadian School of Peacebuilding (CSOP), an institute of Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Canada, organised the second session of its five-day courses for the peacebuilders of the world last June.
The courses are attended by local, national and international peacebuilders, practitioners, professionals, activists, students, non-governmental organisations, and faith-based groups who are introduced to various approaches to peacebuilding, justice, reconciliation, conflict resolution, and development.
During the session students can select a variety of modules such as: Human Rights and Indigenous Legal Traditions, Gender and Violence, Theology and Peacebuilding, Practices for Transforming the Peacebuilder, Peace Resources in Islam and Christianity. This last module was co-taught by Sheikh Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali and Dr Harry Huebner, described by the course website as ‘two professors, an Iranian Shi‘a Muslim and a Canadian Mennonite Christian, who have collaborated over 10 years in giving expression to their respective faiths in the presence of scholars for the other religion’.
This particular module attracted 24 registered students, a number which doubled as other students joined in after selecting it as an option ‘sampler’ module. According to Dr Shomali, the classroom was composed of an interesting mix of Christians from different denominations, one Jew, Muslims (both Sunni and Shi‘a), seminarians, teachers and people who work in NGOs.
The course examined the rich resources that each faith tradition offers on the important topics of peace and justice, focusing on both the practices and the theological resources that undergird themes.
Dr Shomali, who taught for four days, expounded upon the Islamic understanding of peace, Jihad (Holy Struggle), the coming of Imam Mahdi(a) and Jesus(a) and discussed the ways we should work together to bring peace and unity in the world. As the end of the course coincided with the celebration of Eid ul Fitr, Sheikh Shomali led the local Muslim Shi‘a community in the ceremony associated with the Eid prayer at the Yaseen Islamic Centre of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
On Monday and Tuesday 26th and 27th of June, Dr Shomali also participated in a mini dialogue session held at the Mennonite University between Shi‘a Muslims from Argentina, Iran, the UK and the USA, and Mennonites and Catholics from Canada and the USA.
This was a small group of people who had initially accepted a proposal put forward, a few months earlier by Sheikh Shomali, for a dialogue centred around the concept of ‘Unity’ based on the project in which he had been engaged in Italy with the Focolare movement. The book ‘Wings of Unity’ provided the substance of the discussion.
Wednesday the 28th June, was spent visiting a Hutterite Christian Colony. Hutterites are Christians originated to the time of the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Germany.
Hutterites live in communities (colonies) and share all their possessions. All members living in one community collectively ‘own’ the assets of that community. Each colony numbers about 100 to150 people. They have breakfast with their family and lunch and dinner with members of the community. Men and women sit in segregated fashion.
Women observe a distinctive modest dress code. Their children are educated in their own schools. Their main language is English but they also speak a distinctive German dialect because some of their original scriptures are written in that language. Farming and carpentry are some of their main activities.
This was not the first time Dr Shomali had visited a Hutterite colony. Three of the students taking part in the course came from this community, hence the invitation to visit them.
Kawthar Learning Circle
Before leaving Canada, Dr Shomali travelled to Vancouver to lead a retreat organised by the Kawthar Learning Circle with participants coming from various cities across Canada.
The theme of this year’s gathering was ‘How to present Islam in the West’. Every day after Fajr prayer, there was a session to reflect on the Qur’an, discussing the chapters Al-Asr and An-Nasr.
On the last day of his visit seven members of the Focolare community of Vancouver came to visit Dr Shomali providing another opportunity for friendship and cooperation between the Shi‘a Muslim community and members of the Focolare movement. (A more detailed report on the retreat in Vancouver will be published in the next issue.)
Teaching about Islam at the Ecumenical Institute in Geneva
Between the 2nd and 4th of July, Dr Shomali was invited to teach at the Ecumenical Institute in Geneva. A part of the World Council of Churches, and attached to the University of Geneva, the Ecumenical Institute offers three distinct study programmes at graduate level.
Each year the Institute welcomes a group of students from around the world and from many different religious traditions. Every year the course explores a particular theme according to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This year’s theme was ‘peace’.
Dr Shomali introduced the key aspects of Islam, as he did last year. Dr Shomali began his lecture focusing on the historical aspects of Islam tracing its origin back to the Prophet Ibrahim(a) and discussing the position of his sons Ismael(a) and Ishaq(a).
Students were particularly interested in the mention that the Bible makes in Genesis of the coming of a nation from the son of the Prophet Ibrahim(a) and Hagar; Ismael. The Bible mentions twelve rulers, or in some translations, princes, that would descend from the Prophet Ismael(a).
Following this introduction Dr Shomali discussed the condition of Arabia in general and Makkah in particular on the eve of the birth of Islam. The life of the Prophet Muhammad(s) was analysed before and after the beginning of revelation and how the Islamic community began first in Makkah and further developed in Medina.
This was followed by a discussion on the sources of Islam, foremost of which is the Qur’an. He explained that although the Qur’an is the same for all Muslims, there are diverse interpretations of it. The sunna (traditions) of the Prophet and the Ahl ul Bayt(as) (the Prophet Household) provided another important topic of discussion.
The role of reason and the intellect within the sources of Islam were also analysed before moving on to the major doctrines of Islam such as Unity of God, Prophethood, Resurrection, the concept of Al-Mahdi and other practices such as prayer, fasting, alms-giving, Hajj and Jihad.
Dr Shomali introduced the students to the Islamic value system generating quite a few questions from a very attentive audience. Dr Shomali described this year’s teaching experience as very fruitful and positive.
Further discussions were also conducted with the organisers about a follow-up meeting to the one held last March in which 18 representatives of Shi‘a Islam from across the world met with Christian representatives in Geneva.