Originally published on Issue 53, November 2017
The fifth gathering of monastic men and women and Shi‘a Muslims took place in Nairobi, Kenya in September 2017. The previous four meetings in Rome (2011), Qom/Isfahan (2012), Assisi/Rome (2014), and Qom/Mashhad (2016) were preceded by three separate meetings organised by Dr Shomali and Abbot Emeritus Timothy Wright (Ampleforth).
The site of this year’s meeting was the Subiaco Centre of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing in Karen, Nairobi. The Centre was an ideal setting for the conference, providing comfortable individual accommodations en suite, meeting rooms, WiFi connection, and meals featuring organic produce from the monastery garden. Even more important for the success of the conference was the gracious and attentive hospitality of the Sisters and the staff of the Centre and the presence next door of a vibrant and prayerful community of Benedictine Sisters who welcomed us to join them at the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours. A special prayer room was set up for the Muslim delegates, who also welcomed our presence at their daily prayers.
The Shi‘a participants came from Iran, England (Iranians, Americans, and a Kenyan), and Canada. The Benedictines, including Abbot Primate Gregory Polan and the former Abbot Primate, Notker Wolf, came from six countries in Africa (Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda), Australia, Belgium, England, Germany, Italy and the United States. Also present was a German theologian, a correspondent for Bavarian radio, who has reported on previous conferences. Although the delegates came from fourteen different countries and were, for the most part, new to this dialogue, all agreed that that in the space of just six days we experienced a depth of interreligious friendship and a widening of our hearts (Dilatato Corde!) that was truly a gift of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
The theme of this year’s meeting, “Unity of God – Unity in God,” obviously goes to the very heart of the faith of Muslims and Christians. Both share a belief in the Oneness of God, but the way they express that belief is profoundly different. The Christian faith, as defined by the first ecumenical council of the Christian Church (Nicaea, 325) and as formulated in the Nicene Creed, professes belief “in one God. . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God . . . consubstantial with the Father. . . . [and] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. . . .” Some 300 years later, the Prophet Muhammad narrated the revelation he had received: “All praise be to God Who has neither taken to Himself a son, nor has He any partner in His kingdom, nor does He need anyone, out of weakness, to protect Him” (Qur’an 17:111).
In the not so distant past, the most common way to deal with such radically different expressions of monotheistic faith was by means of apologetics-defending or “proving” the truth of one’s own religious doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. At best, this approach led to a polite standoff (agreeing to disagree), at worst, to increased hostility towards those whose way of expressing their faith in the Oneness of God differed from one’s own.
The goal of our gathering in Africa was to provide a space in which Shi‘a Muslims and Catholic monastics could speak openly to one another about the ways they express and understand their faith in One God. We resonated with the statement of Christian de Chergé, the Trappist monk and friend of Muslims who believed that “To speak of God in a different way is not to speak of a different God (“Dire Dieu autrement n’est pas dire un autre Dieu”). Even more, we wanted to speak with one another about the ways our faith motivates us to work for unity, whether that be within our own communities of faith, with people of other faiths, or within society at large.
We devoted much of our time together to small group or plenary discussions. The initial schedule called for only four initial presentations, two on “unity of God” and two on “unity in God.” Two more were added during the course of the conference, one on “The Appearance of the Twelfth and Final Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, and the Return of Jesus in Muslim Eschatology,” the other, a PowerPoint presentation on “Jesus and the Trinity in Christian Iconography.”
During our discussions we were urged to speak in the first person about our faith, religious experience, and spiritual practice-in other words, to speak not so much in terms of “Catholics believe . . . ,” or “Muslims believe . . . ,” but rather, “I believe . . .” The discussion also provided opportunities to ask questions of one another and thereby come to a better understanding and appreciation of experiences and practices that differ from, but can often be seen to complement our own.
Two especially striking observations were made during these discussions. First, one of the monastic participants who has done extensive study in the development of Christological and Trinitarian doctrine during the period prior to the Councils of Nicaea (325), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) noted that as the Christian Church became more and more Hellenised, it ignored, even rejected the contribution of the Syrian, Coptic, and other Eastern Churches, which had elaborated a Christology that was more Semitic. Had the Church been more open to Eastern ways of understanding the relationship of Jesus to God, he said, it is conceivable that Islam could have developed into a “rite” within the Christian Church.
Second, a Muslim participant commented that he did not agree with those Muslims who believed that Christians were polytheists. “You share our belief in One God,” he said, “but the way you express your faith in the Oneness of God is Trinitarian.” He added that while did not agree with this way of expressing the Oneness of God, he accepted the honesty and sincerity of Christians who assured him that belief in the Trinity did not weaken or compromise their belief in the Unity of God.
Running throughout the conference was the growing conviction that our dialogue about the unity of God must go beyond coming to a better understanding of and respect for one another. We need to find ways to work together to deepen our unity with God and our unity with one another as brothers and sisters in the one human family and as “cousins” in the Abrahamic family of faith.
In addition to the presentations given and discussions held at the Subiaco Centre, the conference included participation in an interreligious afternoon at the Jaffery [Shi‘a] Islamic Centre in Lavington, Nairobi; courtesy visits to the Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya, Archbishop Charles Daniel Balvo, and to the Auxiliary Bishop of Nairobi, the Most Rev. David Kamau Ng’ang’a; brief presentations to the staff and students at the International Benedictine Study House, an extended visit to and discussion with the Benedictine community at Prince of Peace Monastery (Tigoni); and two public events at Tangaza University College, a Catholic University College jointly owned by the twenty or so member religious congregations, among them, the Benedictines. On the first day at Tangaza, after welcomes from academic administrators and an introduction by the Abbot Primate, Dr Newton Kahumbi Maina, Ph.D., of the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, spoke on the state of interreligious dialogue in Kenya. The second day was devoted to the specific characteristics and goals of monastic interreligious dialogue.
The contact established between DIMMID and Tangaza is especially promising for the future of Monastic-Muslim dialogue in Africa. The newly-appointed Vice-Chancellor Designate, the Rev. Prof. Stephen Mbungua Ngari, and the Head of the Mission and Islamic Department, Fr Innocent Maganya, M. Afr., expressed their eagerness to collaborate with Shi‘a academic institutions in Iran to offer courses and workshops, both at Tanganza and throughout East and South Africa. Fr. Maganya also expressed his readiness to work with DIMMID to provide formation programmes in interreligious dialogue for monks and nuns in this region. It is possible that similar formation programmes for French-speaking monks and nuns could be developed in collaboration with a centre run by the Missionaries of Africa in Bamako, Mali.
On the final evening, the African monastic delegates to the conference met with Prior John-Baptist Oese of Tigoni, Fr Maganya, and the Secretary-General of DIMMID to discuss possibilities for the establishment of a continental commission of DIMMID in Africa. It was decided that the next step would be for the African delegates to seek the continued support of their superiors and communities as they report to them on what took place at this meeting. A further step will be to make contact with the various regional associations of African Benedictine communities such as the Benedictine Cistercian Association of Kenya and Uganda (BECIAKU), the Benedictine Union of Tanzania (BUT), the Benedictine Communities of South Africa (BECOSA), the Benedictine and Cistercian Association of Nigeria (BECAN), and ask for their recognition and support of monastic dialogue with Muslims as an especially timely and important mission for monastic men and women in Africa. We will suggest that they include the development of Monastic-Muslim dialogue in the agenda of future meetings. Thirdly, we will follow up on Fr Maganya’s proposal to design and offer a programme of formation for African Benedictines who will be more formally involved in dialogue with Muslims, a programme that could travel to different parts of English-speaking Africa.
Courtesy of: http://www.dimmid.org
The full programme of the meeting and photo gallery can be accessed from DIMMID websitehttp://www.dimmid.org
*Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique / Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (DIMMID)
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: