Week of Unity

Week of Unity - Shi‘a Muslims from different corners of the world gathered in Loppiano for the eagerly awaited ‘Week of Unity'. (Special Interfaith Edition issue 65 March 2019)

1st– 8th December 2018

Loppiano & Trento

On December 1st 2018, Shia Muslims from different corners of the world gathered in Loppiano for the eagerly awaited ‘Week of Unity’. The concept of unity in today’s day and age was appealing to even a 9-month-old baby Youssef Mehdi who accompanied his parents on this trip from Montreal. It’s safe to say that by the end of the trip he was perhaps the most popular participant and seen as the champion of unity! 

The programme was organised by Sophia University Institute of Loppiano, Italy – an academic institute established by the Focolare Movement, represented by its president, Professor Piero Coda – in conjunction with the Islamic Centre of England (ICE) in London and Risalat Institute in Qum, represented by their director Huj. Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali. After many years of dialogue and prayer, this encounter was a historic turning point in the relationship. It was not rare to see someone shedding tears because, as was expressed, they “strongly felt God’s presence” in this “life-changing experience.”

The morning of 2nd December saw our participants gather at Sophia University for an internal session with Dr Shomali. Those who were new to interactions with our Focolare family were glad to receive a briefing from Dr Shomali to better appreciate just how special these bonds of unity are that have been nurtured over the years. In this briefing he mentioned:

“With our Focolare friends we have a very outstanding relation… because [among other things] it seems that their spirituality is a kind of spirituality which is very close to our idea of social wilayah, which is deep devotion to God but manifested in your relationship with your brothers and sisters. And your love for God is so strong that compared to that, all … differences—although they remain—are not be able to draw your attention away from a common love for God.”

This was followed by an introductory icebreaker session for all. Participants were delighted to reunite with old friends as well as quickly make new ones. No doubt the bonds of unity were immediately strengthened to get the week of unity off to a flying start!

Dr Shomali at this point, right at the very onset of the week of Unity, decided to begin with an Introductory Prayer. We all joined him in thanking God for the blessings He has showered upon us all and for the special favour and guidance bestowed on us to experience these beautiful days of unity. While supplicating to God Almighty, he mentioned:

“Today we want to thank You for showing us the beauty of faith, the beauty of religion, the beauty of Your love, the beauty of unity and solidarity. You have manifested Yourself to us so much so that we were able to see that beyond all differences, beyond all geographical, ethnic, religious, and all different kinds of differences that might be there, Your light is shining on all of us. Your attraction is so great that we just need to open our hearts to You in a world in which humanity suffers immensely from lack of trust, from suspicion, from hatred and hostility. In a world divided and partitioned for different reasons, and even sometimes sadly for religious reasons, we are so grateful that You guided us and made us able to understand that only faith can unite, and love for You can only make us caring, kind, and merciful people…”

There was then what can only be described as a magnificent speech by Professor Piero Coda on the topic of ‘The Epoch-Making Novelty of the Culture of Unity’. Describing the gift of unity and the precious exchanges being experienced during these days, Professor Coda mentioned the following:

“This is the law of life: everything is a gift from God, and precisely because it is God’s gift, everything must be received from Him and implemented by us. It is not a gift that just requires our openness and ability to listen and receive – even though that is the first requirement; but it is a gift that must be understood and performed by us, with intelligence and freedom, fidelity and creativity, because God wants free and responsible persons with rich imaginations who make human history with Him. God is the origin and the goal of the journey of Unity, but He wants us to be co-builders with Him of the unity of history and the cosmos all the way to the end in eternal life with and in Him.”

“We are building something that ultimately will be given to us! There will be no temple, nor sunlight nor moonlight in this new city, which is given to us by God, because He Himself will be present in our midst. He is already now, but we cannot contemplate Him yet with an open face; we perceive Him; we love Him; we know that He is there; we thank Him and we open ourselves to Him with our whole heart… but He has yet to fully manifest the light of His unity forever.”

After a break for prayers and lunch, participants gathered back in Sophia for an interesting presentation on ‘The Prophecy and Reality of Loppiano’ by Professor Bennie Callebaut. This was particularly interesting for those who were visiting Loppiano for the first time. It was surreal that we were now all collectively breathing the air of Loppiano’s unity that, before embarking on this trip, many had only dreamed of. In addition, all that we had read about the founder of the Focolare movement, Chiara Lubich, was now being explained and shown to us right before our eyes. A superb video regarding the history of Loppiano was shown and everyone’s knowledge of Loppiano, Chiara and unity was now deeply enhanced and brought to the front of their minds. 

The morning of 3rd December was very special as there was a great talk delivered by Dr Shomali covering many aspects discussed in his book ‘Unity of God and Unity in God’. The importance and necessity of unity among believers in God was passionately explained. Issues such as submission to God and servitude being the core tenets of faith were extremely well received. A very special talk indeed, an extract of which is below, which invited all to further reflect on in the days, weeks and months to come.

“Sometimes we inherit conceptual frameworks and theological perspectives that limit our understanding, and instead of being a servant of God in theology we become a servant of theology and not a servant of God. [But] theology has to serve God and serve people’s recognition of God; sometimes it becomes too formalized that it doesn’t give you space to really move freely with your whole heart towards God.”

“I think in the End of Time, we will not have different schools—one school under Jesus, one school under Moses… I don’t think we will have different schools with different managements. The prophets came in different times. They spoke different languages. But these were realities that were forced on them because of the practicalities of life. …But in the End of Time I think we will have only one school, and that is the School of God—one God, one authority, and one syllabus, but we can have beautiful teachings of all messengers.

Whilst many were busy digesting the rich content received, Professor Coda was quick to comment on the talk by his dear friend Dr Shomali:

“We cannot accomplish this plan without you. We are together in realization of this plan of God, that in all the instruments are the different religions, and in this moment a particular instrument is this [Shia] spirituality.”

After prayers and lunch, students and participants were blessed with a talk from the respected Vincenso Di Pilato on the topic ‘Elements for a Christian Theology of Interreligious Dialogue’. Those who knew Vincenso from previous trips knew they should pay careful attention to his sincere words:

“We have many words, but perhaps little experience of unity. So here we are having an experience of unity, but we still have to find the words… we must learn what God wants from us. God taught us in the Bible how to be together: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ And in this love, God is present and He teaches us unity.”

This was followed by a talk by Shahnaze Safieddine on the topic of ‘Truthfulness as a Quality to Enhance Mission & Dialogue’. This was a follow on from her talk on the previous Italy trip of April ’18 so those who had a preview of Shahnaze’s material last time round knew there was much to benefit from and unsurprisingly it didn’t disappoint! The lecture was about the quality of being truthful and seeking the truth as a necessary component in our path to knowing ourselves and others, and this can eventually help us succeed in moving towards God, the Truth, together. She mentioned:

“We have the choice to admit a truth when it’s clear to us, or deny it. When we admit it, our vision strengthens; when we deny it, our vision becomes cloudy, and hence, an impediment to knowing ourselves and improving our relationships with others, whether it’s within or outside our faith.”

“In interfaith, we’re not merely trying to get along. We are on the path to self-improvement and eventually, community-building. A search for the truth can bridge our differences and move us onto one path. This will lead to a greater understanding and respect of one another in our pursuit for the truth.”

4th December can be remembered as the adventurous one. With a full coach, we made our way to Florence city centre to visit ‘Centro La Pira’. An amazing talk was given by Israa Safieddine there on the topic of ‘Ramifications of a paradigm shift in Interreligious Dialogue’. A beautiful example which stood out for me was when Israa showed video clips of people who are colorblind being exposed to colour for the first time through some optical aids. The shock and amazement at seeing colour was incredible and appreciation for the different shades of beauty of God’s creation could easily be drawn as a parable to those who truly witness Interfaith Dialogue with open hearts and minds. After prayers and lunch, we explored Florence with some sightseeing. The beautiful architecture, the wonderful scenery was all breathtaking. Some also enjoyed the finest gelatos and pizzas that Florence had to offer. A few brothers and sisters thereafter went to visit an elderly priest and friend who we had received news of was suffering from ill health. He warmly greeted us, passionately played for us the harmonica and there were some deep meaningful exchanges between Father Mario, Dr Shomali and Dr Heydarpoor, all sharing words of prayer for each other. 

On the morning of 5th December at Sophia University, the stage was set, the translation headpieces were in working order and Dr Mahnaz Heydarpoor delivered an outstanding presentation on The Core of Islamic Spirituality. For those who were there, it is no wonder that Dr Heydarpoor received a standing ovation from the audience. Part of her presentation included an expansion of the following extract:

“In my view, it is possible to summarize the core of Islamic spirituality in two points: (a) to be attentive and mindful of God whole-heartedly while establishing a close relation with Him based on love, and (b) loving and serving His people.”

Thereafter ensued Dr Heydarpoor’s book launch entitled ‘Love, The Heart of Islamic Spirituality’. Her son, Sheikh Javad Shomali, also mentioned a few words at this point sharing just how much his mother has dedicated to this cause and how she has truly lived by what she writes about. This was followed by another thought provoking talk by the respected Giovanna Porrino on ‘The Core of Christian Spirituality’, which was very well received. After prayers and lunch there was a very informative session by Rita Mousallem and Roberto Catalano on the topic of ‘Dialogue and beyond’. A historical flashback was given on how the Focolare have united with many groups and sects over the years, whereby examples were given from the outreach work undertook by the late Chiara Lubich in this respect. After a break for prayers we reconvened for a session entitled ‘Speed Faithing’. To everyone’s amusement, this was announced and clarified to be nothing like Speed Dating but rather group work in discussing certain topics surrounding Faith in different scriptures. Participants were blessed to then listen to a presentation by Dr Shahnaaz Alidina on the topic of Charity and Sara Maria on the topic of the Economy of Communion. Both were delightful to listen to. To round off the day, residents of Loppiano and students and staff of Sophia as well as our group were invited to an exclusive session by Dr Mohamad Ali Shomali on the topic of ‘Our Journey in God and Loppiano’s Place in the Puzzle of Unity’. A brief introduction by Professor Piero set the scene for an unforgettable event in which he mentioned:

“[The] title Wings of Unity expresses very well the type of experience we’re having. We have our wings, but the breath or the wind is that of the Spirit… We are already one because God is looking at each one of us with love, and so we have to translate this love of God into our relationships.”

Dr Shomali echoed similar sentiments and had the following to say:

“The whole philosophy of Wings of Unity was not just to dialogue. We have already had dialogue for many years. The idea was that with people whom we trust, with people whom we love, we humbly say to God, ‘Please guide us.’ The idea was: I cannot say honestly to God that I have done my best to understand Your will if I only use Muslim texts and discuss with Muslim brothers and sisters. And the same for the Christian side. So with Professor Coda and with a group of friends, we wanted to demonstrate to God, with maximum humility and sincerity, our real thirst for understanding.”

“What we want in this process of Wings of Unity is to move from having very honest and genuine dialogue to where we both listen to God. We need two ears to listen to God. I can use a Muslim ear and a Christian ear and try to understand the will of God …and get a very clear signal from God.”

“I see that because Loppiano is a place where people try to be pious and do everything for the sake of God, it is a place that can have a great capacity for receiving all kinds of blessings from God.”

Following on from Dr Shomali’s speech, a great sense of solidarity was felt by one and all. This was expressed eloquently and movingly through the words of a Christian member of the audience, Chanelle from the Philippines, who decided to wear the hijab headscarf for the night and had the following to say:

“I purposely wore this hijab for the night not to put on any show but as a symbol of my unity with all my Muslim friends especially for the Philippines… One thing that struck me the most in this experience is the commonality of wearing hijab and Mary. The image of Mary and the image of all my Muslim friends are always in my heart.”

6th December was particularly sad as this was when we bid farewell to some members of our group as well as some Sophians who were not joining us on part 2 of the trip to Trento. Several participants commented by saying that they had no words to truly describe the experience that was lived. A Shia participant from Canada explained that coming together for the sake of God was so powerful that it felt “magical.” Others observed that it felt like “a kind of pilgrimage” where sakinah, or inner peace, came so easily as a result of moving towards God in a collective way. One Catholic participant emotionally remarked that it was “God’s invitation and God’s plan” for her to be invited.

We had the pleasure of meeting Genverde just before we left Loppiano. This happened to be just a few weeks after some of us had met them at the Islamic Centre of England during their tour of UK. We were very grateful of their hospitality in receiving us and it was inspiring once again to learn about their struggle to spread light throughout their travels. Genverde’s words, whether it be in sessions such as these or in their song lyrics, leaves no doubt that they are keen to build a better united world and counter some of the darkness and struggles that have been encroaching on many young people.

The closing ceremony at Sophia was conducted tremendously well as participants received their certificates for the Week of Unity course and shared their reflections on the week. One brother, on reflecting on the week, mentioned a saying from the 3rd Imam, Imam Husain a.s, where he mentions in a prayer to God ‘O God, what has one found who lost you? And what has one lost who found you?’ Carrying on with this spirit of ‘finding God’, we began our commute towards Trento. With the friendly chatter on the bus, it wasn’t long before we noticed a beautiful accommodation set up for us at the Centro Mariapoli towards the top of the mountains with breathtaking scenery.

7th December allowed us to have a tour of Trent following in the footsteps of Chiara Lubich. We visited places such as Piazza Dei Cappucini as well as witnessing the church where Chiara was baptised. Back at the Mariapoli later in the day, a panel addressed the audience on the topic of ‘Religions in Dialogue in a Changing Europe’. Among the panelists to enlighten us were Dr Shomali, Dr Heydarpoor, Professor Piero Coda, Rita, Roberto and Vincenzo. The session was conducted excellently by Paolo Frizzi. Thereafter the Wings of Unity core group meeting took place between Dr Shomali, Professor Coda and a few others. Here, Dr Shomali shared reflections on the Qur’anic understanding of religion or din, and how we can truly measure religiosity, with reference to the following Quranic verses: 4:125, 9:33, 98:5, 3:19, 3:85, and 2:62. He mentioned:

“Everything is a test to show our love for God and commitment to Him, because everything is a matter of truth and falsehood… If I do all the acts of worship and give lectures and fail to admit the truth between me and someone else, I am not a servant of God. Our relation with God cannot be directed only to a small place like in a mosque or church, or just our community. In everything that we do, with everyone with whom we deal, our truthfulness is tested. Am I able to see beauty in other people or not? This is a test of my truthfulness. If I cannot see God at work outside my community, I am not a truthful person. I’m not a good servant of God because I can only see God working for me and my people.”

“What we understand from the Qur’an in my humble capacity is that we have two general ways of life, two general paths, or two general religions so to speak. Either you are taking the path which takes you from darkness to light—from ignorance to understanding, from falsehood to the truth—or you are going in the opposite direction. If you are moving towards the truth, towards light, towards understanding, towards love, towards God, you are a believer. You should always try to improve yourself, you should never be satisfied with what you have. At every moment you should be responding to God to the best of your knowledge and best of understanding. But the main thing is: are you submissive to God or not? What you do as a sign of submission is not as important as submission itself. Maybe a submissive person to God makes a mistake and his mistake can be forgiven. But if you are not submissive to God and do something, even if it is good, it’s not enough.”

Professor’s Piero’s response included the following:

“Especially in the last century, we understood that Christianity is… what you call islam, submission to God. It is this experience that Jesus passes onto us of being face-to-face with God… In this unity—I don’t say dialogue—this is coming to life.”

That brings us to 8th December and the day of departure. Some brothers decided to sit on top of the mountain in the morning and reflect on the majesty of God’s creation while reciting invocations as taught by the Holy Prophet Muhammad and his family, peace be upon them all. It was an emotional goodbye to friends that had become family over the past 8 days and we pray that our paths reunite again in the not so distant future, ameen.

The reflections on unity did not end on 8th December as you will see from the below extract of Dr Shomali’s post-trip reflection:

“Our common humanity, emptied from ego, showed the divine spirit that Allah (swt) has blown into Adam and all his children. In that God-filled atmosphere, we and our Christian brothers and sisters, especially the Focolare, did not see except good and beauty in each other, could not develop except respect and love for the other party and could not hear any voice more loudly and more engaging than the call of our Lord who calls all of us towards the Common Word which is His Word… Allah’s (swt) face can be found everywhere, if we humbly and gratefully seek it. …Your rank… is measured by the intensity of your love for God’s people and by how much you feel in debt to Him, for every blessing that He has given to anyone, and not just for those that you have received. If other people’s children are well and happy, shouldn’t we be grateful?”

This deep sense of gratitude was also expressed in the form of a poem by brother Ahmed Khweir from Scotland. Below, he shares his reflections on the paradigm shift experienced on the trip.

Paradigm Shifting

We tuned our hearts to the frequency of love and humility
Station Loppiano. Guaranteed tranquillity
We joined in humanhood on week of Unity
A place of common word at the base of Sophia University
Bearing witness to inspiring conviviality
Bearing witness to sincere collegiality
We were lifted by spark of divine light
the heart perceiving a magnificent sight
A brief stop on our journey let us experience Florence,
A home for painting of the renaissance
Inspired reflections made the heart gush
O God what an honour it would be to be your paintbrush
Stroke by stroke we are swept by spiritual hush
It was back to Loppiano, the grass so green and lush
Temperatures near freezing, yet we felt so warm
Our hearts melting with the heat of love that never harms
Tears not far from flowing
Reunions with friends and special companions growing
One cannot enumerate and recollect every special moment
One cannot but feel the glory The Almighty had sent
Religious markers were set by Our leaders of spiritual and intellectual guidance
One God, One Religion, One Community allowing all striving believers opportunity for their virtues to enhance
the light of Unity gets ever clearer
The clouds of thoughts and emotions distill as it gets nearer
We were lifted from Loppiano to Trento, another key station
Our eyes widened to take in the splendour of The Divine creations
Our hearts had expanded with more love and remediation
Our minds stretched to treasure wisdoms deterring deviation
Faith is the epicentre of harmony between this heart and mind
Stroke by stroke, layer by layer, Peace we hope to find
We leave to God the imprint he lets this journey make for His sake
A painting of Unity, spacious ready to accommodate further intake
A painting only The Most High can let flourish
It leaves us to pray, O God can we be your paintbrush ?
By Ahmed Khweir, Scotland.

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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  1. In this issue – islam today magazine UK

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