(Originally published on Issue 60, June 2018
The following is part of an open session of a four-day conference organised by the Focolare Movement, entitled: ‘Together to give hope. Christians and Muslims on the march with the charisma of unity.’
This session was attended by numerous leaders and promoters of dialogue between Christians and Muslims. The first and last questions were addressed to Dr Shomali and the two middle questions were addressed to Dr Coda.
Introduction by the presenter
What Prof Shomali and Prof Coda will talk to us about is the story of ‘Wings of Unity’.
Prof Shomali met the Focolare movement many years ago in England. Both sides have led many groups of students to Italy and the city of Qum in Iran for a better understanding of Christianity and Islam. For the last three years in the context of an itinerary of dialogue, cultural exchange was born between Prof Shomali and Prof Coda and their students at the University of Sophia (Loppiano – Italy), and the name of this initiative is ‘Wings of Unity’.
Dr Shomali, what is the Wing of Unity?
First I should express my deep gratitude for giving us the blessing of being here together praising God. As you know we have known the Focolare movement for many years and had many discussions in the UK, Italy and other countries for almost two decades. One of the things which drew my attention from the very beginning was Loppiano and I have a great love and affinity towards it.
We kept in touch bringing many groups of students from the Seminaries in Qum to Italy to know more about the Roman Catholic Church and visited many other Christian organisations. We had Catholic/Shi‘a rounds of talks. But I always wanted to know about the spirit of Loppiano. So together with my wife we brought a group of ladies from seminaries in 2013 and after that we invited Roberto Catalano, Cristina, Paul and yourself to Iran. In Qum we talked about the next step and I thought it might be good for our sisters to come for four weeks to observe ‘formation’ in Loppiano.
In February 2015 we brought a group of 15 sisters. Thanks be to God, we had a wonderful time. I began to understand the importance of our relationship. Up till then we had known each other for 18 years and I had very carefully observed the movement in different parts of the world.
It was my understanding that we have already established a good level of love, mutual understanding, respect and trust, but it also seemed that we were somehow stuck; we did not seem to be going forward.
In one of the meetings in February 2015 in Sofia University, we had an exceptional gathering with students and staff in which we felt a deep sense of unity. In the same meeting, Piero asked me to go back to Sofia to teach. In April 2016 I went back to Sofia to teach a group of MA students. I had four sessions on ‘Islam and Dialogue’. At the end, I had a meeting with Piero in his office and that was for us a historical meeting.
I told Piero something that a Muslim might never have said to a Christian or vice versa. I said: “We have known each other for a long time and we have trust and love for each other but we do need more guidance from God to move forward. If we sincerely tell God that we have done our best to understand His plan for unity, then God will guide us. However, I believe I cannot say to God, I have done my best if I only read read Muslim literature and only discuss with Muslim scholars and perhaps you feel the same. If we want to understand the plan of God for unity then we must think together. We should ask God to talk to us without conditioning to tell me first and then I would tell the others”.
We asked God to help us, no matter which mouth or mind He chooses. So Piero agreed with me and asked what we should call our project. It just came to my mind, ‘the wings of unity’. Because unity, like a bird, should have two wings, because even with two small wings you can fly but with one big and strong wing you cannot fly.
Prof Coda, Prof Shomali referred to a moment of great unity, a moment of fundamental importance, what happened?
I remember that morning when we spoke for almost two hours and I had the sensation, in what Dr Shomali was saying, that there was a desire, a proposal that carried the stamp of God. It wasn’t something born simply out of a strategy or a thought.
I am not sure how to describe it. In both our (religious) traditions we know what it means to perceive God’s presence, He makes himself present in our lives, our hearts and our minds. I felt this presence strongly. Therefore immediately within the responsibility that I have been given as the dean of this university (Sophia University) in search of a way to live in the spirit of unity, it became clear that this was an idea to welcome. Immediately in order to fully interpret what was behind Dr Shomali’s praying for God to guide us, I felt that – having learned from Chiara during these years that we followed the spirit of unity – that our reciprocal love, starting from our own traditions, has the courage of (accepting) otherness.
This reciprocal transparency can express itself in a promise. Having seen (in the past) the example of Chiara in the Malcolm X Mosque in New York meeting Imam Muhammad, I asked Dr Shomali if we should ask God to take into his hands our hearts and minds, to awaken the energy that He wants, both faithful to our own tradition but open to go all the way to do what He wants.
I remember that Dr Shomali immediately accepted this with great joy and I remember his gesture touching my head which I have interpreted as if he wanted to say this is coming from God.
We felt this was an exchange in God’s way, we felt this strong presence, and so we made these pacts without preconditions, each one with his own deep faith and a desire to walk together. That’s where we started from. It has been only two years since then and all the steps we have taken have been marked by this complete unity of intention that transcended us. In fact we were the first in being surprised by what was happening.
What are the first fruits of this encounter?
I think the title that Dr Shomali wanted to give and I loved immediately, Wings of Unity, was appropriate. The wings are us but the wind that allows the wings to fly is God’s spirit. So we started with meetings of small groups from Sophia University and the Islamic Centre of England and in this atmosphere, we exchanged our understanding of the unity of God and unity in God, our unity, the way we see it through our own traditions.
I remember the first encounter in the room. Dr Shomali said effectively: what we have here is a new place of dialogue. Unity is the aim towards which we move.
Our traditions and God’s Spirit push us towards this direction. But unity already exists and is the look of love that God has upon us. We are already one in that look of God’s love but this needs to be translated into physical terms. We began to understand that there was a methodology of dialogue that was not external to each other but internal, through the roots of one’s own religious tradition that could open us to the divine breath.
So far, we have had five sessions of this dialogue. We decided to involve our youth and we asked ourselves if we would succeed in this experience. We organised the first summer school on the mountains of the Trentino region (Italy), with 20 Christian and 20 Muslims. This has been a miracle of unity. There was joy from the youth; they are more prepared to experience this reality.
We have also had two female researchers from the Islamic Centre of England who have been incredible gifts as they spent almost four months at Sophia University immersed in university life. Now one of our students would also like to do his doctorate joined with the University of Qom as a Christian to know (Islam). In December we will have the first Week of Unity, a formative course of seven days for our youths in which we will try to transmit to them what we think God’s teachings are in our own traditions and
the experience that comes from practising them.
Dr Shomali, in which way does Wing of Unity forms/trains youths toward peace and dialogue?
We have had five rounds of dialogue and in these dialogues which came about after two decades of real practical dialogues, we came to understand much better the significance of Unity of God and Unity in God, as Piero said, not only on this platform but in many other places. Just last September in Kenya we had a programme about ‘Unity of God and Unity in God’. In Canada in several universities, I talked about this topic, and also at the Scottish parliament.
Sometimes there are ideas that I am thinking about and I want to check this with my friends, Muslims and Christians, together on one platform, I raise this in these meetings. I get comments from Muslims and Christians too and this is really beautiful. So what is interesting for us is that we test it in our laboratory. So we tested it in the summer school where twenty practising Christians and twenty-three practising Muslims, for whom faith is the most important thing in life, united. The presence of other people was not something to be tolerated or something neutral but they found the presence of others in their own relationships with God useful.
There was a moment in the Dolomites when some of the youth gathered, gradually others joined in and they praised God together and they had such a wonderful time that one of the participants from Montreal told me I pray to God to die in the same tranquillity that I had in that moment.
So this is possible that if we really believe in God and give Him the place He deserves then we can be truly united because it is in God that we can be perfectly united.
There is a common mistake when we want to measure how much we have in common or how much we differ. We start to count the elements, such as we both believe in the unity of God, one point or believe in prophecy, another point, or we pray differently…. This is a huge mistake.
In my opinion, if we believe in One God, this is more than 99%. God is so important that anything else besides Him becomes insignificant. So if we have deep love and devotion for God, then I can see my brother who is also devoted to God is much closer to me than my blood brother if he is not that submissive to God. So this is the core idea that we try to examine and establish. So if we work together and prove the power of love for God through our joint testimony it would have such an attraction that no one can resist. I hope by working together God finds in us the value to use us for His plan for unity.
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: