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Interfaith Dialogue ( 21 Apr 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Exploring the Future of Christian Muslim Relations – Jesuits among Muslims Discuss Their Life and Mission




By Victor Edwin SJ, New Age Islam

21 April, 2015

Father Heru Prakosa SJ (Indonesia) convened the third Jesuit-Among-Muslims (JAM) Conference at Senegal (West Africa) in the Easter Week of 2015. Father Norbert Litiong SJ (West African Province) was the local organiser. This Conference brought 13 Jesuits, missioned among Muslims, from different parts of the world for spiritual, intellectual and pastoral exchanges with one another. They met at the guest house of the Abbaye de Keur Moussa which is ideally situated in a garden, close to the monastery. The monastery and the guest house are surrounded by the majesty of the natural world. The aesthetic beauty of simple houses provided an idyllic place for deeper analysis, reflection and sharing on Jesuit apostolate among Muslims.

At the very outset Professor Abdul Azziz Kebe and Professor Babacar Samb both from the department of Arabic Studies, Cheikh Anta Diop University made presentation on “Islam in Africa and particularly in Senegal” and Radical Islam in Africa (al-Shabaab and Boko Haram) respectively.  They said that Muslims entered the shores of Africa in the 7th CE century itself.  In the 11th century CE Islam reached sub-Saharan Africa. Islam spread easily as they are several common elements between Islam and African traditional religions. These common elements also help believers of different religious tradition to live in harmony.  An interesting element pointed out by the speakers was that when slave trade flourished, Muslims challenged the local rulers who cooperated with slave masters since Islam considered all people equal. There was also armed resistance in the 17th century against slave traders on behalf of people whose dignity was trampled upon. The rejection of colonial venture does not amount to the rejection of Christianity, said Professor Kebe and added that though 95% Senegalese are Muslims and Christians a small minority (5%) yet they maintain good relations between them.  Most Muslims in Senegal are members of one of the Sufi brotherhoods. The ‘Sufiness’ has inculcated in the Senegalese population respect for the faith of Christians and traditional African religions. The speakers also noted that the Sufi brotherhood at times holding on to certain privileges and try to emerge as a new form of aristocracy. This not good for Senegal, they said. We should be watchful of Wahhabism, they cautioned. 

While Senegal's peaceful cultural and religious pluralism gave a perfect backdrop for the Conference, the deadly blow of al-Shabaab on the hapless mostly Christian students in Kenya and the intensification of Shia – Sunni conflict in the desert kingdom of Yemen reminded the Jesuits in this ministry of the stark reality of Christian-Muslim relations, the challenges of their ministry and their responsibility towards the mission entrusted to them.  The participants made presentations on their work with analyses and reflection.

Narrations and Reflections from Participants

A series of political crises often in the religious grab overwhelm the Central African Republic (CAR), said Father Médard Sena. Fr Sena is from Burkina Foso but works in CAR.  He explained that Muslim rebels seized power in March 2013 by overthrowing President Francois Bozize – who had been in power for a decade.  President Michel Djotodia who replaced Bozize , was accused of failing to prevent his forces from raping, torturing and killing civilians – particularly among the country’s Christian majority. When Mr Djotodia’s government fell in January, Christian militia fighters began attacking Muslim civilians in retaliation. Thousands have been killed since the conflict began and tens of thousands more have fled the country. The UN says that about 1.3 million people – a quarter of the population – are in need of aid. Fr Sena is mediating between the predominantly Christian anti-Balaka militia and Muslim Seleka rebels.

CAR is thinly populated, just having less than 5 million people among whom 80% are Christians, 10% Muslims and 10% belonging to African traditional religions.   The Archbishop is very dynamic and engages actively in peace building, said Fr Sena. Archbishop Dieudonnè Nzapalainga holds regular meetings with the Imam of the city to discuss issues that affect both communities. 'Together we build peace' is at the heart of his efforts. The archbishop and the imam coming together for 'common good' is the first sign of reconciliation, said Fr Medard.

The peace building effort of the archbishop is an inspiration for Medard. He, as the chaplain in the university, motivates students to think of peace and work for peace. He trains them in the process of peacemaking. This training for peace is based on five modules: creating conditions for peace, working for social cohesion, prevention of conflicts, resolving crises, and training volunteers for peace. He has trained, to be precise, 439 peace activists, both Muslims and Christians. Medard is also involved in UN initiative for establishing peace in CAR. 

Norbert Litiong read a paper on interfaith faith marriages between Muslims and Christians and the pastoral opportunities that arise for guiding interfaith couples. He suggested that the Senegalese Catholic Church should provide more help for such couples to better understand each other's religion and the importance of living their life commitment to their faith and family.

Father Etienne Mborong is involved in an education project: Foi et Joie (Faith and Joy) for Muslims in Chad. The vision of Jesuit intervention is, he said: 'we believe in human persons'. They grow and change. Their growth and change for better is an expression of their FAITH. In growth and transformation they experience JOY. He affirmed that thus they speak about faith in the Muslim context. He further added that their mission is helping them to deepen their faith and experience joy in their lives in and through education. Thus the vision is enfleshed in mission and brings fruits for the Church, not in numbers, but in the quality of relationships that are developed between Jesuits and Muslims. Moreover, he added that in this mission journey we ourselves experience deepening of our own faith and experience the joy of the Gospel.  In our ministry, person is at the centre of our every concern".

Christophe Ravanel living in Algeria for twelve years said that he and his Jesuit companions have experienced 'hospitality' and 'friendship' of many Muslim friends. In living with Muslims the Jesuits have certainly experienced unity and togetherness with one another. This thought is expressed beautifully by the Muslim mystic Jalaluddin Rumi, who said: "if you truly bow down in prayer ... you cannot rise in your old self". 

Besides shared humanity, Christophe and his companions prepare sessions that facilitate Muslims and Christians to reflect on a number of themes that have resonance in both Christian and Muslim spiritualities.  Christophe emphasised both Christians and Muslims learn to listen to life in the hearts of the other while they share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences and thus learn to be fully present to the Other in their Otherness. 

Tobias Specker, professor of Islam and Christian Muslim Relations at the Jesuit theologate in Frankfurt, is the first Catholic theologian who was trained in 'Muslim theology' from the recently established 'department of Muslim theology' in Frankfurt University. He informed his listeners that four state universities in Germany, on the similar line of departments of Catholic theology, have established Muslim theology departments. Interreligious orientation, understanding plurality and methodological questions are the focus of these departments with slight variation of emphases: either towards Qur'anic interpretation or Hadith marks the curriculum of these departments.

Speaking on Christian Muslim relations in Germany, Specker said that there is a 'feeling of the loss of tradition' by both the Turkish immigrants who are naturalised Germans and by the native German population.  While for Turkish people it is a new world altogether, it is a 'not the same world we are born in' for the native Germans. In this context for the Turkish-Germans the outward 'identity' gets strengthened while the spiritual dimension of Islam gets consistently weakened.  Such developments do not help social cohesion, said Specker. He informed that Catholic and Muslim theologians meet regularly and work together in order to lead their respective communities towards a great appreciation of diversity in unity as Germans and unity in diversity as people of varied faith commitments. He emphasised that 'role of reason' and 'role of history' are pivotal points for those discussions.

Laurent Basanese, professor of Islamology and the director of the Gregorian Centre for Interreligious Studies in Rome, in his presentation focused his attention on 'fundamentalism' and 'mindless violence' unleashed by ISIS and their affiliates in West Asia. He said intolerance and violence have their roots in Wahhabism (The core of their teaching centre on theological doctrine of divine unity [Tawīd) that consists of three elements of belief and action: the unity of lordship [Tawīd Al-Rubūbiyya], the unity of godship [Tawīd Al-Ulūhiyya], and the unity of divine names and attributes [Tawīd Al-Asmā Wal-Sifāt]. According to this associating any being or any power with God or directing worship towards anything other than God constitutes unbelief), Political Islam (that emphasises the establishment of Islamic State based on Shari'a) and Revolutionary Salafism (Salafis adhere to a literalist theology. They reject allegorical interpretations of the Qur'an and reason based arguments to understand and interpret Islamic faith. They claim to be faithful to the teachings of Hanbalis and ahl al-Hadith.  They insist that their faith is identical to those of the first three generations of Muslims). He argued that these are the sources that feed Islamic fundamentalism and if these sources are not purified, then fundamentalism will continue for a long time to come.  He was appreciative of all Muslims who condemn violence in the name of Islam. However, he felt that is not enough. Stopping at 'condemnation of violence' does not reach the roots. He stressed that it is not enough to declare that true Islam do not support violence. "What about the Qur'anic and Hadith references to violence?" he asked.  He further added dialogue between Christians and Muslims should not leave out such critical challenges. The university ambience should encourage both Christians and Muslims to be open for intellectual challenges that come from both sides seeking clarification. If issues are not clarified at their roots (sources), then dialogue will remain superficial and thus will turn into an empty exercise without any real fruits of mutual fecundation. 

Victor Edwin, who teaches Islam and Christian Muslim relations at Vidyajyoti, Jesuit school of theology in India’s capital Delhi, in his presentation noted that the observers of Indian Islam caution that there is an increasing radicalisation of Indian Muslims about which they, the Muslims, themselves are wary of. One should remember that Indian Muslims are largely associated with Barelvi tradition. This Sufi flavoured tradition co-exists with Deoband Theological School that is influenced by Wahhabi ideology. Wahhabism, a revivalist movement initiated by Abd al Wahhab [d. 1792], draws inspiration from a medieval theologian Ibn Taimiya and an early jurist Ibn Hanbal.  Their co-existence, many sociologists and thinkers affirm, made Indian Islam dynamic and syncretic.  However, the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 by Sangh Parivar right-wing radicals radicalised both Hindus and Muslims.

Many groups of Indian Muslims argue that this radicalisation should be confronted and resolved within the democratic setup and the secular ethos of India. Some others, also committed to the secular nature of India, feel that Indian state is not sincere about her Muslim citizens. They seek political action through civil societies and groups.  There are other Muslims: sections of clerics, people of revivalist schools and some sections of western educated Muslims, who not only doubt the capacity of the Indian state to resolve the problems of Muslims in India but suggest that practice of pure Islam can redeem Muslims and thus Islam.  It is said that among this third group Wahhabi tendencies take roots. 

Focusing his attention on Islam in India, Edwin said that this religion has taken roots in soil of India for the last few centuries and absorbed a number of elements that are 'Indian' in nature and thus Islam has taken myriad forms of Islamic expression that are both loyal to the context and the text. He emphasised that it is by preserving this plurality and diversity within Islam that one can successfully stem any radicalisation.

Father Joseph Kalathil’s beautiful faith-based narrative is the story of an initiative to build Social Capital to bond the peoples of Pakistan and India with the aim to bring union of minds and hearts among the people. He told his listeners that he gained clarity that ‘people to people contact’ will help mitigate and slowly remove prejudices from our minds and hearts and that will help us to get closer to one another. With such an insight, the following programmes were drawn up, which were launched in Lahore in collaboration with the Apostolic Carmel Sisters (ACs), the Jesuits, the youth and with some of the priests and Faithful of Lahore Archdiocese with tacit approval of the Bishop of Lahore. In such a short time of 11 days of which 4 were holidays, he addressed over 800 senior students of 7 schools, over 40 teachers and 100 catechists all of whom showed their very encouraging and tremendous enthusiasm for building friendship and peace between Pakistan and India and they assured him of their full support. He further said:  “When I went to Lahore, I took with me 35 letters from the students of four schools and I brought 90 letters from the students of Lahore. The Bishop Sebastian Shaw and the Vicar General Fr. Andrew Ansari of Lahore Archdiocese, knowing what it means to build friendship between Pakistan and India, were very happy to welcome me with such a noble mission, assuring me of their full support. I also met a few NGOs and a couple of trade unions and the Director of Caritas Pakistan. All of them were very happy to hear about the move to build friendship and peace between Pakistan and India. I realise that children are the hope and joy and I am sure they will initiate peace”.

Heru Prakosa in his presentation he noted that the idea of monism is at the heart of Javanese culture.  He said that this monism attracted many Muslims. These Muslims are generally oriented towards the thoughts of either al-Ghazali or al-Hallaj or Ibn al-Arabi. All these three great Muslims are Sufis in their own way. Philosophical monism was the gate way for Islam to take deep roots in the Indonesia soil. Thus Javanese culture and Islam enrich one another mutually and gave raise to plural expression of Islamic faith in Indonesia. This plurality is under attack, said Prakosa and added that Indonesia is not insulated from the onslaught of Wahhabi brand of Islam that comes from Saudi Arabia. He is of the opinion that Indonesian Muslims can confront Wahhabism from their rootedness in Indonesian soil.

Towards Concluding: Fruit Gathering

First, the participants analyzing events and different trends within Islamic schools and Muslim communities and their interaction with people of other religious traditions suggested that Islam is in crisis.  In the tide of time every social-religious groups has to realize the changes that come with changing times. If someone tries to insulate from the present and try makes an effort to return to the past, it will bring about crisis upon oneself and deepen it. Christianity faced such crisis and affirmed the dignity of person by opening herself to religious freedom for every individual. Islam seems to struggle to grapple with that issue. It appears that at the root of this crisis is lack of openness from the part of Muslims to raise serious questions with regard to the reinterpretation of Muslim scriptures and other sacred sources.

This analysis is not something new. Earlier a Dutch Jesuit; J. J. Houben, by name, then Professor of Islamology at Nijmegen (Holland) and Beirut (Lebanon), had observed in the context of discussing the importance of a renewal of religious thought in contemporary Islam: “not only the missionaries working in Muslim countries, but every Catholic throughout the world must realize that the fate of hundreds of millions of Muslims hangs in the balance, and that in order to help them to solve the difficulties along religious lines, a deeper knowledge of their mentality and of Islam in general as a religion and as a polity is certainly one of the most pressing needs for the Catholics of our times”. Today many including the present writer do not feel comfortable with Houben way of dealing with Islam and Muslims whom we come to know and love as our dear neighbors. However, his analysis raises an intellectual debate. This intellectual challenge should not be ignored.

Secondly, Christian Islamicists from the West often seem to ignore another dimension of Islam: that is the way in which it has rooted in the African and Asian soil. It has taken roots in a harmonious way. This element needed to be acknowledged, affirmed and appreciated.   Christians need to work with Muslims to preserve pluralism within Islam.  This demands that Christians make efforts to reach out to Muslims and stand with them in their joys and sorrows. The participants thus stressed that dialogue has take into account both the intellectual as well as spiritual dimensions of interacting with Muslims. Mere intellectual dimension may reduce dialogue to debate and mere spiritual effort may become naïve without any serious consequences.

Thirdly, it was noted that theologically thinking Muslims and Christians clearly see the danger of the narrow exclusive brand of Islam that emerges from the desert soil of Saudi Arabia. It was also recognized in discussions during the conference that while the political dimension of Islam has gained force and potency in the last few decades the spiritual dimension has weakened. This political dimension spurns other faiths and their way of life paves way to disharmony. Plurality of religions and faith traditions is part of the real life condition of our world today.  For any one religion to claim sole hegemony would only produce many forms of resistance and conflict.