Friday, April 20, 2012

Christian-Muslim Relations: Learning from the past and building the future
Victor Edwin SJ
The Islamic Studies Association (India) and Saint Francis Xavier Movement (Italy) jointly organized a one-day international seminar on Christian-Muslim relations on the theme: “Transforming Prejudices into Acceptance and Understanding Christian-Muslim Relations in India” in Delhi on 2 January 2012. The Seminar brought together practitioners of interreligious dialogue from India and Italy.  It explored the challenges in Christian-Muslim relationships in India, in the context of the four-fold dialogue strategies: Dialogue of Life where believers from different religions living as neighbors, share each other's joys and sorrows; Dialogue of Deeds where believers from different religions cooperate for the common good in accord with shared values; Dialogue of Theological Exchange where believers from different religions seek to understand each other’s religious heritage and Dialogue of Religious Experience where believers from different religions share their spiritual riches, the fruits of their contemplation and prayer.

Fr Thomas V Kunnunkal SJ (President, Islamic Studies Association) and Prof Leo Fernando (Professor of Church History at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi and a representative of Saint Francis Xavier Movement in India) along with Prof Ambrogio Bongiovanni (President, Saint Francis Xavier Movement) were the key persons in organization and execution of this seminar. Prof George Gispert-Sauch SJ and Fr Thomas V Kunnunkal SJ moderated the sessions. This account presents briefly: first, the rationale behind this seminar; second, a summary report on the presentations and discussion that occurred during the seminar, and third, the fruits that were gathered on that day.  Thanks both to Kunnunkal and Gispert-Sauch for their assistance in making this report.

India is a home of different religions, cultures, languages, traditions and ways of life. These cultural and religious traditions are woven together in such a way that, while every culture and religion keeps its uniqueness, it also gets genuinely related to the others. As a result the Indian landscape presents a rich mosaic of life styles of varied colours and patterns. Christianity and Islam, the two major religions that emerged from the West Asian soil, found their home in India. Christians and Muslims have contributed in a large measure to India in the fields of education, health, art, architecture, music, painting, administration, and literature, and in this way they helped to develop a new way of being Indian. They enhance the beauty of India as a pluralistic society. In short, unity in diversity defines India.
How do Christians and Muslims relate with each other in India? There are references regarding harmonious relations between them in the early Christian-Muslim history. However, the Jesuits’ debate with Muslim theologians and lawyers in the Mughal court (from February,1580) and later Protestant missionary Karl Gottlieb Pfander’s  debate (1803–1865) with an Indian Muslim theologian, Rahmatullâh Ibn Khalîl al-'Uthmânî al-Kairânawî (1818-1891), impacted Christian-Muslim relations adversely. Both Christian and Muslim debaters wanted to establish the truth of their own religions, as they tried to undermine the faith of the other.  Scholars like Christine Schirrmacher pointed out that these debates deepened prejudices and mutual suspicion of one another.

These negative experiences continue to affect Christian-Muslim relationships even in the present times. Hence, Christians and Muslims need to ask themselves how to build up relationships afresh for the present times. They will fail in this venture if they allow the burden of the past to weigh upon them. One way of overcoming misunderstanding and ignorance is to reach out to the other. 

Every year the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue reaches out to Muslims wishing them on the occasion of Eid-el-Fitr. In India, the Islamic Studies Association (ISA), founded at a Consultation called by the Dialogue Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India in March 1979, reaches out to Muslims by establishing contacts with Muslims through its quarterly Salaam and through its bi-annual conventions. The members of ISA especially Fathers Christian W Troll SJ,  Paul Jackson SJ, Desiderio Pinto SJ and Pushpa Anbu SVD through their writings and teaching of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations in many Catholic seminaries help Christians to understand Muslims and their faith better in the light of the teachings of Vatican II. The focus is on reaching out to Muslims.

In November 2004 His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein of Jordan launched the Amman Message to clarify to the world what true Islam is. The Message denounced violence that is propagated in the name of Islam. Following the Amman Message, in July 2005, His Majesty King Abdullah II once again issued another document called the Amman Interfaith Message intending to establish full acceptance and good will between Jews, Christians and Muslims.  These two documents were endorsed by a large number of Muslim scholars and Muslim theological Institutions. Following these important historical developments, on October 13, 2007, 138 Muslim leaders signed and sent to 28 Christian leaders including the Pope a document entitled A Common Word Between Us and You, inviting both Christians and Muslims for dialogue and to work for peace in the world.  

These recent positive exchanges and efforts for ‘reaching out to the other’ are a welcome sign. These individuals and groups of Christians and Muslims as well as a number of official bodies of these two groups of believers shun polemics and strive to find new ways to understand and respect one another and so to build a peaceful future. Their exchanges while scholarly are made with sympathy, respect, and understanding. Both draw from the very sources of their faith as well as from the lessons learnt from past history.  Rooted in their particular religious traditions, they are also open to new challenges and opportunities that arise both locally and globally. Any serious theological reflection on Christian Muslim relations therefore needs to be attentive to the past history as well as the present ‘glocal’ situations (global and local). Hence the papers of the seminar dealt with Christian Muslim relations in India and also in Europe especially in Italy and Germany, where the members connected with Saint Francis Xavier Movement, the co-organizers of this seminar, are active in improving Christian Muslim relations.

Rev. Dr Packiam Samuel (Director, Centre for Study of Religion and Cultures, New Delhi) in his inaugural address briefly presented the history of relationships between Christians and Muslims over the centuries. In his overview, he emphasized the contexts of perceptions and attitudes and presented a historical insight into Christian-Muslim relations.  He suggested that, in our times, we need to work towards acceptance, understanding and appreciation of each other’s religions. He approached the subject sensitively as a theologian and practitioner of dialogue. Following his lecture, a book titled “Windows on Dialogue” was released by Dr Samuel. Dr Theresa, one of the members of Saint Francis Xavier Movement received the first copy. This was followed by presentation of papers.

Prof Desiderio Pinto in his scholarly paper, Muslim and Sufi Contributions to the Indian Cultural Heritage, made clear that dialogue has been taking place between Islam and Hinduism for centuries at almost all the levels of Muslim life in India: literature, poetry, music, mysticism, theology, revelation, festivals, magic, politics, and social stratification.  And Indian Islam at one time or another and for one reason or another adopted many Hindu customs and practices, and also beliefs.  However, he said that   Indian Islam have always kept more or less in contact with the centers of the Islamic world, Mecca and Medina, through its ulema (the keepers and teaches of Islamic law and doctrine) and also through the Haj.  He further said that this together with the attention Indian Muslims give to the Quran and Hadith, have resulted from time to time in reform movements that have tried to restore the Islamic faith to its pure form among Muslims in India.  Even though these efforts have not been completely successful, they carry on together with new movements constantly emerging, this work with renewed energy and zeal.  Further, Muslims are acutely aware that they are imperfect Muslims, far from the ideal model community that God created for all peoples when he revealed his Qur’an through the prophet Muhammad, and they all agree that this model community that existed at the time of Muhammad is something they must all strive for, if not in fact because they are too weak, then at least, in word and desire: the ummah is not just past history but also the future towards which all humanity cannot but be drawn.  The emphasis is not on integration with other faiths (though amity with other religions is also important), but on keeping the contract mentioned in the Quran (9/10), a personal contract with God that each Muslim must make at least when he or she reaches the age of reason.  The Muslim sells himself to God as a slave in exchange for paradise, and then lives out this contract by following the Quran, the Hadith or sunnah, and the sharia, whatever the cost to his life and possessions.  If he cannot live out the contract in all its aspects in practical life, then he must at least say that he should and must try to live thus.


His presentation brought out the delicate balance, which Indian Muslims maintain, between their spiritual legacy, built around the Qur’an and the Hadith, and their centuries-long fruitful interaction with their Hindu neighbors.  When Muslim faith came in contact with Indian world-view, it resulted in a composite culture. This composite culture expressed itself in many forms of art and in life styles, and remains a crucial element that supports the secular foundations of the modern Indian State. This composite culture is not a recipe for Muslims to compromise on their faith. Rather they remain committed to the core call of Islam, to submit oneself to God in the path of the Qur’an and of the Hadith. In other words they find themselves both authentically Indians and genuinely Muslims. We will quickly note two important points: first, that on the face of right wing Hindu nationalism, this Hindu-Muslim cultural interaction and its fruit, the composite culture, should be preserved and strengthened in order to preserve and strengthen the secular foundations of modern India and build a peaceful nation; second, the West can learn a few lessons from this Indian experience of multi-cultural pro-existence as they are increasingly becoming multi-religious and multi-cultural.  

Dr Farida Khanam in her paper A Reflection on Muslim-Christian Dialogue in India according to the Views of Prof Christian W Troll and Maulana Wahiduddin Khan made a brief reference to the Catholic Church’s efforts in Christian-Muslim dialogue with reference to Prof Troll. She made a clear presentation on Maulana Khan’s understanding of dialogue. Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (b.1925) is considered to be one of the significant contemporary Muslim religious thinkers from the Indian subcontinent. His writings have been attracting a considerable body of readership.  His religious thinking is also exerting some influence on the thinking of many Muslims in India and elsewhere.  His al-Risala Movement was established in 1970 to propagate the ideals of Islam in a peaceful way. Its publications are attracting the attention not only of Muslims but also of non-Muslims.

Maulana Khan’s understanding of religion - ‘din’ - is central to his religious thinking. He explains that Islam has come to convey the proper understanding of the link between God and humanity. Man and woman are servants of God and consequently fear and love should mark their relationship with God. Islam prepares them for the last day the Day of Judgment.  According to Maulana Khan, this understanding is the essence of Islam. He points out that the political discourse about the establishment of the Islamic State based on Qur’anic injunctions does not form the central message of Islam. Dr Khannam is the daughter of Maulana Khan. It was very enriching for the participants to listen to Dr Khannam as she explained the religious thinking of her father.

However, it must be mentioned that the paper did not attempt to make these two thinkers (Maulana Khan and Professor Troll) interact with each other. One of the crucial questions should be: where do these thinkers base their arguments for religious freedom? How do they approach the issue of conversion: changing one’s faith according to one’s convictions? It is common knowledge that freedom of religion is one of the burning issues that confronts the modern world in many regions of Asia and Africa. In that context, it should be mentioned that the recent Al-Azhar Bill of Rights, Al-Azhar, Egypt’s premier Islamic institution, issued a document on basic freedoms on 11 January 2012 to serve as a reference for Egypt’s new constitution. The document lists freedom of belief, opinion, expression, scientific research, and art and literary creativity as basic rights for all citizens that should be respected using Islamic references and traditions to back up those values.  These two documents are excellent and pave the way for mutual understanding and building up a modern State on solid foundation of human rights.

A Jesuit scholar, in a personal email to the author of this report, mentioned: “BUT... Islam cannot open the door to freedom of faith and religion without betraying itself and putting into question the vital issue of conversions which is a cornerstone of orthodox Islam. My feeling is that by ‘freedom of religion’ they intend ‘freedom of worship’ and they play upon this ambiguity.” All these indicate that there should be a lively on-going dialogue on these crucial questions to deepen the understanding between Christians and Muslims.

 Ahmet Favad made a presentation on Gülen Movement and Christian-Muslim relations.  He said that this movement is an apolitical cultural movement that regards the issue of ignorance, poverty and disunity as three major enemies of mankind and it offers education, poverty relief and humanitarian aid, charity and dialogue, as remedies to these social ills. It would be worth mentioning here that Bediuzzaman Said Nursi,  Turkish scholar and intellectual wrote: “Our enemies are ignorance, poverty and conflict. We shall wage a holy war against these three enemies with the weapons of Industry, Learning and Unity.” The Gülen movement is named after Fethullah Gülen, scholar, writer and poet who inspired many in Turkey and abroad. The number of followers is not exactly known. In May 2008, Gülen was listed by Foreign Policy magazine among the top hundred public intellectuals in the world.  Gülen movement works for global peace and sees interfaith dialogue as an indispensable component of this endeavor to the way that leads to that end. Gülen believes that interfaith dialogue is a must today and the first step in establishing it is to forget the past, ignore polemical arguments and give precedence to common points which far outnumber polemical ones. Gülen mentions four fundamental universal values that are sustained by religion to be promoted in interreligious dialogue namely love, compassion, tolerance and forgiving. Gülen consistently argues in favor of democracy and consolidation of democratic process and further suggests that Islamic principles of equality, tolerance and justice support democracy. 

 In a recent Conference of Jesuits Among Muslims in Rome (September 2011) presenting his views on this movement, Prof Thomas Michel SJ concluded: “‘Are Gülen and the Hizmet community friends or foes?’ I must answer that they are our friends. They are the kind of Muslim interlocutors for an active dialogue for which we have been searching since the time of Nostra Aetate.” His comment helped Islamic Studies Association (ISA) to get in touch with Indilogue Foundation run by Gülen followers in Delhi. Now ISA has begun to work together in projects of inter-faith relations since last few months.  

Dr Reeta Bagchi, an associate professor at Jamia Hamdard University presented her reflection on interreligious dialogue. She is one of the collaborators of Saint Francis Xavier Movement in Delhi. She said that for a harmonious and better quality of life there is need for a national as well as global awakening to establish a new social order with major values of different religions, integrated with our human life style. In such a civilization of love and mutual respect, there is no scope for clash of civilizations and the various communities will co-operate for the welfare of all through creative inter-faith dialogue. Today the various issues like global warming, terrorism, poverty and women’s empowerment are being taken unitedly rejecting the very idea of any clash in faith and practices. Vivekananda had said -- `Bring all forces of good together, do not care what be the color, but mix all the colors`. That is the multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, multi-regional fragrance of India.

Victor Edwin, a PhD student on Christian-Muslim Relations at the New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, reflecting on his experiences with Muslims said that deep dialogue and religious conversations cannot avoid serious theological questions. While reflecting on possible responses, he came to realize that one should keep within the teaching of the Church so that one’s responses remain Catholic, while being aware of the complexities of the history of Christian-Muslim interactions. Sensitive responses can be developed only if the person doing dialogue is gifted with a heart that listens and discerns and a mind that is aware of the history of Christian-Muslim relations.

He affirmed that polemics should never find a place in our dialogue. In the past it has only generated heat and never shed light. And in future polemics is not going to be different. Polemics was a model that generated prejudice and bias. It should never be a model for future dialogue. In a similar vein it could be said that compromising one’s faith in not dialogue either. If polemics represents hard heartedness then compromise implies shallowness. In dialogue, we need to be rooted in our faith and remain open to the Spirit of God that is at work within us.

He said that it was his experience that whenever he had reached out to Muslim friends, he always had returned enriched: a deep experience of the richness of his own faith tradition and of the beauty of the Islamic tradition. As Christians, he further said, we need to reach out to Muslims as our brothers and sisters. A lot of goodwill will be generated when we meet as worshipers of One God, who is our Creator and our Judge.

At the heart of his mission as a Jesuit among Muslims, he said that he tries to convey the message that he is a follower of Christ and wants to help his Muslim friends to love Jesus and come to meet him. 

As indicated in the beginning, a deeper understanding of the dynamics of Christian-Muslim relations would be achieved if one sees this question in the fast changing global context. Such consideration would throw a new light on issues related with Christian-Muslim relations and help the West to learn from the East and vice-versa. The following two presentations that come from Prof Ambrogio Bongiovanni and Dr Gudrun Löwner reflects this particular understanding.

Prof Bongiovanni’s presentation considered the historical, sociological and anthropological issues connected with Christian Muslim relations in Italy. He said that the Catholic Church made many efforts in this field at grass root level and at official levels to help the believers and society to take initiatives for dialogue with the Muslims. Many results can be observed in many places of the country. He said: “Islam is a faith marked by a change. There is an increasing number of youth expressing more and more willingness to be integrated and be part of a globalized and pluralistic world.” He affirmed that problems concerning the integration of Muslims in the Italian society have to be solved by both communities.  He suggested that the Italian society should overcome the “obsessions” about each other (West against Islam and vice versa) and concentrate on intercultural and interreligious formation for co-existence. Interreligious dialogue is the need of the hour, he affirmed.

In her paper “Islam in Germany: the success story of Dawa in Germany” Dr Löwner gave a lucid picture of Muslims in Germany. She pointed out that Islam is not a monolithic group in Germany. They reflect the differences that they bring with them from their lands of origin. One in every eleven persons living in Germany is a Muslim, she said, so that German society is becoming a multi-religious and multi-cultural society. This change from a predominant Christian society will not happen without fears. She said: “… the growth of Buddhism and Hinduism is not understood as threats. However, there are many complex problems associated with the establishment of Islam as a permanent religion in Germany.” She noted two issues related with minarets and the head-scarf. Minarets and the head-scarf symbolically announce that Muslims are no more guest workers, and that through their permanent presence Islam has come to stay in Germany. This is unsettling though unavoidable. Demography has changed and will continue to change in the times to come. How does one deal with a multi- religious and multi-cultural society? India has integrated the differences and presented them, to put it metaphorically, as a salad bowl or as a mosaic. Everyone has a place of honor in the integral vision of India as one country. The diversity is preserved neither by pushing the religious and cultural differences to private sphere nor reducing them into a melting pot. This Eastern wisdom may give a clue for the West to deal with their changing cultural milieu. 

These exchanges are beautiful examples of Christians and Muslims reaching out to one another. They underline the importance of mutual understanding and the need to work together for justice and peace in the world. While reaching out to the other they will learn and discover afresh the other.  The pre-judgments and prejudices will vanish and personal relationships established.

It was very revealing for the Christian participants to realize that Muslims constantly interpret Islam in new and refreshing ways. Their interpretation is deeply rooted in the foundational sources of Islam, the Qur’an and Hadith.  The Gülen Movement (Turkey) and Al Risala Movement (India) with which Mr Favad and Prof Khannam, speakers of our Seminar, are associated are very important movements that remain encouraging examples of this trend. The signs of the times demand both Christians and Muslims to reach out to one another.
The papers from the India and Europe clearly showed that learning from one another is crucial for a sane world.  The discussion helped the participants to recognize that the West is marked by the flames of Enlightenment and the East is marked by rays of Wisdom and both need to complement one another for life in the global village. The secular perspective from the West was missing in the seminar proceedings and that was one of the weaknesses of the seminar. 

The participants recognized:
·                    Every religion is unique and need to be respected for its unique history and traditions.  Both Christians and Muslims should listen to one another and understand the way in which they explain their faith.  Listening to the other marks the starting of a genuine dialogue. In this dialogical way we grow and contribute to world peace and to the well being of all communities.

The participants learnt:
·                    There is a lot of good will across religious boundaries. We need to build bridges across to live a connected life.
·                    Both the East and the West need to share and learn from one another.
·                    A lot of intercultural and inter-faith exchanges happen at the global level. These exchanges should be multiplied at local levels.
·                    We need to search for partners in dialogue. Many people of good will are found everywhere.
·                    Dialogue is a way of life. It must be lived consciously.

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