Emmanuel Crowther: a little bird that announced a new spring in Christian-Muslim relations in India
Victor Edwin SJ
Emmanuel Crowther (d. 1990) was a Sri Lankan Jesuit. He studied theology at St Mary's College of Theology (Kurseong) from 1925 to 1928. An interesting essay on Islamic Mysticism written by him in 1925 is found in the Indian Academy Records of St Mary's College, Kurseong. These Records are now preserved at the Vidyajyoti Jesuit School of Theology Library (Delhi). His essay reveals him as one of the Jesuits in the early decades of the 20th century in South Asia who talks positively of Islam and Muslims even before the pioneer in Christian Muslim relations in India, Victor Courtois, appears on the scene. Courtois was missioned to study Arabic in West Asia In 1932. He learnt to read the Qur’an and commentaries in their original language Arabic. He acquired a thorough knowledge about Muslim thinking. He was sent to Kurseong for theology in 1938.
The purpose of this article is to remind the South Asian Jesuits about Crowther and his reflection on Islam and Muslims. In the first part, we simply say why his short article has to be given prominence in the context of his times. In the second part, we shall narrate what he said and the significance of his reflection in the context of our times.
Indian Academy (here after Academy) was a forum for Jesuit students of Theology at St Mary’s College, Kurseong where they presented their research findings, critical reflections and considered theological opinions on a number of topics related to India, her peoples and their cultures and religions. These presentations in the form of research papers were carefully recorded and preserved in bound volumes. Many of the presentations/essays preserved in these volumes are hand written documents, while some others are typed transcripts. While most of the essays are fully written, some of them provide only outline of the essay with an accompanying note saying that it was improvised while the lecture was delivered. Perhaps it was a sign of greater grip a particular Jesuit had on the matter that was presented in that lecture!
Academy Essays on Islam
There are thirty essays (presented as lectures) on topics related with Islam found in the Academy records. A wide range of subjects on Islamic Studies are covered in these presentations. These studies include revelation as understood in Islam, the Qur'ân, dogmas of Islam, Islamic theology, Muhammad and his life, Hadith, Islamic mysticism, Sufi orders, Muslim mystics, Muslim spirituality, Prayer, Muslim way of life, success of Islam, and conversion of Muslims to Christianity.
A quick survey of these documents shows that they were written neither as responses to Muslim polemics against Christians and their faith nor an effort to elicit a response from Muslims. Then, what are these documents written for? They are documents in which the Jesuit theology students articulate their understanding of Islam and the presence of Muslims in India. It should be said that they were hypercritical of Islam and its prophet Muhammad. They disparagingly used very strong negative language against the Qur’an.
At this negative context where Islamic revelation and its holy Book were attacked relentlessly by Christian scholars and especially his Jesuit colleagues, Crowther explores the spirituality of the Muslim mystic al-Hallaj. In contrast to the views of his colleagues he judges the spirituality lived out by al-Hallaj as genuine. He affirms that these spiritual fruits are from the source of Islamic faith the Holy Qur'an. When a number of his colleagues charge the Qur'an with a strong polemical language, Crowther finds streaks of light that guided al-Hallaj to deep mysticism. This assertion of Crowther is significant because it signals a new approach. Crowther's approach invites for a new and discerning way in relationship with Muslims. He calls the Jesuits to carefully discern the spiritual life of Muslims. In other words, he indicates vicious attack on Islam or its prophet is neither fruitful nor desirable.
Crowther and his essay: Al-Hallaj- a Martyr of Islam
Crowther studied carefully the works on al-Hallaj as rendered in Louis Massignon. He considered the mystical experiences of al-Hallaj as 'invasion of God'. He recognised that the summit of all sanctity of a saint is to be consummated in the love of God, which is a divine union. In this union the saint perfectly bends his/her will to the will of God and participates in the divine life. Crowther has no hesitation to accept that al-Hallaj strove to do the will of God in his life.
Crowther recognized that Al-Hallaj emphasised the importance of practicing the interior dimension of religion. Love perfects this interior religion. He tells his readers that al-Hallaj recognised Jesus Christ as his model. The reason is this. Jesus lived out the interior religion to perfection. In other words, Jesus' interior sanctity was powered by love. Interior sanctity is superior to adherence to mere legal prescriptions. Jesus attained union with God through this interior sanctity. Thus Jesus was the best model of union with God. In al-Hallaj's mind this union was only a mystical union and not the hypostatic union, as Christians understand. Jesus accepted the fiat of God. As Jesus lived out with complete interior sanctity and harmonising his will with the will of God every act of him became really divine. When the divine union is perfected the ego is transformed into divine essence so that it can say "I am the truth". al-Hallaj uttered these very words in a mystical ecstasy. His coreligionists accused him of blasphemy. They persecuted al-Hallaj and crucified him. Though, al-Hallaj considered Jesus as the best model for union with God, he remained within the borders of Islam fully affirming the transcendence of God. The mystical union is the result of a life of interior sanctity.
For Crowther, Al-Hallaj is an illustration of a doctrine and a type of sanctity that can be evolved from the Qur'an. Al-Hallaj interpreted the prescription of the Qur'an in such a way that is in harmony with the un-prescribed needs of interior worship. Crowther writes: "thus he [al-Hallaj] provides us with a method of approaching the Muslims through the Koran or at least a possibility of our doing so". The Qur'an should not be simply dismissed with a negative frame of mind, affirms Crowther. He indicates that a lot of good could come from the spiritual teachings of the Qur'an and al-Hallaj is the model. The implication is that Christians should carefully look at the life of Muslims and recognise all that is good in them comes from the Qur’an.
Further Crowther writes: "his [al-Hallaj's] life and doctrine also show that Mahomeddanism [sic] is not a religion whose soul [sic] doctrine is polygamy as is commonly believed, but that much good can be drawn out of it, and utilised for evangelisation”. He indicates a new method of apostolate. What is the new method? He suggests that “the noblest aspirations are satisfied in Catholic faith. He writes: “in Catholicism is found in all its fullness what is found only partially in other religions”. He affirms that a Muslim convert to Christianity need not reject what is holy and beautiful in his/her religion. He writes that a new Christian will “see the old familiar objects in a new and divine light. He [a Muslim] has not to restrain his thoughts but to give them their fullest expression. He will see that Christ has come not destroy his law but to fulfil it."
A few things should be gleaned from this short essay of Crowther. First, St Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises instructs his sons, the Jesuits to put a positive interpretation on what others say or explain. Crowther is a shining example of one who follows the teaching of Ignatius with a discerning prudence. He carefully read the life of al-Hallaj from an authentic source, that is Louis Massignon an authority on al-Hallaj and interpreted it for his times and mission of Jesuits among Muslims. He expresses his appreciation and adds how what is holy in the faith Islam may come to fulfilment in Christian faith.
Many theologians, in the past, have seen Christianity as the fulfilment of the aspirations of individuals and religions. It should be noted that the fulfilment theory will be challenged by a number of theologians. Their challenge is not out of tune in the present 21st century realities and emerging theology of dialogue among religious believers. However it should not be denied that in the early decades of the last century that was a pioneering approach.
Second, his emphasis that the al-Hallaj has perfected interior sanctity of life based on the teachings of the Qur'an is a momentous insight at a time when polemics flew thick and hard. The deepest expressions of life and thirst for God from the Muslim side are not left unanswered by God. It is obvious from what Crowther writes; he definitely considers the spirituality of al-Hallaj is rooted in the spiritual foundations of the Qur'an, and it is authentic. The authenticity of the spirituality could be seen from its fruits: a deeper desire to do the will of God and an ongoing effort to bend one's will to the Will of God. The implication is that God in ways known to Him alone is forming and shaping the lives of Muslims like al-Hallaj. Crowther's interfaith thinking definitely ahead of his times.
Thirdly, it is important to point out the difficulties people like Crowther, and later Courtois experienced before the clear, enlightened teaching of Vatican II. Paul Jackson writes about the struggles of Courtois in the following words: “Fr Courtois ploughed a lonely furrow. Initially he had a companion a man who had lived with the Bedouin and gained a remarkable mastery of Arabic, but who subsequently felt called to a work which brought more immediately tangible results and sense of accomplishment. His departure must surely have compounded Fr Courtois’ sense of isolation. Perhaps he did not speak about his work in his community because he realized that others were not interested in what he had to say. If this were so, it would have added another dimension to his sense of isolation”.
Jesuits scholars on Christian Muslims relations like Christian W Troll and Paul Jackson have assessed Courtois as a pioneer in Catholic relations with Muslims in India. If it is to be said that Courtois broke new grounds in the Catholic relations with Muslims in India, Crowther should be acknowledged as someone who has commented positively on the spirituality of Muslims. If Courtois was the spring in Catholic relations with Muslims in India, then it is not an exaggeration to say Crowther was a little sparrow that sang a little spring song before Courtois!