Saturday, September 21, 2013

“Mysticism in East and West – The Concept of the Unity of Being: A Christian-Muslim Symposium
Heike Stamer

A Muslim-Christian symposium on the topic: “Mysticism in East and West – The Concept of the Unity of Being” was held on 20th – 21st February 2013 at the Jesuit Centre Loyola Hall in Lahore. The symposium was a step towards bridging the divisions between doctrinal interpretations and creedal assertions in Pakistan.

The inspiration for the symposium emerged from conversations between Fr. Christian W. Troll, S.J. (a visiting Jesuit priest and Professor of Islamic Studies in Germany) and Ms. Heike Stamer (a scholar engaged in research for a PhD on religious minorities in Pakistan) at the Jesuit Centre in Lahore. Fifteen scholars, mostly local, were invited to present papers. One half of the speakers was Muslim and the other half was Christian.

To enable both Christian and Muslim speakers to participate in a discussion concerning the ‘Unity of Being’ (waḥdat al-wujūd), which has been a specific issue in Islamic theology for centuries, the subject of the symposium was opened up for a discussion about God’s immanence and transcendence.

In order to enable serious scholars to engage in a frank and open discussion, the symposium was not open to the public. But a complete record of what was presented – including the gist of the discussion that followed the presentation of each paper – would be made available by means of the proceedings which will be published from Lahore.

Topics shared
The papers that were presented at the symposium reflect an interesting mix of viewpoints expressing a deep and broad grasp of the subject. The Muslim speakers – as well as some of the Christian speakers – tackled a variety of topics on the subject of Islamic mysticism, such as the monistic views of Ibn ‘Arabī’ and the criticisms he subsequently encountered. Other papers defended the argument for waḥdat al-wujūd through a presentation of the Akbarian (Ibn ‘Arabī), Suhrawardian (Shaykh al-Ishrāq al-Suhrawardī) and Iqbālian (Dr. ‘Allāma Muḥammad Iqbāl) schools of thought. Others again recalled the historic debates on the two conflicting concepts of waḥdat al-wujūd (unity of being) and waḥdat al-shuhūd (unity of witnessing), terms that reflect the views of major intellectuals like Aḥmad Sirhindī and Shah Walīullah from the Sub-Continent of India and Pakistan.

A unique contribution was a consideration of the tension between panentheism and pantheism. While the concept of pantheism as "All is He" can be problematic for the traditional Islamic understanding of Unitarianism and for the philosophy of monotheism (falsafa-e-tawhīd), the doctrine of divine oneness, panentheism, is more acceptable because of the inclusion of the word "in" in the phrase "All is [in] Him".
Christian speakers presented topics such as Merkabah Mysticism (based on the Old Testament), the Christ mysticism of the apostle Paul (d. ca. 67 AD), and the mystical poetry of the Spanish priest St. John of the Cross (d. 1591 AD).  Intellectual discussions during the symposium were enhanced by the beauty of mystical renditions of the subject of the symposium, the ‘Unity of Being’, from the mystical poetry of Bulleh Shah and Mīr Dard, both renowned poets from the Sub-Continent.

Evaluation and Outlook

Feedback from the participants was positive and enthusiastic. New insights were gained and speakers found that they had benefited especially from the group discussion of their own papers. Within the course of two days, participants in the symposium had grown closer together and developed new friendships. No religious or sectarian divisions had emerged and the atmosphere remained friendly and polite throughout the entire duration of the symposium.  In fact, the participants had taken positive steps towards reconciliation in a region marked by intolerance and suspicion.

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