Grounds for Better Understanding and Dialogue with Islam

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By Sr. Eucharia Madueke, SNDdeN

At a timely lecture jointly sponsored by Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) and THE Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies (IPRCS) of the Catholic University on March 6, Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, M. Afr, explored “Grounds for Better Understanding and Dialogue with Islam.” At the event which attracted people from advocacy network organizations, media, universities and religious communities around Washington DC, Archbishop Fitzgerald (former Apostolic Nuncio, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and past Vatican Delegate to the Arab League) acknowledged the fundamental differences between the two religious leaders – Jesus and Mohammad; differences, he opined, that pose problems for fruitful dialogue. Nevertheless, he expressed optimism about gainful dialogue despite such hindrances, if only diversity is respected.

To help the audience to understand the fundamental differences, the Archbishop compared Jesus and Mohammed, noting that both leaders came to preach conversion but in different ways. Jesus, who was never a statesman, preached conversion with tolerance and peace, and his followers were independent of any political powers. Mohammad, a prophet and a statesman, preached renewal and formation of a new community where religion and politics are inseparable. Unlike Jesus’s followers who must be free from political power and must tolerate others, Mohammad’s must strive for God and for the community. In other words, they must struggle to establish pure Islam, not only as a religion, but also as a state religion. Thus, the rise of various Islamic revivalist movements such as Wahabbism in central Arabia in the 18th century, the current Boko Haram sect in Nigeria, acting as instruments for the regaining of perceived Islamic politico-religious power and purity.

The Archbishop recognized the division in Islam, which began after the death of Mohammed, who left no clear successor. As a result, disagreement ensued about whom to consider as a political and religious leader after Prophet Muhammad. This situation, the Archbishop stated, makes it impossible to achieve political unity among Arab States, even with the formation of the League of Arab States in 1948. Nevertheless, he suggested that there is a consensus in the Islamic world about Sharia Law, the Qur’an, and the traditions of the prophet (Sunnah and Hadith) as legislative texts. Yet, he observed that unfortunately, the current jihadists do not respect/follow the above teaching; rather, they wage physical war against unbelievers and enemies of the Islamic faith (such jihad is mentioned only three times in the Qur’an) as compared with the “great Jihad” of waging war with one’s inner self, one’s tongue, and one’s hand.

Despite divisions in Islam, conflicts and violence, which seem to be making dialogue impossible, the Archbishop pointed out the possibility of fruitful dialogue with Islam at the levels of life, action, discourse and spiritual experience.

The Dialogue of Life

The dialogue of life is a call to live in open, harmonious and neighborly spirit among people of different faiths, showing interest in and support of the other. He recognized that this effort, which has existed in many ways. The Archbishop cited the current “Muslims for Lent” movement in the U.S. that shows Muslims’ interest in and support for Christians during lent.

The Dialogue of Action, or Cooperation in the Service of Others

The Archbishop pointed out that harmonious living naturally leads to actions undertaken in common, leading to Christians and Muslims working together for the common good. He cited cases where Christians and Muslims worked together to build a mosque or church, cared for people with disabilities, took action against AIDS, formed inter-religious councils, etc. A concrete example he gave was “the House of the Family” in Egypt, created to counter inter-religious violence.

Dialogue of Discourse, or Theoretical Foundations

The Archbishop also noted that dialogue is a form of cooperation and that dialogue is occurring where specialists of various religions seek together to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages and work together to appreciate each others spiritual values. He referenced meetings of imams and priests working together to discuss justice in international trade through their religious lens, the Vatican meetings to discuss both theological and practical topics, and the “Building Bridges” program in Bristol, where the community comes together to discuss the community’s problems and potential solutions.

The Dialogue of Religious Experience

Here, Christians and Muslims share the spiritual riches that are rooted in their own religious traditions such as prayer, contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God for the purpose of bonding and peace. Language of the heart such as “act justly, work humbly, love tenderly” are discussed by this group. Together, they pray and build peace.

At the end of the lecture, the Archbishop concluded that the difficulty in dialogue comes as a result of reciprocal ignorance of each others beliefs and practices. He also acknowledged the limits placed on the effort to dialogue by current conflicts and violence coming from Islamic extremists. However, the Archbishop has called for and encourages intentional inter-religious dialogue, which he sees as building trust in the Christian-Muslim relationship. He insists on the importance of religious working, talking, praying and building peace together and emphasizes the good that comes when those of different religions tackle problems together.