Islam

Dialogue and International Aid

Inter-religious Action and Aid and Development Agencies

Duncan_McLaren_team_memberby Dr Duncan MacLaren: Former Executive Director of SCIAF and Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, and member of the Scottish Bishops’ Committee for Inter-religious Dialogue. He is an Adjunct Professor at Australian Catholic University and completed a PhD on Integral Human Development in 2019. He was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory the Great by Pope Francis in 2016.

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One neglected part of inter-religious dialogue is the talk and action between the Catholic aid and development agencies (for example, SCIAF in Scotland) and those from the Islamic faith tradition (such as Islamic Relief). My introduction to this topic was stark.

In my early thirties, I was looking at projects supported by SCIAF in the Islamic City of Marawi in the Philippines. One of them consisted of advocating for free water supplies for the poor. The clean water was supplied by standpipes throughout the town but they had been taken over by local warlords who were charging what was a fortune for the poor. Many people then bathed their children and themselves in Lake Marawi, and took drinking water from the lake with cows defecating just along from them. There was, obviously, a spike in waterborne diseases for all the family.

I was being accommodated by a young, activist Muslim family in their modest flat. They asked me about Catholic Social Teaching and, since they had a blackboard in their living room, I illustrated the principles, where they came from and how they helped us discern the common good. The couple said ‘But we have the same principles in the Qur’an and they told me about them. The trip was cut short when a policeman came to the door and said the ‘American’ would have to leave as his life had been threatened. I was bundled into a car while protesting I was Scottish, and taken down the mountain to a safe house in an Islamic Centre in Iligan City.

Many years later, when I was Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis in the Vatican, this informal ‘dialogue’ led to a partnership between Catholic aid agencies and Islamic Relief, a Muslim aid and development agency founded in 1984 by an Egyptian doctor, Dr Hany El-Banna, and his fellow students at the University of Birmingham. Dr El-Banna came to the Vatican twice to enquire about setting up an international network of Islamic Relief and he established what is now called Islamic Relief Worldwide, partly based on the Caritas model. Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 165 official Catholic aid, development and social service agencies, SCIAF being the Scottish representative. They are part of the Church not an adjunct to it and work together throughout the world bringing the option for the poor to life. Given that Islamic Relief put its own religious values at its heart, just as SCIAF does, we were also a natural partner for them. SCIAF and other Caritas agencies have worked together with Islamic Relief in humanitarian programmes for earthquake survivors in El Salvador where the Catholic agencies took the lead and in a similar programme in Bam, Iran where Islamic Relief took the lead.

In Christianity, a special place is accorded the poor throughout the Old and New Testaments and becomes solidified in Jesus’ proclamation in the Last Judgement (Matthew 25) that those who stood in solidarity with the poor were ‘Blessed’ while those who did not were condemned. Similarly, in Islam, help for the poor is regarded as a central part of the faith. People who deny religion are even equated with those who neglect the poor. The Qur’an (107: 1-3) says, “Have you observed him who denies religion? That is he who repels the orphan and urges not the feeding of the needy”.

The values of both faiths are the wellspring for Catholic and Islamic aid agencies to move from orthodoxy to orthopraxis (*), as agencies do on the ground in programmes. Increased sharing of those values would enrich both. For Catholics, it would also be fulfilling what the Second Vatican Council document, Nostra Aetate (the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) encouraged the faithful to do, urging “that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding [between Catholicism and Islam] for the benefit of all, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values”(par. 3). Catholic and Islamic aid agencies are blazing the trail.

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(*) Leonardo Boff defines orthopraxis in Christological terms as “correct acting in the light of Christ” as opposed to the “correct thinking about Christ” of orthodoxy. (In Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology of Our Time, (London: SPCK, 1990, seventh impression). 46)

Why We Dialogue

A personal reflection on why we engage in interreligious dialogue – by John Stoer, Member of the Bishops’ Committee For Interreligious Dialogue

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John Stoer taking part in the online time of prayer on 14 May 2020

After some years of academic study on how the Catholic Church understands other religions and how, as Catholics, we should engage in dialogue with others, I have recently had the opportunity to practise what I have studied. Over the last few months, as a member of the Scottish Bishops’ Interreligious Committee, I have been privileged to engage in discussions with representatives of the Shi’a Muslim community in Glasgow and take part in two prayer services via Zoom when we came together to pray. What follows is a reflection on that experience and my study.

For me, one of the most helpful explanations as to why we should engage in dialogue is found in Pope St John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris missio (1990), henceforth referred to as RM. The Pope explains that the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit can be found “not only in individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions” (RM 28). In the next paragraph he repeats his well-known but not uncontroversial statement that the interreligious meeting held in Assisi in 1986 confirms his conviction that “every authentic prayer is prompted by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in every human heart” (RM 29). Later, in the same encyclical, he gives a wonderful explanation of both the way dialogue should be conducted and its purpose. We should begin with our own tradition and convictions but should be open to understanding others “without pretense or close-mindedness, … with truth, humility and frankness, knowing that dialogue can enrich each side. There must be no abandonment of principles nor false irenicism, but instead a witness given and received for mutual advancement … and the elimination of prejudice, intolerance and misunderstandings. Dialogue leads to inner purification and conversion” (RM 56).

These words of the Pope have guided my involvement in the dialogue and prayer, and their value and insight have been confirmed by my experience. I have come away with an enhanced respect for our Muslim brothers and sisters. Their quiet dignity, wonderful courtesy and the strength of their religious convictions has had a real impact on me. I have no doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit is present and active in them and in their religion. This does not diminish my faith in Christ, on the contrary, it encourages it. Their example has led to think about how I should change, how I should be converted, how I can be more faithful to Christ.

The firmness of their commitment puts mine to shame. The strength of their community binds them together and bridges the generational gap in a way that is not found in ours. Whilst they are keen to engage with the secular world, they are not willing to compromise on their convictions. Whilst some of these strengths, if over emphasised, can become weaknesses and even cause harm, their example should encourage us, as individuals and as a community, to reconsider how we live and even change our ways. I am not sure what I have to offer the Muslim men and women who have engaged with us. I do not know whether this dialogue has led to “mutual advancement” but I do know that it has made me more humble and has led me to question whether I am too willing to compromise with the demands of my own faith and with the secular world in which we live. My experience has confirmed Pope St John Paul II’s understanding that the ultimate aim of dialogue is “inner purification and conversion”.

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Some participants in the time of prayer

Solitude

From the Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – Interfaith Journeys

arrupe-at-prayer_origThis week I went to an online interfaith meeting on solitude, something that has been a reality for some people during the self- isolation of this coronavirus period.  For everyone it’s been a difficult time. For some it’s been the separation from friends and family that’s been hard while for others it’s the juggling of working from home with home schooling and entertaining children that’s been stressful and exhausting. For others it’s been keeping alive their businesses and organisations. That has been true of the interfaith world. There have been so many possibilities to join in interfaith dialogues, not just at home but all over the world.  Sometimes it has felt that there have been just too many invitations and I’ve resisted a lot of them because I’ve appreciated the space and time for solitude away from diaries and meetings. I’ve resisted filling up my time with too much busyness. Of course there have been zoom and skype contacts so that I’ve not been at all lonely.

Solitude has a place in the Christian tradition. The celibate life of nuns and priests is seen as a legitimate calling which frees a person from the responsibilities of family to devote themselves to prayer and contemplation as well as service to the community. Being without a lifelong partner means there is a certain solitude about religious life, an aloneness even when living in community though that doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. We have probably all experienced a feeling of loneliness in the middle of a crowd and a feeling of connectedness when alone by ourselves. But not all faiths value solitude.

Judaism is a religion that focuses very strongly on the family and community. Private, individual prayer is not as important as community prayer or living according to a tradition that re-members the past and reinforces membership of a people in a particular relationship with God. The text chosen for our recent scriptural reasoning event on solitude was the story from the book of Exodus of Moses spending 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai in conversation with God and in preparation for the gift of the Torah. The interpreter on the passage asked: was Moses truly alone if he were in the presence of God and since this time of solitude was a preparation for the giving of Torah then it was directed towards community which is at the heart of Judaism.

The Muslim presenter talked about three kinds of solitude in Islam which connects well with the Jewish view: preparatory solitude, whispering solitude and forbidden solitude. All the prophets including Mohammed, Moses, Jesus spent some time in solitude, in prayer and fasting, as a preparation for revelation. For Moses this revelation was the giving of the Torah, for Mohammed it was the revelation of the Qur’an and for Jesus it was the revelation of his mission to preach the presence of the Kingdom of God amongst us.  Prophets are spokespersons, mirrors that reflect the greatness of God. To be effective they need to be purified, emptied of self and totally open to God’s voice and for this, a time of intense prayer and solitude is necessary. Whispering solitude occurs at moments when we can withdraw and disconnect from all around us to enter into the inner silence of our hearts to pray, listen to God, to remember that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. Forbidden solitude is the kind of solitude that leads us to withdraw totally from family, community or society responsibilities. It’s the kind of solitude that stops us engaging with the reality of the world around us, rather than preparing us to enter into it and serve it.

The Christian presenter was from the reformed tradition which, he pointed out, didn’t, until recently, value solitude in the way that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions did. The text he commented on was the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the desert after his baptism in the River Jordan.  We are told in Mark that is was the Holy Spirit, the One who is said to have descended on Jesus at his baptism who drove him into the desert where he remained for 40 days and 40 nights without eating, living among the wild beasts and ministered to by angels. In the other gospels there is an account of how Jesus was tempted during that time as to his identity and mission. This side of solitude shows the reality of having to face ourselves, our fears, compromises, our masks, our desire for ease and approval. Solitude is not just about communing with God or discerning His will. It is also about facing the wild beasts within all of us – wild beasts that we happily ignore or suppress in the busyness of life. But wild beasts that we need to face and even befriend if we are to be free and loving human beings.

For people of faith solitude is important but it has to be understood correctly. We’re never alone because we are in the presence of God and interconnected to all of creation; it’s good for us to face up to and be honest with ourselves; it’s important that our solitude does not lead us to disregard the world in which we live but becomes a preparation for honest and loving service, even if that be mainly through prayer. It’s an opportunity to see things afresh. Coronavirus has offered us that opportunity. I hope we haven’t squandered it.

Dialogue in Edinburgh

Fr Jock Dalrymple is the parish priest of the the sister Catholic parishes of St John the Evangelist, Portobello and St Mary Magdalene, Bingham, both in Edinburgh. In our guest blog he reflects on recent events in his busy life…

One thing leads to another…on Thursday 28 November, two and a half weeks after ‘First Spring’, the Moslem cultural celebration in the Carmichael Hall in Giffnock in Glasgow, I was also invited to speak at the first ever reception for Islamophobia Awareness Month, held in one of the committee rooms in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

The co-ordinator of the event was the Muslim Council of Scotland along with the Cross Party Group on Islamophobia: among those present and speaking were Anas Sarwar MSP and Humza Yousaf, Justice Secretary, as well as representatives of different civic organizations and bodies such as Police Scotland. Edinburgh East’s Westminster MP Tommy Shepherd was one of those who popped in to listen.

The statistic that has remained with me from others’ presentations was that while Moslems in 2011 (the most recent census) are only 1.4% of the Scottish population, 38% of Scots think they make up over 20% of the population.

When it came to my turn to speak, I repeated much of what I had said at the Carmichael Hall, stressing the value of encounters such as our two evenings with Imam Hassan Rabbani in Portobello, since bigotry is effectively countered when we meet together to listen with respect and learn from and about each other. I also referred again to the recent meetings of Pope Francis with one of the great figures of the Moslem world, the Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and how in February 2019 in the United Arab Emirates – the first time a Pope had visited the Arabian Peninsula, site of Islam’s holiest shrines  –  they had (another first) co-signed a document ‘On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together’.

I concluded by describing what Pope Francis called the golden thread of his vision, namely encounter and dialogue, in his native Spanish,  ‘caminar juntos’ – walking together; and how such dialogue was only possible if three basic elements were present and interlinked, namely ‘the duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others’; ‘the courage to accept differences’;and ‘sincerity of intentions.’

The response was gracious – and the event highlighted for me and I think for all of us present the need to continue to work together to fight against the further fragmentation of society on lines of hate and division, and more positively, to benefit from the fruitfulness of encounters with open minds and hearts between people of  different faiths and cultures.

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Click here to see and listen to Fr Dalrymple’s conversation with Imam Hassan Rabbani.

Click here for Fr Dalrymple’s blog reflecting on his dialogue encounters.

 

Mindfulness

By Anthony MacIsaac

Lately, over the past few years, the practice of “Mindfulness” has gained credence in the domain of psychology and general wellbeing. It’s been one of the new crazes, with people keen to know more about it and incorporate it into their routine. To be sure, there are various benefits to this, and it is worth realising how closely tied it all is to religion and faith life.

Throughout the world religions, there is great agreement about the necessity of meditation within prayer life. Taking the time to centre oneself, to let go of worries and concerns, and to feel union with God. For Christianity, this meditation has long been associated with finding His presence amidst the Sacraments. The ancient phenomenon of Eucharistic Adoration in the Catholic Church is making a comeback, and the faithful might sit before the Consecrated host for hours. Sometimes they might even fall asleep! Not out of disrespect, but out of the sheer comfort and peace they feel in the Lord’s company. Some of them might focus on intercessory prayer, asking for Blessings, and others might simply want to reflect on God’s goodness – either in the grand narrative of Biblical history, or in how it has played out in their own lives. In the Monasteries the slow reading of the Scriptures – “Lectio Divina” – has long been a staple of the Monks’ routine. Allowing the Word to enter in to the soul, allowing it to digest within, and to give inspiration for the present. Here we might think of the symbolism in the Bible, with Prophets from Ezekiel to Jeremiah to St. John the Divine, commanded to “Eat the scroll” given them by God’s Angel. If Scripture is to have any effect in religious life, it must be approached reverantly, with reflective spirit and gentle mind. Here there can be no room for violent or coarse interpretation, which so damages the religious life.

In Islam too, we have a rich tradition of meditation in prayer life and in approaching the Qu’ran. The Sufis exemplify this best, maybe, but there are also many examples in the mainstream. Whether on pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca, or whether taking time out of the day to pray slowly in the Mosque, there are various opportunities for meditation. In the Islamic tradition, the central tenant within this reflection is surrender to the Will of God. Practically, this might mean accepting and assimilating difficult experiences in life, and building resilence for the future. In other words, we find much of the same net result here as we do with traditional Christianity. There might be small differences in how we understand the Divine Will, altering how we approach difficult situations, but these have little effect on the experience itself of meditation. With the Scripture, often the Qu’ran is sung in beautiful Arabic verse, and while many Muslims across the world don’t understand Arabic – just as many Catholics don’t know Latin – the experience of listening to such rendition is cherished. The mystery of the Book, and its profundity, is encapsulated in such “Lectio Divina”. Occasionally, we hear the Bible sung at Mass in Orthodox and Catholic Churches also – though this is reserved for the most solemn of occasions.

Within Buddhism there is arguably one of the strongest traditions of meditative life in the world. Certainly with Zen Buddhism, the whole emphasis is on reflective living. People might take some time out in the Monastery to meditate and find inner peace, over a few weeks or a few months. Very rarely would they stay for a lifetime. Come what may, however, the idea is to come away from these retreats refreshed and better able to live in Enlightenment. This may simply mean to live with gentle consideration, thoughtfulness in all that one does, and reverence for everything life has to offer. One subtle difference in the meditative practices of Zen, as compared to the Abrahamic monotheisms, is that is often seeks the void. It focusses, quite deliberately, on nothing. Or, in some traditions, on absurdities such as the “sound of one hand clapping”. The idea is that there is peace and understanding to be found in this void, devoid of any ideas, words or dogma. There is the debate to be had as to whether “Nothing” actually exists. Some would argue, from the mathematical point of view, that “Nothing” is just an empty set and therefore “Something”. Is God to be found in the void? Indeed, for the Abrahamic faiths, He created out of nothing. However, leaving these questions aside, the net effect of such Buddhist meditation seems also to be positive in its own way. As much as the self is negated within this tradition, it finds more and more actuality in being at one with Nature. This self-negation is perhaps just what our Muslim brothers and sisters are aiming for when surrending to the Divine Will, and what Christians are doing when they unite in Communion with the source of all reality – God. In the end, God seems to become all, and we subsumed within Him.

So for the secular practice of Mindfulness, what can we say? It seems that the central similarities are already there – though perhaps with more points of contact to the Buddhist tradition, in that there aren’t any doctrines attached to the practice. That being said, with Mindfulness, there is a crucial point of departure from this. In Mindfulness, we are encouraged to pay attention to our thoughts and our mind, as we relax and begin to meditate peacefully. We are not necessarily exhorted to abandon all thought entirely, or think about irrational phrases like the “One hand clapping”. The focus is on mental and physical well-being, so the whole therapy seems designed to reap the corresponding benefits attached to the apparently exclusive religious practice of meditation. It stops short with spirituality, and in many ways it might provide a good gateway into religious life for some people. Or at least help them understand what it might be like to pray. Some scientists have argued that we might find common neurological states, within the brain, for prayer across all religious traditions. This may well be the same for Mindfulness.

Thoughts and Perspectives

A blog by Anthony MacIsaac

Events of the past few months have only highlighted how very important inter-religious dialogue is for our society, and for ourselves in the end. Not all of these events have been pleasant, some indeed have been shocking and tragic.

From my own Catholic perspective events in the institution of the Church, regarding sexual abuse and it’s cover-up, have rocked and made vulnerable trust, hope and even faith in the whole project. I have heard this from many of my friends committed to the faith, and have felt something of it myself recently. Such problems that can present themselves from within the heart of a community of faith, raise perhaps the deepest spiritual questions to us.

They also reveal how we can never truly be certain in our journey – organised religion tends to provide frameworks, and frameworks on occasion make it hard to find our way. It is my view that we can only hold fast to that which we find to be life-giving. If we believe in a living God, as I do, then this is essential. With time, certainly if we are people of hope, the community may transform and might remedy the mistakes of its members – however high ranking or low ranking they may be. We may be needed in this very task!

It is helpful to consider that similar divisions within other communities also exist. To take an example, in contemporary Islam, there is this tension between the life of faith in a secularising world and the rigid interpretations applied to the code of Shari’ah Law. The recent legalisation of stoning to death in the Sultanate of Brunei conveys precisely this contradiction, and indeed points out the problem. Reading this development, we can and should only feel outrage.

For many Muslims, this is also the prevailing feeling. Yet among my own friends who happen to be Muslim, despite these feelings, there is also a reluctance to condemn the Sultanate and certainly a reluctance to question the Law in its ideal. Is this similar to what we see among those Christians who wish to avoid the subject of child abuse? Maybe. Criticising the frameworks of one’s religion presents natural difficulties, and is a delicate matter indeed.

It might well be rare also to find Jewish people ready to condemn some of Israel’s actions. Even although it remains a state apart from the religion, the cultural connections are so strong that to many it too is part of the broader Jewish identity. They may well feel that in critiquing it, they would thus be critiquing their own faith. Yet this is still a controversy generating headlines each year, and causing untold misery on all sides. So how is cooperation between the different faiths in Israel and Palestine, without some honest discussion on the hard issues, going to be possible?

This hard dialogue – interior and exterior – is absolutely vital in my eyes. The desires in the Abrahamic faiths are noble – we each seek to lead good and Holy lives, shining with hope, love and peace. We are even after the same God. This gives all of us, who are of good will, a great starting point. For when we are of good will, we are also committed to a common Humanism. This sharing of our simple Humanity; augmented by our beliefs, and anchored in God, helps us work together.

Prhaps taking our institutions a little less seriously, and focusing instead on the spiritual bounties that they offer, would help in resolving any discomfort or even shame we feel when confronted by scandal and abuse. Of whatever stripe, in whatever community.

Should we truly desire change, and the promotion of all that is just and humane, we need to be strong and brave. Moreover, we ought not to “go it alone”. The role of the Prophet “crying out in the wilderness” is that of a hero, often beyond that of which we may be capable. It is very often also unnecessary. Indeed, finding like-minded people within our tradition is significant for helping us resolve the interior conflicts we may feel. Finding also like-minded people outwith our tradition helps in dealing with the exterior world – and once more, in not taking it all too seriously! This is where inter-religious dialogue as such comes in.

The solidarity shown by various people of faith around the world, including in Scotland, with our mosques was inspiring – after the horrifying terror attacks in New Zealand a few weeks ago. Charity breeds charity, and I know of many who were touched deeply by these gestures – however small.

We can only hope that as crises erupt throughout the religious landscape, the quiet and good willed spirit of compassion and Holiness continues to prevail in the end. Much of this starts with how we interact as individuals, with all the people we meet. To avoid the poison of “cultural war”, it is vital we have our say and make our mark in the lives of others, in a positive way. The alternative is beneath the aspirations shared among the great world religions, and one of only yet more pain. 

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