17 January 2013

Muslim-Christian Dialog, Baghdad and Singapore

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Cover picture for Sidney H. Griffith’s book, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (Princeton University Press, 2007). Bishop Theodore Abu Qurra is pictured in his famous dialog with the Caliph al-Ma’mun. Cover picture for Sidney H. Griffith’s book, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (Princeton University Press, 2007). Bishop Theodore Abu Qurra is pictured in his famous dialog with the Caliph al-Ma’mun. http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i8529.mwo4ml

Two things just happened that will come together in this blog. First, I came back from Singapore, where I lectured on the theme of justice from a secular, Christian and Muslim perspective. This was for Pathways for Mutual Understanding’s first Institute in Asia. Second, my review of David Bertaina’s 2011 book, Christian and Muslim Dialogues: The Religious Uses of a Literary Form in the Early Islamic Middle East, was just published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (Vol. 30, #1).

Don’t worry, I’m still mulling over my third (and last) installment of “Religion and Patriarchy,” but here I start a series of four blogs on justice in interreligious dialog.


Some questions arising from the past

Debates between people of different faiths can be documented as far back as ancient Greece. Plato and other Greek writers offer us numerous examples of these, as do the Romans before and after the advent of Christianity. Also, right before the Islamic era, Christians around the Mediterranean left some fascinating traces of conversations and debates with Jews. It’s not surprising, then, that around twenty documents in the “dialogue genre” written either in Syriac or Arabic have come to light from the seventh to the eleventh century CE.

David Bertaina, from the History Department of the University of Illinois (Springfield), offers an enlightening discussion of these as he sorts them out according to purpose, authors and occasions. As I read him, he leaves us with at least two applications for today:

The first is that, unlike many of the official interreligious dialogs of today – which are often impoverished due to the liberal ethos of “neutrality” – those dialogs were robust, confrontational and polemical at times, but each side willing to stake its case on truth claims many were willing to die for. Some of those were directed to their own communities – and never so urgently conveyed as those of the eighth and ninth centuries by Christian leaders trying to stem the growing tide of conversion to Islam. Others were directed to the “religious other,” with the intent to persuade, consciously engaging in evangelism on one side and da’wa on the other.

The second application is Bertaina’s finding that in interfaith dialog the playing field is rarely even. Issues of power always crop up to cloud the conversation, particularly for one side. During that period of an ascending and then supremely confident Islamic imperial power whether in Baghdad or Islamic Spain, Christians displayed noticeable anxiety on the issue of conversion and at times about their own powerlessness. This, he writes, must be seen as comparable to the situation of Muslims today in the west, who particularly after the 2001 attacks, have often felt under siege. I would add that the bold initiative represented by the 2007 “Common Word” letter fits into the category of a community under pressure seeking to restart a dialog as an equal partner.

The first example of Muslim-Christian dialog is reflected in the Qur’an itself, in which many passages echo and respond to assertions made by the Christians both of Mecca and Medina. In a whole chapter devoted to this topic, Bertaina argues from many examples that there was a lively conversation attested by the Qur’an during the short period of Muhammad’s prophetic ministry. You have to allow, he maintains, that there were more Christians that many have so far assumed, and that they were in fact quite vocal.

Bertaina also unearths several early (“proto-”) Shi’i dialogs that, while trying to rebut Christian claims like the one about the divinity of Christ, simultaneously serve to affirm the superiority of the “virtues of Ali” over any figure the Sunnis might put forward. No religious community is monolithic and interconfessional dialog always brings to the fore the fault lines of one’s own community. On the positive side, the Common Word letter sparked a series of encounters not just with Catholics but also with evangelical Christians in the US and the UK. In turn, that initiative had a polarizing effect in some evangelical circles.

Among several kinds of dialogs that Bertaina highlights in his chapters, we find the “theological education and didactic,” the “hagiographic,” and the “scriptural reinterpretation” modes. Those of course were mostly directed to religious insiders. Still, the one event that captured the imagination of medieval Christians is the one Bertaina emphasizes the most – and rightly so. This is when for two days in 829 Theodore Abu Qurra, Bishop of Harran, debated with the Caliph al-Ma’mun and several Muslim scholars at his court. More than anything, the several texts that mention this dialog agree in their depiction of a passionate and yet courteous dialogue, in which both sides know and search the other’s scriptures to better communicate their own convictions. Interestingly, Christian writers of later centuries saw this encounter as the high water mark of a free and respectful dialog between the two communities.

I’ll join with Bertaina in his masterful work to commend to you this kind of encounter today. And in many ways, Pathways’ Singapore Institute lived up to these ideals in both form and content. Allow me to explain.


A fruitful Asian encounter between Muslims and Christians in 2013

As you can read on their website, “Pathways for Mutual Respect, in cooperation with The Yale Center for Faith & Culture, anticipates welcoming another outstanding group of emerging leaders from around the globe to our Singapore Institute, entitled Faith & Society – Leadership Amidst Controversy.”

As you can see, Pathways specializes in training promising young leaders. That will be my first point: this was a group of impressive leaders, both Muslim (11) and Christian (8), from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Then I’ll touch on the depth of interaction, and finally on the prospects for future cooperation.

The overwhelming majority of the region’s population is Muslim – both the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago. These Muslims were well represented here, including several academics and a few more NGO leaders. Citing just a few examples, two were top-level leaders in Malaysia’s largest Islamic youth movement (ABIM) and one of them had been president of the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Organizations (PKPIM). Like most of the others, he is still in his thirties. A Malaysian female journalist with almost twenty years of experience writing on socioreligious issues for several newspapers, and the author of two books on Muslims of the region, offered a more secular perspective. One Malaysian Christian teaches political science in a private university and is an active participant in Muslim-Christian dialogs.

Three academics were among the Indonesians, including one teaching Shari’a at a law school in Bandung who has founded a youth movement called “Peace Generation.” Another is a regional leader of the 30 million-member Nahdatul Ulama organization. The only Indonesian Christian worked as a business consultant/trainer, co-founded a consortium of over 5,000 small businesses, and sits on the board of several international NGOs promoting “value-driven businesses.”

Two of the Singaporean Christians present are evangelical pastors, while one woman is a Catholic who worked for poverty alleviation in the Philippines and Vietnam. One Muslim participant obtained a PhD in sociology from the University of Birmingham and now directs a center that specializes in developing the aspirations and skills of the Malay youth of Singapore. Another is a PhD candidate in the Malay Studies Department of the National University of Singapore, with already two books to his name and numerous articles published in all three countries.

What about the program of the five-day Institute, you ask? It was framed by two highly respected regional academics. Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, one of Malaysia’s best-known public intellectuals kicked off the program with two lectures on “The Challenge of Leadership in a Multi-Faith Society.” Much was taken from the Malaysian context, but as founder and president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST ) Muzaffar was also able to give participants a global perspective on issues that must be tackled. There were other lecturers from the region, to be sure, but let me note the excellent contribution of our host, Syed Farid Alatas, Head of the Malay Studies Department and member of the executive committee of UNESCO’s International Sociological Association, who addressed the group on the challenges facing Muslim communities and helped introduce the final discussion on future directions.

There was a lot more than lectures, however. Participants benefited from various activities (like visiting the Harmony Centre of Singapore, a mosque with an ambitious interfaith component), including large group and small group discussions and special exercises led by Pathways founder and sociologist John Hartley and his team.

My second point relates to the net effect of this intensive interpersonal interaction: on several occasions there were open discussions on the thorny issue of proselytism from both sides – or, if you prefer, the inner imperative of each tradition to share its faith with religious others, hoping to convince them to adopt it as their own. One morning session was devoted to a role play exercise in which both sides had to divide up into “liberals” and “conservatives” (whatever that meant in each case), agree on a particular course of action to resolve a contentious issue of proselytism that was rocking the community; then they had to send a representative to negotiate a solution with the other side.

The outcome was instructive. Both sides were frustrated there wasn’t enough time to resolve the prickly issue at hand. No wonder, since the question of missionary activity is the one that by far generates the most emotion (especially on the Muslim side – remember how Christians felt in the Abbasid Empire around the ninth and tenth centuries CE?). By sitting down and talking about the issue openly and candidly, both sides can dispel misunderstandings and decide on common sense rules all can follow. Building trust is key; and the best way to do this is to invest time in building personal relationships long before problems have a chance to blow up out of proportion.

Was there any discussion of one another’s scriptures, as in the case of the dialog at the court of Abbasid caliph al-Ma’amun? There was, though it was not the focus of the Institute. My second and third lectures were about Jesus and justice, and justice in the Muslim tradition respectively (to be explored in subsequent blogs). Still, let me say that however limited the theological discussions were, the door was widely opened for future conversations on this issue. Besides, working together for the empowerment of the poor and marginalized will automatically increase the desire to hear more about what motivates and nourishes the action of our partners of another faith. And no, we shouldn’t avoid talking through the more contentious differences; but we do so on the basis of trust and friendship, and with the desire to listen, understand and be enriched through the process in our own faith.

Finally, what practical outcomes are likely to follow from these meetings? People were meeting at the last session in three country groups, brainstorming about how they could contribute to each other’s ongoing interfaith efforts and how they could initiate new programs. Many ideas were mentioned, and I’m certain that the ensuing conversation will produce several concrete projects.

For all of its great challenges and specters, our world of 2013 is so much more promising than past ones for those who commit to working for peace, and particularly for those doing so as people of faith linking hands and hearts with those of other traditions. History shows that the greatest experiments of interreligious dialog in the medieval world took place in the Muslim realms of Granada and Baghdad. Today we have the tools and opportunities to take this to a higher level. Pathways’ Singapore Institute confirmed that for me. May God bless the many other initiatives underway around our globe!