Despite our theological differences, we strive to love God to the utmost, and love humanity as well.
RECENTLY, I was at a retreat in the small resort town of Cadenabbia, at Lake Como in northern Italy. Lake Como is a beautiful scenic lake straddled by several resort towns, where the rich and famous have their holiday homes. As it was autumn and the weather was perfect, the area was also full of tourists from all over the world.
I was not there for a holiday, but to attend a Christian-Muslim dialogue, at the invitation of the Konrad-Adeneur-Stiftung, a German foundation dedicated to promoting world peace, democracy, and human rights, and Prof Dr Christian Troll, a world-renown Jesuit scholar, an expert on Islam who is linked to a wide network of both Christian and Muslim scholars.
I am not a religious scholar, so I am especially thankful to him for inviting me to engage with others who are mostly priests, scholars, and human-rights activists.
Our dialogue was a continuation of “A Common Word” series of dialogues already held among many Christian and Muslim scholars, leaders, and activists in the last two years. However, most of the international dialogues held previously involved mainly participants from Europe, the Middle-East, and North America.
So this time, Prof Troll gathered Christian and Muslim scholars and activists from Sub-Saharan Africa (Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya), South Asia (Pakistan and India), and Southeast Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia) to give our perspectives and proposals to the furtherance of Christian-Muslim friendship and brotherhood.
Several scholars from Germany, the UK and US were also with us. Rev Dr Markus Solo SVD, who is originally from Flores, Indonesia, and is now based at the Vatican (in charge of Muslim relations), also joined us.
Although the dialogue was specifically a Christian-Muslim affair, the lessons learned and the proposed actions can be applied to other interfaith dialogues, interactions, and areas of cooperation.
After much lively and interesting deliberations, we came out with a statement entitled A Message from Cadenabbia, which you can read at www.kas.de/wf/de/33.17791/
The main points are that despite our theological differences, we strive to love God to the utmost, and to love humanity as well. And this means the equal respect and dignity of men and women; universal justice, freedom of conscience, and respect for difference; to confront together the challenges which include poverty and illiteracy, environmental degradation and disease, human-rights violations, gender discrimination, and ethnic conflicts; deplore the actions of extreme groups who abuse the noble teachings of our religions, and manipulate religious sentiments; that Christians and Muslims are not enemies of one another and we should be vying only in good deeds; and recognise the importance of educating our children rightly, and the importance of the media in imparting correct and useful information.
Healing the Christian-Muslim rift
The series of dialogues actually began when His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI (head of the Catholic Church) made some negative remarks about Islam in his Regensburg Lecture on September 12, 2006. One month after that, a group of 38 Muslim scholars and leaders wrote to the Pope regarding the matter. Soon, several Muslim scholars and leaders were invited to meet, and met, the Pope.
One year later, on October 13, 2007, 138 Muslim scholars and leaders addressed an open letter and call from Muslim religious leaders entitled A Common Word between Us and You to the Pope and all the Christian leaders of the world. Then on July 14, 2008, the Most Reverend Archbishop of Canterbury replied with his A Common Word for the Common Good letter. There followed a series of international dialogues and conferences discussing the issues mentioned in the letters, notably in Yale University, US (July 2008), University of Cambridge, UK (October 2008), the Vatican, Rome (November 2008), and Georgetown University, US (March 2009).
There were also similar national dialogues and conferences in several countries. Coincidentally, I was invited to co-chair a session at the first “Common Word Roundtable” jointly organised by the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) and Oriental Hearts & Minds Study Institute (OHMSI) in Kuala Lumpur on September 16, 2009. It was held barely two weeks before the international dialogue in Italy, so it was indeed timely.
I am sure this series of dialogues will continue as Christians and Muslims often find themselves at loggerheads, facing many potentially divisive issues, when in fact both their religions (and all other religions) teach them to love one another, irrespective of their beliefs and religious labels. We must continue to heal the rift.
Christians and Muslims have a special relationship because Islam claims to be the same religion practised by all the Christian (and Jewish) prophets, from Adam to Noah, Moses, David, Solomon, John The Baptist, and even Jesus (Prophet Isa to the Muslims), may peace be upon them all. The Quran addresses the Christians and Christianity in many verses, and mentions Jesus more often than it does Muhammad (peace be upon them).
However, it is this same claim which has agitated Christians, because Islam also says that God is One (not three-in-one), and that Jesus was just a prophet, and not God or the only-begotten son of God. These attack the core of Christian belief. While founder prophets and religious scriptures usually never directly criticise the beliefs of other religions, Prophet Muhammad claimed that God, through the Quranic revelations, commanded him to rectify these “mistakes” and bring back the believers to Islam, the religion of submission to the will of the one (not three-in-one) God.
This theological quandary has been debated over many centuries and continues to be a big thorn in the relationship between Christians and Muslims.
Instead of having a particularly close relationship as enjoined by their common scriptural history, Christians and Muslims have become bitter enemies on many occasions. They have waged so many wars against one another (for example, “the Crusades” lasted for more than a hundred years), and disputes and clashes between their communities continue to this day, as we have seen happened in Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and many other countries. Indeed there is much healing needed between the two religious communities.
The other contentious issue is Western historians’ descriptions of Islam as a religion that spread by the sword. While there were many battles and conquests in the early history of Islam, most were conquests after defeating the enemies who wanted to vanquish Islam and the Muslims. That is how Muslim historians perceive our history. Yet we cannot deny that there were Muslim empires that used their military might to expand their territories.
It also cannot be denied that it was the Christian colonialists of Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal (and later even the US) that brought Christianity to much of the world. As they say, history is according to who wrote it.
In general, Islam had spread through traders and migrants, as we continue to see to this day. Malaysia is an example of how Islam spread through traders and migrants (Arabs, Indians, Indonesians, and Chinese), and not through any Muslim colonialists or conquerors.
A common word
This series is referred to as “A Common Word” dialogue because the 138 Muslims had based their letter mainly on the Quranic verse 3:64, which says: “Say: O People of the Book! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him).”
It is generally believed that “People of the Book” refers to Jews and Christians whose prophets and scriptures are acknowledged by Islam (although Islam disputes the authenticity and reliability of the scriptures that are extant).
The letter also refers to the Biblical passages that command us to love God, and to love our neighbours (meaning all humanity, as we are all children of God). Moses said : “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
And Jesus said: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your souls, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
In a hadith, Prophet Muhammad had said that we should wish for our neighbours what we wish for ourselves, which also means we should love them as ourselves.
Healing our wounds
There are indeed similar teachings and commandments between the two religions (and other religions as well) that can be the basis of our peaceful and harmonious interactions, especially when we are actually living as neighbours, working together, and doing many things together.
More importantly, we are together trying to make a success of our respective communities and countries.
At home in Malaysia, we do have problems between the followers of the different religions, often starting with something not religious in nature. Yet there are others which are obviously religious. Right now, the name of Allah is being fought in court!
The Muslims had already reached out to the Hindus when ACCIN (Allied Coordinating Committee of Islamic NGOs, a coalition of Islamic NGOs which I co-founded) had an interfaith retreat last year under the kind sponsorship of Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew at his magnificent resort hotel.
Both sides agreed that much misconceptions and mistrust were removed after the retreat, and there was more mutual respect between us.
A similar retreat with the Christians had to be postponed several times, waiting for a convenient time for both parties. I hope the dialogues will continue with the other religions too, and also between them as well. In this way we can continue to heal whatever wounds that may exist between us.
> Dr Amir Farid Isahak is a medical specialist who practises holistic, aesthetic and anti-ageing medicine. He is a qigong master and founder of SuperQigong. For further information, e-mail [email protected]. The views expressed are those of the writer and readers are advised to always consult expert advice before undertaking any changes to their lifestyles. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.