Five Muslims At The Vatican, To Prepare The Audience With The Pope

They are the representatives of the “letter of the 138″ written to Benedict XVI last October. Here’s who they are, and from where they come. One of them, Yahya Pallavicini, tells in a book about how to live as Muslims in a Christian country, in peace between the two religions

ROMA, February 6, 2008 – Within one month, on March 4 and 5, there will be held in Rome the first meetings in preparation for the scheduled visit to the Vatican of a representative group of the 138 Muslim scholars who in October of 2007 addressed to the pope and to the heads of the other Christian confessions a letter with an offer of dialogue entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You.” 

The meetings will be held at the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, presided by cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. The schedule arranges for the Muslim representatives to meet with Benedict XVI and other Church authorities beginning next spring. And they will hold study sessions in institutes like the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, the PISAI, headed by Fr. Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot.

The Muslim delegation will be composed of five Muslims scholars from as many nations:

– Ibrahim Kalin, from Turkey, director of the SETA foundation in Ankara and a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.;

– Abd al-Hakim Murad Winter, from England, a professor of Islamic studies at the Shaykh Zayed Divinity School of the University of Cambridge, and director of the Muslim Academic Trust of the United Kingdom;

– Sohail Nakhooda, from Jordan, director of “Islamica Magazine,” an international magazine edited in the United States;

– Aref Ali Nayed, from Libya, a member of the Interfaith Program of the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, a former teacher at the International Institute for Islamic Thought and Civilization in Malaysia, and at the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome;

– Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, from Italy, imam of the al-Wahid mosque in Milan, president of the ISESCO council for education and culture in the West, and vice-president of the Islamic Religious Community of Italy, the COREIS.

All of these are part of the group of experts coordinated from Amman by Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, president of the al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, the leading promoter of the letter of the 138 and the protagonist behind the exchange of events that took place in November and December with Benedict XVI, through cardinal secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone, in preparation for the future meetings.

Of the five, the best known among the Vatican authorities and experts are Aref Ali Nayed and Yahya Pallavicini.

Nayed – well known to the readers of www.chiesa, which has published previews of many of his writings – is one of the leading experts in Western philosophy and Christian theology in the Muslim camp. He studied at the Gregorian, in addition to universities in the United States and Canada, and he knows as few others do the “Summa Theologiae” of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He is one of the main architects of the letter of the 138. And he is the author of a letter that is important in its own right, in which he responded to the message addressed to the Muslims by cardinal Tauran on the occasion of last Ramadan.

But Yahya Pallavicini has also been for some time a prominent counterpart for the Vatican authorities and experts.

His father, Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini, embraced the Muslim faith in 1951, like many other European intellectuals at that time who adopted Islam in the wake of the French metaphysician René Guénon. In the course of a long of a voyage in the East, he joined the Sufi confraternity Ahamadiyyah Idrissiyyah Shadhiliyyah, which is in sharp contrast to the sectarian Wahhabi Islamism that still dominates Saudi Arabia. He later became head of the confraternity in Italy. In Assisi, in 1986, Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini took part in the prayer meeting among the leaders of the religions called together by John Paul II. His dream is to build in Milan “a little Jerusalem that would see the children of Abraham united in prayer: Jews, Christians, and Muslims.” His unshakable faith is that Islam is “the ultimate and definitive expression of that primordial tradition that founded, confirms, and vivifies the earlier revelations.”

Yahya Pallavicini, 43, was born Muslim and today is known in Italy as one of the main representatives of a sophisticated, democratic, “moderate” Islam, together with Khaled Fouad Allam of Algeria and Souad Sbai of Morocco. Under the religious profile, Pallavicini distinguishes himself from other Muslim personalities with whom he often finds himself in agreement – the best known of these in Italy is the Egyptian Magdi Allam. Unlike Magdi Allam, who does not practice the religion to which he was born and expresses a decisively secularized Islam, Yahya Pallavicini is an observant and fervent Muslim. He is the imam of a mosque in Milan, the leader of a community of Italians who have converted to Islam that is active in various cities, and is involved in courses of formation for new imams.

Since 2006, he has been a consultant on Islam for the Italian interior ministry. He is an unyielding critic of the violent tendencies of Muslim thought and practice. He has written and said on numerous occasions in public – something that is rare and often risky for a Muslim – that “acts of violence find no legitimization in the teachings of the prophet Mohammed or of the wise men.” He has often strongly condemned “the exploitation of sharia, the Islamic law, to create a parallel alternative world, which refuses to integrate with the Western system.” He has denounced “the culture of hatred” spewed in the preaching in many of the mosques in Italy on the part of imams “who are in reality political instigators with nothing authentically Islamic about them.”

On the contrary, he is a convinced promoter of a positive dialogue with Judaism and Christianity. In 2005, he publicly contested the fatwa, the juridical sentence issued on the television screens of al-Jazeera by one of the most influential world leaders of fundamentalist Islam, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, banning all dialogue with the Jews. The question has been raised again in recent days in Italy, when suddenly, because of an order that come from the al-Azhar University in Egypt, the representatives of the Grand Mosque of Rome had to cancel a visit – the first ever – to Rome’s Jewish synagogue, scheduled for January 23rd.

These criticisms are all repeated in a book that Yahya Pallavicini recently published in Italy, entitled “Dentro la moschea [Inside the mosque].”

But there is much more in the same book. On the positive side, there is an account of a Muslim community in Italy, with the places and moments of its religious life: the mosque, those who attend it, how and when they pray, Ramadan, marriages, the veil, schools, birth, death, the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is the Sufi community to which Yahya Pallavicini belongs, which is very distant from the image of Islam that dominates the media, and is often hampered and opposed in fratricidal struggles by the proponents of this fundamentalist and aggressive Islam.

In his book, Yahya Pallavicini speaks on behalf of many of his brothers in faith. An entire section collects the preaching delivered in the mosques on Fridays by 25 Italian imams. Another section presents life stories: an entrepreneur, a violinist, a painter, men and women who have converted to Islam in the heart of the West. One of these converts, Ahmad Abd al-Wahliyy Vincenzo, has inaugurated a chair for the history of Islamic law and civilization at the Università Federico II in Naples. This is how he concludes his account: “Once, after an examination, a student told me something of which I am very proud: Dear professor, you should know that yesterday I received the sacrament of confirmation. And studying Islam with you was the best preparation I could have had.”