"Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Religion and Spirituality in Life and Society" A Conference between Al-Mustafa University, Qom, Iran, and the University of St. Thomas

A Conference between Al-Mustafa University, Qom, Iran, and the University of St. Thomas, June 6-9, 2012

Date/Time

June 6-9, 2012

Location

Rome, Italy


Cost



Pictured are (from left to right): Dr. Bernard Brady, chair, UST Theology Department; Fr. Ivan Sokolowsky, Cardinal Koenig Institute for Ecumenical Dialogue, Vienna; Ms. Lois Dament, Administrative Assistant, Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center, UST; Dr. Taher Golestani, Al Mustafa International University, Qom; Dr. Michael Hollerich, Professor, UST Theology Dept.; Dr. Qasim Safari. Head of Religions and Sects Dept., Al-Mustafa University, Qom, Iran; Dr. S.R. Mahdinejad, Director of Office of Scholarly and Research Cooperation and Conferences, Al Mustafa University, Qom; Dr. Terence Nichols, Professor, UST Theology Dept. & Co-Director, Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center;  Ayatollah Mohsen Gharavian, Al-Mustafa University, Qom; Dr. Mohamad Kashani, Al Mustafa University, Qom; Monsignor Dr.  Khaled B. Akasheh, Head Officer for Islam, Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Dr. Muhammad Hussein Taheri Akerdi, Imam Khomeni Educational and Research Institute; Dr. M.H. Zamani, Director, Department of International Islamic Seminaries, Qom; Sheik  Odeh  Muhawesh, President,  Scorant Corporation, Associate, Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center

Summary of the Conference
Seven members of the theology faculty of Al-Mustafa University (Qom, Iran) and four members of the Theology Department at the University of St. Thomas, met in conference from June 6-9, 2012, at the Monastery of Sant’Anselmo, in Rome, to discuss aspects of “Religion and Spirituality in Life and Society.”  Our two teams had not met before; a series of unusual events had led up to our meeting. In January, Dr. Taher Golestani had sent out an email to many  Catholic theologians, informing them that he had started a movement in Qom, which he called M.C.I.D., for Muslim Christian Interfaith Dialogue. Very few answered this email, and some of the responses were hostile. However, because we had started a very similar Center at St. Thomas, I (Terry Nichols) thought it important that our two movements get together. So I answered his email. This led to a long email correspondence, which in the end led up to the meeting in Rome. Arranging the meeting was difficult; it was hard to find a place to stay and to meet, hard to get visas for the Iranians, many delays, and so on. But, through the grace of God and the hospitality of the Benedictines at Sant’ Anselmo, on June 6 we found ourselves all at the Abbey, ready to discuss aspects of Muslim Christian dialogue. Our working language was English, but most of what we said had to be translated into Arabic or Persian.

The participants in the conference were as follows:

Dr. Muhammad Hussein Taheri Akerdi, Imam Khomeni Educational and Research Institute

Ayatollah Mohsen Gharavian, Al-Mustafa University, Qom

Dr. Taher Golestani, Al Mustafa International University, Qom

Dr. Mohamad Kashani, Al Mustafa University, Qom

Dr. S.R. Mahdinejad, Director of Office of Scholarly and Research Cooperation and Conferences,   Al Mustafa University, Qom

Dr. Qasim Safari, Head of Religions and Sects Dept., Al-Mustafa University, Qom, Iran

Dr. M.H. Zamani, Director, Department of International Islamic Seminaries, Qom

Dr. Bernard Brady, Chair, UST Theology Department

Dr. Michael Hollerich, Professor, UST Theology Department

Sheik Odeh  Muhawesh, President,  Scorant Corporation, Associate, Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center

Dr. Terence Nichols, Professor, UST Theology Dept. & Co-Director, Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center

Fr. Ivan Sokolowsky, Cardinal Koenig Institute for Ecumenical Dialogue, Vienna

Ms. Lois Dament, Administrative Assistant, Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center, UST

Order of presentation:

Wednesday afternoon, June 6
, was spent mostly in introductions, exchanging gifts, and getting to know one another.

Thursday morning (June 7), Ayatollah Gharavian presented a paper entitled: “Peace and Peaceful Co-existence.” He noted that in God there is absolute peace; conflict only enters in in the material world, where animals and humans are subject to conflicting desires. “Therefore, to decrease conflict and war, we have to get closer to God and get further away from Satan…” He goes on to say that “Islam’s main and global invitation is to peace and serenity…the Quran wants all nations and societies to live with each other in complete peace and to act according to humane and ethical values such as mutual respect and observing other peoples’ rights.”

Also on Thursday morning, Terry Nichols presented a paper titled: “Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Challenges and Possibilities.” The paper first considered the Catholic background for Muslim Christian dialogue: Nostra Aetate, and the statement “Dialogue and Proclamation” issued by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The paper concluded with a consideration of the aims of dialogue. Nichols saw five main aims: mutual understanding, common action, sharing of life and religious experiences, but, more profoundly, a deeper conversion of each other to God, and finally, that Muslims and Christians, rather than trying to convert each other to their own faiths, might stand together as common witnesses to the One God whom they both worship.

Thursday afternoon saw the presentation of two papers: one by Dr. Zamani, and another by Dr. Hollerich. Dr. Zamani’s paper focused on prayer: “Al Salat: A Comprehensive invocation and the summit of spirituality.” Prayer, he argued, allows humans to go higher than the beasts and even higher than the angels. He discussed the procedures of prayer, including ablution, which ought to cleanse the body and the soul. He concluded that man’s soul has originated from God and therefore can reach the summit of perfection. Prayer, Al-Salat “prevents man from forgetting God and reminds him of God’s presence, mercy, and power.”

Dr. Hollerich’s paper reviewed the long history of the Catholic Church on the subject of religious freedom, and analyzed why the Church up to Vatican II, found it so difficult to accept religious freedom. This, he hoped, might be a lesson for other faiths as they also strive to fully accept the implications of religious freedom.

Friday morning (June 8) we heard Dr. Safari’s paper on “Spirituality from Imam Sjjad’s View Point.” This paper concerned  the mysticism of the Fourth Imam (Imam Sjjad). To the mystic, explained Dr. Safari, “the world is nothing but God, his actions and his attributes.” All things in the world are signs of God. But we get deluded by false images and impressions of the world. The dialogue between religions ought to be the same, because all religions seek God.

Friday morning we were also received a surprise visit from Abbot Notker Wolf, the abbot of Sant’Anselmo, but also the Primatial Abbott of all the Benedictines. He spoke to us for over an hour about the Benedictine way of life (“We pray, work, and read.”), mission, and the structure of the Benedictine confederation. There were many questions from the Muslims. Dr. Zamani, for example, asked Fr. Wolf “How can we cooperate to witness together to God?”

Friday afternoon, we heard brief summaries (because of time shortage) of five papers.

Dr. MahdiNejad spoke on “The Relation between Morality and Politics in Islamic Thought.”  He defended a universal moral system, which applied to individual and social behavior, so that what was immoral for individuals (like lying) was also immoral for governments. Islamic society he said is governed by universal moral standards; in particular, he singled out the government of Imam Ali as an example of a moral government of a society.

Dr. Kashani presented a paper on “The Role of Pilgrimage in Religion and Spirituality with an Eye to the Principles of Shiism and Catholicism.”  The paper noted the many similarities between the Shi’a and Catholic understanding and practices of pilgrimage. It concluded with the fascinating suggestion of common pilgrimages between Shi’a and Catholics. This was followed by a discussion of such common pilgrimage sites, for example, the House of Mary in Ephesus.

Dr. Golestani spoke of the History of Shi'a-Catholic dialogue in Islamic History. He noted Issa is mentioned in the Qur’an 23 times, and that many Quranic verses deals with how to talk to Christians or People of the Book. Therefore Muslim Christian dialogue begins in the Qur'an and in the life of Muhhamad. Dr. Golestani gave us a number of verses from the Qur’an, and cited a letter from the Prophet Muhammad to the (Nestorian) Christians of Najaran, which declared that the Christians of Najaran were our brothers.

Dr. Taheri Akerdi (Professor at the Imam Khomeni Educational and Research Institute, Qom Seminary) gave a paper on Woman in the Qur’an’s View. Islam, he noted, regards men and women as complements to one another, and  it emphasizes the centrality of the family. Finally, the paper compared Lady Mary with Lady Fatima (the Prophet’s daughter) as the two most superior women of the world.

Dr. Bernard Brady presented a summary of his paper: “Freedom and Conscience for Morality: the Catholic Understanding of Conscience and Freedom.” This paper focused on the understanding of conscience as the “sacred space where God speaks to man,” conscience as an inner voice, as a process of discerning a moral decision, and raised the question of correspondences in the Muslim tradition.

Finally, we heard some reflection from Fr. Ivan Sokolowski, a Jesuit from  the Cardinal Koenig Institute in Vienna, on interreligious dialogue. He gave the example of John the Baptist, who is recognized as a prophet by Christians, yet who did not become a Christian. As such, John may be a model to Christians of someone who is recognized  as a non-Christian prophet within the Christian tradition.

Saturday morning (June 9) our group met with Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, the Head Officer for Islam at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He explained the role of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, then opened the floor for questions and discussion. At one point Dr. Zamani said that Shi’as believe that at the end of history, Jesus and the Mahdi (the 12th Imam) will return together to establish a reign of justice and peace, and that he, Dr. Zamani, believed that our dialogue together was bringing about that age. At the end of the discussion, Msgr. Akasheh asked us to consider working in theology, on the questions (1) can Christians accept other prophets after Jesus?, and (2) can Muslims accept other prophets after Mohammad? Dr. Golestani said that he thought our conference was a “turning point” in Shi’a Catholic dialogue, and that they were hoping it could continue.  This was a very fruitful discussion click here to view streaming video of the meeting. (Note: The audio is not high quality; the better part of the discussion is toward the end. Also, Arabic and English translations of the speakers are part of this video.) As we were leaving the offices of the Pontifical Council, we had a group photo taken, which is posted above.

My own impression of this conference is that we, Muslims and Christians, were able to establish a high degree of trust and mutual respect, and a realization that the goal of our dialogue is not to convert each other to our own faiths, but rather come together to a deeper conversion to God, and to witness together to the One God.

Next Year
We agreed to meet again in a year. Our preference would be to meet at Qom, otherwise at St. Thomas, or Vienna, or Beirut, or Rome. Our theme will be “Salvation and the Hereafter.”

Reported by Terence L. Nichols
June 21, 2012