Second Conference of Muslim Christian Dialogue: “Salvation and the Hereafter” in Islam and Christianity”

Four scholars from the University of St. Thomas –Dr. Bernard Brady, Dr. Michael Hollerich, Sheik Odeh Muhawesh, and Dr. Terence Nichols, flew to Qom Iran, for a conference in Qom, Iran (August 17-18)

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Date/Time

August 17-18, 2013

Location

Al-Mustafa University, Qom, Iran


Cost



SUMMARY:

Four scholars from the University of St. Thomas –Dr. Bernard Brady, Dr. Michael Hollerich, Sheik Odeh Muhawesh, and Dr. Terence Nichols, flew to Qom Iran, for a conference in Qom, Iran (August 17-18). There were major difficulties finding a common time and getting visas for this trip; the visas finally arrived July 14, which gave us only about a month to organize the conference. My deepest thanks go out to Dr. S.R. Mahdinejad and to the staff at Al Mustafa University for organizing the conference so well in such a short amount of time.

This was the second conference between our universities. The first had taken place in Rome, June 6-9, 2012, at the Benedictine Primatial Abbey of Sant’Anselmo, (thanks to the hospitality of the Benedictines). A report on that conference can be found at the website of the UST Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center.

Qom is a city of universities, seminaries, and institutes, about 70 miles south of Tehran. There are an estimated 100,000 students in Qom, thousands of professors, usually wearing turbans, bookstores on almost every corner, and a population of about 1.2 million. Surprisingly, there is a great deal of construction evident: a new monorail is being built, along with stations, apartments, hotels, and a new airport.  One does not get the impression in Qom that the economy is suffering. It is a vibrant and energetic city with a strong intellectual atmosphere.

Sponsors:

This conference was sponsored by (and largely organized by) Al Mustafa University—a university of some 20,000 students, with branches in Qom, Mashhad, and many foreign countries. Also sponsoring the conference was the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A.).

Before the conference proper began, we had opportunity to meet with various vice-presidents and leaders of Al Mustafa. They were unanimous in expressing support for interreligious dialogue and for cooperation between our two universities, including faculty exchange and also student exchange. Their Open University already sponsors a number of such dialogues, and seemed to be particularly eager for interchange with the United States. Al Mustafa also has a division of the university which specializes in short term courses and sabbaticals, which would be well suited to faculty and student exchange. They are developing also short courses and modules suitable for internet distribution.

Participants:

There were a total of thirteen (13) papers presented by 13 presenters. Dr. Mahdinejad did not offer a paper, but was present as the organizer. There were also a number of graduate students present. At the various sessions in Qom, there were between 40-60 persons present at any one time. Most were men but there were three female graduate students present also.

Papers Presented

were as follows--they are summarized here in chronological order. Papers were read in English or Farsi, with simultaneous translation available through headphones:

Dr. Terence Nichols’ paper was entitled: “Salvation and Afterlife: a Catholic View.” This was an overview of Catholic teachings on salvation, judgment, heaven, hell, and Purgatory. The paper tried to present the range of Christian teachings in each of these areas, and also to relate Christian views to Muslim views in each area.

Ayatollah Muhsen Gharavian presented a paper entitled: “The Reality of Salvation in the Hereafter.” Dr. Gharavain proposed that the terrestrial world can never be the final abode of our perfection. According to the Quranic view, one’s soul reaches contentment when it returns to God. Today technology has raised many question about afterlife, for example, is the soul simply the information collected in the mind? What if the mind of an 80 year old could be transplanted into the body of a 15 year old, and then transplanted again, and again, would that circumvent afterlife?

Dr. Hadi Sadeqi presented a paper: “The Last Days and the Plurality of Religions.” Dr. Sadeqi asked: what would happen to the diversity of religions in the reign of Imam Mahdi: would all people convert to Islam and other religions be wiped out, or would many different religions continue? He concluded that there would be a gradual waning of the diversity of religions during the last days—gradually people would come to the true path of religion. He argued that if people submit to the true ‘reality’, they are Muslims, even if they call themselves by different names.

Dr. Qayyomi presented a paper: “The Different Facets of the Hereafter in the Mirror of its Different Names from the Perspective of Allamah Tabatabai.”  Dr. Qayyomi argued that different names in the Quran each present a different facet of the afterlife. This paper looks at Allamah Tabatabai’s view and description of the names of the hereafter.

Sheik Odeh Muhawesh
(from St. Thomas) presented a paper: “Catholicism and Shia Islam: Parallelism in Eschatology and Beliefs.” This paper explores similarity of parallelism in Shi’a and Catholic eschatological beliefs. The writer finds a parallel between St. Peter, the first Imam of Jesus, and Ali, the first Imam of the Prophet. He finds similar beliefs in infallibility and intercession (Shafa’a) in both religions, and he sees a similarity in the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and the Shia view of Barzakh (the stage after death but before resurrection). He concludes with a consideration of the authority of prophets, Imams, and saints, and their role on judgment day.

Dr. Ali al-Shaik’s paper was: “The Non-Christian Salvation from the Perspective of Catholic Christianity, from the Divine Comedy to the Second Vatican Council.” Dr. Al-Shaik notes that in the Divine Comedy, Dante places Muslims such as Mohammad, Ali, Averroes, and Salah al-Din in hell. This reflects an exclusivist understanding of Christianity. Yet Vatican Council II presents a much more positive view of the salvation of Muslims. He thinks this change is due to three factors: (1) Western inclination to rationalism, esp. the belief that each one’s salvation is bound to one’s own faith, (2) modern views of relativism, that each religion has part of the truth, and (3) a revised understanding of the sacred texts on the part of Catholic Christians.

Dr. Muhammad Kashani’s paper was entitled: “A Comparative Study of Islam and Christianity on the Doctrine of Deliverance.” Dr. Kashani noted that in Christianity salvation is deliverance from original sin. Islam, however, has no doctrine of original sin; Adam was forgiven his sin by God, and each human is born with a potential for good or evil, but is not predisposed to either. His paper explored other similarities and differences in the Islamic and Christian understanding of deliverance or salvation.

Seyyed Lutf al-Allah Jalali’s paper was entitled: “The Human Ultimate Salvation from the Perspective of Seyyed Tawoos.”  Seyyed Tawoos was a Shia scholar (589-664) who held that only by keeping the faith in the fundamentals of Islam, like monotheism, prophethood, and the Wilayat of Ali, can one be assured of salvation and paradise. In particular “only those who are provided with Imam Ali’s permission would cross the narrow test bridge.” He who lacks Imam Ali’s Wilayat (guardianship) will go to hell. Thus Seyyed Tawoos’ theology is an example of Shi’a exclusivism.

Dr. Qasim Javadi’s paper was entitled: “Universal Salvation (Some Muslim Scholars’ View).” Dr. Javadi noted that there are three types of theories on interreligious dialogue. Some theories reject other religions, and even other Muslim sects, as infidels; some theories hold that only Mustadafin will be saved. But some hold that most non-believers attain salvation. Ghazali, Imam Khomeni, and the martyr Matahhari held these views; Mutahhari thought that 70-80% of Christians would be saved. Further, some Muslim scholars such as Ibn Qayyim Jawzi, Ibn Arabi, and Mulla Sadra, have held that hell is temporary; that after a period of purgation all those in hell would reach salvation.

Dr. Bernard Brady presented a paper: “What Must I do to Inherit Eternal Life? A Reflection on Luke 10:25-42.”  This paper is a reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the nature of love. In the parable, a lawyer asks Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus tells the parable in return. The parable stresses the role of love and compassion for one’s neighbor. But today everyone is our neighbor. The centrality of love is also stated by the Muslim document A Common Word, which explains the centrality of love of God and love of neighbor in the Islamic tradition. Finally, Dr. Brady’s paper explains five aspects of love: Love is emotion; love responds to the one loved; love affirms; love unites; love endures.

Dr. Mohammad Mahdi Feghhi presented a paper: “Pluralism of Salvation in the Light of Mulla Sadra’s Philosophical Structures.” According to Mulla Sadra, salvation in the hereafter is a gradational process, with many levels, so that everyone is ranked in accordance with his or her level of knowledge of reality and struggle in doing good deeds. This is because existence involves levels of gradation, and so does knowledge. Salvation depends on human cognition and knowledge, and since there are gradations in levels of knowledge and of existence, there are also gradations in the levels of salvation.

Dr. Michael Hollerich presented a paper: “Last Things: Early Christianity on the Afterlife and the End of the World.” Though Dr. Hollerich’s paper included the views of Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen of Alexandria, Aphrahat (the Persian Sage), and Ephrem the Syrian, and Augustine, in reading the paper he only had time to explain the views of Origen and Ephrem.  Origen believed that God, through the Logos, created rational intelligences, who contemplated the Logos and God. But their love gradually ‘cooled’ and they fell into various levels of creation: some became angels, some visible heavenly bodies (stars, planets), some humans, and some demons. Thus original sin for Origen included a pre-cosmic fall. Origen speculated about the eventual purification of souls, in this world but also in other possible worlds (a kind of parallel with later Catholic teaching of purgatory), a purification that might include Satan and the fallen angels as well. Ephrem is known for composing a book “Hymns on Paradise,” which pictured paradise as a garden, which existed at the beginning of creation and also at the end, as the abode of the just. He imagines paradise as a mountain, with God at the top, Adam and Eve at the lowest level, and the just occupying the intermediate levels, in accord with their labors. Ephrem also asks whether there is a possibility for post-mortem repentance by the damned, but refrains from answering one way or the other – though he hopes it is possible.

Dr. M. H. Zamani presented a paper: “Salvation according to the Quran.” He outlined 32 points or factors in salvation: monotheism or faith in God, faith in revelation and in the divine books, faith in the prophets and the last prophet, good deeds, purifying souls, good deeds outweighing bad deeds, praying and worshipping God, helping the needy, repentance, being trustworthy, fighting oppression, being patient, not reconciling with enemies of God, inviting others to do good and refrain from evil, and accepting the kingdom of God.

SUMMARY STATEMENT:

At the end of the two day conference, a summary statement was read in Farsi and in English. That statement follows:

Final Statement of the Conference:

Academic dialog for the purpose of better discovering the truth and becoming closer to each other in heart and thought, and having amicable contact between humans is a blessed matter. An example of this is taking place by two groups of academics of Al Mustafa University and the University of St. Thomas.

This is the second conference which has taken place, in the Holy city of Qom, and the participants emphasize the following points:

First, we, the participants, place great emphasis on the common grounds between Shia Muslims and Catholic Christians. We believe that the foremost and greatest commonality between us is worshipping the one God, life after death, prophet-hood, and preservation of authority over the faith. Albeit, we acknowledge the existence of differing viewpoints, we believe that these differences can be addressed through meaningful dialog.

Second, we believe there are many commonalities between our faiths relating to Justificaion and the hereafter, examples of which are the belief in intercession, purgatory (Barzakh), heaven and hell, and that faith and good works are inseparable fundamentals for justification.

Participants in the conference believe that the path toward Justification (salvation) of mankind is through faith in God.

We propose the naming of a “Day of Abraham” to act as a catalyst for the gathering of leaders of Abrahamic and monotheistic faiths. Al Mustafa International University and the University of St. Thomas should work together for the recognition of such a day by various world organizations.

The participants agreed to hold our next annual meeting at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and that the subject of our next conference will be “The model lifestyle envisaged by Shias and Catholics.”

Fifth, Participants put emphasis on continuing cooperation between Al-Mustafa Inernational University and St. Thomas University in research and educational fields and other concentrations.

Visit to Isfahan and Mashhad

After the conference, on Tuesday 8/20/13, we drove to Isfahan. There the Armenian Bishop Papken Tcharian of the diocese of Isfahan spoke appreciatively of his Church’s relationship with the Muslims in Iran. The Armenians have their own school, seminaries, freedom of worship, and can teach what they liked, though they cannot proselytize. He noted that in Azerbaijan, north of Iran, the Muslims there had destroyed Christian crosses in cemeteries, but nothing like that has happened in Iran. We also spoke with Robert Beglarian, one of the Armenian representatives in the Iranian parliament. (Iran has an elected parliament, with seats reserved for Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians). He confirmed what the bishop had said. When asked if the Armenians could accept a Muslim convert, he seemed a bit uncomfortable, and said it had never happened. (Note: some Christian churches have been closed in Iran, specifically an Assemblies of God Church in Tehran. But this was due to proselytizing. It seems that religious freedom in Iran does not yet extend to freedom of Muslims to convert to another religion. Iranian attitude to the Jews is more complex—the Mullahs are in principle open to dialogue with Jews—there are some Jews in Iran. However, they are very suspicious of what they call Zionism. We did not press this point, [or the state of the Bahais in Iran] given that we we there to focus on theology, were their guests, and were still getting to know each other, but it probably will come up in future discussions.)

That afternoon we flew to Mashhad. At Mashhad we had a short conference with scholars from Al Mustafa in Mashhad. We also had a chance to visit the Shrine of Imam Reza, and to meet with the President of Al Mustafa, and with Ayatollah Shirazi.

Meeting with the President of Al Mustafa University: Ayatollah Aliverza A’arafi

The Ayatollah, speaking in Farsi, greeted our delegation warmly. We introduced ourselves, then gave him a letter from the President of St. Thomas, Dr. Julie Sullivan, which he said he would answer at a later time. He then made the following points about Iran. In Iran there are over 2.5 million University students and 100,000 professors; about 2000 universities and 500 academic journals. The graduate and post graduate fields are flourishing; there is a strong seminary system. Academics, he said, should be pioneers in crossing the imaginary borders of dogmas and intolerance. He thought there should be an umbrella plan for interreligious dialogue which would facilitate Muslim and Christian coming together. Scholarly understanding can facilitate this coming together, and fight the phobia of misunderstanding. He hoped that scholarly exchanges will provide a ground in the future for a better understanding between Islam and Christianity.

Meeting with Ayatollah Shirazi

We were also able to meet with Ayatollah Shirazi, one of the leading Ayatollah’s in Iran, a man of about 80 years old, who was extremely busy, but met with us for half an hour. He made the following points: (as translated from the Farsi, according to Odeh’s and Terry’s notes and recollection):

Dialogue is not a luxury but a necessity in a world full of strife, especially with what we see in the Middle East. If we don’t engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue the whole world will bleed with the Middle East. Dialogue should first be conducted between people of faith and not left to politicians or media people as politicians will focus on what will further their own causes, and the media tend to focus on what sells. Academics and people of faith seek what brings people together and build bridges of understanding. We must engage in face to face dialogue for if we limit our discussion to reading books about each other we will never understand one another. Face to face dialogue allows us to feel and see each other’s presence, and should be done with sincerity and mutual respect. Our goal should be to seek to understand that which brings us closer to one another but not to convert one another, we want Muslims to remain Muslim and Christians to remain Christian.

What you are doing by engaging in this dialogue is truly the Greatest of Jihad.

Please send our Salam to the American people and tell them that we wish them the best and that we want peace and harmony for them, as we want of them to wish the same for us and treat us with respect and justice. We want a new beginning; we need to forget the past.

As I am often interviewed by global media, I always ask journalists to compare Iran that they heard about and the Iran they experienced. They always state that there are two Irans; one that is misrepresented in the media in the West, and one that you see when you come to experience it for yourselves. We ask that you tell the American people about the Iran you experienced for yourselves, and we welcome all Americans to come visit Iran to see it for themselves.

I pray for your continued success and stress the importance of continued dialogue.

Future Conference and Continued Cooperation

From Mashhad we flew out at 12:20 a.m. to Tehran, then to Istanbul, then to New York, then to Minneapolis, arriving home about 10 p.m. Thursday, Aug 22nd.

As the summary statement indicates, we are tentatively planning a conference in June, 2014, at the University of St. Thomas. The best dates appear to be the week of June 15-21. Our tentative topic is: “The Model Lifestyle Envisaged by Shias and Catholics.” We are also developing a document of agreement between Al Mustafa and the University of St. Thomas, which would formalize our cooperative arrangement, and lay the basis for long term faculty exchange and possibly student exchange.

Reflections on the Conference

First, we want to acknowledge the wonderful hospitality of our Iranian hosts. We were greeted at the Tehran airport at 4:30 in the morning by Daoud and Hussein, with fresh red roses for each one of us. We were escorted through Iran by four persons, one a busy senior official (Dr. Mahdinejad) of the University. Our accommodations were excellent.  We were also impressed by the cordiality of the Iranian people. Often when they heard us speaking English on the street, they would join us in the conversation, themselves speaking English. Several of them told us they “love” America. For some reason Iranians like Americans though they dislike our government.

In addition to the papers themselves, the greatest fruit of the conference was probably the experience of meeting and conversing face to face. This engendered a mutual trust and respect that could not have been created through writing or e mails. We were able to meet and get to know many professors at Al Mustafa, but also many graduate students—there were about 40-60 persons present at the conference at any given time. Ayatollah Gharavian summed it up best when he said “God is happy with our work here.” We did not have to convince the Iranians of the value of interfaith dialogue: they already realize it and are committed to it, as the summary statement indicates. And while there are a lot of differences between Shia Muslims and Catholic Christians, there are greater similarities. Al Mustafa seems genuinely committed to collaborative work with St. Thomas, and we are presently exploring how we can work together in the future.

There are many obstacles to our dialogue: The international tension between our countries, the physical distance between us, which requires air travel of some 25-30 hours to bridge, the difficulty of the visa process, different languages, the history of polemics between Christianity and Islam, and deep doctrinal differences (Muslims do not accept the Trinity or Incarnation, Christians do not accept Mohammad as the Seal of the Prophets). But the potential or fruitful cooperation between Christians and Muslims is enormous—over half the world is Muslim or Christian. Imagine if we were to work together as allies and partners rather than as enemies. As difficult as this goal may be, it seems already to be endorsed by most of the participants of our conference.

Finally, it is worth noting that dialogue between Iran and the U.S. has been largely in the hands of politicians and diplomats, whose primary interest is national self-interest. But, as Ayatollah Shirazi put it, the deepest dialogue is between people of faith, who strive to put their self-interest aside and seek the will of God through mutual understanding. The voices of those who believe together in the one God have scarcely been heard in this long and troubled relationship. But perhaps now is the time for the voices of believers to be heard and to make a difference.

Reported by Dr. Terence Nichols, Professor, Theology Department, and Co-Director, Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center, The University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.