The Challenge of Muslim Christian Dialogue
Preliminary remarks: Thank you, Jerome and the whole St. Paul's Committee
on Spiritual and Public Concerns for organizing this series of talks and honoring
me by giving me this opportunity...
by Dorothy C. Buck, Ph.D.
December 8, 2006.
Talk sponsored by the Contemporary and Spiritual Concerns Committee
St. Paul's Church, Cambridge, MA
It is a challenge to take on such an expansive subject and narrow it into one
talk. What I mean is that the Muslim and Christian identities over the centuries,
since the very beginning of the rise of Islam in the 7th century, have changed
with the rise and fall of both religious and imperial powers in different parts
of the world. The history is both intriguing and complex but beyond the scope
of our discussion this evening. I have chosen therefore to speak of history only
in so far as it can provide a context for the challenges to the Muslim and Christian
dialogue here in the United States, at this time. The challenges in Europe, for
example, or the Middle East or Asia are each unique in their own history and responses
to current events.
Not only am I narrowing our scope to the situation here in America but I am also
going to speak from the experience I know the best which is that of a Catholic
Christian here in Boston. I leave it to my Muslim brothers and sisters to one
day speak to you about their experience and the challenges they face in the Muslim
I do not claim to be an "expert" in Muslim Christian dialogue but I
do have an experience of it as a Christian. My experience is informed by the life
and spirit of Louis Massignon, a man that I consider to be a mentor, or perhaps
better, a spiritual guide. So I will begin by offering you some history in order
to help you to put our situation today in its proper context, and then I will
tell you about Louis Massignon's approach to dialogue in some detail. Finally
I will offer a summary, and a caution, and I hope that my reflections will invite
questions that we can address together.
One of the first deterrents to an effective engagement with Islam for Christians
is our lack of knowledge. For example: today is a feast day in the Latin Church
called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. We are honoring the birth
of a daughter of Judaism, a virgin who the Christian Scriptures tell us accepted
the words of an angel at a very young age. She would conceive and bear a son and
give him the name Jesus. The Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of
the Most High would overshadow her. Her "fiat" her "let it be done
to me as you say", her "yes" to the Spirit of God remains the central
vocation for all Christians everywhere. But did you know that she is also revered
in Islam? That in fact for Muslims the Annunciation takes place before the dawn
of creation. Before the world was born there was a resounding response of "Yes"
to God. Did you know that the story of Mary in the Qur'an begins with the birth
of Mary? The very feast that we celebrate today? Did you know that there is in
fact more information about Mary in the Qur'an than there is in the Christian
Scriptures, albeit told differently than our familiar stories?
Many of us don't even know very much about other Christian denominations and we
are often not even aware of the history that has caused these divisions. We certainly
don't know very much about the centuries of history in the relationship of Islam
to Christianity that brings us to the horrific realities that we have had to face
in recent days and years. If we want to talk with Muslims we would do well to
learn something of our own history in relation to Islam as well as something of
the basic beliefs and practices of Muslims. It is a first step before we can delve
further into the challenges of dialogue and the experience and perspective of
Louis Massignon. Bear with me as I present you with some history and context for
our discussion. [The following is taken primarily from Islam, the Straight Path
, paraphrazed or in quotes, by John Esposito, Oxford U. Press 1991 (see Bibliography)].
Here is some of what we need to know about Islam:
There are 2 Sects in Islam. The majority of Muslims are Sunni Muslims, the minority
are Shi'a Muslims. There were many schools of jurisprudence or Islamic Law but
in the present day there are four main schools, called madhabs. The Hanafi, the
Malaki,the Shafi'i, and Hanbali. They are named after the scholars who founded
them. The mystical form of Islam is called Sufism. Throughout their history the
founders of the Sufi communities sometimes found themselves at odds with the schools
of Islamic Law. Today there are many Sufi communities all over the world who gather
around a Sufi Master and tradition. In some ways Sufism can be likened to Christian
Mystical tradition being lived out in Religious Communities, such as the Franciscans
or Carmelites. However Sufism, as a spiritual and psychological path towards God,
finds its source of spirituality in the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet,
and although some Sufi's live in community for short periods of time, Sufism is
meant to be lived in the context of one's everyday life, which is how the majority
of Sufi's live. The mystical Sufi orders were the missionaries who brought Islam
to much of Africa and other continents, but the Islamic revival movements in the
18th century led to a stifling of the openness to the integration of native cultural
practices with Islam that was encouraged by the missionary Sufis.
The school of Law that we should be most aware of today is the Hanbali, the most
puritanical and rigid school of Law in the Muslim world. It is this school of
Law that forms the basis for the ideology of Wahhabism that is found in present
day Saudi Arabia. Muhammad Ibn 'Abd Al Wahhab (1703-1792) was a religious reformer
in the 18th century. He thought that the religious practices of the time were
as bad as the period known as the time of ignorance, before Muhammad's revelation
of Islam. Joining with a local tribal chief by the name of Ibn Saud they staged
a military reform bringing the diverse Arabian tribes once again into unity all
over Arabia. As John Esposito writes in his book, Islam, the Straight Path , "Ibn
Al Wahhab rejected Sufism altogether. As Muhammad had cleansed the Ka'aba of its
idols, Wahhabi forces destroyed Sufi shrines and tombs. Their iconoclastic zeal
against idolotrous shrines led to the destruction of Sacred tombs in Mecca and
Medina, including those of the prophet and his companions. In addition they destroyed
the tomb of Husayn at Karbala, a major Shi'a Muslim holy place and pilgrimage
center, an act that has never been forgotten by the Shi'a Muslims and has affected
their attitude toward the Wahhabi of modern day Saudi Arabia".
The effect of European colonialism and the intrusion of Western culture into the
Islamic world was to incite a new wave of religious reform and zeal. Leaders of
these reforms in the nineteenth century were intent on re-creating the tribal
unity that the Prophet had achieved in the 7th century. There were other revival
movements outside of Arabia such as that in India where the intent was to reform
Sufism rather than suppress it and to encourage what is known as ijtihad, the
right to critical thinking, to reinterpret Islam. Also in the nineteenth century,
there arose another response to European colonialism and westernization called,
Islamic modernism. These reform movements in the Middle East and South Asia wanted
to overcome the backwardness and loss of power of Muslim society, experienced
as a result of European colonialism, by "stressing the dynamism, flexibility
and adaptability that had characterized the early development of Islam, notable
for its achievements in law, education, and the sciences. They pressed for internal
reform through a process of reinterpretation and selective adaptation of Western
ideas and technology. Islamic modernism was a process of internal self-criticism,
a struggle to redefine Islam to demonstrate its relevance to the new situations
that Muslims found themselves in as their societies modernized". (Esposito)
As Islamic Laws were replaced by secular courts for civil and criminal laws, and
modern European legal codes were adopted, the one area of Sharia Law that remained
in force was family law. The emphasis on the family in traditional Islamic society
made family law the central area of Sharia law throughtout the Muslim world. Family
law is concerned with marriage, divorce and inheritance. The modernists sought
to reform these laws especially in relation to women, adapting laws in one school
of Shar'ia law to validate changes in another. In countries such as Egypt, Syria,
Jordan, India and Pakistan there was some success and the feminist movements in
the 1920's and 30's were informed by these efforts. The outcome however, for us
to remember, has been the continuing struggle in Islamic countries between the
modernists and the traditionalists, who claim that the modern reformers are Western
educated and influenced, and that Islam has all the necessary social and political
requirements for society within it's own tradition. The struggle remained unresolved
into the Twentieth century.
The history of Islam and Islamic law is a complex mixture of responses, first
to European colonialism and the resulting rise of nationalism, then to the influence
of Western science, technology, the arts and modern lifestyles, and finally to
Western secularism and the separation of religion from the state, all seen by
some as a sign of moral decline. The religious societies that began to emerge
in the twentieth century such as the Muslim Brotherhood, outlawed in Egypt in
the 1960's, and the Jamaat l'Islami (the Islamic Society) in the Indian subcontinent,
were dedicated to the revival of Islam and the transformation of society. Rather
than adapting Islam to Western values, they sought to re-establish Islamic religious
values as a ground for addressing the needs of society such as illiteracy, poverty,
education and health care. Eventually these revivalist movements became enmeshed
in the political issue of establishing Islamic statehood.
By the 1960's much of the Islamic world had integrated a level of modernity into
their social/political and legal systems. Yet there remained issues for Muslim
identity that caused a new resurgence of the Islamic religion. The Arab Israeli
War of 1967 pushed the Palestinian crisis into an Islamic issue that called the
strength of the Arab governments and their policies into question. The loss of
Jerusalem, which is one of the three holiest cities in Islam, also threatened
Muslim identity and became another Islamic political and religious issue. The
increasing disillusionment with the West, along with the pride in military power
engendered by the Iranian Revolution in 1978-1979, and the increasing wealth and
economic success from oil revenues in the Middle East have all contributed to
the search for Muslim identity that has fueled the religious revival we see today,
even in the West.
The answer to the apparent loss of power by the community was a call by religious
leaders to return to the tenets of Islam. It was the failure of the Muslims themselves
to hold to their religious values in the face of Western influences that was the
problem.The result is that countries such as Iran, (under the radical clericalism
of the Ayatollah Khomeini that informed the 1979 revolution and the politisizing
of Shi'a Islam), Saudi Arabia (with its Sunni majority and its alliance of the
House of Saud with Wahhabism) and Pakistan, (which was originally established
as separate from India in order to create an Islamic State), have each declared
themselves Islamic States, whereas the majority of Muslim countries fall in between
a completely secular system, such as that in Turkey and Egypt, and an Islamic
State. In most, the reforms in family law have consistently been repealed as a
way of upholding ancient Islamic Shar'ia law, while modern political and legal
systems remain in place.
For Muslims everywhere, Islam is considered a total way of life that informs everything
from politics to law, economics, education and all of social life. Islam is a
culture, a way of life socially, politically and economically and for Muslims,
it is an alternative to our Western notion of the separation of church and state
as well as a response to the excesses they have experienced in Western culture.
These moderate Muslims seek the gradual internal reform of Islamic society while
continuing to encourage contemporary advances in science and technology and a
striving for social justice.
There is also a radical or fundamentalist view that sees those governments that
do not adopt Shar'ia law as un-Islamic and illegitimate, and all people of other
faith traditions and political systems as enemies of Islam. Therefore Islam encompasses
a range of believers, from moderates who live their faith within existing political
systems to the radical and often violent revolutionaries. What we often do not
recognize is that the majority of these activists are not uneducated peasants
but rather engineers, lawyers, scientists and medical doctors educated in European
and American universities. But we must always remember that the majority of Muslims
are moderate seekers of God and social justice, very much like the majority of
Like most of human history, religions, including Christianity and Islam, have
been used by governments and activist organizations to achieve their economic
and political agendas. I need only remind you that religious and political zeal
brought about five crusades promoted by the popes with the goal of eradicating
Islam that encouraged the slaughter of whole cities of innocent men, women and
children in the name of Christ. That in 1492 the reconquest of a part of Spain
called Andulusia from the Muslims, who had governed there for 800 years, forced
the Jews and Muslims who had lived in relative safety and peace for centuries,
to leave Spain. That in the sixteenth century what we call the Inquisition was
a systematic denial of religious freedom that involved forced conversions among
other shameful atrocities. As George Weigel pointed out in the inaugural of this
series of dialogues, it took Catholic Christianity until 1965 to finally discover
within our own theology the rationale for respecting and promoting dialogue with
other faith traditions, especially those that share our Abrahamic roots, Islam
With this history in mind let me turn now to our subject of Interfaith dialogue
and Louis Massignon.
The French scholar and Mystic, Louis Massignon, was born in 1883. At the age of
24, in 1907, he was deeply moved by the words of a 10th century Islamic mystic
and poet named al-Hallaj. He decided to write his dissertation on the life and
teachings of this Muslim mystic not realizing at the time that it would lead him
to a lifelong relationship that began with his own religious conversion in Baghdad
in 1908. In the midst of the Muslim world Massignon had an experience of God breaking
into his life, bringing him to his knees to utter the first words of prayer that
came to him, surprisingly in Arabic, "God! God! Help my weakness!".
Drawn inexplicably back to the Catholic Christian tradition of his childhood,
Massignon was convinced that it was al-Hallaj, the tenth century martyred saint
of Islam, who had mysteriously enticed him to Baghdad and that the Muslim mytic
was surely one of the intercessors responsible for his unusual conversion experience.
This event became a pivotal one that he referred to throughout his life. He called
it "The Visitation of the Stranger". [Buck,D. Dialogues with Saints
and Mystics: In the Spirit of Louis Massignon KNP Publications 2002].
Here is a man who retrieved the Christian faith of his childhood through his contact
with Islam. It was through the Arabic language of Hallaj that Massignon recovered
his Christian faith. And it was in discussions in Arabic with his Muslims friends
in Baghdad, the Al×ssi family, that he also owed his conversion experience, because
they prayed to God for him and spoke to him about God. He wrote, "It was
in Arabic that I thought and lived my conversion experience in May and June of
1908. I have guarded my gratefulness to Islam and testify to it in all my scientific
work. It was the Arabs who taught me about this religion of hospitality; Forty
years ago I was arrested, in danger of death and denounced as a colonialist spy;
But I was the guest and I was saved; after three days, I was released in relation
to God, by the Guest". (with a capitol G). [Keryell p.53-54 Hospitalité
By the time he died in 1962 at the age of 79 he had become a renowned Islamist,
a man consumed by his passion for learning, for justice and for God. As a professor
of the Sociology of islam at the Collége de France he was known for his
dynamic lectures. He was a linguist who easily spoke ten languages, wrote articles
in several and read many more. As a world traveler and French diplomat he was
a friend to scholars, artists, writers, mystics and popes. His conversion to Christianity
in the midst of the Islamic world was the begnning of sixty years of research
and association with the Arab culture. He recognized that loving one's neighbor
is to "cross over" to others, embracing them as friends, not only learning
to tolerate differences, but rather to embrace them and in the process, finding
one's own beliefs, values and religious convictions enhanced by the experience.
In his seventies his passion for justice and human rights led him to demonstrate
in the streets of Paris on behalf of his Arab and Muslim friends during the Algerian
struggle for independence from French colonialism in the 1950's and 60's. [In
To understand his approach to Muslim Christian dialogue we must start with his
own conversion experience which was an intense interior recognition of God's presence
and saving power in his life. We also must not forget that it took place in the
Muslim world where he was sure that his life was in danger, that it was directly
associated to his budding relationship with the mystic-poet Hallaj, and that his
encounter with the mystery of the divine was experienced in Arabic. The seeds
were planted for an approach to engagment with the "other" in his life
that only grew in conviction as he was influenced by the mentors in his own life.
From Blessed Charles de Foucauld he was guided towards opening his heart to be
able to see the sacredness of all of life. He writes, "I feel obligated to
explain to you how, through this living experience of the sacred in others, Foucauld
was given to me like an older brother, and how he helped me to find my brothers
in all other human beings, starting with the most abandoned ones... I needed him
to communicate to me, through spiritual contact, in very simple words, by interviews
and letters, his experiential initiation into the real understanding of the human
condition, his experiential knowledge of the compassion which drew him to the
most abandoned of human beings." [In Buck, Dialogues]
As the Domican priest, Father Moreau writes, Massignon's understanding of Interfaith
dialogue is "not a systematic way of thinking, or a theory, or a political
or social strategy, and it is certainly not a new missionary tactic. It is a way
of being, it is existential, a way of living with others...It is the life of the
heart, in Pascal's sense of the word, where intelligence and love are but one,
often "playing" together, each one taking its part with one or the other
more or less dominant; it is the "story" of the heart, the story of
the spiritual life of humanity". [In Association Des Amis de Louis Massignon,
Bulletin on Interreligious Dialogue]
The key then has to do with an interior experience that we might call a dialogue
of hearts. Massignon called it Sacred Hospitality, the kind of hospitality he
experienced in Baghdad with his Muslim friends the Al×ssi family. And the kind
of hospitality that we must have in opening our hearts to welcome God, the supreme
Guest. He wrote, "To understand the other, we must become their guest".
It was in sayings like the following that Massignon came to live what he understood
as his vocation of substutionary prayer. "To understand something of the
"other" is to transfer, through a decentering of oneself, to the very
center of the other". "It is not enough to seek to know, one must succeed
at understanding. We understand the other by mentally substituting ourselves for
the other, by entering into the 'composition of the place' of the other...by reflecting
the mental structure, the way of thinking of the other, in oneself. This substitution,
which is a going out of oneself is not exempt from suffering because it is also,
before anything else, a 'serge' of God in us". [Buck, Mason, Keryell see
In 1934 Louis Massignon and an Egyptian Melkite Christian woman named Mary Kahil
made a vow in an ancient Franciscan chapel in Damietta Egypt to dedicate their
lives to their Muslim friends and neighbors. As Christians were increasingly marginalized
and leaving Egypt with the rise of Islam, they felt called to encourage their
fellow Christians to stay, to pray together, to open their hearts to embrace their
Muslim neighbors by silently holding them in their hearts and by actively working
and sharing life with them. They called this prayer the Badaliya, an Arabic word
that comes from the root Badal, meaning exchange, interchange, generous, magnanimous,
or substitution. The plural of this word is abdâl and the abdâl are
the martyrs in Islam who, out of love, have given their lives for the sake of
the community, like the tenth century mystic, al-Hallaj.
In 1953 Massignon discovered a chapel in a small hamlet in Brittany France dedicated
to seven Christian saints. When he explored the translation of the Breton text
of a story read each year at their annual pilgrimage, he found that it was the
story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, very much like the one found in the 18th
Sura, or chapter, of the Qur'an. Here was an opportunity to bring Muslims and
Christians together to celebrate these Christian martyrs found in both traditions.
In the Eastern Orthodox Churches one can still find Icons representing these seven
saints. The following year he was given permission by the local bishop to add
this interfaith dimension to the annual pilgrimage, celebrated on the nearest
week-end to the feast of Mary Magdalene on July 22nd. I was fortunate to be able
to attend the 50th anniversary of this shared Muslim and Christian pilgrimage
in 2004. Until his death in 1962 Massignon joined this pilgrimage, celebrated
by ordinary people in a remote farming village in France, bringing a busload of
Muslim Algerian workers from Paris; these were the students he had voluntarily
tutored in French and math while they served time in the Paris jails for being
freedom fighters during the Algerian struggle for independence.
And this leads us back to Mary. The cave of the 2nd century Seven Sleepers in
Ephesus Turkey, was discovered in 1926 with the ruins of an ancient church dedicated
to Mary Magdalene, above it. Nearby is the House of the Virgin Mary where Saint
John is said to have brought her for safety after the Crucufixion of Jesus when
the Christians were being persecuted. This Chapel is a sacred pilgrimage site
in Turkey for both Muslim and Christian pilgrims.
Years of praying with the stories of Mary and her Son in the Gospels and the Qur'an
inspired Massignon's images of the Virgin Mother. His vision of Mary was human,
real and earthy, well beyond the images of her in his time. In a letter to Mary
Kahil, he wrote:
"There is no maternal grief in the world comparable to the vow, the 'fiat',
of the Jewish Mary when she sacrificed the hope of her race into which the Messiah
should be born, to serve God alone. Her fiat was to abandon herself totally to
God in order to bring the Savior among us." [In Keryell Letter 148 p. 257].
By welcoming the divine Guest Mary becomes the perfect archetype of the relationship
with God to which we are all called. Over and over again in his letters to Mary
Kahil and to the Badaliya, Massignon wrote about Mary's "Yes" to God.
The secret of the mystery of the Annunciation is the inheritance of both Muslims
and Christians revealed in the virginal heart of Mary, whose "Yes" to
God was offered for the salvation of all of humanity. She becomes a link to our
Muslim brothers and sisters and provides an opportunity for dialogue and understanding
between these two communities whose painful history continues to need reconciliation
Massignon's understanding of the three "Abrahamic" traditions and how
they are forever bound to one another remains as controversial and as prophetic
today as it was in his lifetime. Mary'sfiat stands at the core of the religious
and secular dilemma of our time, as a reminder of our own "yes" to the
God of Abraham in all three faith traditions.
You can see why the Marian Feasts, like the one we celebrate today, were so important
to Louis Massignon. And that is why five years ago, the Badaliya prayer was recreated
here in the United States on this date. We currently meet once a month in the
chapel here in St. Paul's Church in concert with a second group in Washington
DC, and with many folks all over the country, as well as some in other countries,
joining us in Spirit.
In summary, the first challenge to the Muslim-Christian Dialogue is lack of knowledge,
however, at the same time that I am suggesting that we learn as much as possible
about the context and history of those with whom we would enter into Interfaith
dialogue, I am also suggesting that we need not be scholars or "experts".
We can be the ordinary folks who join in a shared Muslim and Christian pilgrimage
in a remote village in France. The second challenge is not to allow current tragic
events to deter our courage and hope in seeking authentic understanding of the
other by praying and striving for a compassionate dialogue of hearts. Massignon
would say that the most authentic in religions is what makes them distinct from
one another rather than what they have in common. Therefore, the third challenge
is to reach out beyond our own comfort level and meet our neighbors face to face.
My caution is as follows: Contemporary Islam sees itself as a viable alternative
to the excesses of both socialism and capitalism as well as a model of right relationship
with God. This poses a challenge to Christians to be able to know the truth of
our own faith tradition and yet, still honor and respect that of the other. If
we can follow Massignon's lead there is an opportunity here to learn much from
Islam that will enhance our ability to be more faithful to our own Gospel values.
Most importantly, although we can learn a great deal from Christian scholars of
Islam, like Louis Massignon, it is essential that we listen carefully to the actual
experience of Islam today, of our Muslim brothers and sisters.
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D'Une Seul Voix: Juifs, Chrétiens, Musulmans (With One Voice)
Ad Vitam Records
"They are Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Muslims and Christians,
Roman Catholics, Greek Melkites or Armenians. They all live in either Israel
or Palestine. As soloists or in groups they are singing about the same land,
the same city- Jerusalem- and the same desire to live in peace..." This
is a CD that was initiated by Daniel Rondeau who felt called to go to Israel
to make this CD happen, inspired by the notion that music brings people together
in peace and harmony.
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Matrouz (Embroidered Poetry) by Simon Albaz
Simon Albaz is a Moroccan Jewish poet singing his compositions in the ancient
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songs in the Castillion Spanish-speaking Jewish Community of southern Morocco
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years as part of the Muslim-Christian pilgrimage in Brittany, France).