January-June 2021
Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb and Pope Francis
Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb and Pope Francis
A Response to “Fraternity for Knowledge and Cooperation”
Having been born and raised a Roman Catholic, during which time I spent 14 years in Catholic school (my only formal education) in a basically pre-Vatican II church—a church which I left, or which possibly left me, in the 1960s—and having embraced Islam and Islamic Sufism in 1988, the publication in 2019 of the highly significant document “Fraternity for Knowledge and Cooperation” has left me with a vivid spectrum of feelings, some radiant and harmonious, others filled with uncertainty and foreboding.
The document in question is a response to the unprecedented rapprochement between Pope Francis, and Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the highest authority in traditional Sunni Islam after the fall of the Caliphate and the later collapse (in 1922) of its partial successor, the Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire. The document they signed in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019, “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” was a truly ground-breaking agreement that has taken the interfaith world by storm, not to mention the world of religion as a whole.
“Fraternity for Knowledge and Cooperation” can be interpreted as a commentary on the “Fraternity for World Peace” document from a more metaphysical, more spiritual standpoint, and thus as a necessary complement to the latter document. “Fraternity for World Peace” deals with the outer, socio-political world—in Arabic, the Zahir—while “Fraternity for Knowledge” has more to do with the inner world, the theological, metaphysical and contemplative dimension—in Arabic, the Batin. As Allah declares in the Holy Qur’an, I am the First and the Last, the Inner and the Outer [Q. 57:3].
That the Catholic Church, or at least a portion of it, has apparently reached the point of concluding a near-alliance with traditional Sunni Islam, a religion often considered, not without reason, to be the hereditary enemy of Christendom, is both a radiant sign and a grave omen—but a sign or omen of what? What does this apparent rapprochement portend for the two religions, both of them Divine revelations, of Christianity and Islam?
Since the birth of Christianity two thousand years ago, the Church has survived by clearly distinguishing itself from the paganism of late antiquity and its numerous cults; from the many competing theological doctrines of those theologians who came to be classed as heretics, most having to do with the nature of Christ and the Holy Trinity; from later theological separatist movements such as the Albigensian/Bogomil counter-church of the Middle Ages and the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century; from the subversive infiltration of anti-clerical Freemasonry and atheistic Communism; and from This World in general. It was only by standing aloof from the Darkness of This World and the Rulers of it, however these forces may have been conceived, that the Church was able to save itself from destruction at the hands of its many enemies, both within and without, according to the promise of Christ in the Gospels that “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
This attitude of deliberate and principled aloofness had its inception in the first 300 years of Christian history. While Islam broke forth upon the world as a mighty spiritual, cultural, and military impulse, an impulse that spread through most of the known world in the space of a single generation, filling the power vacuum left by the fall of the western Roman Empire and the growing weakness of both the Persian Empire and Byzantium, Christianity lay under oppression by Rome for a full three centuries—an oppression that, while certainly legal and political, was also cultural, theological and spiritual. The early church had to contend not only with martyrdom in the arena, but with the seemingly endless attempts to water down the person, nature, and mission of Jesus Christ, peace and blessings be upon him.
Virtually every religious cult in the entire compass of early Christianity, with the possible exception of Judaism— even the Greek Mystery Cults and the Neo-Platonic revival—failed to measure up to the profundity, the spiritual and cultural power, the sheer mercy of the Divine Revelation that was Jesus Christ. This state of affairs, in which Christianity in Western Europe and the Levant was, with entire legitimacy, lord of all it surveyed spiritually speaking, held good (leaving aside certain “esoteric” communications in the interfaith dimension) all the way into the nineteenth century. It was only then that such influences as colonialism and missionary activity finally brought Christianity face-to-face with other world-civilization-creating Divine revelations, both older and newer, that for the first time could fully match it both culturally and spiritually, these being Vedantic Hinduism, Buddhism, and at least the bare beginnings of a true understanding of Islam: its magnificent art and architecture, its pre-eminent mathematicians, scientists, and astronomers, its profound philosophers and theologians, and—last but not least—its exquisite poets, master-singers like Rumi and Hafiz, who began to open the European soul not only to the beauties of Persian and Arabic verse but to the wonders and mysteries of Sufism. This was the first and most fruitful opening—though not without its tragedies (unless we count the Crusades, rich in tragedy as well)—of the Christian West to the soul of Asia, an opening that neither the Catholic Church nor the Western World as a whole has yet fully learned to evaluate, assimilate, and effectively respond to.
To the Muslims, Jesus was and is a prophet—“is” because he is expected to return at the coming of the Hour, the end of time, to slay al-Dajjal the Antichrist. Jesus, according to one perspective, is pre-eminent over other prophets in the dimension of the Batin, the Inner. Thus, according to the teaching of the greatest Sufi shaykh, Ibn al-‘Arabi, he is the “Seal of Sanctity.” The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is pre-eminent in both Batin and Zahir, both the Inner and the Outer, by virtue of his unique synthesis of mystical teaching and social law-giving. This synthesis earned him, in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s system, the title of “Seal of Prophecy.”
To the non-Christian Jews, on the other hand, Jesus was a renegade, an apostate from Mosaic Judaism. To the pagans he seemed to be little more than another rendition of one of their many gods, particularly dying-and-resurrected gods of fertility like Attis or Adonis or Osiris; or of Dionysus who established wine as a sacrament and who, like Jesus, was also called “the Vine”; or of Orpheus who descended into the underworld as Jesus did to rescue a lost soul; or of the Persian deity Mithras, who, also like Jesus, was named “The Good Shepherd”. Why, the Roman authorities must have asked themselves, did these Christians so intransigently resist the syncretism that had made all the other gods, the gods of Rome’s conquered and colonized peoples, good citizens of the Empire, worthy of civic cults and statues in the Roman Pantheon? What could this kind of aloofness and zealotry portend but a subversive intention with regard to the Rome, a seditious agenda to violate the Pax Romana? There had even been talk of offering the Jews a statue of Yahweh in the pantheon, and some of them had apparently warmed to this proposition, until the Jewish Revolt put an end to that hopeful possibility. And now these Christians, founded by a Jew, show themselves to be even more aloof and clannish than the Jews themselves! Obviously they must be up to no good.
Jesus, however, was not Adonis, nor Attis, nor Osiris, nor Dionysus, nor Orpheus, nor Mithras. The Christians called him the Only-Begotten Son of God. Later the Muslims, who accept the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, would call him (in the words of the Qur’an), not Allah, certainly, but nonetheless His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him [Q. 4:171]. Nor was Jesus merely a myth, a symbolic idea—though he was certainly that too. Like Moses and Muhammad, he was born into history, and transformed history.
If Christians had submitted to either the cruel persecution of the Roman Empire or the exasperated but friendly persuasion of the surrounding pagan world that marked the first 300 years of their own history, there would have been no Catholic Church—no church which, until 1054, was one with what is now called Eastern Orthodox Christianity and together with it constituted the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Christ—and consequently no fraternal embrace between His Holiness Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.
We might therefore ask, is the aloofness of the Catholic Church now at an end? And if so, what will this mean for the flourishing, for the integrity, for the very survival of Roman Catholicism? Is this the Great Triumph of Universal Truth, or is it the Great Apostasy that some traditional Catholics at least, have been living in fear of ever since the Second Vatican Council, a seemingly well-founded fear that has brought the Roman Catholic Church nearer to a true schism than at any time since 1054 A.D.?
The first possibility may perhaps  be identified, at least in part, with Joachim da Fiore’s doctrine of the Age of the Holy Spirit, the final Age of the world that is destined to conclude the tri-partite cycle that began with the Age of the Father (the Old Testament) and the Age of the Son (the New Testament). The possibility of an eschatological unveiling of the Transcendent Unity of Religions before the coming of the Hour is dealt with as follows by the Jewish convert to Islam Leo Schaya, who writes from the perspective of Jewish esoterism:
According to Jewish tradition, the entire Torah of Moses amounts to no more than a single line of the Sepher ha-Yasher,[1] which means that this Book, by virtue of not being “scriptural” but “operative” in nature, will be the veritable final accomplishment of Scripture, the “realization” which by definition goes immeasurably beyond the “letter”. At the same time, Judaism tacitly places the remaining “lines” of this “Book” at the disposal of all the Divine revelations, whatever they may be, each one formulating or announcing in its fashion the same Eternal Truth and the same Destiny of man and the world. The “Book” of Elias is the integral Wisdom of the unanimous Tradition and the eschatological Manifestation of the one and only Principle. For the Jews, Elias represents the transition from traditional exclusiveness to the universality which they too possess, since they affirm that the Tishbite will raise his voice so loud to announce the spiritual peace that it will be heard from one end of the earth to the other; and the Doctors of the Law teach that “the righteous of all nations have a portion in the life to come” or, again, that “all men who are not idolaters can be considered Israelites”.
Elias must re-establish all things in the name of, and for the sake of, that spiritual “peace” which the Messiah will bring once and for all: it will be crystallized forever in the New Jerusalem “founded by—or for—peace”, according to the etymology of Yerushalem or Yerushalaim. Elias came down, and has come down for centuries, to the world below to prepare, with the concurrence of those he inspires, this final state of humanity. He reveals, little by little and more intensively and generally toward the end, the spiritual and universal essence, the transcendent unity of all authentic religions. It is as if the radiant city were being patiently built by putting one luminous stone after another into place. The motivating power of this task can be called the “Eliatic flow”, at least in the orbit of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whereas other traditions will each use their own terms to describe this same universal flow. According to the terminology of Jewish esoterism, this flow belongs to the “river of highest Eden”, the “river of Yobel” or “great Jubilee” which is final Deliverance. Revelations calls it “the river of the water of life, clear as crystal” (Rev. 22:1); it will be crystallized in the “precious stones”, the unquenchable lights of the New Jerusalem.[2]
The doctrine of “the Book of Elias” is strictly paralleled by the Shi’ite Muslim doctrine that when al-Mahdi emerges from his occultation he will bring a new Book. That this Book represents the Primordial Tradition itself, which transcends the revealed traditions without negating them, is indicated by the tradition that the Mahdi will “rule the people of the Torah according to the Torah, and the people of the Gospel according to the Gospel, and the people of the Qur’an according to the Qur’an.”[3]
We must never forget, however, that the Satanic counterfeit of the Great Jubilee is the Regime of Antichrist, whose “unity of religions,” like the one nearly established by Nimrod before God decreed the failure of the Tower of Babel, will be a horizontal, worldly unity, not a vertical and transcendental one—not a unity of Truth but merely a unity of Power. Now that inexorable historical forces have broken all the religions out of their traditional matrices and forced them into confrontation, now that “pluralism” is not only an idealistic hope but also, for good or ill, an inescapable fate, the great question in the field of religion is: What kind of “unity” or “pluralism” will we end up with? Will it be a true spiritual unity based on a great Latter Day unveiling of the Primordial Tradition, or a cynical, corrupt and ruthlessly enforced unification of the religions, accomplished by tempting them to embrace a worldly pseudo-spirituality, and by backing up that temptation with the overt or implied threat of violent persecution if the temptation is rejected—a Dajjalian pseudo-unity established in the name of global hegemony and mass control of populations? Which way will it go?
One of the watchwords of Vatican II and the Post-Conciliar Church, now over half a century old, has been reconciliation with the world according to the principle of aggiornamento, “bringing up to date.” What was once to be vigorously rejected—according to Catholic doctrine if not always Catholic practice—namely that regime which the Muslims call “al-Dunya” and the Christians “This World”, is now to be embraced. “Worldliness” is no longer a vice but a virtue. “Modernism” is no longer, in the words of Pope Pius X, “the synthesis of all heresies,”[4] but the inescapable keynote of our time, not something to be fearfully rejected but rather to be courageously and creatively engaged with.
Consequently, in light of this 180-degree turn of the Catholic Church, if not against its 2000-year history, at least against the triumphal and imperial Church of the Counter-Reformation, all vigilant Muslims must ask the following question: Has the Catholic Church under Francis embraced Islam by at long last recognizing it as a brother revelation in the great prophetic family of the Abrahamic religions, sent in the form of the Holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad by the same God who sent Jesus Christ into the womb of the Virgin Mary? Or has he reached out to Islam merely as another “demographic grouping” or “socio/political/cultural sector” of This World? Is his unprecedented gesture a sign of the event foreseen for these latter days by the prophet Joel in the Old Testament, when (and this is God Himself speaking), “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” [Joel 2:28]? Or is it little more than a diplomatic coup, a gesture—though diplomatically clothed in religious language—that is limited to the world of politics, a word that I like to define as “the art of the ephemeral”?
The profound significance of “Fraternity for Knowledge and Cooperation” lies precisely in the fact that, while celebrating—as all Christians and Muslims of good will must—the great potential good that may come out of this apparent détente between Islam and Roman Catholicism, as represented by document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” it eloquently poses this very question:
Beyond our generally positive reaction to the Document, it also seems necessary to make some cautious reflections, in the form of a warning with regards to a latent danger . . . that the values mentioned by the Document, and recalled in this comment, might be interpreted or practiced in a partial or excessive way, outside the field for which they were designed by the Creator. . . .
Fraternity in diversity is the cornerstone of the text, but there is a danger that this concept might be interpreted in too sociological or psychological a sense. In this case we would be left with a solely human, “too human” interpretation of religious fraternity, according to which man would be adored as he is, worshiped instead of God, despite the continued use of the word “God” as a mere formality, a word no longer referring to a Reality that we aspire to know. A respect for differences should not become an excuse for the adoration of the particular and the phenomenal in and of itself, where contingency replaces the Eternal.
Remember when religion was spiritual? Remember when the basic idea of the religious life was to avoid sin, cultivate virtue, and prepare one’s soul for Paradise? The primarily social interpretation of the nature and function of religion, which both Islam and Christianity have approached, and continue to approach, from their own characteristic starting points, has always been part of the religious worldview, but it has never been the primary or central one—except in periods of turmoil and decadence. Jesus specifically enjoined “corporal world of mercy” for his followers, such as visiting the sick, feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless—and yet he made it very clear that “The poor you have always with you” [Mark 14:7] and “My Kingdom is not of this world” [John 18:36].
Likewise Muhammad, through the institution of the zakat, the obligatory tithe for the maintenance of widows and orphans, the poor and the infirm, might be considered to have founded (all negative connotations of the term aside) the first “welfare state.” Yet he and the Holy Qur’an repeatedly emphasize the brevity of life and the relative unreality of earthly existence, while orienting the entire aspiration of the Islamic ummah toward the attainment of Paradise in the akhira, the next world. (The Sufis, of course, interpret this aspiration in a radically batini sense by recognizing the next world as mysteriously present already within this present world, in the depths of the spiritual Heart.)
There is a strange and unrealistic prejudice current in our contemporary world according to which “other-worldliness” implies a cold indifference toward, if not an active hatred of, the earth and the human race. Nothing could be further from the truth. True other-worldliness is inseparable from a keen sense of the Mercy of God, a Mercy that cannot but overflow in works of Mercy, both corporal and spiritual.
Those who consider this material world to be all there is are generally (though not always) avaricious, cynical. and grasping, conditions that are ultimately based on the despair of life and the fear of death that lie at the roots of the materialist worldview. Their contracted affections and sensibilities usually allow them little scope for heartfelt compassion. On the other hand, those who place their hopes in Eternity rather than time, and who have consequently renounced the useless struggle to satisfy the inherently Divine aspirations of the human soul within a shrunken material world that can in no way correspond to them, are free to shower that world with the Divine Bounty they feel themselves to be in the presence of, and are unreservedly open to receiving. Far from believing that “there is only so much compassion to go around,” they recognize that the generosity of God has no end; in Islamic terms they live and act according to Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, performing everything “in the name of God, the all-Merciful, the all-Compassionate.”
At the same time, it must be said that both Islam and Christianity recognize that the direct love of God (Mahabbah) and knowledge of Him (Ma’rifa) are intrinsically higher and more central than “good works.” St. Thomas Aquinas classed the contemplative life as a higher calling than the active life; and though he saw the “mixed” life in which contemplation and action are united as the highest station of all—a life quintessentially exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him—he nonetheless continued to place contemplation on a higher plane than action, since he considered the action of the active/contemplative as being a direct overflow from the depth of his or her contemplation, not the other way around. Even the paradigmatic modern Christian “sister of mercy,” Mother Theresa, immediately left the bedside of whatever ill or dying person she had been attending when the bell rang for prayer, because prayer and nothing else was the source of her ability to console the suffering.
The authors of “Fraternity for Knowledge and Cooperation” see interfaith dialogue as capable of taking place on three distinct levels:
From our point of view there are three types of dialogue between faiths: one of convenience, one of reality, and one of principle. The dialogue of convenience aims to avoid all thorny issues, it is a false, vague, horizontal approach, one that abolishes traditional doctrines, sacred symbols and ways of grace; in order to reconcile two adversaries it suffocates them both; this is certainly the quickest way to achieve a false peace that has been substituted for truth. Inspired by a philosophical indifference, or by a relativist universalism, the characteristic of this dialogue is the dissolving of values. This is a false dialogue because instead of recognizing and supporting religions and their sacred foundations, it ends up providing a cheap conception of human rights, above all promoting, in the place of true spirituality, the “right to indifference”.
A second type of dialogue we might call “de facto” or “reality based”: this consists of an understanding of religious people and the institutions that represent them on the basis of their common acceptance of certain moral values and metaphysical concepts, and in the understanding that they are faced with the common threat of secularization. This is the type of interreligious dialogue upon which the Document mainly focuses: “Dialogue among believers means coming together in the vast space of spiritual, human and shared social values and, from here, transmitting the highest moral virtues that religions aim for”. Justice, goodness, beauty, fraternity and peace on the social level are “anchors of salvation” for all, but they can certainly not be substituted for the salvation of the soul, just as the means are not a substitute for the end. It is a matter of creating conditions for a shared and necessary peace such as Dante strove for, so that it is possible for all to live a life oriented to the search for God, the highest and last objective that mankind can aspire to.
This type of dialogue constitutes a necessary step towards the third type of dialogue, which we see as the most desirable of all. This last type of dialogue can be called the one of “principle”, or “dialogue at the summit”: it consists in recognizing the mode of Knowledge that discovers the one Truth above the veil of multiple forms. Saint Basil, commenting on the beginning of the Gospel of Saint John, exclaimed, “Don’t forget ‘In the Beginning’! The culmination of the Principle cannot be understood while that which is outside of the Principle cannot be found.” To reach this objective, the one we consider to be of the greatest worth, there appears to be a long way to go.
These three levels of dialogue might be briefly summarized by naming them the Socio-political, the Intellectual (in the sense of ratio or ‘aql, not that of Intellectus or Ma’rifa), and the Contemplative. The “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” seems primarily oriented to the second form of dialogue, while in no way remaining immune to the danger of lapsing into the first, into the “dialogue of convenience.” This is a negative potential that menaces all interfaith dialogue in our time, given the fear of inflaming interreligious conflict and the general inability of the human psyche to remain for long in a state of paradox or ambiguity without experiencing either a paralyzing existential anxiety or else capitulating to shallow, facile, or disingenuous solutions in order to allay this anxiety.
As for the third and highest form of dialogue, the Contemplative, I don’t believe that we should wait until a directive to pursue this course comes to us from this or that established religious official, particularly in times like these. Such an engagement will most likely initiated by the contemplatives themselves: for the Roman Catholics, the monks of the contemplative orders; for the Muslims, the Sufis. About the potential for this rarest kind of interfaith action—which, though necessarily employing forms, must be grounded in the Formless dimension of the Divine Unity—the “Fraternity for Knowledge and Cooperation” document has this to say:
For persons who are sensitive to spirituality and contemplation, to support one another in exclusively material or sentimental terms is neither true support nor true fraternity. . . . We need to cultivate mutual respect between our different communities on the basis of our common proclamation that God as One, helping each other to remember that our central aim is to honour the name of the Lord, especially in the difficult times that our humanity is now passing through. It is for the attainment of this goal, as interreligious relations and Islamo-Christian dialogue continues, that we find it important and opportune to give wider expression to certain actors who could truly play a prominent role—namely, the contemplative orders, that is to say the Christian monastic orders and the Sufi orders of Islam, those who are custodians and cultivators, in different forms and at different levels, of the contemplation of God, since it is from this perspective that they call one another “brothers”.
This dialogue between contemplatives in the spirit of a higher brotherhood is one that was both posited and actively engaged in by one of the most famous Roman Catholic contemplatives of the twentieth century, Father Thomas Merton, who was in active correspondence and interaction with Qadiri fuqara, Eastern Orthodox hesychasts, and Tibetan Buddhists (among others), and whose Cistercian (Trappist) monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani, is near enough to my home in central Kentucky to have become a congenial space where my wife and I can go for short meditative retreats.
Nor should we forget the highly significant “Paths to the Heart” conference that my wife and I attended at the University of South Carolina in 2001, immediately after 9/11, that brought together Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslim Sufis, including Bishop Kallistos Ware and Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, to discuss the meaning of the spiritual Heart in their respective traditions.
In view of the call to dialogue in “Fraternity for Knowledge and Cooperation”, I suggest that the authors of this document lose no time in reaching out to both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox contemplatives. Time is short, yet Eternity surrounds us, and this is what makes it possible for us to avoid both haste and procrastination and to act according to God’s time—the sort of time that we Sufis call the waqt, the only quality of the temporal dimension in which both God’s subtle Guidance and God’s irresistible Will can be heard, understood, and obeyed. When seen in the light of “Fraternity for Knowledge and Cooperation”, the document “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” can legitimately be taken as a call issued both by Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb and His Holiness, Pope Francis to the contemplatives of Islam and Christianity, a challenge to them to do their part—as the proper representatives of the contemplative dimension that is integral to both Revelations—to bring about the great rapprochement between the two religions that this extraordinary document both posits and announces.
A dialogue between contemplatives would necessarily involve words and concepts, but it would need to be founded on something deeper than an encounter of ideas—namely, an encounter of presences. It would therefore necessarily be based not on a brotherhood, or friendly rivalry, characterized by endless talking, but on a brotherhood of Silence. It was the Virgin Silence of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, that allowed the Holy Qur’an, the Word of Allah, to be heard and recited, in the clear Arabic tongue. It was the Virgin Silence of Mary that allowed Jesus, peace and blessings be upon him—the Word made flesh—to be born into this world. Perhaps a union of the Inner Silences of these two great Revelations will allow a true common word between them to be heard, and spoken, in the chaos and darkness of our times.
[1]  The “Book of Justice” that Elias will bring with him and that is comparable to the Umm al-Kitab in Islam, “the Mother of the Book”],
[2]  “The Mission of Elias”, Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 14, Numbers 3 & 4, pp. 165-166]
[3]  Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Ghayba.
[4] Pascendi dominici gregis, 39.
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