VOLUME IX, Number 1
January - June 2019
Abbot Primate Gregory Polan and Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali
Abbot Primate Gregory Polan and Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali
A Monastic-Muslim Dialogue on Conversion
As this year’s Monastic-Muslim dialogue was taking place in England, Pope Francis made an apostolic journey to Morocco. At the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Rabat on Sunday, March 31, during his meeting with priests, religious, consecrated persons, and the Ecumenical Council of Churches, he spoke on the meaning of mission. His words could not have been more timely coming, as they did, at the mid-point of our consideration of this year’s topic—conversion:
Jesus did not choose us and send us forth to become more numerous! He called us to a mission. He put us in the midst of society like a handful of yeast: the yeast of the Beatitudes and the fraternal love by which, as Christians, we can all join in making present his kingdom. . . .
This means, dear friends, that our mission as baptized persons, priests and consecrated men and women, is not really determined by the number or size of spaces that we occupy, but rather by our capacity to generate change and to awaken wonder and compassion. We do this by the way we live as disciples of Jesus, in the midst of those with whom we share our daily lives, joys and sorrows, suffering and hopes (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 1). In other words, the paths of mission are not those of proselytism. . . .
I believe we should worry whenever we Christians are troubled by the thought we are only significant if we are the flour, if we occupy all the spaces. You know very well that our lives are meant to be “yeast”, wherever and with whomever we find ourselves, even if this appears to bring no tangible or immediate benefits (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 210). [Click here for the full text.]
This year’s meeting took place from March 28 to April 3 at Ealing Abbey (London) and Ampleforth Abbey (Yorkshire). One of the reasons the meeting was held in England this year was to honor the memory of one of the originators of this dialogue, Abbot Timothy Wright of Ampleforth, who died on May 13, 2018. Included in the three days at Ampleforth was a memorial service at his tomb. On the bus trip from Ealing to Ampleforth, the participants stopped at Priory of Our Lady of Peace, Turvey Abbey, to greet Sister Lucy Brydon, former coordinator of the Great Britain/Ireland sub-commission of DIM·MID and a participant in previous Monastic-Muslim meetings.
Abbot Timothy met Mohammad Ali Shomali in 1997/98 when he was a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Manchester. They became good friends, and Abbot Timothy invited Shomali to give three lectures to the monastic community at Ampleforth (2000-2001). They then talked about the possibility of bringing Christians and Shi‘a Muslims together to engage in spiritual/theological dialogue. In 2003, the first of three such meetings was held in England. Following those initial meetings, DIM·MID became institutionally involved in the dialogue and has helped organize six Monastic-Muslim meetings. They were held in Rome (2011), Qum (2012), Assisi/Rome (2014), Qum/Mashhad (2016), Nairobi (2017), and now England. The embedded links are to reports on these meetings that were published in Dilatato Corde.
The initial session of this year’s meeting was devoted to the meaning of “conversion” in the Bible and in the Qur’ān. Commenting on שׁוּב (shuwb), the Hebrew root word for “turn” and “return” that appears in such passages as “Turn from transgression” (Isaiah 59:20) and “Come, let us return to the Lord” (Hosea 6:1), Abbot Primate Gregory Polan emphasized that the fundamental meaning of “conversion” in the Hebrew Scriptures is turning away from sin and returning to God. That meaning is also at the heart of Jesus’ call to μετάνοια (metanoia), a word that is often translated “repentance” but literally means a change of mind and heart.
In his presentation on faith and conversion in the Qur’ān and Kalam, which has been uploaded to YouTube, Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali pointed out that the Qur’ān’s statement that the magicians of Pharaoh were the first to convert (7:120f) indicates that it is rare to find a person who cannot change. Furthermore, the Qur’ān’s emphasis on “reviving” indicates that conversion brings one to another level of life. In reference to the verse “Whoever does righteous deeds, while having faith, we will certainly revive them” (16:97), the Shi‘a commentary on the Qur’ān’ known as Al Mizan interprets this verse to mean that conversion brings about a new birth, a new life, and not simply a change in one’s existing life. A person with this new life possesses the wisdom to see and understand things that others would not.
After examining the meaning of conversion in the Bible and the Qur’ān, where the emphasis is on God as the origin and goal of conversion and where conversion is regarded as a constant element of the spiritual life, the ensuing presentations and discussions addressed such topics as the ways our two traditions understand the meaning of mission and freedom of religion. We also heard testimonies about the theological, sociological, and psychological issues involved in changing from Christianity to Islam or from Islam to Christianity.
Since those who made presentations at this meeting had the option of laying out the questions to be addressed in small group or plenary discussions rather than preparing a formal paper, there is only one presentation ready for publication at this time, Sr Agnes Wilkin’s paper on Paul Mehmet Mulla-Zade and Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil. These two Muslims, one Turkish, the other Moroccan, became Catholic priests in France in the early twentieth century and played an important role in promoting a positive view of Islam within the Catholic Church.
The following participants also submitted their reflections on this year’s meeting: Father Benoît StandaertSister Nasim Waliji, Sheikh Maysam Qasemi, Sister Patricia Crowley, and Sister Agnes Wilkins.
Photos taken during the dialogue can be found in an Image Gallery.
In place of a summary of each of the presentations and the ensuing discussions, what follows is simply a list of some of the more insightful and/or thought-provoking comments that were made during the course of this five-day meeting:
  • Prophets draw people to God, not to themselves or to their particular way/religion. They do so by example, not by force.
  • To be a self-less instrument for God means helping Christians be better Christians; Muslims be better Muslims. What is of first importance is going back to God.
  • “Submission” is the word commonly used within and outside the Muslim community to describe the religious attitude that is most fundamental. Would “surrender” be a better word? Submission to a law or to a controlling force does not necessarily mean surrendering. You surrender to someone you love, or to a higher principle.
  • The root meaning of the words “convert” and “conversion” is to turn around or to turn back, with the implication that something is being rejected. However, many conversions from one religious tradition are not so much a rejection of one’s former religious path but a desire to expand and enrich it with insights and practices from another spiritual pathway.
  • The fundamental meaning of the call to “conversion” in the Rule of Benedict is an invitation to continue seeking God in community and under a rule and an abbot (spiritual guide). Listening and hospitality are fundamental elements of monastic conversion.
  • The search for truth in the context of Christian-Muslim dialogue involves
o   understanding others and their faith, and ourselves and our own faith;
o   acknowledging our commonalities;
o   helping others be better in their own faith;
o   ridding ourselves of pre-existing stereotypes;
o   never underestimating the value of “small actions”;
o   making every opportunity to remember God together; to pray together.
  • In the Qur’ān there is no mention of any specific corporal punishment for apostates to which they are to be subjected in this world, nor do Qur’ānic verses refer, whether explicitly or implicitly, to the need to force apostates to return to Islam or to kill them if they refuse to do so. Some Muslims, however, would say the tradition of capital punishment is so strong that it has no need of Qur’ānic justification.
  • When truth is expressed in abstract terms and considered absolute, there is no climate for dialogue because one believes there is nothing that one could possibly learn from someone outside one’s tradition.
  • When speaking with those who are considering converting to another religion, remember that
o   if they feel they are simply ploys in a spiritual tug of war between the adherents of two different religious traditions, they can become disheartened and decide to abandon religion altogether;
o   religious leaders are not responsible for a person’s conversion. God is the one who guides people. What we can do is offer them support in their search for God;
o   the person considering converting to another religion also has to deal, at present and in the future, with family relationships, marital status, occupation, finance, diet, spiritual progress, etc.
  • There is one God and one religion. The Qur’ān never speaks of religions. When it contrasts the religion of the truth with the religion of the pagans/polytheists, the implication is that polytheism is not a true religion.
  • Jesus never speaks of founding a religion, not did Mohammad want his call to surrender to God to be thought of a new religion. “Islam” is a reintroduction of the original name for religion, which means serving God rather than Satan.
  • Pierre Claverie, bishop of Oran, Algeria, who was assassinated in 1996 and beatified  on December 8, 2018, along with eighteen other religious killed during Algeria’s “dark decade,” expressed a new paradigm for mission when he said at his ordination as bishop in 1981, “Yes, the church was sent on mission . . . but we do not want to be aggressors, soldiers of a new crusade against Islam . . . agents of neo-colonialism . . . We are and want to be missionaries of God’s love for us manifested in Jesus Christ—a love that does not impose itself, does not force consciences and hearts [but rather] frees what was in chains, reconciles what was torn apart.”
  • The common paradigm of mission in the Catholic Church from the 16th through the 20th centuries gave expression to an erroneous identification of the Kingdom of God with the Catholic Church. In a document issued in 2000, the Catholic bishops of Asia spoke of the Kingdom of God being present whenever humans open themselves to the divine mystery and go out in service to fellow humans. (See Jonathan Y. Tan, “Missio inter gentes”)
  • The Shi‘a understanding of mission is expressed in the word da’wah (دعا), the root meaning of which is “call” or “invite.” The Qur’ān says that all are to be invited to the way of the Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching ادْعُ إِلَىٰ سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِالْحِكْمَةِ وَالْمَوْعِظَةِ الْحَسَنَةِ (16:125). The Sunni (especially Wahabi) understanding of da’wah is that they have to do it—and they do it with insistence.
  • Dignitatis humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, affirms that all persons have a right to religious liberty, a right that is founded in the essential dignity of each human being. Without philosophical/theological grounding in human dignity, “freedom of religion” can easily appear as little more than a concession to secular relativism.
As in the previous five gatherings, the daily schedule revolved around the times for prayer of the hosting monastic community and the prayer times of the Muslims.
The participants in in this year’s dialogue were
Abbot Primate Gregory Polan OSB (Italy/United States)           
Prior Sylvanus Kessy OSB (Tanzania)                      
Sister Patricia Crowley OSB (United States)
Father Benoît Standaert OSB (Italy/Belgium)                        
Father Godefroy Raguenet de Saint-Albin OCSO (Switzerland/France)                                         
Father William Skudlarek OSB (United States)                              
Sister Agnes Wilkins OSB (UK)
Sister Lorraine Victorsen SGS (Australia)
Sheikh Mohammad Ali Shomali (UK)
Sheikh Mirza Abbas (UK)
Sheikh Mohammad Pakdin (UK)
Sheikh Maysam Qasemi (UK)
Dr Mahnaz Heydarpour (UK)
Sister Fatima Ali (Canada)
Sister Nasim Walji (UK)
Sister Shahnaze Safieddine (USA)
Sister Israa Safieddine (USA)
Sister Sumeia Younes (Argentina)
Three monks from Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria who were participants in the 2017 dialogue in Nairobi were planning on participating in this year’s meeting but were not able to come to the UK, one because of a conflicting commitment and two because their request for a visa was not granted. They were greatly missed, not only because of the important role that the Church in Africa plays and will continue to play in Christian-Muslim relations, but also because they would have given a younger, fresher face to the monastic delegation. Most of monastics present were over seventy. The members of the Muslim delegation, on the other hand, were all under seventy, some of them in their thirties.
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