Paul Mojzes and Abdur-Rahman AbouAlmajd around Christian-Muslim Dialogue.
We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about interfaith dialogue.
At this point Dr.Paul Mojzes who invited by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies and Dialogue of Civilizations at Al-Imam University to dialogue and its role in defending Prophet Muhammad”PBUH” isn’t going to talk about his views on
around Christian-Muslim Dialogue.only but also speaks about interfaith dialogue too.
Dr. Paul Mojzes, Professorof Religious Studies at Rosemont College,
He edits "Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe” journal. He is the author of several books on Eastern Europe and the Balkans andco-editor of “The Journal of Ecumenical Studies” and founding editor of “Religion in Eastern Europe.” He studied at Belgrade University Law School, received the A.B. degree summa cum laude from Florida Southern College, and the Ph.D. degree from Boston University.
Q: The Western media has set up Islam as a big threat to the civilizedworld but you were against this kind of flawed and mischievous readingof Islam. What needs to be done in order to clear some prejudices before themuch needed dialogue takes place between Christians and Muslims? Calling for a NewDialogue between Islam and Christianity, I would in principle beinterested in making true dialogue. Do you agree with me on thisprinciple "To come to a word equal to us and you - that we worshipnone but God, and that we associate no partner with him, and that someof us don’t take others for Lords beside God."?
PM: First a preliminary remark. We have to be careful not to generalize either about Christianity or about Islam or about the media—whether Western or non-Western. I have no vested interest to defend the media but we should be aware that the media have a tendency to report things that are unusual rather than normal daily occurrences. When good or bad things happen in the religious sphere—just as they do in the business, sport, diplomatic, political or any other sphere-- the media report it. This is why it is so important for the major religious functionaries to say and do things that will make it possible for journalists to report positively about religion. As we all know, it takes very little to destroy a positive impression or a good reputation. When a crazy clergyman of a small church in Florida decided to publically burn copies of the Glorious Qur’an, it is not surprising that many of the media in the Muslim world reported it and this had cast a very bad light on Christianity and the about two billion Christians around the world. It also caused rioting by some Muslims. The same happens when some Muslim extremists do something shocking, which also gets reported. Regretfully there are literally millions of people who do not know how to evaluate and place such tiny minority of extremists events into a larger perspective and they get a negative picture of Muslims and Islam or conversely of Christians and Christianity. The vast majority of people in the West do not consider Islam as a threat but they are afraid of the small number of Islamic terrorists who have endangered not only many targets in the West but also in your own country of Saudi Arabia as well as many other predominantly Muslim countries.
We have to face the fact that prejudice-- whether it is between Christians and Muslims or any other religion or nationality-- was and unfortunately continue to be widespread. That is, indeed, one of the major reasons for needing a dialogue between Muslims and Christians, so that we can get to know one another directly—not by way of some outdated textbooks, or how some tourists or immigrants or media report it—but through direct, personal and thoughtful encounter. Nor can we expect that erroneous impressions of each other from the past will disappear quickly. Islam and Christianity were rivals for well over a thousand years, with a lot of accumulated mutual suspicions, distrust, and even hatred and violence. We will not succeed to instantly make those disappear but only patient and persistent efforts can bring improvement in our relationships.
Personally I don’t think that there was much real dialogue in the past. From my study of the history of the Christian-Muslim encounter I learned that sometimes we lived next to each other and even learned how to cooperate in certain areas, but at other times we fought or we debated each other. Both sides were convinced in the superiority of our religion. Now we need respectful, thoughtful, sincere,open-minded, and critical dialogue.
Surely one of the fundamental convictions we share is that there is only one God. This we both believe and proclaim.But we cannot impose it on those who either don’t believe in any God or believe in more than one god. When Muslims and Christians exchange their thoughts and experience about the one God, they discover that they have a great deal in common. But, naturally, our ideas of what that God is like differ not only between Muslims and Christians (and Jews who are likewise monotheists), but within each religious community there are a variety of ways in which people understand and experience God. You Muslims recite a short shahada and generally you don’t disagree with each other about it. We Christians have had a tendency to write many fairly elaborate statements (we call them creeds or affirmations of faith) about God about which we ourselves often disagree with one another. To me this is not a surprise. God is such a lofty and incredibly great Being that no human being can fully comprehend God. So we all perceive God in the best way that our religion and our mind make it possible. In dialogue Christians can learn from Muslims about your experiences with God and, if you happen to be interested in our experiences with God, we are willing to share what fills our hearts.
Q: I wonder, in your opinion, what key concepts need to be treatedhonestly if dialogue is to lead to reconciliation?
PM: Any topic which is mutually agreeable to a Muslim and Christian (or a group of them) is acceptable for dialogue. We need to note that the dialogue is not between Islam and Christianity (which are abstractions)but between concrete Christians and Muslims. In my experience it is better to start out with those topics in which there is greater similarity so that we can gradually learn to trust and understand one another. Once when we have built confidence and closer interpersonal relationships (even friendships) then we can take on more difficult and controversial topics. It is important to have dialogue on those topics that deal with the improvement of basic living conditions for life of Muslims in lands with a Christian majority and the lives of Christians in countries with a Muslim majority. How do we improve both a sense of security and of freedom to believe and practice what is so dear to us? Scholars have already done much to shed light on our basic beliefs and holy scriptures and in dialogue we can even understand each other better as to how these beliefs are implemented in the lives of the tremendous variety of followers of both religions. This needs to be expanded to an ever larger number of the followers of these two great religions.
Q: You are a Christian scholar. How better to make peace with one’sneighbors (the Muslims)?
PM: I am an example of the thousands if not millions in both of our communities who started out by not personally knowing a Muslim (or a Christian). I grew up without ever really knowing a Muslim although as a boy I remember that the best ice cream in the city was made by man named Mustafa. Later as a teenager I travelled through what seemed to us an exotic city of Sarajevo in Bosnia with all the mosques but neverreally got to know personally any Muslims. Yet anti-Muslim prejudices were taught to us by the environment due to the history of the Balkans.
It was only in college when I arrived in the United States in 1957 when I started learning about Islam and then gradually began meeting and befriending Muslims. As a young professor, in 1969 I decided that my family and I would live in Istanbul for four months just so that I could experience interactions with Turkish Muslims. Prior to that I travelled through Malaysia, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, subsequently I travelled to Indonesia, Jordan, and now finally to Saudi Arabia. Since that time I engaged in dialogues (formal and informal) not only with Muslim scholars from different countries but befriended many Bosnian, Macedonian and Albanian Muslims and helped some of them to adjust to the USA as refugees after the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. I have many Muslim students at Rosemont College in Pennsylvania. Our local Methodist Church (a Protestant denomination) together with the Islamic Community and Jewish synagogue periodically organize meetings so that we can understand and cooperate with each other better. So far I have had only good experiences in cooperating with Muslims.
Q: You have had only good experiences in cooperating with Muslims, Could you elaborate on that please?
PM: As a young professor, when I realized that my negative feelings about Muslims were not my own experiences I decided I must form my own personal experiences living for a while in a majority Muslim country. What I discovered –and that really should not be a surprise—that Muslims are like people anywhere in the world: most are good, many are mixed, and some are bad. But basically people were friendly, helpful, honest, ambitious, trustworthy and followed God’s will—the kind of people who make good friends and co-workers. Some of my colleague professors are Muslims, some of the medical personnel that treat me are Muslims, some of the people who come to make repairs in my house are Muslims, and as I mentioned before, some of my students from many countries are likewise Muslims. Are all of them perfect?No. Are they my brothers and sisters, created by the same God? Yes. Best of all, many of our friends are Muslims. We give them the key to our house when we are away, we visit each other for holy days, we celebrated this New Year’s together. These are just a few instances of good experiences.
Q: You didn't blindly follow the 'clash of civilizations' ('with us oragainst us').Could you elaborate on that please?
PM: An empirical factwhich is observable on a global scale is that not only between Christians and Muslims, but among other great religious and cultural groupings there is tension and violence. One should neither exaggerate the scope of the “clash of civilizations” nor underestimate it. It is exactly because of such conflicts and clashes that “dialogue among civilizations” is so crucial. This need is now being recognized not only by many (but regretfully not all) religious leaders but also by many politicians and by many common people. Dialogue of civilizations is of such a great importance that the United Nations had promoted it in various ways. The “clash of civilizations” is so dangerous because some individuals and groups in various societies are willing and able to manipulate the political, ideological, and religious sphere that can easily provoke outbreaks of enormous violence throughout the world. I don’t think I need to give examples; there are simply too many of them. I believe that this is the reason His Highness King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saudand, for instance, Prince Hassan bin Tallal of Jordan, the late President Boris Trajkovski of Macedonia as well as President Barak Obama understand so well that we all need to follow the example of the recently deceased President Nelson Mandela in leading nations into reconciliation.
Q: Why do you think Christian writers on the Qur’an and ProphetMuhammad often have a negative view of both?
PM: The reason stems from the traditional sense of rivalry with Islam and the perception of danger. Often scholars share the prejudices and preconceptions of their society and they perpetuate some of the unexamined traditional views. However, a very large number of Western scholars and religious leaders look at the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad in an appreciative perspective. The recently deceased Anglican Bishop Kenneth Cragg, who lived in Muslim countries large parts of his life, wrote very positively on the Prophet and the Qur’an (his best known book was The Call of the Minaret). I have used in my courses a rather large number of various textbooks on world religions, including Islam, and, without exception, they all treat these subjects positively and with respect and appreciation. It may surprise your readers that among many American students who have not been well educated in religious matters many of the students from Christian backgrounds may know at least as much about Prophet Muhammad as they do about Jesus and the Bible. There is an increasing religious illiteracy in the West about our own religion which is both regretful and dangerous.
Q: No doubt you studied the Qur’an I want to know how do you find it?
PM: Not being a scholar who specializes in Qur’anic studies I read only some passages from the Qur’an here and there. I must admit that the English translation makes for very difficult understanding (and I don’t know Arabic). Recently I had a young Muslim female student from Africa who took a course with me and she would frequently tell how this or that story from the Old or New Testament was also found in the Qur’an and she would read those passages to me, which increased my appreciation of your holy scripture.
Q: You were invited to the dialogue and its role in defending prophet Muhammadconference. I ask, how did you like this event?
PM: This was my very first visit to Saudi Arabia. Regretfully it was very short (only two days) because I had to rush back to give final examinations to my students. Since I had very little information about the conference prior to arriving I had no idea about the details of the program, nor did I realize that it would be such a very large gathering and yet with so few non-Muslims. However, everyone made us feel most welcome. We were made to feel as honored guests.Translation into English was provided. From what I understood from the translations it is clear that some of the conference participants’ understanding of what dialogue is and when and how it was and is practiced is very different from the way I understand it. The conference was not a Muslim-Christian dialogue but a conference of what dialogue may mean for Muslims and how it should be conducted. In other words, it was an internal Muslim discussion about the need and desire for dialogue. It was clear to me that the consensus was that Muslims should engage in dialogue. The only thing that seemed different is that most speakers seem to suggest that a certain outcome of such dialogues is to be expected while I think that we should engage in dialogue and see where our exchange of ideas lead us. Certainly we are not aiming at a convergence or identity of views but hope to close some of the gaps in what we think of each other and how we can successfully work on behalf of a tumultuous and suffering world.
Q: We discussed when we were in Riyadh. Time did not allow to completeyour answers. I wonder if you want to add or complete those words.
PM: I was overwhelmed by so many impressions that I am sure there are many other issues that could and should be discussed. I would simply hope that the organizers of this meeting and the many other authorities in Saudi Arabia will continue their support and involvement in interreligious, intercultural, international, and intercivilizational dialogue both in your own country and elsewhere in the world. If I can be of any help, it would give me great pleasure to do so.
Q: What about the future of Christian-Muslim Dialogue?
PM: Books have already been published about the many achievements of the previous dialogues. At first only a small number of Muslims and Christians scholars and religious leaders participated. And there were many who did not think that it was a good idea. But in the last ten or twenty years an ever larger number of people, from specialists to common followers, have come to understand that dialogue is not a luxury but a necessity in our contemporary world. A well-known Swiss Catholic theologian, Hans Kueng, has coined a phrase “dialogue or death”. What he meant to say is that unless we do dialogue (rather than debate, or avoid each other, or denigrate each other) we’ll continue the more violent forms of encounter that do lead to smaller or larger number of deaths, even genocides. All one needs is to read what is happening around the world to know just how dangerous it is. Of course, many of these wars are really not wars of religion but are economic, political, social, ethnic or tribal conflicts which use religion as a cover, hoping that more people will support the violence. For those reasons dialogue and cooperation is a life-saving necessity. I am confident that it will continue to expand exponentially.
Abdur-Rahman AbouAlmajd: Thank you very much, Mojzes.
Paul Mojzes:It was a great honor and pleasure to respond to your kind invitation. I hope we can continue such exchanges.
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