By Joe Livingston
Chennai, March 24, 2019: Bi-smillāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm” (In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful) were strange words for me until I stepped into Jamia Dar-us-salaam, a madrasa (Muslim religious school) at Umrabad, Ambur, a town in the Vellore district of Tamil Nadu state in southern India.
I went there as part of an ‘Exposure to Muslim Life’ program organized for Jesuit students of Theology from Arul Kadal, Regional Theology Centre, Chennai. The exposure was an integral part of the course on Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, for the study of Theology of Religions.
A day in the company of the Muslim students and teachers of the madrasa, these strange words became a familiar phrase bringing consolation to my heart. I understood that these words reveal two most important attributes of God: Mercy and Compassion, which is on the lips of every Muslim friend.
This is also at the very heart of Christian faith that recognizes Jesus as the Merciful and Compassionate face of God, is the source of my consolation.
Hafiz Hafeez ur Rahman madani, the principal of the madrasa, took us around the classes and introduced us to the students of the senior classes. He told the Muslim students pointing to us that they (Christians) are missionaries (Daii) like you. They study for several years. They come to share with you the ‘closeness’ that the Holy Qur’an mentions.
He recognized us rightly as missionaries. It’s important. I felt that coming together as missionaries we give witness to one another’s faith. This made me think that we are all brothers and sisters moving towards the common good — peace within us and around us. We are co-workers of the Lord to build the reign of God by being the ‘Missionary disciples’.
Abdul Hameed Baqawi, one of the professors who organized our day at the madrasa, shared with us in depth the challenges he and his community faces in living as faithful and honest Muslims by ‘trusting God and obeying His will’ in this post-modern and digital world.
He told us that the Qur’an and the Hadith are the lights that show the path of life for Muslims. “These sacred texts challenges and shapes my life to avoid evil and do good in life,” he said. Further he added that Islam demands him to show his love in deeds, and thus he started helping people who are in need, giving them food, water, clothes, scholarships for the school children and sharing Islamic knowledge to the people who cared to listen to him.
I recalled the words of St. Peter; He must turn away from evil and do good. He must seek peace and pursue it (I Pt 3:11). I felt that we are pilgrims journeying with one another the final eschaton. I felt that I need to learn to approach the faith of Muslim brothers and sisters with great sensitivity on account of the spiritual and human values enshrined in their scriptures and in their lives.
We were invited to join the afternoon prayer. ‘Prayer is speaking to God without distractions’ a Muslim student, who walked me into the mosque, told me. Before entering the mosque both of us performed the ritual ablution which prepares one to enter into the sacred precincts of the mosque.
After the prayer, as we came out, I asked my young Muslim friend what he prayed for. His reply consoled me. He said that he prayed for me and for all the visitors, since we are all brothers. At that moment, I deeply felt that how true it is what St. John Paul II said, “This dialogue at its deepest level is always a dialogue of salvation, because it seeks to discover, clarify and understand better the signs of the age-long dialogue which God maintains with humanity”.
This exposure opened me to understand the demands of the four-fold dialogue that the Church advocates: The dialogue of life, the dialogue of action, the dialogue of religious experience and the dialogue of theological exchange.
The dialogue of Life is a deeper awareness that people of different faiths live in an open and neighborly spirit and sharing their joys and sorrows. We have really experienced their hospitality in welcoming us and organizing the whole day for us with a deep sense of brotherhood.
While we ‘reach out to them’, they ‘responded with brotherly love’, I felt that life offers many such moments, I need a greater awareness to ‘live’ those moments with gratitude and joy.
Our Muslim brothers at the madrasa certainly shared with us their spiritual treasures. A Christian friend of mine, with whom I shared about my experience, asked me whether we had a chance to speak about Jesus.
He felt that if we had not spoken about Jesus that experience was in vain. On reflecting on our experience situating it in the context of the question of my Christian friend, I realized there is an urge to ‘say something’.
However, I felt it is important to LISTEN and listening is one of the most important aspects in the dialogue and the integral to the whole process of dialogue.
The dialogue of theological exchange is where the experts seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious traditions, and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values. This exposure in some measure helped me discover both commonality as well as differences between these two Abrahamic faiths.
An insight of Raimon Panikkar adds flavor to such exchanges, he affirmed that dialogue – a pilgrimage where one encounters the difference of the other to discover oneself.
I am really convinced that dialogue reaches out to the mystery of God alive in others. We can have a genuine dialogue with other faiths and find the meaning of the Christ-event in the context of pluralistic world. As St. Pope Paul VI says, we are all setting out to find God in human hearts.
We join our hands with all humans of good will and collaborate and rediscover the spiritual riches within our traditions in order to bring about a peaceful society in the Name of God who is Compassionate and Merciful.
This exposure opened my heart to Muslim amigos and I recognize them as people of Good will and our brothers and sisters in Christ.