a community of lovers
We’re hoping to launch a new, alternative scriptural reasoning group called SoulScript. Details of these gatherings, physical and online, will be shared soon. In the meantime, we invite you enjoy the dialogue below by Fatimah Ashrif and Julian Bond as they peel off the labels from the nature of interfaith work to the spaces of open dialogue…
‘Official’ interfaith is very clear about definitions and boundaries, but the interfaith of the heart is something that is quite different, with no rules or boundaries, a personal journey of love, risk and adventure. It’s not easy to see how these things go together, though for some of us they do.
Certainly it is an ongoing challenge for me, I don’t know if it is Fatimah’s challenge. I constantly think about how provocative or risky I can be, how careful I need to be, how inclusive (i.e. not putting people off). It is virtually impossible.
Yet though this is genuine it is more like diplomacy than interfaith, there is a certain amount of relief that comes from not being official.
Perhaps this obscures some great interfaith truths and realities, these two ‘flavours’ not only have different interactions but there can be aspects which are missing from the more formal encounters.
If I try to describe it in a way that fits with regular interfaith then ‘deep unity’ would be one way of putting it, not too threatening but open to possibility.
It seems that different People come to interfaith dialogue with differing intentions, and different types of understanding of their own, and other faiths. Dialogue can very often feel intellect-driven. Global events can sometimes make dialogue superficial, fraught or impossible. I have great respect for those like Julian, who have been doing this work with good and diligent intention all these years.
I do find myself wondering how many people engage in dialogue because they genuinely believe that learning the faith-inspired practice, and experience of someone who is from a different faith, will enrich their own spiritual connection to the Divine Source, and even hope that this experience might actually change them (religiously, spiritually, morally) somehow. Such an approach takes a real openness of heart. This must come from a deep belief that at some level Truth manifests itself in the scriptures and practice of those we dialogue with, and trust that if we are sincere, we will be guided by the Divine to what we need.
Engaging in such dialogue for me is exciting, not least because one really doesn’t know where it will lead and because one is open to the possibility of being transformed by the experience.
Fatimah may well have detected in me that I have plunged into interfaith, especially the Christian-Muslim encounter, without worrying about the consequences. I have been a fellow traveler, not a guest, or even a dialogue partner.
We can see the ‘deep unity’ which I mentioned earlier being expressed at very inclusive moments which tend to have little space for ‘unpacking’, perhaps because they come from the heart – when Muslims talk of the one religion/faith that they share with the ‘People of the Book’ or invite people to join in the chanting of ‘La ilaha ill’Allah’ (which almost always causes consternation), or perhaps when Christians leading worship invite friends of other faiths to participate in prayers and hymns as they feel able.
At Rumi’s Circle annual Urs celebrations at the Delius Centre, Bradford a couple of Decembers ago, one of the performers, Latif Bolat, sang Turkish folk songs. One of these incorporated ‘la ilaha il Allah’ in the chorus. He invited our diverse audience to sing along to this part, telling them jokingly not to worry, as it wouldn’t make them all Muslim. This elicited laughter from the audience and diffused any tension and from what I witnessed, non-Muslims joined in perfectly happily. Even the Facilities Manager (a non-Muslim), who was helping us with logistics, sat on the back row and sang along with gusto, letting out a whoop of delight at the end!
I believe that all faith traditions carry the Divine spark, articulated in different ways for different peoples in different contexts and different times. Diversity is part of God’s plan:
Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.
[Quran 5:48, translation by Muhammad Asad]
It is for me, a manifestation of His/Her unity.
So what is the deep reality of ‘deep unity’ when it is unpacked? And yes, the Qur’anic verse seems to have answered this already. Beyond being careful or ‘right’, and theological competitiveness, there is the mystical, or human, encounter we have across our differences.
Mysticism across the different faith traditions or faith traditions which focus more on the esoteric: the essence behind the form, tend to have a more inclusive or pluralistic approach. At the level of mysticism, the apparent differences seem to be left behind, and so Ibn Arabi (the Spanish Muslim scholar and mystic born in the 12th century) wrote:
a garden among the flames!
My heart can take on
a meadow for gazelles,
a cloister for monks,
for the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables of the Torah,
the scrolls of the Qur’án.
I profess the religion of love;
wherever its caravan turns along the way,
that is the belief,
the faith I keep.
[From Poem 11 of the Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, translation by Michael A. Sells]
In dialogue, if we can focus on that main common goal of desiring communion with the Divine, perhaps we might be more greatly enriched and give more to the dialogue, and the experience of others in that dialogue.
In reflecting on these encounters I wonder if our, or particularly my, senses are heightened when we are in a different worship space, or we are pleased to be there and see everything in a positive light, or blessed as we are radically included. When we experience this we cannot say how close we are, or have become, because we are really close, as we get closer the differences disappear, except for the odd dose of dogma, which is why it is best to leave dogma out of our worship.
But even dogma does not really make us unwelcome, it adds to the creative spiritual tension – it’s not going to keep us/me away, even if it looks like it. I’m not going away, I’m still here, right beside you (and beside God, Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad), even while the creed or the shahadah is being recited. This has been my experience on many occasions and, I know, Fatimah’s too.
One of my early reflections was telling a Church of England priest that, apart from dogma, everything in Christianity is in Islam too – love, ‘love your neighbour’, the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25, Hadith Qudsi). But that was some years ago (she wasn’t happy by the way), how many more things have I seen in common now? Also since then, how many times have I worshipped alongside Muslim friends, or vice versa?
So what would happen were we to ‘peel off the labels’? We already use the same religious language; if we all speak English it might not be clear who is Christian or Muslim. Hearing Fatimah expound some Christian distinctives in a very positive way recently was an ‘extreme’ example of this!
As I alluded to earlier, it often strikes me that differences in doctrine are indeed just a different way for human beings at different times in history to be introduced to the same truth i.e. the Nature of Divine Reality, and our role and place within that.
Yes, I spoke of the crucifixion as a metaphor for the human being’s spiritual journey (which is borrowed from the Muslim mystics) but I would also comfortably read it as an indicator of divine mercy and love.
This is not to say that we believe the same things – but what is under the label?
In the most generic terms the human ‘heart’ and the human-divine encounter are common to us, across our religious divide. Will we then say that some forms of encounter are deficient or of lesser quality than other spiritualities? For some the answer is definitely ‘yes’, but for some of us this is an impossible, intrusive and inappropriate question.
So if we can’t distinguish between people in this way, then why should God?
Open hearted encounter is always beautiful. Perhaps the more we can leave dogma behind, the more we might gain from these dialogue encounters. I am suggesting that we see each other as brothers and sisters with the common aim of relating to and connecting with the Divine. Open hearted dialogue of this type offers the possibility of creating trust and a deep love between us: a relationship in which we may be challenged by difference but are ready to embrace it as a manifestation of the Divine, and which allows us to have the difficult conversations necessary in relation to issues playing out in our material world.
All dialogue has the potential to take us somewhere. Where we ‘go’ is dependent on the openness of our hearts.
Fatimah Ashrif (Rumi’s Circle) and Julian Bond (Methodist Church)
Watch out for news about SoulScript soon!