Dilatato Corde 2:2
July – December, 2012
Square in front of the Shrine of Lady Fatima Masuma in Qum, Iran.
Square in front of the Shrine of Lady Fatima Masuma in Qum, Iran.

DIMMID IN IRAN
DIALOGUE WITH SHI'A MUSLIMS

“Monks and Muslims: Creating Communities of Friendship” was the theme of a Monastic/Muslim dialogue that took place in Qum, Iran, September 28 to October 3, 2012. The nine Benedictine and Cistercian participants came from monastic communities in Belgium, England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Kenya, and the United States. The fifteen Muslim participants were professors, administrators, researchers, and students from various universities and educational institutes in Qum. Photos taken during the meeting can be found in the photo gallery.

Most of the participants who came together in Qum had taken part in a Monastic/Muslim dialogue in Rome the previous year. Meeting one another in Qum, this time for a dialogue on friendship, allowed us to deepen the bonds of friendship that had been established the year before. Four pairs of papers examined friendship from different perspectives: friendship as it occurs in the Bible and the Qur‘an; friendship as a spiritual discipline for monks and Muslims; friendship as the prerequisite and goal of Monastic/Muslim Dialogue; and finally an examination of the amity and enmity that has marked the history of the relationship between Christians and Muslims.

As we reflected on these presentations, we came to a deeper understanding of friendship as a gift from God, and we recognized that our vocation now is to develop this friendship to its full potential by developing intimacy with God, who is alive and active in the lives of each.  Friendship of this kind can be fulfilled only when we all see the image of God in the other, and will be fully realized in the life of resurrection to which we both aspire. We deepen this friendship  by rejecting the language of violence and negative criticism and by committing ourselves to careful listening in order to come to a better understanding of and respect for one another's faith.

At a time when much of the English language media has little good to say about Iran, it was especially pleasing to receive the incredibly warm, generous, and always attentive hospitality of our Iranian hosts, and also of the Iranian people at large, many of whom were intrigued by our monastic garb—which we also wore on the street—and would approach us to ask who we were and to welcome us to their country.

Being in Qum, the most important religious and educational center in Iran, deepened our understanding of and appreciation for the ways ritual and personal prayer, pilgrimage, and theological/philosophical reflection shape the Shi‘a tradition of Islam. There are some 60,000 seminarians in Qum, in addition to thousands of other students, many of them women, who are enrolled in the various institutions of higher learning in the city.  In the area of religion, most study and research is understandably focused on Islam,but Qum also has a “University of Religions and Denominations” (Wikipedia article) and Dr. Shomali’s International Institute for Islamic Studies has as one of its goals, “Training professional and competent researchers to introduce Islam in general and Shi‘ite Islam in particular in religious and scientific centers in the country or abroad and in international seminars and interfaith dialogues” (Wikipedia article).

During our time in Iran we were taken to several important educational, religious, and cultural institutions, primarily in Qum, where we met with administrators, faculty, and students. We also spent a day in the ancient capital city of Isfahan, where, in addition to the seventeenth-century Masjid-I Imam (Mosque) and other points of interest, we were able to visit one of the Armenian churches in the city.

Ritual and personal prayer gave a particularly “monastic” tone to this dialogue. Visits to various mosques and shrines provided opportunities for personal prayer and meditation. Monastic Lauds and Vespers were chanted at our hotel, but Midday Prayer took place in a special prayer room of the International Institute for Islamic Studies. We prayed in silence as our Muslim friends recited noon prayer (dhuhr), and then our Muslim friends stood with us as we celebrated our Midday Prayer in the same place. There was something very fitting about this coming together for prayer: two different ways of praying, each addressed to the One God, whose gifts were clearly shared among the participants.

We were especially fortunate to arrive in Qum on the last day of a ten-day festival honoring the Shi’ites second most venerated woman, Lady Fatima Masuma, sister of the eighth infallible imam. On that Friday afternoon we were taken to her shrine, which was teeming with pilgrims. The theological student who acted as our guide stopped at the entrance to speak to an official, and several of us wandered into the main court. We were quickly called back and assumed that we must have entered a space that was reserved for pilgrims. The reason, however, was that the head imam of the shrine, who had already gone home for dinner, was being informed of our arrival and would need a little time to return to the shrine to receive us officially. He and his staff arrived a few minutes later, opened the reception room of the adjoining theological school, welcomed us warmly, and, after offering us refreshments and conversing with us, took us to the tomb of Lady Fatima Masuma, where we could observe and, if we wished, join the pilgrims who were circumambulating her tomb.

The meeting in Iran was the second Monastic/Muslim meeting organized by Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique/Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (DIMMID). The first took place at the Primatial Abbey of Sant’Anselmo in Rome September 14–17, 2011, when nine Iranian Shi’a Muslims and ten monks and nuns came together for a dialogue on “The Word of God Calling us to Prayer and Witness.”

Regional commissions of DIMMID and different monastic communities have engaged in dialogue with Muslims, but the meeting that took place at Sant’Anselmo in 2011 was the first international monastic/Muslim dialogue organized by DIMMID. It was preceded by several exchanges between Western Christians (including monastics) and Iranian Shi‘a Muslims that were initiated in 2003 by Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali, now director of the International Institute for Islamic Studies in Qum, and Dom Timothy Wright, then abbot of Ampleforth Abbey in England. In a public address that he gave during the course of the 2011 meeting in Rome, Abbot Timothy explained how he came to know Dr. Shomali when he was a doctoral student in England and how their friendship led to a series of interreligious conferences that were held in England and in Iran between 2003 and 2008.

In his public address at the same public session, Dr. Shomali emphasized that his involvement in interreligious dialogue is a direct response to the Qur‘anic call for dialogue: “Say, ‘O People of the Book! Come to a word common between us and you’” (3:64). He went on to emphasize that “dialogue is one feature of the Islamic understanding of the Unity of God. The Unity of God must be echoed in the unity of humankind.”[1] According to Dr. Shomali, dialogue between Islam and Christianity is not just to keep peace between their adherents. He believes Muslims and Christians have a historical responsibility to be witnesses of divine and moral values for the rest of humanity.

 


[1] Mohammad Ali Shomali, “Dialogue: A Bridge between the Oneness of God and the Unity of Humanity” in Monks and Muslims: Monastic and Shi‘a Spirituality in Dialogue, ed. Mohammad Ali Shomali and William Skudlarek (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), p. 151.

 
 
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