Sunday, March 12, 2006

Muslim-Christian Dialogue

Solidarity in Struggle and Spirituality Muslim-Christian Relationship in the Philippines
Melanio La Guardia Aoanan Initial Theological Affirmations
First of all, the advocacy of Muslim-Christian dialogue and solidarity is imperative not only due to the actual tensions and turmoil in the region but primarily due to the self-understanding of both the communities of faith. Both Islam and Christianity, aside from being monotheistic, affirm the dual structure of human existence as inter-acting and comprehending (in relation to God and to other beings). This means we can, and do, encounter God through actualizing God's will in our lives, and inter-acting with others, and also comprehending partially God's nature and mystery. This partial understanding of God needs to be translated into words and communicated in order to be enriched and also to establish human community.
Secondly, both Islam and Christianity need to maintain the essentially communal and dialogical nature of our understanding of God, and to keep it dynamically open and alive. This dynamic freedom and openness is necessary to enrich each community of faith and establish a wider human community.
Thirdly, as a Christian who accepts the fundamental insights of the 16th century Reformation, I affirm that God's Word remains free in relation to particular community of faith. This is to safeguard the truth that God is the Sovereign Lord not only of the Church but also of the whole creation. Because God's Word is free, through our Muslim-Christian dialogue we must be open to the new breakthroughs whenever and whichever it pleases God. Thus, we must maintain the sense of humility, openness, responsiveness, and responsibility within the limits of our respective communities of faith.
Insights into Islamic Spirituality
Very recently, an important book on Islamic spirituality was published. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in the introduction to the volume, affirms that "spirituality in Islam is inseparable from the awareness of the One, of Allah, and a life lived according to His will."1 The core of the Islamic faith is the principle of unity (al-tawhid); and Islamic spirituality in all its plurality is determined by tawhid. "Spirituality is tawhid and the degree of the spiritual attainment achieved by any human being is more other than the degree of his or her realization of tawhid."2
There are two major sources of spirituality in Islam, says Seyyed H. Nasr. These are the Koran and the ‘inner’ substance of the Prophet. Since Islam embraces all aspects of human life, both the outward and the inward, Islamic spirituality is nothing but the realization of unity (tawhid). In this paper, I would like to stress the ritual practices of Islam that lead to inwardness and the world of the spirit.
The Arabic word for spirituality is ruhhaniyah. It is derived from ruh or spirit. Spirituality concerns what God has revealed or what God has commanded (Sura 17:85). As such, Islamic spirituality "possesses inwardness and interiority, and is identified with the real, permanent and abiding rather than the transient and passing." Furthermore, it evolves "a sense" of the presence of the barakah (grace and blessing) which flows in the veins of the universe and within the life of man to the extent that he dictates himself to God."3
In short, the essence of Islamic spirituality is to realize the principle of unity as expressed in the Koran and exemplified in the life of Prophet Muhammad. Throughout the more than 1,300 years of Islamic history, this spirituality has rejuvenated and produced "countless men and women of saintly nature who have fulfilled the goal of human existence and brought joy to other human beings."4
Two of the five pillars of Islam which deepen our understanding of Islamic spirituality are ritual prayer (salat) and fasting (sawm). The practice of ritual prayers was borrowed by Muhammad from the Jews and the Christians in Arabia.5 The importance of ritual prayers in Islamic piety and spirituality was prescribed by Muhammad himself in the Koran. Several verses attest to this. Here are some:
"Fulfill your devotional obligations... and you find God" (Sura 2:110)."Piety lies in believing in God...observing your devotional obligations" (Sura 2:177)"...perform your act of prayer befittingly; and praying at fixed hours prescribed for the faithful." (Sura 4:103)"Observe the service of prayer, from the sun's declining from the meridian, to the darkening of the night, and the recitation at dawn." (Sura 17:78)
It is clear from the above verses that salat is central in the devotional life of the Muslims. It is obligatory, i.e., "a regulated ordinance of Islamic religion." The practice of five daily prayers, as indicated in the above Koranic verses, was based on two popular legends. The first is that when Muhammad ascended to heaven, Allah imposed fifty daily salats on the community. Nabi Musa (Moses) heard of it and told Muhammad: "Return to thy Lord for the community is not able to bear this." So Allah changed it from fifty to twenty-five salats. But Musa believed that twenty-five daily prayers would still be too much for the community. Again, he sent Muhammad back to Allah until the number was reduced to five. Another widely held tradition why there are five daily prayers is that the Angel Gabriel came down fives times in one day and performed the salat in Muhammad's presence and the latter on each occasion imitated the angel.6
There are three prerequisites for a valid salat. The first is the ritual purification by washing of the face, hands, head and feet with water. Once purification is done, the believer is ready to perform the salat and the reading of the Koran. The second prerequisite is the proper covering of the body. For the females, the entire body must be covered except the face, hands and feet. The third requirement has something to do with the place. It must be clean, tranquil, and free from any distraction. Prayer rugs are often used but are not absolutely necessary. The worshipper must face the Qiblah which indicates the precise direction of Mecca.7
The Sura't Al-Fatiha is also a very significant aspect of ritual prayers. Fatiha is the opening chapter of the Koran. According to Mahmoud M. Ayoub, Fatiha has a significant place in Islamic spirituality. First, it is an essential element in liturgical worship." As such, M. M. Ayoub claims that the Fatiha is being recited at least 17 times in the five daily prayers. Secondly, the Al-Fatiha is a formula of supplication, i.e., a source of divine blessing and an expression of praise and thanksgiving to God. As such, it is used to "begin every ventures, to seal agreements and relationships, and to mark birth and death."8 Allahbakh Brohi says the Sura’t Al-Fatiha "sets forth the essence of the prayer, if not the whole of Islamic religion itself. It is the quintessence of the whole of the Koran."9
M. M. Ayoub examines the Sura't Al-Fatiha verse by verse and suggests that its significance in Islamic spirituality parallels that of "the Lord's Prayer" in Christianity. He states: "Like the Lord's Prayer, the Fatiha constitutes the essential element of liturgical worship... Again, like the Lord's Prayer, the Fatiha has been regarded not only as a prayer of supplication and praise but also as a wellspring of divine grace and blessing (barakaj which the pious can internalize and make their own through repeated recitation."10
The first line of the Fatiha is "In the name of God, the All-Merciful, the Compassionate." This is known as the Al Basmalla or the invocation. It is comparable to our Christian formula "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." The importance of the Basmalla is attested to by the following statement. "All branches of knowledge are contained in four sacred books: the Torah, Psalms, Gospel, and the Koran. The knowledge contained in the first three is all contained in the Koran. The knowledge of the Koran is expressed in the Fatiha, and that of the Fatiha is contained in the Basmalla.11
Islamic tradition affirms that performance of the five daily salats secures entrance into Paradise. It is said that on the day of the final reckoning, the performance of salat is the consideration of first importance: "The first thing to be dealt with is the salat; if this point is in order, the person has attained bliss, if not then the person is lost."12 In short, salat should be performed devoutly, wholeheartedly and with concentration because as Ibn Sina said, it is an "intimate conversation with God." Ibn Sinna further wrote that the "essence of salat is the recognition of God in His existence". He then asserted that "a man in prayer is in intimate conversation with his Lord.... Those who are in this state of mind are spiritually in the presence of God as they gaze upon the deity in a real vision."13
Let us now expand our understanding of Islamic spirituality by discussing the significance of sawm. According to Zafar Ishaq Ansari, sawm or fasting is part of "an act of worship that consists of religiously intended abstention from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse from dawn till dusk."14 The original Arabic word sawin means "to be at rest." The practice of fasting seems to have been appropriated by Muhammad from the Jews and Christians whom he encountered.
It is believed that Muhammad introduced the practice of fasting to his followers in 622 CE. He himself fasted and enjoined his followers to do the same on the 10th day of the month of Muharram. The Koranic injunctions for the practice of sawm is in Sura 2:183-185. Fasting is commanded on the believers so that they "might become righteous." The number of days in the month of Ramadan are fixed by the Koran in Muslim religious life. In the understanding of the Muslim, fasting is "a means of fostering piety, of celebrating the glory of God, and of thanking Him for revealing the Koran as a guide for [humankind] and clear signs for guidance and judgment."15
The practice of fasting during the month of Ramadan has special significance in Muslim religious life. It is obligatory for anyone who has reached the age of puberty and is in full possession of his/her senses. Those who are travelling, women who are pregnant, nursing as well as menstruating, and those who are sick are exempted from fasting, but they have to make up for it at a later date. The elderly and the incurably sick are totally exempted from fasting.
Fasting begins when "the white thread of dawn appears" and continues "until the night falls" [Sura 2:187]. It is a widespread practice following the Koranic prescription that those who fast should eat before dawn and again after sunset, and they could break the fast with a light meal or iftar. They have to take the light meal hurriedly because the sunset prayer (maghrib) is performed immediately after twilight.
Like food, sexual intercourse is allowed after sunset and before the break of dawn. The Koran says: "You are allowed to sleep with your wives on the nights of the fast. They are your dress as you are theirs. God is aware you were cheating yourself, so He turned to you and pardoned you. So now you may have intercourse with them, and seek what God has ordained for you" (Sura 2:187).
Let us now assess the importance of fasting as held by Muslims through the ages. The noted Muslim reformer Al Ghazzali observed that "the high esteem in which fasting stands with God" is twofold. First, "fasting is a passive act and no one sees men fast except God." Secondly, fasting is a "means of defeating the enemy of God, because human passions, which are the Shaitan's (Satan) means of attaining his ends, are stimulated by eating and drinking."16
There is a widespread belief among Muslim today that fasting, especially during the month of Ramadan, "is the most fitting atonement for sins committed in the course of the year." No wonder, the practice of fasting is widely observed among Muslims. They have a tradition that a person who practises fasting has a more pleasant scent before God than that of any perfume. It is also believed that a person who fasts is highly honored in Paradise; he or she enters by a special gate and meets God and receives heavenly joy.17 With these promises of heavenly reward, and the inner assurance of one's intimate relationship with God, Muslims have a vibrant and sustained praxis of spirituality that we can only envy as Christians.
Salat and Sawin: Pathways Towards Muslim-Christian Solidarity
After discussing the theoretical and practical significance of ritual prayer and fasting, let me now propose that these two pillars of Islamic faith could be effective instruments for promoting the bond of Muslim and Christian solidarity or what Khalid Duran calls "Chrislamic" solidarity.18 Duran cites examples of Muslim-Christian unity and cooperation "born out of a very simple necessity" amid the backdrop of "centuries of futile enmity." These samples of synergistic efforts "resulted in the birth of a new symbol, illustrating unity of purpose of the two religious communities."19 This new symbol is a white flag bearing a red crescent and cross. Two of the noteworthy experiences of Muslim-Christian cooperation cited by Duran are the following. First was the experience of some 200 medics from France who "spent about a year with the Afghan resistance in a country ravaged by Soviet occupation forces." Afghanistan with an entirely Muslim population "has always shown a repellent attitude toward every thing foreign." But the Afghans were deeply touched by the "sacrificial spirit" of the young French volunteers who risked their lives during "every moment of their sojourn in the 'liberated areas,' sharing the sufferings of a people subjected to the most savage aggression of our times." Hashint Zamani, a poet of the Afghan resistance, describes this experience as "a new page that has been opened in Muslim-Christian relations."20
Another significant effort towards Muslim-Christian relations was spearheaded by the Mission Academy of Hamburg University in Germany. This is noteworthy because the work has something to do with the Moros, "a suppressed Muslim minority in the southern Philippines." Staff of the Mission Academy endeavor "to preserve Moro literature and traditions" making them available to the media, thus helping the Moros maintain their identity. Due to these efforts, the Moros have developed a new consciousness that their struggle for freedom is not a war between Christianity and Islam. Rather, their collective struggle is a popular resistance against a corrupt regime [the then Marcos dictatorship] that was just as anti-Christian as it was anti-Muslim.
The important realization that the "Mindanao problem" is not a conflict of religion [Christians versus Muslims] has motivated enlightened leaders of both groups to embark on efforts at mutual understanding and cooperation. In these efforts, we must. listen to Vatican II’s declaration that Christians, whether Catholic or Protestants, should look upon Muslims with "sincere respect" because their monotheistic faith "often reflects a ray of that Truth which enlightens all [peoples]."21 Moreover, Vatican II declares that the Muslim "submit wholeheartedly even to [God's] inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham, with whom the Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus; at times they call on her, too, with devotion. Consequently, they prize the moral life, and give worship to God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting."22
Although these efforts will not settle important theological differences, they will sail forth amid the tumultuous ocean of human suffering and will continue to deepen humanitarian commitment for the defence of human rights. It is at this point, I believe, that the praxis of Islamic spirituality such as salat and sawm could open the way towards a confidence-building mechanism between Christians and Muslims that will lead to a bond of "Chrislamic" solidarity.
Let me describe here a program [Muslim-Christian dialogue exposure] which I personally facilitated in my capacity as a college chaplain in North Cotabato. This was a part of a series of activities we call "Duyog Ramadan". The word "Duyog" means "to accompany". As a program, therefore, it is an expression of solidarity on the part of Christian Filipinos with Muslim Filipinos. It was a unique educational campaign to build and deepen Christian awareness and understanding about Muslim Filipinos--their faith and culture--and together discuss the practical issues of life such as socio-economic and political struggles, cultural and religious practices, our common hopes and aspiration for a wholesome and harmonious coexistence.23
The activity started with a two-day live-in retreat which included orientation into the purpose of the program, getting to know the participants and facilitators, sharing of perceptions and experiences regarding Muslim-Christian relationship, lecture-presentation on the national situation, the history of the Moro struggle, the meaning of Ramadan and the practices of ritual prayer and fasting, etc. After the two-day intense encounter, the participants were brought to different Muslim villages for exposure for two days. A pair of Muslim and Christian participants stay with a Muslim family for 24 hours or more, to be part of the family, as it were. The pair join the family activities, particularly in the observance of fasting and ritual prayer. And since the family members are fasting, there are no heavy chores except sitting or lying down on the floor and engaging in conversation. By evening, the pair join the family in going to the mosque as the whole village community comes together to celebrate Id-ul-Fitri, a religious service to break the fast with a community feast (buka). The following morning the participants come back to the college campus for a half-day evaluation and sharing of significant insights gained from the experience.
Without exception, all the Christian participants share many positive impressions of their Muslim hosts as well as the whole village celebration and feast. The religious devotion and ethical practices of Muslims are quite similar to Christian practices. This was the discovery of the Christian participants. Of course, for most of the Christian participants, it was their first experience of the practice of fasting. This experience brought them to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the poverty situation among the majority of the Muslim villagers. The realization among the participants was that the poverty situation is one that makes the majority of the Muslims and Christians share the struggle for liberation and freedom. In short, there is realization of the oneness of the struggle against poverty.
It is at this juncture that the deep well of spiritual resources of both faiths becomes a powerful weapon for the common struggle against poverty. There is the discovery of spiritual strength which is abundant but latent in both communities. This latent spiritual resource is waiting to be tapped for the building of a more peaceful, harmonious and productive 'Chrislamic' bond of solidarity.
Thus far, we have recognized the urgent need for a serious study of spirituality among Muslim and Christian Filipinos. We have suggested that ritual prayer and fasting have been of central importance in Islamic spirituality through the ages. Muhammad prescribed the observance of them as works of piety as attested by the Koran. We have described their theoretical and practical significance and they could be used as effective instruments in promoting a wholesome Muslim-Christian relationship.
The annual celebration of Duyog Ramadan promoted by churches and Church-related colleges has contributed to the confidence-building mechanism among Muslims and Christians in Mindanao. It has promoted stronger bonds of Chrislamic solidarity forged with the realization of three factors. First, the discovery that the so-called Muslim-Christian conflict in Mindanao is not really a war between the two communities of faith--Islam and Christianity. Secondly, the discovery that both Christians and Muslims could draw from their respective wellsprings of spiritual resources, particularly the practice of salat and sawm. Thirdly, and more significantly, the discovery that we are not only drawn closer by our shared poverty but by the unity (tawhid) which we find in God, the All-Merciful and Compassionate One! Our nearness and intimate conversation with God through the praxis of prayers and fasting lead as to establish the bond of Chrislamic solidarity that could restore the landscape of peace, harmony and prosperity to our beloved yet blood-stained Motherland!

Seyyed H. Nasr (ed.) Islamic Spirituality: Foundations 4. New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1987, p.xv.
Ibid., p. xvii.
Ibid., p. xviii.
H.A.R. Gibb (ed.) Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1961, p.491.
Ahmed Ali. Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Gibb, op cit.
Keith Crim, Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1981, p.577.
M. M. Ayoub, "The Prayer in Islam," in Journal of the American Academy of Religion. XLVII/4 [Dec. 1979], p.635.
Allahbakh Brohi, "The Spiritual Dimension of Islam," in S. H. Nasr (ed.) Islamic Spirituality. New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1987, p.132.
Ayoub, op cit., p.639.
Ayoub, ibid p.640.
Gibb, op cit p.498.
Gibb, ibid p.499.
Zafar Ishaq Ansari in Encyclopaedia of Religion. Vol. 13 (ed. By Mircea Eliade) New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987, p.90.
Ansari, ibid p.91.
Gibb, op cit., pp. 506-507.
Gibb, ibid, p.507.
Khalid Duran, "Muslim-Christian Cooperation," in Hans Kung & J. Moltmann (eds) Christianity Among World Religions. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1986, pp. 22-28.
Duran, ibid., p.22.
Duran, ibid, p.24.
Walter M. Abbott, (ed.) The Documents of Vatican II. New York: Association Press, 1966, p.662.
Ibid., p.663.
For a more detailed description of this program, see my book, Strengthening Muslim-Christian Solidarity. Davao City: SCC MIND Series, No. 1, 1992.


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