By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published September 21, 2006
Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, many Catholic leaders engaged in interfaith dialogue feel it is more urgent than ever that American Muslims and Catholics come together to build peace and foster dialogue, witnessing to the world common values of charity and social justice.
In the Atlanta Archdiocese, Emory’s Aquinas Center of Theology took a small step toward understanding at an interfaith forum it sponsored in May at Holy Spirit Church, where an imam, a Dominican scholar, female rabbi and Southern Baptist minister sat side by side and affirmed that God the Father is neither Muslim, Jew nor Catholic but the Creator of persons of every race and creed in the one human family.
The theme was “do you believe these faiths can live together in peace?” and as divine peace is a strong tradition in each of these three monotheistic religions the general answer was yes—if intentionally worked at.
Sister Mary-beth Beres, OP, opened the forum. “We know God the Creator loves everybody God has made. We gather here to learn to love as the Creator loves. We have a chance to know each other better by hearing how God has revealed himself through different faith traditions. And it is one God.”
The following week at St. Jude the Apostle Church, Islam expert Dr. George W. Braswell spoke on the different faces of Islam as he gently clasped wooden Muslim “tasbah” prayer beads and a hardback Qur’an, standing before a Shiite image of the prophet Muhammad. The North Carolina resident spoke before a packed parish hall of attentive listeners. He recalled when religious pluralism in the United States meant Protestants, Catholics and Jews. But Islam, established through the prophet Muhammad who lived from 570-632 A.D. in present-day Saudi Arabia, “is on the real move.” It has a missionary tradition and “went westward like wildfire” in the first 100 years of its establishment, reaching deep into the Middle East, Spain and France, Turkey and North Africa.
Converted through a mixture of military conquest and witness to holiness, the four largest Muslim countries today are not in the Middle East but in Asia, with the largest being Indonesia, followed by India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. African-Americans began converting in the 1930s partially because they were dissatisfied with Christian church attitudes toward race and segregation, he said.
In 1970 Christians composed 33.4 percent of the world’s population and Muslims about 14.3 percent. In 2005 Christianity was about 33.67 percent while Islam had grown to 23.8 percent. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and second largest after Christianity.
Attendees at both events educated themselves on this, religion that like Christianity and Judaism traces its roots to Abraham, but is fundamentally different in many doctrines. Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, reveres Jesus and Moses as the greatest prophets after Muhammad. Muslims believe that God gave the Torah to Moses, the psalms to David and the Gospels to Jesus, but gave Muhammad the final, full divine revelation.
Muslims deny the crucifixion of Jesus, his divinity, and the Trinity and believe that the Gospels are a combination of original revelation and human distortion.
Braswell, author of “Islam and America: Answers to the 31 Most-asked Questions,” spoke on the five pillars of Islam, its perspective on respecting the other “people of the book,” Christians and Jews, and on the dual meaning of “jihad.”
Braswell is former director of the doctor of ministry program and distinguished professor of mission and world religions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C. He lived in Iran from 1968-74, where he served as professor of English and comparative religions at the University of Tehran.
Braswell acknowledged that many Americans associate Islam with terrorist acts, beginning with the 444-day siege of the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979 following the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini and continuing with the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and U.S. sailors off the coast of Yemen, 9/11 and then train bombings in England and Spain, leaving Americans asking “what is going on with this great world religion of Islam and Muslim people?”
“My whole professional life has been to try to relate theology to what is happening in society,” he said. “We can’t be in an ivory tower. We’ve got to see what is going on in the minds and hearts of Muslims around the world and what is going on with their preaching. What is Islam and … and how has it gotten to where it is?”
The five pillars of Islam start with belief in the one God, Allah, and Muhammad and obedience to the Qur’an, which “is very authoritative in their lives.” Muslims believe the exact words of the Qur’an were written on a tablet in Arabic in paradise and were given through the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad, who was illiterate and a religious reformer, to create the book over a 23-year period. There is belief that Allah can’t share his nature with anyone or anything else and also a call to obedience to one of four major Sunni schools or two major Shiite schools of Shariah, or Islamic law, based on the Qur’an and the Hadith, collections of narrations about Muhammed’s life.
“They believe in a strong day of judgment with paradise and hell and are fearful that if they don’t do enough they won’t get into paradise,” he said.
Other pillars for Muslims are to practice almsgiving, observe a daytime fast during Ramadan, and make a pilgrimage, if possible, to Mecca. They pray while facing Mecca five times a day.
The professor explained that the term “jihad” is most widely accepted as the personal struggle to be obedient to God and a “good Muslim” and to invite others to the faith of Islam.
But the second, less common meaning is that Muslims can use military warfare for a jihad if needed to defend themselves if they’ve been attacked in some way, as the Qur’an teaches retaliation is just when in proportion to the attack. But they must have permission from a legitimate Islamic leader or head of state who issues a fatwa, or legal judgment, that the faith has been attacked and Muslims have the right to defend it. Ayatollah Khomeini did so in the1980s against writer Salman Rushdie for criticizing Muhammad in a book and against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. Osama bin-Laden “got Afghan and Saudi clerics to go to bat for him, and they began to issue fatwas and began to start declaring jihad against Christians, Jews and infidels” for reasons such as Western hegemony and the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, Braswell said.
The 9/11 hijackers, as they murdered over 3,000 people, believed they were on a jihad, he continued, noting how the lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, an educated Egyptian from a professional-class family, left in his car his last will and testimony.
“Basically speaking, the 19 hijackers had been formulating ‘what we’re going to do for God,’ while they had been listening to certain Islamic preaching and scholars saying Islam has been attacked for too long,” said Braswell.
He said there has always been a strong emphasis on martyrdom, with a belief that martyrs bypass judgment day and go straight to paradise.
“I’ve gone into homes, spent the night with (Muslims). Most Muslims are on the first level of jihad, not going to get their sons to train to blow themselves up in airplanes, but there’s a strain that legitimizes the warlike side of jihad,” he said.
Braswell cited the book “Beyond Belief” where Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul interviewed Muslims worldwide and wrote, “Looking at Muslim cultures around the world, Islam is a religion of consciousness and private belief, but it also makes imperial demands. It teaches a system of supremacy that it should have around the world.”
The division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims began in the 600s and centered on a disagreement about who should be the successor to Muhammad. Sunnis adopted the belief that leadership to guard the faith should pass to the most qualified person. But the Shiites believed succession should be hereditary and that Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali was entitled. Many disputed Ali’s claim, and after Ali finally took the position Sunnis assassinated him. Ali’s son Hussein, who led a rebellion against the caliph Yazid, was beheaded in Karbala, Iraq.
Shiites make up about 15 percent of the religion. Iran is the premiere Shiite nation, but they’re also found in the countries of Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon.
Braswell explained Islam doesn’t view the relationship with Allah in such a personal way as in Christianity, but Shiites channel a desire for personal expression in veneration to Hussein and Ali as saints. He once was invited to attend a middle-class women’s prayer group in Iran, where the women prayed for very personal needs like for a son to get out of jail, for a husband to stop his physical abuse. “There are hundreds of thousands of Iranian men and women that have a tremendous reservoir of hurt and need for expression. They want something personal.”
Treatment of Christians and Jews in the Qur’an is a “mixed bag” depending on the political situation, he said. As Islam reveres Abraham and Jesus, the Qur’an does affirm their followers should be tolerated, he continued.
“They believe Jesus and Abraham were great prophets in Islam so we can’t be all bad. They say we won’t attack you or kill you, but we’ll take your land,” he said. “Christians and Jews should be protected by the army of law, but you’re treated as second-class citizens.”
Today in Saudi Arabia no churches are allowed, and when U.S. soldiers were there during the Persian Gulf War, they weren’t allowed to have Bibles or crosses. A May Vatican conference addressed this issue as it insisted that Christians should have the same freedom of religion and right to public worship in Muslim countries that minority religions enjoy in the West.
Braswell noted that the Qur’an affirms that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and performed miracles, including raising people from the dead.
The denial of the crucifixion “is a tremendous blow in trying to talk to Muslims about our faith. There’s great ambiguity. It says a lot of good things about Jesus but denies the centrality of the Christian faith,” he said.
Nationwide there are now about 3,000 mosques; the Al-Farooq Masjid of Atlanta reports on its Web site that there are now nearly 35 mosques and an estimated 75,000 Muslims from over 50 countries in metro Atlanta. One local outreach effort is the Faith Alliance of Metropolitan Atlanta, formed after the 2001 attacks by clergy to provide a witness of reconciliation and peace, which includes Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh and Baha’i members. Msgr. Henry Gracz, pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta, serves as FAMA’s vice-chair.
One of the speakers at the Aquinas Center talk was Imam Plemon El-Amin of the Atlanta Masjid Al-Islam, chairman of FAMA. The other speakers were Dr. Jimmy Allen, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Big Canoe Chapel, Sister Barbara Reid, OP, Ph.D., of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and Rabbi Judith Beiner of The Temple.
Sister Reid encouraged any interfaith initiatives to overcome ignorance and enmity.
“To build lasting peace … we will begin to see each other’s limitations and faults and failings and realize deep hurts for which we need to begin to forgive,” said the sister. There must be “a willingness to commit ourselves to the relationship and to continue to work together … because we are inextricably bound to one another as children of the same God. The goal is a deep, mutual love, a love that in Christian terms would cause us to lay down our very lives for one another.”
She asked those gathered to envision, pray, teach and be peace, and challenged them to consider the legitimate concerns of the other while condemning any violence in the name of religion. “This is an aspect of each of our traditions that must be taught and studied. It is a great challenge for us to be true to what is best in our traditions.”
Imam el-Amin asked attendees to open their minds to what people of other faiths think about God, who is greater than any human comprehension, through which they can learn more about themselves. “I remind my audience God is not Muslim. A Muslim is one who subordinates or surrenders to God, and he strives for the peace of God.”
He also affirmed that the only justification in Islam for violence is to fight those who fight you “and when the other stops, you stop.”
“Dr. King said we can’t talk peace, we have to live peace. … We have to have peace in our souls before we can really find peace outside ourselves,” he continued.
Rev. Allen also stressed that in this age of globalization “we’ve got to start talking faith with each other in a way that extremists will be opposed” and surmised that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have responded to the terrorism threat with nonviolence. “We must provide more platforms for Plemon and other imams to speak out against terrorism.”
Rabbi Beiner added that to come together one must feel assured and knowledgeable in one’s own beliefs and that “the key to combating terrorism and extremism on all sides is education.”
In a phone interview, Msgr. Gracz expressed his enthusiasm for working with Muslims and Jews.
“We are … all part of the faith of Abraham, and that alone should be a unifying part of it,” he said. “You find some wonderful text in the writings of Benedict (XVI) before he became pope. He speaks on the need to share our common humanity and in that to not throw up walls around each other. And with those walls we become so defensive,” he said. His writings as cardinal show “a profound understanding of the morality in the spirit of Muslim people.”
As Catholic clergy and Religious pray the Divine Office throughout the day, Msgr. Gracz particularly appreciates the call for every Muslim to pray five times daily to stay conscious of God’s presence.
“The importance of interfaith dialogue is to help people bridge the gap, and in this religious sharing we have this understanding of our common humanity and how the face of God works in each of us,” said Msgr. Gracz. “We have to seek unity. If we isolate ourselves from people who disagree we have no impact or input or bridge to understanding. The Latin word pontiff means bridge builder.”
Dr. George Braswell will lead a seminar on Islam on Sat., Oct. 21, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and will speak during the adult education hour at 10 a.m. on Sun., Oct. 22, at Holy Spirit Church, 4465 Northside Drive, NW, Atlanta, in McDonough Hall. All are welcome for one or both days. For information call the church at (404) 252-4513.