7 December 2017
In this image from 2015, Mandaeans take part in a religious ritual on the bank the Shat al-Arab river in the southern city of Basra, south of Baghdad.
(photo: Haidar Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
The Middle East has always been a crossroad to soldiers of fortune, traders and missionaries. We should not be surprised, therefore, to find some of the most exotic religions in the world there. One of these would be the Mandaeans, whose name comes from the Aramaic (manda ‘ḥay, “teaching/knowledge of life.”)
Almost at the same time as Christianity appeared in the Middle East, gnostic (from Greek γνῶσις, gnosis, “knowledge”) religions began to appear. The gnostic religions are very different each other, yet show a remarkable ability to take over beliefs from Indian religions, Greco-Roman religions, Judaism and Christianity itself. For over 300 years, Christianity resisted incursions of gnostic religion into its faith. One of these, Manichaeism — a dualist, anti-body form of Gnosticism — provided a major threat to orthodox Christianity. In fact, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the great theologian and saint, was a follower of Manichaeism before his conversion to Christianity.
The Mandaeans are within this large tradition of gnostic religions — one of many that interacted with Christianity in the region for centuries. It is estimated that Mandaeism took form in the 1st through 3rd centuries AD in Iraq, at the same time and place where Eastern Christianity was beginning to grow.
Traditionally, they were found in southern Iraq along the great rivers, which isn’t surprising. Water is very important for Mandaeans, since baptism is one of their major and frequently performed rituals. In fact, they are sometimes referred to as “baptizers.” Many years ago, I had an Arabic teacher from southern Iraq who told me she was a “Baptist.” I thought it strange because Baptists Christians are extremely rare in the Middle East, but one day I asked her if she was manda ‘ḥay. She lit up and said, “You know of us?” She was, of course, a Mandaean. While fascinated, I could not say I knew a lot about her faith.
As “baptizers,” Mandaeans hold John the Baptist in extremely high regard, though they do not consider him divine. They look upon Jesus as a false Messiah who corrupted the message of John the Baptist.
Mandaeans believe in a supreme deity from whom there are emanations into the created world. In their teaching, human beings were originally astral beings (stars) that have fallen to their present state. Such emanations from an original divine being are common in gnostic religions.Through observing the “Mysteries” — secret rituals — the believer is able to move through higher states of being until ultimate returning to his astral identity.
As is often the case in gnostic religions, there is a strict “caste” system. The “enlightened” are those who have achieved the teaching of life. Among the enlightened are the priests who hold the highest in rank. The majority of believers form the laity, whose task it is to purify themselves through repeated baptisms and to seek ever deeper awareness of the manda ‘ḥay until ultimately reaching enlightenment.
Most of the religious minorities we have dealt with in the past several weeks are secretive. For many of them, however, secrecy is a survival strategy, a way to protect themselves from the dominant religion in the region. Secrecy for gnostic religions, however, is an essential part of a faith which places great stress on the esoteric, i.e. secret, saving knowledge.
Time and history may have finally caught up with this religion, though. The Gulf War which began in 2003 forced many Mandaeans to flee. Living between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf along the two rivers, they found themselves in a battle zone. Already a tiny, minority faith, many Mandaeans fled to different places around the world — including the United States, where a small Mandean community of about 2,000 people resides in Worcester, Massachusetts.
At present it is estimated that they are between 60-70,000 Mandaeans in the entire world. Whether they will survive the 21st century is an open question.
Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 2: The Shabak
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 3: The ‘Alawi
30 November 2017
An icon of apostles and brothers Sts. Peter and Andrew is pictured on a wall at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican The icon was given by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople to Pope Paul VI in 1964. Sts. Peter and Andrew are considered patrons of the Roman and Orthodox churches. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
When I worked for what is now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, I often had to travel from Geneva, Switzerland, to Rome for meetings at the main office of the Secretariat. In the main meeting room, I could not help but notice the icon above, which hung on the wall. It always fascinated me. It shows the brothers, Sts. Peter and Andrew, embracing. There is a Greek inscription which reads: “The Holy Apostle Brothers.” Next to Peter are the words: Peter, the koryphaios (“leader, head”) and next to Andrew are the words: Andrew, the prtokltos (“first called”). Andrew is the “first called” because he was the first of the Apostles called by Jesus (John 1:40).
I later learned that the icon was a gift of Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople to Pope Paul VI as a remembrance of their meeting in the Holy Land in January 1964 — the first between a pope and a patriarch of Constantinople in well over a thousand years.
But the icon is more than merely a remembrance of the meeting. It has powerful symbolic importance — and it is especially significant today, the Feast of St. Andrew.
Peter is, of course, the patron saint of Rome. He and Paul were martyred in Rome and the bishop of Rome is the successor of St. Peter.
Andrew, however, is revered as the patron saint of Byzantium — and the patriarch of Constantinople is his successor. In a real sense, the icon represents not only Peter and Andrew embracing, nor even just Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras; it represents the hoped-for unity between the Eastern and Western Churches.
Although in the icon the apostles are embracing, the relationship between their successors has not always been so warm. In 1054 the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other and began the Great Schism which has divided the Eastern and Western churches for almost a thousand years.
The meeting of Paul VI and Athenagoros began a change in the relations between the churches. In 1965 each of the leaders revoked the anathemas (excommunications) of 1054. Peter and Andrew were beginning the road to reconciliation. Since that time there have been great advances toward unity between the two churches, although admittedly there are still problems to be solved.
One of the most beautiful outcomes of the initial encounter of pope and patriarch was an annual exchange of visits. On 29 June, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, patrons of Rome, the Phanar, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, sends a high level delegation to celebrate the feast with the Pope in Rome. I was privileged to be at the celebration at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1995 when the patriarch himself attended. Likewise, on 30 November, the feast of St. Andrew, patron of Byzantium, the Holy See sends a high-level delegation to the Phanar to join in the celebration. Thus, twice a year, on 29 June and 30 November, two churches — represented by the brothers Peter and Andrew — work together to restore the bonds of love and communion between them after over a thousand years of estrangement.
The Patriarchs of Constantinople have personally taken part in the celebrations in Rome at least three times (1995, 2004, 2008) while Pope John Paul II took part in the celebrations at the Phanar (1979), as did Pope Benedict XVI (2006) and Pope Francis (2014). When the pope or patriarch is unable to attend, a high-level delegation is sent.
Since the Feast of St. Andrew comes during a busy time in the West — during the season of Advent, when Catholic parishes and homes throughout the world have begun preparing for Christmas — it can be easy to overlook this day. But we shouldn’t. It speaks to a deep and prayerful yearning that goes back to the very words of Christ, “that all may be one.”
We at CNEWA collaborate closely with our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Churches — supporting and celebrating any actions which can bring our two Churches closer together — and we join our prayers this day with all work diligently for Christian unity.
Pope Francis’s 2017 Message to Patriarch Bartholomew
16 November 2017
Alawites celebrate a festival in Banyas, Syria during World War II. (photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain)
Of all the religious minorities in the Middle East, perhaps the ‘Alawi or Alawites are the most familiar to people outside the Middle East. In the world CNEWA serves, one of the most prominent political rulers in the region is an ‘Alawi: Bashar al-Assad, the strongman ruler of Syria. His father, Hafiz al-Assad, was also a member of the faith.
The ‘Alawi are also known in history as the Nuṣayri; that is now considered pejorative and was replaced by ‘Alawi. There are significant ‘Alawi minorities in Lebanon (180-200,000), Turkey (500,000-1 million) and Syria (1.5-3 million). The ‘Alawi faith is — like many of the minority religions of the Middle East — highly syncretistic, i.e. comprised in part of beliefs and practices taken from other religions — often with changes that make them unrecognizable. It is generally agreed that the religion has its origins in Shi’ite Islam, but its adherents are considered to be a in ġulāt, “extreme” and heretical, although Muslim opinions about the ‘Alawi religion have vacillated over the centuries.
If syncretism is common among minority religions in the Middle East, so is secrecy, and the ‘Alawi are no exception — though some studies about the faith have been undertaken over the last century. The ‘Alawi belief revolves around a trinity or, perhaps better, a triad. They believe in one god, who is referred to as the “Essence” or “Meaning” (Arabic: ma‘nā) from which emanate two further manifestations: the “Name” or “Veil” and the “Gate.” These can take different manifestations in history, the most common being ‘Ali b. Abi Talib as the “Essence,” Muhammad as the “Name” and Salman al Farisi as the “Gate.” Other figures from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament appear in differing roles.
The ‘Alawi believe that they were originally astral lights who fell from grace and descended to earth. Salvation is achieved through a series of rebirths (metempsychosis). Those who are judged to have been evil are reborn as women — considered to be demonic and excluded from rituals — along with members of other religions, such as Christianity, etc. Salvation consists of achieving contemplation of the “Essence” after having journeyed through the seven heavens. The exclusion of women from rituals has brought about a type of female piety that differs from that of male adherents and tends to be quite syncretistic.
One of the more unusual practices of the ‘Alawi is the quddas, a highly secret and important ritual, open only to males; during this ritual, wine is consecrated and consumed. At times ‘Alawi have been particularly concerned to keep this ritual secret from Christians. ‘Alawi also have holidays. They celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian (Zoroastrian) New Year, as well as Christmas, the Epiphany and the feasts of Mary Magdalene.
The fate of the ‘Alawi over the centuries has been varied. Generally regarded as heretics, they were spared by the Crusaders because the Crusaders thought they were not Muslims. During the time of the Ottoman Empire there were attempts made to convert the ‘Alawi to Sunni Islam, the dominant religion of the empire. After World War I and the Sykes-Picot Treaty, France took control of northern Syria and southern Turkey, where a large number of the ‘Alawi lived. Perhaps as part of a divide-and-conquer tactic, the French were favorable towards the ‘Alawi. For a while there was an ‘Alawi province. It later became the Government of Latakia and was finally subsumed into the modern Syrian state.
There is an unusual variety of opinions among Muslims as to the nature of the ‘Alawi faith. Some, like the medieval Muslim theologian ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), believe that the ‘Alawi are infidels and subject to jihad. Generally Shi’ite Muslims consider them “extremists” and heterodox. On the other hand, Haj Amin al-Husseini (d. 1974), the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, for political reasons recognized the ‘Alawi as Muslims. Some scholars and observers think that, since taking control of Syria in 1971, the al-Assad family has worked to “sunnify” the ‘Alawi to make them more acceptable to the Sunni majority in Syria. Whether this is true and, if true, effective, remains to be seen. However, it needs also to be noted that historically the strongest allies of the al-Assad family have been the Iranian Shi’ites.
Unlike other religious minorities in the Middle East, the ‘Alawi do not live under the threat of extinction.
Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 2: The Shabak
9 November 2017
In this image from 2015, a displaced Iraqi child from the Shabak community, who fled fighting between ISIS and Peshmerga fighters around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, stands at the Baharka camp, a few miles west of Erbil. (photo: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)
There are several minority religions in Mesopotamia which are distantly related to each other and to Islam. For the most part, these religions are considered heterodox by the dominant Sunni Muslim population. In addition, some contain elements taken from Shi’ite Islam that go beyond what its adherents would find acceptable. In parts of the region, these religions are persecuted for being heterodox or considered as simply Shi’ite — a “proof” to some that Shi’ite Islam is also heterodox.
Included in this group would be the Shabak.
The Shabak people are concentrated in northern Iraq to the east and north of Mosul. CNEWA encounters them in the clinics we support in the Iraqi province of Dohuk. It is estimated that the Shabak presently number between 500,000 and 550,000.
The Shabak faith is remotely related to the Alawi sect which is in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. The al-Asad family, the strong man rulers of Syria, belongs to the Alawi sect in western Syria. However, the relation between the two faiths is remote.
The Shabak take the basic Muslim creed that there is no God but God (Allah), Muslim reverence for the Prophet Muhammad and the Shi’ite reverence for Aly, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and combine them in an unusual way. For Shabak Allah, Muhammad and Aly form a type of trinity in which Aly is the primary manifestation of the divinity. While all Muslims have a deep, emotional reverence for the Prophet and while Shi’ite Muslims add to that a deep, emotional reverence for Aly (and his second son, Hussein), it is totally unacceptable for Sunni and Shi’ite alike to consider Muhammad and Aly as divine in any sense of the word. This Shabak belief alone is enough to bring on them the opprobrium of the dominant Muslim population.
The faith of the Shabak is hierarchically ordered. Each person and family comes under a pir, which is a type of priest/spiritual director. This pir is to be differentiated from the pir which is a spiritual authority/teacher in the Sufi traditions of Islam, although the two may be related. The pir is responsible for carrying out all the worship services in which he is assisted by a functionary called a rehber.
For the three great festivals of the year, 12 functionaries must take part in the ceremonies. The first festival is New Year, which is in December; the second is Ashurah, a Shi’ite memorial of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and the Night of Pardon. During the Night of Pardon, the Shabak confess their sins — a practice common in Christianity, but unknown in Islam. In fact, public confession of sins, consumption of alcohol and pilgrimages to shrines of saints are practices (above and beyond their belief in a trinity) which sharply differentiate the Shabak from Islam.
The Shabak suffered greatly under ISIS. They are not considered a People of the Book and were hence faced with the stark choice of conversion to Islam or death. Since it is not clear to which ethnic group the Shabak belong — Turkic, Arab, Kurdish, Iranian — they are inevitably caught up on the ethnic conflicts of the region.
As a result, as is the case with many of the religious minorities of the Middle East, the survival of the Shabak is very precarious.
Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis
2 November 2017
A Yazidi man prays in Lalish, Iraq, near Kurdistan. (photo: Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Most people in the west had never heard of the Yazidis before ISIS attacked them with genocidal fury in August 2014. Thousands of Yazidi men were captured and killed. Yazidi women and young girls were sold as sex slaves in the market place of Mosul. Many Yazidis took refuge on Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq and were threatened with starvation and lack of water. The world watched in horror as entire families faced starvation and death at the hands of ISIS. (There were even accounts of desperate mothers throwing their children from the mountain to keep them from being slaughtered by the Islamic militants.) Thus, the Yazidis entered the consciousness of the West as people of great tragedy and even greater mystery.
The Yazidi religion is not well understood. It tends to be very inward looking and secretive. The five daily prayers — an echo of Islam — are not said when outsiders are present. It is an endogamous faith that allows marriage only between a Yazidi man and Yazidi woman. Anyone marrying outside the faith is automatically considered to have converted to the other religion — and is effectively excommunicated.
Scholars refer to Yazidi belief as being syncretistic — that is, one faith taking over elements of another. This is common among almost all the religions of the world to some extent. (Christians, for example, took over the Roman pagan feast of Saturnalia, “baptized” it and made it into Christmas, despite the fact that the Bible is totally silent on what time of year Jesus was born.) In the Yazidi religion we see elements of Islam (the five daily prayers), Judaism (Saturday as a day of rest and the names of the seven “angels”) and other ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia.
Similarly, their beliefs contain echoes of other faiths. Yazidis believe in one God who is the creator of all. However, their God is a remote deity that has little to do with creation. Rather there are seven “angels” who are emanations of this God; this is a characteristic found in Gnosticism, another ancient religion of the region. Of these angels, the head is Melek Ta’us or the Peacock Angel. Melek Ta’us is responsible for the world and its inhabitants. Two beliefs about Melek Ta’us have proven fateful for Yazidis. Because he is responsible for everything that happens in creation, Melek Ta’us is the source of both good and evil. Even in the earliest parts of the Bible we see a struggle as to who or what the source of evil is (see 2 Samuel 17:14 God overturns the advice of Ahitophel because God wanted “to bring evil on Absalom.”)
In addition, Yazidis have a story about God creating humanity and asking the angels to bow down to Adam. A similar story appears in the Qur’an (2:35 and elsewhere). In Yazidi faith, Melek Ta’us refused to bow; in Islam, Iblis refused to bow. For Yazidis this was a sign of Melek Ta’us’ loyalty; for Muslims Iblis becomes identified with the Shaytan, “Satan.” Because of this, ISIS considers Yazidis devil worshippers worthy of death. While ISIS offers Christians a choice between conversion, paying the jizya tax, exile or death, the choice for the Yazidis is much starker: conversion to Islam or death.
Yazidis also have the interesting belief that, while they are descended from Adam, they are not descended from Eve but through a special creation. Thus they see themselves as unrelated to those tainted beings who are descendants of Adam through Eve.
The origins of the Yazidis and even their name are not clear. While they hold the second Umayyad Caliph, Yazid I (647-683) in high regard, it is not clear what role that plays in either their practice of the faith or their name. The Sufi leader ?Adi ibn Musafir (died 1162) also plays an important role in Yazidism and his tomb not far from Mosul is an important place of pilgrimage.
Yazidis have lived for centuries in the Kurdish parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. For the most part, they were ignored and left alone by the Muslim majority. In recent times, however, there has been increasing hostility towards them. It is estimated that there are between 200,000 and one million Yazidis in the world. Many have left the Middle East for Europe, Australia and parts of North America. With the brutal attacks by ISIS, the number of Yazidi refugees has understandably increased greatly.
The Yazidis are very much a part of CNEWA’s world — and we number many of them among those we serve. CNEWA is active in northern Iraq and has a clinic in the city of Dahuk in the Iraqi Province of Dahuk. Many Yazidis make use of the clinic as they try to get their lives back together and face a future that is not only uncertain, but possibly very bleak. If it is true that Christians face the possibility of extinction in the Middle East, Yazidis face the possibility of extinction in the entire world.
Religious Minorities in the East — Introduction
25 October 2017
This image from last summer shows some of the thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority persecuted by ISIS, who live in Lalish, Iraq, near Kurdistan.
(photo: Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
With the chaos prevalent in the Middle East — and especially with the violence of ISIS against all those who are not allied with it — there is much talk about religious minorities in the Middle East. Now seems a good time to take stock of the challenges these minorities are facing — and what those challenges mean to the rest of the world, particularly the world that CNEWA serves.
In the West, the major portion of the discussion revolves around Christians and whether Christian communities which date back to apostolic times will survive in the places of their origin. The focus on the Christian minority in the Middle East is understandable. Numbering over 18 million in the region, Christians form the largest minority population in the Middle East. Christianity, including its nominal adherents, is the largest religious group in Europe and the Western Hemisphere.
However, Christians are not the only or even the oldest minority in the Middle East. The land mass going eastwards from the Mediterranean to India has been the birthplace of most of the great religions of the world. The western part was the birthplace of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Iranian-Indian subcontinent saw the birth of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism.
From the most ancient times, explorers, adventurers and merchants risked the perils of the huge Eurasian continent, bringing with them trade goods, inventions, ideas and religions. Contacts between the two areas were relatively constant and a type of cross-pollination was inevitable. Many of the large religions saw groups break off and form traditions of their own, some of which were considered acceptable, most of which were considered “heretical.”
Although relatively well known to Christians in the Middle East and to the people of CNEWA who work with them, many of these smaller religions are, for all practical purposes, unknown in the West except to scholars. Some of these religions are very limited geographically and have very few adherents in comparison with the major religions of the world. While Christianity and its continuance in the Middle East are under severe stress — and its viability there is open to question — there is no question of Christianity disappearing from the face of the earth. But that is not the case with some of region’s other minority religions. Groups such as the Yazidis are not threatened with extinction in merely the Middle East; they are faced with total extinction from the planet.
In the next several weeks, we will be looking at some of these religious minorities. Some are related loosely to Islam, such as the Alawis and the Shabak; others are related to Christianity and Middle Eastern gnostic theosophy like the Mandaeans; still others like the Yazidis have roots that antedate the present religions in the region. While many of these religions are monotheistic, i.e. believing in one God, they are not all monotheistic in the way that Judaism and Islam are. Some of them are ahl ul-kitb, “People of the Book” in Muslim dominated countries. Thus Jews, Christians and Mandaeans in Muslim countries are “protected” and enjoy some rights. They are, however, second class “citizens.” Other groups such as Yazidis, however, which are not “People of the Book,” enjoy no such protection. As a result, they often seek out remote regions in the area where they are at best ignored by the dominant religions. Often, however, they are objects of violent persecution — as was the case with the Yazidis in Sinjar, an Iraqi mountain town, which was fiercely attacked by ISIS. ISIS gave Christians the choice: convert to Islam; pay the jizya or poll tax; go into exile; or face certain death. Yazidis were given a much harsher choice: convert or be killed.
In the past, I have compared the religious and cultural situation in the Middle East to an extraordinarily beautiful and complex carpet, for which the region is justifiably famous. The carpets are woven from many colors and involve incredibly complex patterns. It is precisely the variety of the colors and the complexity of the patterns that make the carpets “magical.” With that in mind, it seems to me that for centuries the people of the Middle East formed a type of oriental carpet. Although the relations between the religions were sometimes tense and at times even violent, the carpet held together. Now in the 21st century, that carpet is quickly becoming unraveled. A synthesis which existed in some shape or form for thousands of years is now coming undone.
What are we to make of this? In the days ahead, we will look at some of the non-Christian minority religious “colors and patterns” in this “carpet.” In particular, we will explore religious minorities mostly in the area of Syria and Iraq where, for a variety of reasons, their very existence is threatened.
It is our hope that this will help us realize a fundamental truth: the world will be poorer if these ancient traditions are lost. We need to treasure the many threads binding together the Middle East and, indeed, our planet.
19 October 2017
A young woman in Bangalore, India puts the finishing touches to a rangoli, a colored powder decoration, to celebrate Diwali at her home. Diwali begins today, 19 October.
(photo: Idranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)
Issues of light and darkness, evil and goodness are prevalent in all the great religions of the world. These are concerns that everyone grapples with in life — and we are reminded of this once again today, as Hindus begin the festival of Diwali, the Festival of Lights.
There are many different spellings of the word and many variations of the festival in different places in India and elsewhere. In southern India, where CNEWA works with the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches, Diwali is celebrated by our Hindu neighbors.
As is the case with some holidays in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the date of Diwali depends upon the moon. It is a five-day festival which begins with the new moon between the Hindu months of Asvin and Kartika, which translates into sometime between the middle of October and middle of November on the Gregorian calendar. This year Diwali begins on 19 October.
Diwali celebrates the victory of the god Rama. His story is found in the epic poem Ramayana, which is well over two thousand years old and contains over 240,000 verses, making it one of the longest poems in the world. In it Rama with his wife Sita and half-brother Lakshmana is exiled from his kingdom. While in exile in the forest, Rama’s wife, Sita, is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. A battle ensues, Rama is victorious and all return in glory to Ayodha, where Rama is king.
Diwali is a joyful and extravagant feast, with an emphasis on sweet foods, exchanging of gifts and decorating of houses. Since it is the festival of lights, lamps, fireworks and wonderful decorations called rangoli abound. Each area and even each family will have its own tradition of how the rangoli is designed. It is a complicated piece of art composed of colorful symbols and complicated patterns. It is often surrounded by burning lamps. In some places floating candles are launched onto lakes and rivers or colorful paper lanterns released into the sky by the thousands.
During Diwali prayer and services (pujas) are offered. Some Hindus direct special prayers to Lashsimi, who is the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and to Lord Ganesha, the elephant deity, who is the remover of obstacles.
As the world becomes smaller and religions must learn to interact with respect and peace, it was good to hear that in southern India Christians send Diwali cards and greetings to their Hindu neighbors. Even in some parts of the U.S. and Canada, Diwali is becoming a festival that is familiar to non-Hindus.
Read the Vatican’s message for Diwali 2017 here.
12 October 2017
Sheikh Ahmen al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the oldest Muslim university in the world, greets Pope Francis during the pontiff’s visit to Egypt in May 2017. A decade after the landmark document, “A Common Word,” efforts at improving relations between Muslims and Christians continue.
(photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Ten years ago, on 13 October 2007 a document entitled “A Common Word” was signed and published by a group of 138 Muslim scholars. Its name was taken from the Quran 3:65 and it appeared three years before the so-called “Arab Spring,” four years before the beginning of the civil war in Syria and seven years before ISIS declared the restoration of the caliphate. Since its publication, governments have fallen in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, a war has started in Yemen and almost a half million Syrians have been killed in internal violence in the country and millions of people — Christian and Muslim — driven from their homes.
From the outset, “A Common Word” was unique. It is a letter addressed to Christians. It manifests a surprising grasp of the complexity of Christianity and its inner divisions. Using the appropriate ecclesiastical titles, the letter is addressed to the Pope and the Patriarchs of the other four ancient churches — Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. In addition, thirteen other patriarchs, seven major archbishops, including Canterbury, and the leaders of the Lutheran World Federation, World Methodist Council, Baptist World Alliance, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches and “Leaders of Christian Churches everywhere...” are addressed.
Using monotheism as a starting point, the document carefully examines the sacred writings of the Jews, Christians and Muslims to see points of convergence. The methodology used is familiar to theologians in all three traditions.
While the entire document is important, its conclusions were extraordinary — and I might say underestimated — ten years ago and are perhaps more important now than ever. Moving from the level of exegesis to application, the scholars declare:
Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.
Lest anyone think that this is merely a recognition of self-interest and survival, the document stresses the religious component of its argument in a striking way: “...we say that our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.”
What is happening here is that a large and diverse body of Islamic scholars (ulamā) are basically re-evaluating the notion of jihād. In both Muslim and non-Muslim literature jihād is seen as the constant state between the Dar ul-Salām, “the realm of peace,” where Islam and Muslims are in charge, and the Dar ul-Ḥarb, “the realm of war” where they are not.
In Islam, the only legally permitted war is jihād, i.e. extending the realm of peace, i.e. submission (islām) to the one God, to the entire world. Muslim scholars placed numerous conditions and restrictions on conducting jihād, many of which seem enlightened even in the 21st century. However, the very concept of jihād as a permanent state of at very least possible aggression seems foreign — and is understandably disturbing to many, if not all, non-Muslims.
The Muslim scholars in “A Common Word” clearly state that “no side can unilaterally win” this conflict. This is a major new direction in Muslim thinking. No longer is détente between the two “realms” an unfortunate and temporary necessity while waiting for the winds of fortune to change. It is now a required goal to be achieved. The document recognizes that not everyone agrees with this and speaks of “those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them....” The rise of jihadi groups in the last decades, especially but not exclusively ISIS, underlines the importance of this document. The letter offers the beginning of a religious solution to the problem of religious extremism which can be definitively eradicated only by religious means Using the strongest religious language possible, “A Common Word” recognizes that “our very eternal souls are also at stake” in finding a solution to violent, religious extremism.
If the document is extraordinary in its addressees, it is no less extraordinary in its signatories. Originally it was signed by 138 scholars. What might understandably be overlooked by non-Muslims is the amazing variety of the signatories. Islam is divided — sometimes bitterly — between different groups. It is extraordinary that so diverse a group of Muslims could come together at least temporarily to sign this document.
In a world where Christianity in the Middle East is struggling for its very existence, where xenophobia, racism and “Islamophobia” are raising their ugly heads, perhaps the 10th anniversary of “A Common Word” might provide an opportunity to re-envision a new type of dār ul-salām — a “realm of peace” — in which Christians, Muslims and others work together for a world of peace, justice and security.
5 October 2017
This statue of St. Francis of Assisi stands outside Assisi’s basilica and shows Francis returning from the battlefield — obedient to God but a disgrace to his fellow citizens. It is emblematic of the saint’s profound commitment to non-violence in imitation of Christ. (photo: Elias D. Mallon)
On 4 October Christians around the world remember Giovanni di Bernadone — the earliest saint I know of with a last name.
But countless people know him better by his nickname, Francesco, and his home town, Assisi.
Francis of Assisi was born in 1182 and died on 3 October 1226. He is arguably the best known, most beloved and most frequently portrayed of any saint in the Catholic Church.
Francis is known and admired for many things, his love for nature being high on the list. But he also merits attention for a quality many easily overlook: he was profoundly committed to non-violence in imitation of Christ. This is more radical than it may sound. Francis lived in violent times and for a while was a knight — a warrior for his home town in the never-ending battles with the Umbrian villages surrounding Assisi. God revealed to him in a dream that he was to leave the battlefield — a disgrace for a knight — and follow a path of non-violence. A marvelous statue in front the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi portrays that pivotal event: Francis returning from the battlefield, obedient to God but in disgrace to his fellow citizens.
The world in which Francis lived was the world of the Crusades. Pope Urban II had called for the First Crusade on 17 November 1095, slightly less than ninety years before Francis was born. There were several different crusader expeditions until they came to an end in 1291. The Crusaders were a mixed lot, composed of high-minded idealists and low-minded soldiers of fortune. When Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders in 1099, there was a horrible massacre of Muslims, Jews and Eastern Christians.
The time of Francis was not a time of dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Nonetheless, some extraordinary people did some extraordinary things. Pope Gregory VII (1020-1085), for example, wrote a letter to al-Nasir, a Muslim governor in North Africa. The tone of the letter is remarkable and ends with Pope Gregory saying he “prays from (his) heart that God may receive you, after a long stay here below, into the bosom of ... Abraham.”
Another extraordinary gesture was one by Francis of Assisi himself He accompanied the soldiers of the Fifth Crusade (1213-1221) and went to Damietta in Egypt in 1219. While living in the Crusader battle camp, Francis was shocked by the un-Christian life of the Crusaders. He took it upon himself to visit Sultan Malik al-Kamil, the local governor and leader of the Muslim troops. The sultan was an open man and in times of peace had encouraged encounters between Christians and Muslims. This, however, was no time of peace. His meeting with Francis, then, was truly out of the ordinary.
Though little is known in detail about the encounter between Francis and Malik al-Kamil — and there is no first-hand report — a Google search will show that it has generated a cottage industry of books and stories. However, even stripping it down to its barest essentials, the meeting remains a high point in Catholic history. We know that Francis chose dialogue over violence and respect over hatred.
It was an act of tremendous faith and courage for Francis, the poor man of Assisi, to visit the sophisticated and cultured sultan. At least initially the sultan must have found him very odd and perhaps even a bit insane. Despite the legends, we have no idea what they talked about. However, we do know that Francis returned alive — no small accomplishment — and with gifts from the sultan.
In all its bare-boned simplicity, this act of respect and non-violence — exemplifying beautifully the Gospel teaching of loving one’s enemy — would not be repeated to Muslims or vice versa for centuries.
It was an event that clearly had a profound impact on the future saint. After meeting the sultan, Francis showed little enthusiasm for the Crusades; in fact, he spoke to the brothers of his admiration for the Muslim’s dedication to prayer. The encounter, it seems, made a lasting and positive impression on him.
Perhaps that is part of the uniqueness of Francis — a medieval man who speaks to us today in a way that is compelling and surprisingly contemporary.
28 September 2017
The Shrine of Hussein in Karbela, Iraq, stands above the tomb of Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib.
(photo: Tasnim News Agency [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons)
Muslims will be commemorating a significant event this weekend — and it’s one that has ramifications for our world today.
On Saturday 30 September Shi’ite Muslims observe Ashura, the martyrdom of Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib. In the Muslim calendar Hussein died on the tenth (‘ašara) day of the month of Muharram in the year 61. This translates to 10 October 680 AD. The death of Hussein is a pivotal event in the history of Shi’ite Islam.
When the Prophet Muhammad died in June 632, he left behind no instructions about a successor. As the “Seal (i.e. “last”) of the Prophets,” there was no one who could succeed him. However, his role as Commander of the Faithful (amīr al-mu’minîn) — the religious and political leader of the Muslim community — required a successor.
From the very beginning, Muslims were divided about who should succeed Muhammad as leader of the faithful. One group held that Ali bin Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet, should take leadership — and that leadership should remain in the family of the prophet. This group was known as the “party/faction” (Arabic: šî‘ah, hence Shi’ite). Another group held that anyone of the prophet’s tribe could be elected to fulfill the office. This group acted immediately after the death of Muhammad to elect Abu Bakr as the first caliph. This pre-empted the candidacy of Ali.
Three caliphs followed each other in succession until the assassination of Uthman, the third caliph, in 656. At this point, Ali was elected the fourth caliph. His election was contested by the Umayyad clan, the clan of the assassinated Uthman. Mu‘awiya, of the Umayyad clan was also elected Caliph and conflict ensued. Ali was ultimately assassinated in 651 by one of his disaffected followers. Ali’s first son, Hassan, made a treaty with Mu‘awiya agreeing not to pursue his (rightful) claim the to caliphate during Mu‘awiya’s lifetime.
Hassan died before Mu‘awiyah and, for the party of Ali, the caliphate should rightfully have passed to Ali’s second son Hussein. Once again this led to conflict. Hussein had a strong following in Kufa in what is now modern Iraq and attempted to go there to be with his supporters. Yazid, the son of Mu‘awiya, intercepted Hussein and his small caravan at a place called Karbala, just north of Kufa. Hussein’s retinue consisted not just of fighters but also women and children, among whom was Hussein’s 6-month-old son.
Hussein was betrayed by the people of Kufa. Hussein and his entourage faced the much larger army of the Kufan followers of Yazid. The forces prevented Hussein’s followers from obtaining water and they suffered greatly from thirst. The forces attacked; most of Hussein’s followers — including his infant son — were killed. Lastly, Hussein himself was killed and his head taken to Damascus, the seat of Yazid.
For Shi’ite Muslims, Hussein is the martyr par excellence. His martyrdom galvanized the followers of Ali into a clear movement in opposition to the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus.
Over the centuries, Shi’ite Muslims have developed a piety of martyrdom surrounding the events at Karbala. Every year on 10 Muharram, Shi’ite Muslims stage commemorations of Hussein’s death. The ta‘ziya (literally: “consolation”) reenacts the martyrdom of Hussein and is accompanied by great mourning, loud wailing and self-flagellation. The emotional intensity of the ceremonies is extremely high; some of the mourners in an almost ecstatic state strike themselves to the point of drawing of blood.
Although strange to most Westerners, similar rituals can be found in some cultures on Good Friday. Indeed, there are some striking parallels here to Christianity. One of the unique characteristics of Shi’ite Islam is their belief in the sanctifying power of Hussein’s death. Some Shi’ite scholars would speak of redemptive suffering, a concept not acknowledged in Sunni Islam and considered heretical by Wahhabi Muslims. Nevertheless, in both his righteousness and his suffering, Hussein becomes the ideal of the Shi’ite community.
Shi’ite Muslims comprise about 15 percent of the Muslim community. As a result even people in the West familiar with Islam are likely more familiar with Sunni Muslims.
Nevertheless, Christians can easily see points of comparison and between the death of Jesus and the Shi’ite observances of Ashura — and from that, perhaps, there may even be a possibility for understanding and dialogue.