Religious Pluralism & Muslim Identity in the West & Islamic World

In this series, the VISIONS blog will post excerpts from the Report on Engaging Sectarian De-Escalation based on the "Proceedings of the Symposium on Islam and Sectarian De-Escalation at the Harvard Kennedy School."

Islamic Center of America

Moderator: Diana Eck

Panelists: Wasif Rizvi, Syed Meesam Razvi, Mohamad Bashar Arafat, Sajjad Rizvi


This panel, entitled Religious Pluralism & Muslim Identity in the West & Islamic World, explores what it means to enable a pluralistic conception of Islam in the West. This is in a context where the language in mainstream Western media and parts of academia has often been monolithic, insensitive to an intellectual tradition outside of its own, and has in the process reinforced a vision of Islam synonymous with “Islamist extremism.” Equally, many speakers raised the need for the cultural integration and immersion of Muslims – especially imams – moving to America from the Middle East, portraying the pursuit of pluralism as a challenge which exists on both sides of the discourse. The plurality of voices intrinsic in the Muslim world fully committed to pluralism on its own terms as had been historically the case is also highlighted and commented upon.


Diana Eck

You might be wondering “What’s she doing here?” Well, for one reason because I have a long heritage of singing Kumbaya as a Christian. I grew up as a Methodist in the state of Montana and ended up studying religion quite extensively in India. Over the last 20 years I have studied the new religious landscape of the United States in light of the last 50 years of immigration. That has proved an eye-opener both for me and my fellow citizens, as well as certainly for the students who have been part of the pluralism project. It’s really through my students that I discovered the Al-Khoei Foundation, the various mosques and the Islamic centers in the United States, and more specifically here in Boston.

This raises the question of what it means for America to be a pluralistic country. That is to say, a country characterized not simply by our diversity, but by the engagement with that diversity in the context of a society needing to be forged out of these many religious traditions. Here we are with this question of religious pluralism, and that question applies not onlyacross religious traditions but also within them. It is a question which has shaped the early history of the United States, a country where people fled the Catholic-Protestant wars which ravaged Europe for several centuries, in pursuit of what they called “religious freedom.” However, it wasn’t really universal “religious freedom” as much as it was the freedom to practice one’s own faith. For example, if you were an early immigrant to Boston of the Puritan persuasion, you would have participated in a Commonwealth that ran Jews and Catholics out of town. Boston was not seen to be a platform of religious flourishing for everyone. That only emerged later and gives rise to the question: How do we live together with these differences? What kind of society can we create out of these differences? What kind of support do governments and educational institutions in civil society need to lend to the creation of pluralistic societies? As Aga Khan often says, “Pluralistic societies don’t just happen by themselves. They need to be created and constructed and supported.”

Wasif Rizvi

The question of religious freedom and pluralism is somewhat neglected in the context of Pakistan, despite its salience. Purely on sectarian grounds – though admittedly without the horrors of civil wars like those in Iraq or Syria - Pakistan has lost about 50,000 lives in the past 25 or 30 years, most of whom are Shi’as given the emergence of this conflict in our region. What is particularly ironic is that the subcontinent prides itself so much on religious pluralism that al-Biruni wrote a book entitled “Religions of India.” Perhaps the most pluralistic society from the perspective of religion that existed was on the Indian subcontinent. Nowhere can I think of a sharper and more sobering contrast between what we purported to be true, and what it has come down to today.

What, then, is the crisis in pluralism? It is somewhat provocative to talk about that here at Harvard, which is perhaps at the helm of the emergence of the “modern world,” and the academic protocol that is spearheading Anglo-Saxon academia. Moderns are very weird people, in that their grand project is one of disinheritance. We are supposedly the only people in the history of humanity – in an arbitrary number of half a million years of human civilization – which have had the audacity to theorize over our identity. Suddenly the entire human race is attributed to a time in history that obviously did not exist – in that it was not a part of the conceptual universe of humanity. Just 600 years ago, people didn’t wake up and say “We are medieval,” or the equivalent for whichever epoque they lived in. What does that mean? That subconsciously, and sometimes very overtly, there is something fundamentally different about us this time as opposed to anything that has happened in the past. That in this impoverished time that we live in – culturally, spiritually and intellectually – we are cleaved from our history, because we have disconnected and discarded and demeaned everything that has preexisted us. The idea of progress is closely tied to it, as is the idea of the modern identity. Why then does the evaporation of pluralism around the world come as a surprise to us?

As a matter of fact, human societies have shown greater resilience to this, which gives us an insight as to the fundamental crisis at the heart of pluralism. Moreover, there is this monolithic, undifferentiated, intellectual protocol that exists around the world, through which lens we are all condemned to view ourselves. How can any civilization, any alternative view survive if it is not allowed, or does not have the means to view its own history, its own identity, its own art, its own culture from its own point-of-view? And how has that now become academically or intellectually acceptable? It’s not part of the intellectual protocol which exists here. This is a fundamental intellectual crime that continues to get committed time and time again; most revered by a university like this, but also perpetuated by every other university that is trying to mimic this. Essentially, this is a complete disavowal of any other form of knowledge, understanding, and intellectual viewpoint except for that which has been shoved down our throat many times through the means of genocide around the world; the Western or Eurocentric viewpoint. That’s not an abstraction in a place like Pakistan, it is a reality.

Now, from this point, the only means by which religions are able to justify their legitimacy is from this very materialistic, secular view that if you are politically active, if there is a political agency to you, then you are a somewhat respectable faith. We had Seyed Vali Nasr come to speak at Habib University. Someone asked him about a similar topic: “What happened, what do we do to heal ourselves?” He said, especially in the subcontinent, remember to look at yourself a hundred and fifty years ago. Every major city in the subcontinent had at least thirty distinct communities who coexisted, and loved and cared for each other. These were distinct religious communities. What has happened, is that John Stuart Mill’s protocol of demeaning what he called customs, and elevating what he called law, was bought by almost all of the intellectual elite of other societies. So much so, in fact, that I heard an interview of Mohammad Khatami – a recent President of Iran – who proclaimed that John Stuart Mill was his favorite intellectual. That’s a serious problem.

So why were those societies using this paradigm? There were no differences between customs and a spiritual identity, were there? For instance, in Urdu, there are no two different words for good manners and literature. It’s the same. It’s called adab. So the vehicle of, for instance, Shi’a practice was completely cultural. It was literature, it was poetry, it was the art of doing no harm, or even singing what we call songs, and a variety of other rhetorical expressions. The external vehicles were participation, food, and taking care of each other; creating beautiful ornaments and art. The same was true for every other community that existed. There were portals for people to feel a sense of togetherness with a great sense of respect for each other’s distinctions. Now those vehicles are gone. Everyone wants to paddle up the radical narrative or a legal narrative, which is bizarre. This is a sovereignty of the rule of law that has extended beyond John Stuart Mill’s obsession and has been internalized by every European society and then exported to every other society in the world, destroying the ecosystem of pluralism. Pluralism will not happen with this tyranny of the rule of law; or the constitution; or the nation state. Is it something that people live and breathe and express and participate in, and from which they can create themselves? If this agency is taken away from societies and people, then we are essentially rendered disenfranchised and disempowered, left at the behest of the forces which are killing us to the tune of 50,000 people over 20 years.

Syed Meesam Razvi

I will examine the issue of religious pluralism and Muslim identity in the West and the Muslim world in three different phases. First, we’ll try to look at it from the point of view of the religion of Islam, and see what we can learn about dialogue and sectarian de-escalation from the history of Islam and the Muslims. We will particularly interrogate what the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Sunnah of the Prophet have to proffer on the subject. Second, we will examine the linkages between the lack of religious pluralism within the Islamic context, and the modern Muslim identity of Muslims living in the West and the world at large. Third, we will look at the possible solutions to any problems that may come up in that discussion during the first two phases. Let’s start by examining how the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, looks at pluralism. One of the most famous verses quoted is “Oh mankind, indeed we have created you from male and female, and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed the most noble of you in the sight of the law is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is knowing and acquainted.”

Mosque of the Prophet
Notice here that the Book is saying that pluralism is the default state of affairs. He has created us different from one another. The Book has said something along the lines that we have created you as one nation, and you have divided yourselves into many. The diverse and pluralistic world which consists here in this verse is how He – the Creator – intended us to be. Let us now take a look at the Hadith of the Prophet, which essentially validates the same concept and further underscores it. The Prophet proclaims that no man is superior to one another on account of race or color. Taqwa (piety) is the sole distinction, which means wisdom and pride. So again here, there is an acknowledgement that there is race and color present.

Usually when we record this saying, we do it to express that there is equality within Islam, that everyone is equal. However, I want to look at this verse and these sayings of the Prophet a little differently, as an acknowledgement that we are divided into colors and races and nations and tribes. Embedded within the history of Islam is a famous event in which a letter was written to the Christians of Najran inviting them to go see the Prophet and opening communication with them. As such, the Christians decided to send a delegation to the Prophet, to confront him and get into a dialogue with him. Not only did the Prophet welcome them, although they were there to confront him, but he provided them with a space, allowed them to practice their faith as they would like, and engaged with them in the most cordial of manners. Herein are three examples from looking at the holiest of the texts, which is the Qur’an; looking at the Hadith of the Prophet; and exemplifying religious pluralism in terms of practice, of what the Prophet actually did when he was dealing with someone of another faith. Through his actions, the Prophet showed respect, acceptance, and tolerance for the other. That is the spirit with which some look at pluralism.

Christian monks question the Prophet
So now we move onto stage two and try to dissect how all of this affects the contemporary Muslim identity. That is, the Muslim identity as an individual, which is directly tied to the identity of Muslims as a global community. To understand religious identity, one first has to understand what it means. The word religion, for example, comes from a Latin word means to bind, or group together, meaning that if there is a discrepancy between how Muslims view the larger Muslim community and how it is portrayed, or as opposed to how the individual identifies him or herself, one of the two things will happen. Either that Muslim will adapt to how the larger Muslim community is being projected, which in this particular case, is an association with terms like “Islamism” and “Islamic Extremism” and so on and so forth. Or, that individual may simply stop identifying himself or herself with the larger community. This is the predicament that the Muslim faces today.

On the one hand, we are facing both in the media as well as in academia the scholars who are expounding on the state of Islam and Muslims, and are using terms like “Islamism” and “Islamic extremism” in a particularly disparaging context. On the other hand, you have the advent of ISIS, of al-Qaida, you have the Taliban, who have essentially stolen the show from the real scholars of Islam, and have reinforced the usage of these terms by validating the constructs behind them. Just last week I was posting a delegation in which there were about twenty-two senior to mid-senior level people from the Department of Defense. During that discussion, one of those individuals from the Department of Defense was talking about how he wrote his thesis, in which he quoted Ibn al-Qayyim, one of the 12th century scholars. Ibn al-Qayyim, just to give you context, was a student of Ibn al-Taymiyyah, and one of the ideologues behind ISIS and al-Qaeda. That’s how permuted this sort of narrative has become in that we are using these scholars, who are ideologues of some of the most extreme movements that humankind has known as mortals for Islam and the Muslims. In other words, this leaves Muslims with only two choices: either to associate or identify with an image of Islam that is intolerant, violent, and extremist, or to stop identifying altogether with the Islamic community.

There is evidence that both phenomena are in fact taking place. Not so long ago in the Punjab, which is the biggest province of Pakistan, the governor of the province, Salmaan Taseer, was shot and killed by his own guard because of the Governor’s position against the blasphemy laws in the country. This guard was made out to be a hero after he killed him, and millions of Pakistanis turned out to his funeral to pay homage to this man who had just assassinated the governor of the biggest province of Pakistan. Pakistan, by the way, is a country that is home to about 200 million people.

And we see the same thing here in the West: in order to conform to this intolerant image that is being projected, mosques in the United States, for example, are stocking their shelves, as well as in Europe, with literature of dogmatic, violent ideologues such as Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, and similarly radical Islamic scholars. As a result, individuals are following suit and committing crimes in the name of Islam and Muslims. This problem, needless to say, creates a divide within the ranks of Islam and Muslims, but also creates conflict with faiths outside of Islam.

Now that we have identified the problem, let us take a look at possible solutions. One of the most effective ways to address this predicament or the identity crisis of the Muslim community is facing, is probably not the easiest, and that is to regain control of the intellectual narrative of Islam and Muslims. To do that, Muslim leadership would need to bring to the fore seminal contributions from mainstream Muslim scholars both past as well as present, and to cultivate them as icons within the imagination and minds of the common Muslim. The Muslim leadership has to take its rich intellectual heritage and make it part of the civic discourses. So, Imam Ali, for example, wrote this letter to Malik al-Ashtar, in which he exemplified the principles of governance and rules of our time. As a matter of fact, the United Nations Arab Human Development Report in 2002 quoted six sayings of Imam Ali as advice for leaders. Another figure with whom hardly anyone disagrees in the spectrum of faiths that we have in Islam is the figure of Imam Hussein, and the sacrifice that he had given, the voice that he had raised against despotism, and against tyranny. These are the kind of figures that we need to embrace in the discourse on human lives.

We said that the Magna Carta 700 years ago was the founding document of human rights. Guess what? 1400 years ago, someone by the name of Ali ibn al-Hussain authored a document called the Treatise on Rights (Risalat al-Huquq). And if you look at it, it is far superior than anything the Magna Carta could ever say. There are many examples like that in contemporary Shi’a scholarship, such as Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf, who has delivered pivotal, unifying statements at very critical times, especially since the fall of Saddam in the early 2000s when Iraq was about to descend into chaos. His statements essentially helped to keep Iraq united. He said something to this effect: the Sunnis are not our brothers, but they are ourselves. That’s really the spirit, and I believe that what we need to do is to infuse into our discourse that humanity is like a garden, and those of us who are within this faith, as well as those of us that are outside, are like flowers in that garden. Each one has its own scent, it has its own color that contributes to the beauty and aura of that garden.

Mohamad Bashar Arafat

I am originally from Damascus, Syria. I really feel that I am blessed to
have grown up under the mentorship of the late-Grand Mufti of Syria,
who passed away in 2004. He became Grand Mufti in 1964, and in 1966
he visited the United States. He used to tell us in the early 1980’s that if he “spoke English back then, I would not have had come back to Syria because I have seen that the American people are really searching and looking for truth, but unfortunately I did not speak good English. So, sons, you have to speak good English before you go in qira’at [readings of the Qur’an]; master English and then you go to different qira’ats, because that’s what the world needs today.” He was always encouraging us to travel. When I came to the United States in 1989, and I was Imam of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, after four years I had to get out of the mosque. The story of imams in America is that you have to have independence. This is a problem, because if I stayed in the mosque, I would not be able to do what I’m doing right now. The Muslim Community who came to the United States had imams who were trained in Pakistan, in the Middle East, or in the Arab world but were not taught how to be an imam in America and how to understand the culture of pluralist America.

You have to balance between the Muslim community and the larger community as well. So, after being the campus Imam at Johns Hopkins and subsequently seeing how everybody was doing a lot of exchange programs, I said “What about us as Muslims in America? Where are our exchange programs?” That is something that nobody taught us at Shari’ah universities: how to start exchange programs. And after coming to the United States, I was close to Washington, and nobody told me if you are an imam in the Washington area, you are different than imams in other states in the United States because you are close to 176 embassies.

Nobody teaches you at the Shari’ah universities that being close to Washington entails being close to the State Department, the ECA, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs – and that there are opportunities to start programs and approach the cultural mission of different U.S. embassies because all 294 embassies and consulates open up to you if you propose a “cultural program.” You cannot call it Islamic or Christian or Jewish, but we as Americans are nevertheless entitled to a lot of cultural programs. However, we did not study how to initiate cultural programs at the Shari’ah universities.

Nufayl ibn Ghawth answers questions about the Prophet & Islam at a secret meeting of Medina's Jews
So, let us consider religious pluralism and Muslim identity in the West and Islamic World. I first need to add one more point, and that is raising global imams and leaders in order to talk about pluralism, because for the first time in the history of Islam, there is this entity called the United States of America. Millions of Muslims are migrating to America. Yet the curriculum of those imams did not have anything about how to become an American citizen until recently.

In order to understand what the Muslim community is going through, we should start with Mohammad bin Salman’s recent declaration to The Washington Post, that “Wahhabism was requested from the Saudis during the Cold War.” When I was reading this I thought “Now who is going to clean the mess of some of the problems of Wahhabism?” Many imams in the 80s and the 90s would issue fatwas stating that it is haram to live in America. As a result, people would wonder “Is it halal or haram to live in America? Is it halal or haram to have an American citizenship?” For me, as a Syrian American who has been in America for more than 27 years, I can do certain things here in America, which I would not be able to do in Syria, Egypt, nor anywhere in the Arab world.

So where is this ideology that you are the only one who is “right” and “everybody else is wrong” coming from? It is because in our curriculums we study al-firaq, different sects, or “al-Milal wa-l Nihal” and what happened in the past, and then we came to the conclusion that we are the only right group and everybody else is wrong. What we don’t study in the universities from where many imams are graduating is how to work with these firaq or Muslim denominations. They might be wrong from your perspective, but from their perspective they are right; and like you, they are American citizens, or British citizens, or European citizens. I grew up in an environment which engendered the idea that everybody is wrong and you are the only one in the right. This is a big impediment for pluralism living in America.

The other thing that we really have to talk about is this ideology of radicalization, not only in Europe but also in Africa and in other places, which led me to the creation of the programs which I will be speaking about today. Let us consider being close to Washington, and accepting invitations from different Embassies to speak about Muslim life in America without anyone telling you what to say or what not to say. You are an American citizen of Middle Eastern, or Pakistani, or Indian descent; can you go and speak about your programs in the United States? I ask this question, because then the Muslim Community – if you are an imam of this community – no longer wants you as an imam, because you are supposedly an FBI or CIA agent. Equally, in travelling to other countries having come from America, people presuppose my support for certain American foreign policy deci- sions without engaging me in a discussion. This is really a problem when you travel to other countries.

I would like to talk, furthermore, about my story of those thousands of people who went to the airport to protest Trump’s Muslim ban last year. People in other countries do not know that there are a lot of people who agree with me 100% and are against a lot of aspects of the current foreign policy. So, as an imam, how am I going to implement these programs? Firstly, I need to share what I am doing in the United States with imams and Muslim communities around the world, and that is where I started this program that is part of imam training. For me, that kind of imam training about pluralism, about our identity as Muslims’ living in America, about my identity as an American who was empowered by the American people and the American Constitution, is pivotal. It is an embrace of the fact that you can do whatever you want as an American citizen. How am I going to teach the imams in America that it is your duty to empower your youth here in America, to be a bridge between them and the Muslims in Europe? Last year I did a project through my organization to meet with the Syrians who ended up in Germany and Austria, and in other different European countries. They didn’t have imams who could guide them to success in their new life. This is the importance of this kind of imam training program on pluralism, for me as a Muslim living in America. It is my responsibility as an American citizen, proud to be of Syrian descent, Pakistani descent, African descent, or wherever else. This is not only for me, but also for the benefit of America. This is for the benefit of American interests around the world, to empower the concept of pluralism within the Muslim community, and the imams have to understand their role in this schema as well.

So such are some of the programs that we have been conducting since 2011. Here are just some of the things which happened a few months ago, as well as the training that is happening in Europe as well as in East Africa. One of the most important things was that when imams come, I try to introduce them to Shi’a mosques and the communities in the United States. I also find it very important to take them to the Supreme Court to see how the American Constitution was written, and the museum there demonstrates how the American Constitution also borrowed from the spirit of the Qur’an and Islam. So, that demonstrates a sample of the kind of the imams training that we do. It is really my responsibility today in addition to training priests because a lot of Christian seminaries – I am talking about the Maryland area in Washington – when you go and look at the world reli- gions and the study of Islam in particular for Catholics and Protestants and different denominations, you will see also they really need some help from the imams. How do you train the imams locally to do some programs?

And, finally, and I am glad to be working with the ECA and getting involved with the cultural exchange programs which include almost more than 3,000 high school students chosen from the best of their countries coming to America, staying with host families one year and they go back. We as imams, we have no clue how that works, how to invite them, how to create programs for them. These kind of curriculums need to be updated in order to empower the imam to talk about pluralism.

Sajjad Rizvi

I will make a few normative claims and then I will say a few things about a couple of projects that I’ve been involved in. First, I would like to pick up on something that was talked about earlier. One way you can talk about pluralism is to say that we all live in nice secular liberal societies, and so long as people have certain basic assumptions about a commonality overlapping, like notions of civility, rationality and public reason, then they can pretty much profess what they want. Their faith should ideally be restricted to certain context, which can be primarily private. Everyone can just get on with it, and it’s really good that people aren’t killing each other.

Of course, I think pluralism requires a lot more than that. And one of the questions I am interested in is how it is that religious traditions can engage fruitfully with each other far beyond the simple design that they don’t kill each other, and they don’t anathematize each other, but also how they do that with certain core beliefs being authentic to themselves in so far as they are aware, as religious people, of the presence of the Divine. Why do they act in certain ways as believers, as those who are tied to certain types of metaphysical claims – about why the cosmos exist, and how we exist? How do they bring that to bear on that intersubjective relations, and the effective reasons for which we behave with each other? So, one of the problems that we sometimes debate about pluralism is precisely the absence of spirituality. Religious people, I think, should be interested in spirituality, and should be interested in the presence of the Divine. It would be really nice if they shared that with each other even if they don’t necessarily come from the same tradition that this comes from.

The three basic normative claims I would make about what pluralism should be, which arise from that spiritual foundation, are all fairly straightforward, and fairly uncontroversial. The first one would be recognizing the other as oneself. That is, being able to enact empathy in a realistically meaningful manner. Realize that everyone is human, and insofar as everyone is human, everyone is a certain creation that is a manifestation, an act, a sign of the Divine, presence of the Divine even. And so we need to take each other seriously, we need to care for each other on those terms. Not necessarily on the minimal position in which we sanctify based on location.

The second one is to take difference in traditions seriously on their own terms. Perhaps the greatest Qur’anic exegete of Islamic history is Fakhr al-Din Razi, and in his instruction to his tafsir (exegesis) he has a wonderful section where he discusses why it is that you have to take claims of others seriously before you can engage and critique them. So, in some ways there’s a wonderful little model of how you do this critique. You understand and rehearse, you present the opponent’s positions in the best possible manner, recognizing that we all share a certain irrational commitment to understanding the faith, which is common. Thus, irrationality is a potentially a common ground.

And the third claim, is that the reason why we should do this is because we all have interests in the common good. The common good is something which is scripturally posited in many different traditions. It is one which is very much about human flourishing. We are all interested in the very ease of our own flourishing, and so it is not entirely controversial to think that our flourishing will also be very much a part of another person’s flourishing, that life is not the way geopoliticians see it. It is not a zero-sum game. That your pursuit of the good is also something which will be someone else’s pursuit of the good, and you can work towards common strategies and ends with respect to that.

Now, beyond the normative examples of the projects in which I have been involved in both intra and interfaith contexts, one is a project, which I ran with a colleague at the original Cambridge, which was called “Contextualizing Islam and Britain.” It was a very interesting project – which had to be funded by the government because you couldn’t possibly get someone else to fund it – and is probably the only example I can think of where you are sitting around a table for a number of meetings over two, three years almost, with people from practically every Muslim persuasion imagin- able. We had different types of Salafis, we had different tribes of Sunnis, we had different types of Shi’a, including Zaydis and Ismailis around the table. We had more traditional positions reflected, as well as ones which were new types of Islamic feminism. We had all sorts of interesting per- spectives there, and what it showed was that it was actually possible to do that because the ground was the university, which allows for the possibility of commonality. Sometimes people like being invited to places like Cambridge to discuss what their views are. There was a lot of massaging of the egos involved. When you are dealing with people with turbans in particular, unfortunately you have to do that sometimes. This includes realizing that there are certain costs or questions that we need to discuss which affect people as citizens, but also affect people as they are people of faith within a society, which are at once secular and simultaneously not entirely secular at all. Out of that a couple of reports came. And, of course, after the reports came out, everyone had denied that they had signed up to this. So there are statements about the nature of citizenship, and belonging, and sexuality embedded within these reports, then people sitting around saying “I don’t remember writing that!”

Myself and my colleague basically ran it and had to take the flack for that because we were at least willing to stand up for what was written in it. What it did show was that there was a certain space for this sort of critique, and the possibility of thinking about Islam in a particular context, but also of thinking about Islam in the plural way to recognize that there would be different perspectives within it, which would come to the foreground from different philosophical and theological foundations.

The other project is “Building Bridges”, which began with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. It actually started with George Carey, but he was never terribly interested in it; it began with Rowan Williams, and then it was taken over by Georgetown. It’s a project in which you have a number of Muslim and Christian theologians sitting around doing what you call scriptural reasoning – discussing texts. One of the interesting things is that despite the fact that this is run by Georgetown, if you ask the coordinators and organizers at Georgetown, they will say that they like to keep the certain Anglican ethos about the project, however you may interpret that. So in one sentence, it began as sort of Anglican-Sunni discussion, but has now developed into something much more substantial than that. What’s come out of that project for me in particular is not just learning about all sorts of traditions across Islam and Christianity, and what the Christian friends would call “the long tradition,” but also to see the sorts of connections and similarities which exist outside of that framework. For example, I have had a number of interesting discussions with an Orthodox theologian about the overlap between Orthodoxy and the Orthodox messages in spiritual philosophy, and of course Shi’a mysticism and spirituality as well.

As an academic, I quite like running academic events, and I quite like the give and take of academic intellectual argument, and that is something which I think is really important, particularly for religious leaders to engage with. Beyond that, spirituality also has to be about the return of religion, in a sense, to the public sphere. If it’s just about dress and food and music and a fairly bland, unrooted series of things, that doesn’t really tell you much. What is more interesting is analyzing a certain public ritual: why do people do that? What does it mean for them? How does it affect and change their world and the life that they live? Why do they do certain types of things – not just out of obligation but also out of love? Because the only reason for professing a faith, is love.

The Ka'aba


Figure 1. Islamic Center of America (Dearborn, MI), the largest mosque in the United States (Wikicommons).

Figure 2. The Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, Saudi Arabia (Pixabay).

Figure 3. Christian monks question Muhammad about the father of Jesus and ask how is it possible to be born without a father, Jibrîl brings down sections of the Sûrah Âl 'Imrân, which contains the Qur'anic version of the story of Mary and Jesus (New York Public Library).

Figure 4. Nufayl ibn Ghawth attends a secret meeting of the Jews of Medina and answers questions about Muhammad and his new religion (New York Public Library).

Figure 5. The Ka'aba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (Pixabay).