What Are Christian Mystics Doing at a Mosque?

Over the last 20 years I have been inspired to ponder the benevolent potential of interfaith work when I have seen mystically oriented Christians and Muslims successfully dialoguing to show their goodwill. For those interested in spirituality, interfaith encounter and dialogue between mystics that includes a focus on spirituality is potentially quite interesting. Bernard McGinn sees mysticism as a "particular kind of encounter between God and the human" and he offers a rather expansive perspective on the essential goal of mysticism, stating that, "... everything that leads up to and prepares for this encounter as well as all that flows from or is supposed to flow from it for the life of the individual in the belief community is also mystical..."(Bernard McGinn, 'The Foundations of Mysticism,' Crossroad Publishing, New York, 1992, page xvi.) Christian-Muslim dialogue between mystics can be part of this whole experience as described by McGinn in the sense that it can focus the attention of persons on the relationship with the Almighty and what is important in the religion.

Amongst the crowd in various mosques in North America, one never really knows exactly why some Muslims reach a higher spiritual level than others. They may be individually fortunate Muslims or they may also choose to benefit from the spiritual discipline and guidance of belonging to certain Sufi orders.Unless you are in a mosque community that is intolerant towards Sufism (those exist), individual Muslim mystics in the local mosque crowd may also affiliate with one or more of many Sufi orders that approach Islamic mysticism systematically in a disciplined way. (See here.)

On the part of various Christian mystics, their benevolent motivations to reach out in goodwill often merit closer examination. Of course various Christian mystics may have many different good motives for being nice and showing goodwill generally. Amongst the other "Peace Churches" and various other Christian mystics, the Quaker Peace Testimony is worth noting as it has a centuries-long history in Britain and in the United States. The Quaker commitment to peacemaking is remarkable and admirable especially when noting their historical achievements. This is described here and its different manifestations are discussed here. The context of its early development is explained by Hugh Barbour, "The Quakers in Puritan England," Yale University Press, London and New Haven, 1964. See also Peter Brock's "Pioneers of the Peaceable Kingdom," Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1968.

Of course for Muslims the early and contemporary Quaker theology and theological rationale cannot be taken to offer guidance Islamically but the end results are sometimes of common interest to Muslims. At the www.quakerinfo.org webpage there is a letter from Margaret Fell to King Charles II of England in 1660 entitled, "A Declaration from the harmless and innocent people of God, called Quakers." The short quote that I find interesting from the larger amount of material within the letter is, "Our principle is, and our Practice have always been, to seek peace and ensue it and to follow after righteousness and the knowledge of God, seeking the good and welfare and doing that which tends to the peace of all." (see here) While I certainly do not agree with their theology nor with all the choices that Quakers make or have made with respect to implementing their peace testimony, with this above particular quote, Margaret Fell and others were quite right.

On the part of Muslims, any Muslim "peace testimony" is not separate from the religion and has been an integral part of scholarly interpretation. Different references to Muslim scholars can be made that reference a call to peacemaking. The excellent work of Said Nursi, widely known in Turkey, is a good example of this. For more on this, see Zeki Saritoprak's, "Peace and Nonviolence: a Turkish Experience, " The Muslim World, vol. 95; No. 3, July 2005, pages 413-427 and also Zeki Saritoprak's "Said Nursi on Muslim-Christian Relations Leading to World Peace," Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations; Volume 19 Issue 1, 2008, pp 25-37. Another good example is from Dr. Muhammad Tahir ul Qadri in his "Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings" (Minhajul Quran International, London, UK 2010) which has a whole first section on this matter of the meaning of Islam, pages 19-55. On page 19, Dr. Qadri puts it quite simply that "Islam is a religion of peace and security, and it urges others to pursue the path of peace and protection." As a testimony to peace can be seen integrally within Muslim scholarly interpretation and as a peace testimony amongst Christians such as Quakers, there are points of common reference which can be a subject of an enriched and timely interfaith dialogue.

All of this interfaith encounter is important to take note of. Anyone watching, listening to or reading the American news media is often subjected to knowing about various intolerant petty extremisms and fanaticisms not only abroad but also within the borders of the U.S. These can be frightening or just silly. In many if not all of these extremisms, it can be seen that various politically-motivated interests seek to promote fear between communities or even persecution to achieve their objectives. In contrast to the intolerant message of these many petty extremisms and fanaticisms, Christian mystics showing goodwill and manifesting peacemaking and Muslims showing their goodwill to others exemplifies a better interpretation and implementation of religion. More of this multi-religious peacemaking could be beneficial, for involved communities but also at an individual level for those involved.

Even if outside critics of interfaith peacemaking may decry what they would call a lack of tangible results at a community level, an end result of individuals becoming savvier and more open minded would mark such interfaith endeavors as successful. Despite necessary differences between the two religions, we might even be able to see at certain places within their different Christian and Muslim messages a certain similarity. This similarity in the different Christian and Muslim expressions I would articulate simply as follows and which should appear plainly as common sense: that any time wasted being unnecessarily nasty cannot be spent on the more important work of expanding our inner lives and being spiritual. Showing goodwill to others through interfaith work can demonstrate this message. We can also refocus our motivations towards our religion away from any unnecessary distractions, away from petty fanaticisms and petty extremisms, back to that critically important central purpose of our religion.

Lastly, it can be noted that, although there are often points of similarity and agreement between the two religions, there are also often points of major disagreement that also become clear in interfaith dialogue between mystics. Experienced veterans of interfaith dialogue know that these disagreements can be the seeds of very fruitful discussions when dialogue participants return to their own mosques and churches and talk with other adherents of their own religion. In fact, discussing these disagreements between the religions within one's own religious community can often be the starting point of deeper (also mystical) understandings of aspects of one's own religion. Peacemaking, showing goodwill, achieving deeper understanding and seeking revivification of the religion generally are good outcomes and are worth working towards.