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The Russell Berrie Foundation supports an enormous amount of activity in a wide variety of fields. The John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue and the Russell Berrie Fellowships at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome are just the most recent, though positioned to have profound impact on the life of the church.
One aspect of the Foundation’s work in Rome is the sponsorship of an annual John Paul II Lecture in Interreligious Understanding, featuring a prominent scholar or religious leader. The inaugural lecture was delivered in 2008 by Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. and the second was offered in 2009 by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich. After two years of leading pastors, this year’s lecture was delivered by a world-class scholar, Dr. Mona Siddiqui of the University of Glasgow.
The original date for the lecture was to take place the day before our Mosque visit, but was delayed to volcanic activity! It turned out to be a good way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, however!
The Berrie Fellows had the privilege to lunch with Dr. Siddiqui, Ms. Angelica Berrie, and the members of the Foundation and the IIE who were in town for the event yesterday after the seminar on Mary in Islam. In an unexpected re-enactment of the wisdom from Luke 14.1-11, I had situated myself at the end of the table to allow others near the honored guest, and after some shuffling I suddenly found myself placed between Dr. Siddiqui and Ms. Berrie – two fascinating women! And both so very approachable, a gift I appreciate more and more the longer I am in service to the Church.
During today’s featured lecture, Dr. Siddiqui addressed the history of interaction between Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Islamic perspective, and focusing on the religious rather than the political realities of our day. The importance of dialogue is something she underlined, not for the sake of conversion, but for the sake of compassion.
“Furthermore, many in the West are aware that despite media frenzy at times, dialogue is not a necessity, it is an option even a privilege. Inter religious work can be a symbol of unity across civilisations and it can also reverberate amongst the followers of the faith. But it works best when there is both text and context. There are many Muslims and Christians who remain convinced that dialogue is fundamentally flawed, not just theologically but also in practical terms. How can Muslims and Christians talk about the same God when they hold such different understandings of the same God? If dialogue is not directed at conversion to Christ or to the event of the Qur’an, what is its real purpose? …
Inter religious work has never been about implicit or explicit conversion. As a Muslim who has lived most of her life in the West, I have learnt that faith speaks to faith in many ways. Dialogue has been a process of learning and accepting, of questioning and appreciating, of self-doubt and humility. Most importantly it has been to understand that talking about a common humanity demands much generosity in the face of practical difference.”
Dr. Mona Siddiqui presaged tomorrow’s Annual John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Dialogue with a visit to the seminar Fr. Fred Bliss has been conducting on Mary in Ecumenical Dialogue (which incidentally, uses the Seattle Statement as its primary text). This is my summary of her presentation, with a little reflection.
One of the few things most (western) Christians would know about Islam is that Jesus is respected as a prophet and messenger of God – though not as God himself. Less well known is that Mary is also mentioned from the Qur’an, and considered by some also as a prophet (though not a Messenger). She is, in fact, referenced more frequently in the pages of the Qur’an than in the New Testament. Instead of Mary, Mother of God, the reference is almost always to ‘Isâ, son of Miryam. Mary’s elevation to a place of respect is owing to her being mother of one of the great prophets. There are 114 suras (chapters) in the Muslim holy book, eight of which are devoted to, or named for, a person. One of these is Mary of Nazareth, to whom the 19th sura is dedicated.
Islam does not hold a view of original sin and the need for salvation from sin that dominates Augustinian-influenced Christianity. Adam’s first act of sin was also his first act of the will, and was apparently a part of the divine plan from the beginning that he would populate the Earth (which is part of the result of his choice). We are not born into a state of sin so much as we are inclined to commit particular sins. Nevertheless there is a sort of myth that sometime before birth, we are each of us ‘pricked’ by the devil, which has a similar effect. Mary and Jesus were spared this pricking for much the same reason that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was developed, to recognize Mary’s holiness and purity as a worthy mother of a great prophet and Messenger.
The virgin birth of Jesus is affirmed, though the Qur’an and its commentators never focus as much on the physicality of all this, as in some of the extreme Christian views. For Islam, Mary’s purity was ethical and spiritual rather than physical. And nothing about a perpetual virginity.
She is a popular person of devotion, especially for Muslim women. Her role is perhaps not as prominent as Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, who is especially revered among Shi’ah Muslims as the mother of successors to the Prophet Mohammad.