Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Monks and Muslims: Spirituality in Dialogue [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”0814634427″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41Z7NLD8jtL.jpg” width=”216″ alt=”Monks and Muslims” ]Ascending the Same Mountain.

A Feature Review of

Monks and Muslims: Monastic and Shiˁa Spirituality in Dialogue.
Mohammad Ali Shomali and William Skudlarek, eds.

Paperback: Liturgical Press, 2012.
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Reviewed by Richard Goode
Moses did it—Elijah too. Even Mohammed and Jesus embraced the practice. Climbing a mountain to encounter the compassionate and merciful God is a time-honored contemplative practice. Timothy Wright, OSB, uses this metaphor to describe the 2011 monastic-Muslim gathering at Rome’s Primatial Abbey of Sant’ Anselmo.[1] Here “followers of the Rule of Benedict and the followers of the Holy Prophet are like two sets of climbers who are ascending the same mountain, the Mountain of God, but from different sides!” (144). The respective vocabularies, practices, and perspectives of the climbers may vary yet their goal is essentially the same, “ever closer intimacy with God.” Toward such a summit there is no jealous competition. Rather co-climbers form a kind of rope team, graciously supporting one another.

This 2011 dialogue centered on such key disciplines as lectio divina, prayer, and witnessing. Emerging from their exchange[2] is a greater appreciation that the Islamic and Benedictine traditions operate from a common narrative, one that stands in contrast to that of the world (i.e., they have more in common with one another than they do with the world). The world’s dominant narrative stresses individual supremacy, control, and manipulative power—trying to attain idolatrous ends. “Modern men and women are characterized by a desire to be god,” Notker Wolf, OSB, notes, “to do everything themselves, no longer serving, but being free to decide everything for themselves” (88). In contrast, both Muslims and monastics live by a counter-cultural narrative that teaches humility and submission to God. When it comes to God’s revelation, therefore, Mohammad Ali Shomali notes that “Muslims confirm and believe that all believers in God are members of the same community of faith” (18). No tradition holds an exclusive copyright on God’s revelation, and humble “climbers” (to use Wright’s term) must respect and listen to God’s 124,000 prophets who hail from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Such a humble attending to God’s revelation is then practiced in lectio divina, where, as Guido Dotti notes, by pondering part of God’s revelation, supplicants strive to see “oneself, others, and the world with God’s eyes, seeing these as God sees them” (33).[3]  Similarly, Farrokh Sekaleshfar describes lectio as a discipline striving to see and become “Allah-like.” Here again is the scandal of this counter-narrative, for in lectio one’s intentions are refined and purified, moving toward murāqabah, a self-annihilation that enables Allah-like seeing and being. “All traces of ‘you’ are eliminated. One has reached one’s destination in Him” (43).[4]
Such countercultural intentions also govern how and why these two communities pray. Prayer, for example, is less a means of lobbying God in hopes of acquiring the things one wants (i.e., items and outcomes), and more a discipline of yieldedness that builds and sustains a proper, deferential relationship with God. This kind of duˤā (Arabic for “supplication”) builds on an “etiquette” in which “true servitude demands that one desires nothing other than God Himself” (74). Prayer, in other words, is a kenotic practice of surrender to God so that we cease “considering ourselves above all others and regarding ourselves as their lord . . . . [It is] a denial of any kind of dominance, authority and sovereignty” (79, 81). Imbued with this same spirit, monastic prayer is often more akin to that of the Muslim community than to most Christian conventions. The Liturgy of the Hours, for example, is similar to Islam’s salat (ritual prayer) in that it has several set times throughout the day for prayers, incorporates ancient rituals (e.g., bowing, chanting), is undertaken by community, which underscores prayer as the corporate work of the community rather than individual prerogative.

If there is a quibble with the symposium’s conversation it comes in the penultimate section, “Witness in the World,” where spokespersons envision how their ancient spiritual community might serve the 21st-century world. Mohsen Javadi, for example, diagnoses the modern world’s real disease as “the worship of one’s desires instead of the worship of Allah.” “It is a very unfortunate person who mistakes servitude to his lusts as freedom and who considers following the guidance of Allah to be a kind of restriction or confinement” (140). Although the Muslim-monastic counter-narrative provides the prescription for health and healing, the world seems uninterested. Thus presenters outline the relevance of the counter-narrative and how monks and Muslims are germane in today’s world. Perhaps relevance and effectiveness, however, are precisely the wrong emphases insofar as the dominant culture has already invested words like “relevance” and “effective” with predetermined meaning—practices are “effective” and “relevant” insofar as they serve the dominant narrative. The very act of trying to translate the counter-narrative into something pertinent for the dominant narrative, therefore, robs Islam’s sharia law and monasticism’s Rule of St. Benedict of their quintessential contribution. Stated otherwise, being “relevant,” in this context, is antithetical to the genius of Islam and the charism of monasticism.  Instead of looking for some messaging that will make one’s peculiarities palatable, salient, and sustainable in the mainstream world, perhaps being forthrightly and unapologetically odd is the proper path. To play off of Augustine’s historic model, it is a question of whether we are trying to summit the Mountain of God, or the Mountain of Humanity. If the quest is ascent of the former, this 2011 dialogue as recorded in Monks and Muslims illustrates that Christians must build rope-team fidelity and accord with their Muslim colleagues rather than mainstream culture.


[1] This was the fourth in a series of monastic-Muslim interfaith dialogues. The first was in 2003, with others following in 2005 and 2007.

[2] Instead of a literal dialogue manuscript, the volume reprints respective papers presented by Muslim and monastic scholars.  These chapters are arranged by the central topics of revelation, lectio divina, prayer, and witness.

[3] Here Dotti offers a helpful illustration of lectio from the life of Christian de Cherge, the Cistercian abbot martyred in Algeria in 1996. Cherge sought to “immerse my gaze in that of the Father, and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them . . . whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the differences” (34).

[4] This resonates closely with Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s 18th-century classic Abandonment to Divine Providence.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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