"Spirituality is the common factor in any dialogue between religions"
For Islam, Christianity is not an alien religion. Islam lives from its abiding relatedness to Christianity (and Judaism). Both Judaism and Christianity are acknowledged in the Qur’an as faiths revealed by God Himself which are not mutually exclusive. What these religions have in common is their essence: their faith in the one God. In addition, what living encounters between the religions shows us is that the questions we all have in life are the same. Where do we come from? Where do we go? What constitutes happiness for us? And misery? What should we be doing? What is the sense of our existence? Neither Christianity nor Islam are in possession of the truth, even though each is convinced that its own way is the true one. This raises the question: Which Christianity and which Islam are we talking about?
Both religions are widely diverse, sustained by an ambiguity which can be experienced. This includes those who represent extreme tendencies and who not only reject dialogue but also have a sceptical, occasionally hostile, view of the plurality of forms evinced by their own faith. This is why interfaith dialogue sees itself as an alternative to those exclusivist tendencies which mistake their own view of the truth for truth itself. And true Islam is nothing other than a yearning for what is true in Islam. It is for this reason that dialogue promotes encounters between people living their faiths. And when people approach each other with a desire to engage, opening up to each other also means sharing their lives. People are on journeys through life, and these journeys can run parallel, separately and divorced from each other, depending on how each person travels his or her own path. The way from Islam to Christianity is not a casual or fleeting way – Islam seeks out Christianity for its own self-reassurance.
But how can engagement be facilitated in which polemics, mutual lecturing, dogmatism or feelings of superiority over other people have no place? Mutual unfamiliarity is not infrequently based on mutual ignorance and on a concomitant disdain – always sustained by the fear that one’s own path might be falsified if one were to relate to the other person’s path. Initially, there are indeed differences. Muslims, for example, do not believe in God as a Trinity or in the incarnation of God and His crucifixion. These differences in faith cannot be ignored if any dialogue aims to be truthful and authentic. But what do these differences, these axioms of faith, mean to Christians? The differences can be perceived, and what is perplexing or unsettling can be named – but they can also be filled with life. Differences may remain, but they need not evolve into opposition. Shared paths are not without the stumbling blocks which have piled up over the centuries on the path of history. Turning one’s gaze to the stumbling blocks is necessary, and this opens up an approach to other people. What separates people from each other is an integral part of interfaith dialogue between equals – because the dialogue is not actually possible without this element of separation. Dialogue therefore demands that we listen to each other, learn from each other, allow ourselves to be affected by others, and marvel at each other.
This path of dialogue is not lost in the other person, but discovers itself in the eyes and in the heart of the other person. Learning to see ourselves with the other person’s heart deepens our own spirituality and humility and shapes our attitude of respect for differences. Interfaith dialogue shows that most of the ideas which sustain each faith are the same: that which is sacred, true, beautiful; belief and non-belief; prayer and the places where we pray; prophetic figures; the responsibility which the faithful have for society; the common mission for good and for justice. In any dialogue, and beyond the many religious topoi, we learn that spirituality is the actual common factor in any such dialogue between religions. It is spiritual traditions which find their ways to each other with their inexhaustible openness and spirituality – sufism and Christian mysticism, which, in essence, belong to each other. And the reason they belong together is that they see themselves as paths and do not rigidly insist on dogma but, rather, seek the mystery behind it. A dialogue which combines spirit and spirituality shows that we have a joint mission to creatively shape our open society – which can remain open if it is sustained by common values. By revealing to each other our spiritual path, we can also find a language which can pass on to people today – believers as well as non-believers – the wealth of our spiritual tradition and, in doing so, allow this wealth to leave its stamp on the people and society of tomorrow.
Author Ahmad Milad Karimi is Professor of Kalām, Islamic Philosophy and Mysticism, at the Centre for Islamic Theology at the University of Münster. In the book entitled “Im Herzen der Spiritualität. Wie sich Muslime und Christen begegnen können” (“At the heart of spirituality. How Muslims and Christians can approach each other), published in 2019 (by Herder, 288 pp, ISBN 978-3-451-03131-1), Ahmad Milad Karimi and Benedictine monk and author Father Anselm Grün explore the common features that religions have, as well as the differences between them.