Secular Franciscans Learn the Similarities between our Faith and Islam
By DON WATKINS, OFS
December 13, 2016 at 9:23 PM
The St. Irenaeus and St. Bonaventure fraternities had a unique opportunity to attend a lecture titled, “Islam: A Catholic-Franciscan Perspective.” Fr. Michael Calabria, OFM, Director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at St. Bonaventure University spent nearly two hours lecturing our fraternities and answering our questions about this timely topic. Our fraternity had been discussing an article that appeared on the Franciscan Action Network website. The article referred to a recently released study from The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University which stated that, “most American Catholics do not personally know a Muslim and most do not have a good understanding of Islam as a religion.” The report found that “nearly half of Catholics can’t name any similarities between Catholicism and Islam, or say explicitly that there are no commonalities.”
After sharing this article with our fraternity, our Vice Minister, Betty Hooker, OFS suggested that we take steps to acquaint our fraternity with Islam. We approached Fr. Michael and he graciously agreed to present. Fr. Michael said that it was an interesting correlation that Catholic publications that viewed Pope Francis positively also tended to view Islam positively and that those publications who were not favorable to Pope Francis tended to view Islam negatively. He also said that most Catholic bookstores seem to sell highly questionable books about Islam, but he said that is also true of other bookstores as well. Through his talk we gained an appreciation of the many intersections of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faith. Fr. Michael told us that he wanted to dispel the myth that Christians and Muslims have been at “each other’s throats” since time immemorial. He said that while various Muslims and Christians have been involved in wars with each other the same can be said for Christians fighting other Christians and Muslims fighting each other.
He talked of his early interest in Islam which began when he was an Egyptology student at Johns Hopkins University. He was on a trip to Egypt with his professor in 1981 and how this experience evolved into an academic interest. His first encounter with Islam came with the call to prayer early in the day while he was there. Muslims pray five times a day. The prayer begins. “God is the most great.” He said that contrary to popular belief “not everyone drops to the floor” but you do see that in some places. Fr. Michael equated Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” with this call to worship. We are invited to bring God into our consciousness. This call to worship five times a day was the result of a bargain between God and Moses. He said, that Moses is the most frequently mentioned prophet in the Quran. Islam shares most of the prophets from the Jewish and Christian traditions. He drew a contrast between Western church architecture which is designed to “shut out the world” so that people could focus on the altar.” In a mosque the focus is on what lies beyond the walls of the mosque. This outward orientation is because the focus is on the universe where everything is taken to be a sign of God’s presence. Fr. Michael saw this as parallel to the spirituality of St. Francis which sees all creation as brother and sister. Although we sit, rise and kneel in our prayer, Fr. Michael said that “Islamic prayer is a more fully embodied prayer.” When the person who is at the lowest point of the prayer, with their head on the ground, that is when they glorify God and also ask for forgiveness. Before praying Muslims perform ablutions, which are a way of ritually preparing yourself for prayer which is very similar to the Hebrew practices in the Bible.
In a mosque, there is an architectural convention called “The Niche” which directs a person toward Mecca which is the holy city. We have a similar structure called the apse in Christian churches where the altar is placed and that serves much the same purpose to direct our attention. Fr. Michael shared about Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj and the prayer directed to the Kaaba which is believed to have been the house of worship built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham and his son. The Kaaba is the primordial center of their worship. No matter where Muslim are in the world their prayer is directed toward it.
Fr. Michael also told us that another significant aspect of Islam is the practice of almsgiving which is computed to 2.5% of your annual earnings. Significantly in the Quran almsgiving is always mentioned with prayer. Regular prayer and regular charity are believed to bless those who practice this. In other words prayer alone is not enough. It must be accompanied by almsgiving too. My relationship with God must find itself expressed in my relationship with others, particularly the poor. This is the message of the Hebrew prophets and it is the message of Jesus and the message of Islam as well. Our relationship with God in all three religions is expressed in our relationship with the most vulnerable in our society.
He drew the contrast between our Catholic fasting and ritual fasting that Muslims practice during Ramadan. Fasting in Islam is much more rigorous. Nothing passes your lips either water or food from sunup to sundown. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar the time of Ramadan changes each year. Sometimes when Ramadan falls during the summer months this could result in fourteen or fifteen hour days of fasting. Fr. Michael says that this fasting re-orients one to God. He said, “every time you hear your stomach grumble or your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth this can reorient you to God.” He also said, that while fasting in Ramadan is much more rigorous than Lent but it is a much lighter time than Lent and more like Christmas for them. This is because during those night hours during Ramadan, Muslims meet, eat and celebrate. This ritual fasting in Islam like our own in Christianity is to turn your attention to the remembrance of God. One of the symbols of Ramadan are little tin lamps that people hang outside their home or hang outside their businesses this symbolizes the light of the Quran which was originally revealed during the month of Ramadan. Fr. Michael drew our attention to our own practice of candles in Advent wreaths before Christmas. He shared that Muslims believe in one God, as do Christians and Jews. He said, “This is the God of Abraham, the God of Moses and the God of Jesus. He dispelled the common belief that Allah is a different God by showing us an Arabic Christian Bible where God is referred to as Allah. In fact he said, that Allah is the word that Arab Christians use when they refer to God.
He said, that while we have different theologies we share many common beliefs. He said if we want to understand how Muslims relate to Christians it is very similar to how we Christians relate to Jews. Muslims see their faith as a fulfillment of the promises of its two predecessors. For Muslims, what is revealed in the Quran is a fulfillment of all that went before. He said, “for Christians Jesus is most immanent in the Christ.” For Muslims everything in creation reflects the in-dwelling of God. Fr. Calabria cited one of his favorite passage from the Quran to illustrate the closeness of God to all creation. “And indeed We have created man, and We know whatever thoughts his inner self develops, and We are closer to him than (his) jugular vein.” In other words, God is closer than the veins in one’s neck. For Muslims this is the immanence of God. Fr. Michael said, “For Muslims God has spoken to humanity in the Torah, in the psalms of David, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and finally in the Quran.” They see their faith as a fulfillment of all that has gone before. Fr. Michael’s had us spellbound for almost two hours. Everyone from our two fraternities emerged with a much fuller understanding of our common Abrahamic roots and an appreciation for nuances and intersections of our faiths. We are grateful to Fr. Michael Calabria for his time, eloquence and scholarship.
Don is a member of St. Irenaeus Fraternity - St. Kateri Tekakwitha Region USA