Nose-diving straight into the intricacies of Christian and Muslim religious traditions, theologies, Prof. Shafa Elmirzana, of the Alwaleed bin Talal center for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown university explained the historical origins of Christian-Muslim dialogue from the time of Meister Eckhart and Ibn Al-Arabi. She was speaking at an event organized by the Rumi Forum in Washington DC on Tuesday.
Prof. Esposito started off the discussion by mentioning that the issue of dialogue has come into prominence in our times, simply because Islam has emerged as the next serious alternative to Christianity at the global level, and it while dogmas tend to divide both and there is also a tendency to look at the theologies and say there are stark differences between the two global religions, if we re-examine our beliefs and assumptions of God and God-head, this may turn out to be quite something else.
Prof. Elmirzana spoke about her work, which she has recently turned into a book, “The challenge of dialogue: learning from the two masters”, in which she examines the life and ideas of two great mystics – Ibn Al Arabi, a Muslim scholar and Meister Eckhart, a German theologian. While both of them operated at the mystical level, and of two different faiths, their ideas about questioning the “God-head” or the “God” as we know it was crucial. Both knew and reaffirmed that there was a significant difference between the idea of God as we know and God in actuality.
“While every religion has three components: The institutional, mystical and ritual. A lot of times, peope tend to focus on one and ignore the other. It is important to look at all the three simultaneously if we are to get a comprehensive understanding of a faith”, she added.
“Both Eckhart and Ibn Al -Arabi believe in the infinitely readable text, and they champion this infinite readability in the hopes of combating the “idolatries of language” and “hermeneutical arrogance”, she pointed out, further elaborating on her earlier discussion that there are “a multitude” of interpretations of any religious text.
On naming God and interpretation of texts:
The limitations of understanding God through our limited consciousness was something that both the masters dealt with. “ Our limitations take many forms, one of which is the inherent adequacy of our various languages and modes of discourse, and the limited understandings regarding God – who is essentially beyond descriptions and words”.
During the Q&A session, she tackled questions related to the syncretism that occurred between Islam and other local religions in India, Indonesia. “Islam is not a monolithic concept as we understand. There are so many cultural adaptations and flavors to how the religion can be adapted and has been interpreted. We must be aware of this, lest we become too focused on “one pure” Islam, which does not exist. There are provisions for contextual interpretation of the laws and dogmas, which is a crucial part, if we are to completely understand where the practice of religion today is.