NEW HAVEN – A Muslim university chaplain posed an inter-faith premise before a group gathered at Albertus Magnus College: If Christians and Muslims — who represent half of the world’s population — came together in dialogue, “What could that do to the world?”
Imam Omer Bajwa, director of Muslim life in the chaplain’s office at Yale University, spoke about “Catholic-Muslim Relations: Current Perspectives and Future Directions” on April 11 as part of the college’s St. Thomas Aquinas Lecture series.
His presentation, which is posted on the college’s web site, offered a brief overview of Catholic-Muslim history that included a look at the Crusades; and explored contemporary events including how the “powerful message” of Pope Francis is resonating in the Muslim community today.
“He’s giving the world really powerful language,” said Imam Bajwa. “As we struggle with today’s vexing questions – ethical, political, moral, social questions about the environment, poverty, violence, interfaith engagement and relationship building, we need to be both intra- and inter-faith peace-builders.
“We need to focus on how we can highlight the commonalities we share between Catholics and Muslims, while we acknowledge our differences and theological boundaries” at the same time,” he noted.
“We have so much in common, and there is so much work to be done in the world, that this is the time to come together,” said Imam Bajwa.
But, “Where are we today?” he asked. “Today, sadly, we live with an angry and debasing discourse that is heightening global tension,” he said, and that is occurring at any level in the world in terms of political divide, partisanship, lack of civility, and verbal violence online, face to face and in town halls. “These are human weaknesses, human illnesses, sick hearts that need to be healed,” he said.
“We can’t keep our head in the sand any more,” said Imam Bajwa. “We, as Christian and Muslim leaders and lay people, need to model how Christians and Muslims can meet one another in dialogue for greater understanding.”
He noted that his experience over the past 18 years has been one of tremendous good will, of shared language and values in Christians and Muslims conversations.
“Both faith traditions believe in one God, and share the values of peace, love of neighbor, service, and care for children.” Moreover, the bible, he said, is loved and respected by Muslims around the world.
“But we have to be honest about the differences we have,” he said.
Noting that many Catholics admit to knowing little about Islam, he relayed that a 2016 Georgetown University report, “Danger & Dialogue: American Catholic Public Opinion and Portrayals of Islam,” found that nearly half of Catholics can’t name any similarities between Catholicism and Islam, or flatly say there are no commonalities. The report noted that Catholic online content often portrays Islam with violence or terrorism, which is “the prevailing opinion” particularly after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, said Imam Bajwa.
“We need to transcend the conflict narrative … and have the spiritual imagination to say, ‘Where do we go from here?” he said.
Dominican Sister Anne Kilbride, special assistant to the president for Dominican Mission, introduced Imam Bajwa on behalf of the college’s president who was on a travel mission to China. She noted that the world is “in need of dialogue among nations, among individual countries and among religious groups.”
“To build understanding, we need to have knowledge and dialogue,” Sister Anne said. The lack of knowledge of other religions “limits our opportunity to see God through the lens of another and to establish common ground among religions.”
As a launching point for Christian-Muslim dialogue. Imam Bajwa provided a list of educational resources. One is The Sultan and the Saint, a movie released December 2017, which tells the story of how St. Francis risked his life by walking across enemy lines to meet with the sultan of Egypt, Al-Malik Al-Kamil, during the crusades (www.sultanandthesaintfilm.com). The movie will be shown at Trinity College in Hartford on April 22 at 4:30.
Another resource is “A Common Word,” a global Muslim-Christian faith initiative that was launched five years ago and has been endorsed by scholars and faith leaders including Pope Francis. Also helpful is Islam FYI (www.islamfyi.com), a project out of Princeton University that answers questions and addresses misconceptions about the Islamic faith, he said.
Recommended reading he offered include: Finding Jesus Among the Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic by research fellow, Jordan Denari Duffner at Georgetown University; The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization by Professor Richard Bulliet at Columbia University; What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam by John Esposito at Georgetown University; and Muslim-Christian Relations: Historical and Contemporary Realities by Jane Smith.
Founded in 1925 by the Dominican Sisters of Peace, Albertus Magnus College has enrollment of 1,500 students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs.