- Monks and Muslims: Monastic and Shi‘a Spirituality in Dialogue edited by Mohammad Ali Shomali and William Skudlarek
A remark of Frithjof Schuon, quoted in the introduction to this collection of papers, reminds us of the saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: la rahbaniyah fi al-islam, generally translated: ‘There is no monasticism in Islam’. Yet the judgement of Islamic theology and ethics on the monastic movement in Christianity cannot simply be described as one of condemnation; the Qur’an refers both to monasticism and to monks in terms which on the one hand recognise the laudable motivations of devotion to the goal of divine contemplation which underlie the whole endeavour, while on the other hand condemn what are seen as the excesses of asceticism in which that results, as well as the corruptions to which it is prone (5:82; 9:31; 9:34; 57:27). There is, then, a certain ambivalence within the Islamic attitude: even while the organised expression of monastic life may be seen as having no place in Islam, the impulse from which that life springs may equally be seen as an appropriate response of the human creature to his or her Creator, the servant to the Lord.
From the point of view of those committed to it, that impulse is none other than the response of Christian discipleship, expressed in a particularly intense and committed form. From their first appearance in third century Egypt, Christian monks and nuns, whether living in eremitic solitude or coenobitic community, saw their way of life as simply an attempt to live in the utmost faithfulness to the Gospel. In our own time, there is evidence of a widespread concern to reposition monasticism in relation to that primary and universal motivation of vocation to the [End Page 481] service of God. For example, various forms of ‘new monasticism’ are now appearing alongside the traditional orders; organisations such as the World Community for Christian Meditation seek to develop the idea of a ‘monastery without walls’, defined by network rather than enclosure; I have been very struck by the comment made to me by an experienced Benedictine, that ‘inside each person living in the world there is a bit of a monk or a nun trying to get out’.
It is important to have in mind these wider connections and resonances in considering the possibilities of dialogue between monastic Christianity and other faiths, as otherwise monastic encounter with a non-monastic religion like Islam might seem fruitless. The worldwide movement of ‘monastic inter-religious dialogue’ has indeed most obviously flourished in encounters between Christian monastics on the one hand and Buddhist or Hindu monastics on the other, but the present volume is a reminder of the potential for dialogue that there also is between monastic Christians and (non-monastic) Muslims, provided that dialogue is set within a broad framework of response to the God who reveals his Word to humans.
Monks and Muslims brings together presentations made at the fourth in a series of encounters between Roman Catholic Benedictines and Iranian Shi‘a Muslims, a process which began in Ampleforth Abbey in 2003, and which has also involved encounters in the seminaries of Qum, Iran. Given this background, it is inevitable that the volume will have a certain specificity to it which means that other perspectives are not included. For example, there are no voices from monastics outside the Roman Catholic Church (including Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox), or from the new monastic movements; nor are there any Sunni contributions – in particular, the experience of the Sufi orders is not represented here. However, this limitation should not be seen as a deficiency in the volume but rather as a helpful focus, which in turn points to the potential for wider interactions.
The fifteen contributors present in turn monastic Christian and Shi‘a Muslim papers on seven topics, arranged in a logically progressive sequence as follows: ‘revelation’; ‘lectio divina’, i.e. the practice of reading divinely revealed...