At the end of 2017, I published a book with Liturgical Press entitled Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic. Written for a Catholic and broader Christian audience, the book shows how interreligious dialogue with Muslims can deepen Christians’ relationship with God. In this post, I share a bit about the book, which you can learn more about at findingjesusamongmuslims.com.
In many ways, the book grew out of my own experiences of dialogue with Muslims, both in the United States and in the Middle East. In it I draw on church teaching, statements from popes, and the stories of Catholic saints and martyrs. Woven throughout the book are also quotations from the Qur’an, references to Islamic history and scholarship, and excerpts of Islamic mystical poetry.
The book is available for purchase online through the publisher and major booksellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Target. The e-book version is available here and here. You can also ask your local Catholic bookstore to carry it.
Finding Jesus among Muslims has received endorsements from Christian leaders from various denominations, including Bishop Mitchell Rozanski and Gov. Martin O’Malley, and from a range of Muslim scholars and religious leaders including Eboo Patel, Omid Safi, and Omar Suleiman.
Appropriate for those with little prior exposure to or knowledge of Islam, Finding Jesus amongMuslims includes an extensive glossary and discussion questions for each chapter, making it suitable for individual reading as well as study groups and high school and college classroom discussions. Written primarily for a Catholic Christian audience, its educational message can be enriching for readers from any faith (or no faith) background.
At the end of the book, I provide an interfaith prayer for use in Muslim-Christian dialogue, as well as thorough guidelines for organizing events with Muslims and a list of resources for further reading and study. This book endeavors to be the first step on readers’ journey of the “dialogue of life” with Muslims and those of other faiths. For more resources related to the book, check out the Resources page on the book website.
Over the past several months, I have spoken to diverse audiences about Finding Jesus among Muslims at universities and parishes across the United States. I have also met with groups over Skype to discuss the book. If you are interested in setting up a speaking engagement, please reach out through the contact page on this website or at findingjesusamongmuslims.com.
Earlier in December, I published the following piece in National Catholic Reporter. It speaks about the centrality of mercy in the Islamic tradition, something that is unknown by many in the West. During this time of increased Islamophobia — when anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks against Muslims are at a post-9/11 high — it’s ever more important to become better acquainted with Muslims and their tradition. I hope this piece can aid in that endeavor.
Dec. 8 marks the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy, a yearlong celebration of God’s compassion. Pope Francis, who has made mercy the motto of his papacy, hopes that this year will be “a true moment of encounter with the mercy of God.” One way Catholics can become better acquainted with this divine mercy is by more deliberately encountering another religion that takes God’s mercy as its central focus: Islam.
Faced with news media images of violence and black flags in the Middle East, the last thing many Catholics might associate with Islam is mercy. Aside from knowing about Muslims’ frequent prayer and Ramadan fast, most are unaware of Muslim religious practices, let alone their beliefs about God. But written at the beginning of every chapter of the Quran but one, and recited by Muslims at the start of every meal, prayer and task, is the invocation Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, which can be translated “In the name of God, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.”
In his papal bull announcing the jubilee, Francis referenced both Islam’s and Judaism’s emphases on God’s mercy, writing, “There is an aspect of mercy that goes beyond the confines of the Church.” He urged Catholics to use the Year of Mercy as an opportunity to learn about Islam and other religions to “eliminate every form of close-mindedness and disrespect … violence and discrimination.”
Like a parent
As Francis has described in homilies throughout his papacy, God’s mercy isn’t simply pity or forgiveness after we’ve done wrong. Rather, mercy is God’s overarching disposition toward creation, a parental love that extends to all. This is also true in Islam.
Muslims don’t refer to God as “Father,” but the parent-like nature of God in Islam becomes clear when we examine the Arabic roots of the word for mercy: rahmah. This word — and the names for God al-Rahman (the Entirely Merciful) and al-Rahim (the Especially Merciful) — comes from rahm, the Arabic word for a mother’s womb. The Prophet Muhammad compared God’s rahmah to that of a nurturing mother.
In the Quran, God identifies rahmah — which Muslims also translate into English as graciousness, compassion and loving kindness — as His chief attribute, and says that the name al-Rahman is but a synonym of Allah, the Arabic word for God. In a famous hadith, or saying of the prophet, Muhammad tells his followers that God has more mercy toward his servants than a mother does toward her child.
For both Christians and Muslims, God’s mercy is also characterized by infinite patience and a constant reaching out to wayward humanity.
Francis frequently cites Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, or what the pope calls the story of the “merciful father.” In the parable, a young man runs away from his family, abandoning his elderly father and living a life of selfishness. After he squanders his money, he returns ashamed to his family home.
As the Bible tells it, “While [the son] was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”
An oft-cited saying of Muhammad echoes this picture of God. He said, “God says: When a servant of mine draws nearer to me by the length of a hand, I draw toward him an arm’s length; and when he draws near to me an arm’s length, I draw near to him the distance of a wingspan; and if he comes to me walking, I go to him running.”
‘My Mercy encompasses all things’
The motherly quality of God’s mercy in Islam also speaks to God’s creation and sustaining of the universe. All things have been created by God, who, as the spiritual master Ibn Arabi put it, “mercified” the universe into being.
God’s infinite compassion (Quran 7:156) embraces the whole world (as a mother’s womb), and his attributes are partially made manifest in his creatures, particularly humans.
This universal and constantly flowing mercy of God is also paired with what scholars of Islam have called God’s particular or secondary mercy, which is bestowed in response to humans’ efforts to live as God wants. This special mercy (ultimately achieved in salvation at the end of life) is not guaranteed, since humans are free to turn away from God’s universal care.
Still, like a patient parent, God constantly offers mercy, which, as Muhammad described, always “prevails over” his wrath.
Model of mercy
Muslims also believe God’s mercy was expressed through messengers who conveyed his revelation to humanity. These messengers include many figures that are familiar to Christians, such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, of whom God says in the Quran, “We have not sent you [Muhammad] but as a mercy for the universe” (Quran 21:107).
For Muslims, Muhammad is the model of merciful living. They look to his example of rahmah toward animals, the elderly, his grandchildren and everyone he met as a blueprint for their own lives, striving to emulate his caring nature and to be a mercy to their own universe.
“CelebrateMercy,” an online educational initiative started by American Muslims, strives to share the life and legacy of the Muhammad not just with Muslims but with those who have only countered negative stereotypes about Islam and its prophet.
Mercy is our motto, too
In learning about the centrality of mercy in Islam, Catholics can become more cognizant of the emphasis of mercy in our own tradition, finding resonances to the Islamic notion in passages like this one, in Isaiah: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”
This Year of Mercy is a time for Catholics to re-encounter God’s rahmah through our own Scriptures and tradition, but also through the religion of our Muslim brothers and sisters. What we will discover is that, even with our doctrinal differences, Muslims and Christians share a core belief in a God who approaches all of creation with the loving kindness of a parent.
Perhaps then, we’ll find ourselves beginning each prayer, each task and each meal with an invocation of God’s mercy on our lips.
July 31 is the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests better known as the Jesuits.
The essay below was originally published in National Catholic Reporter on July 17, 2015 on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday which concludes the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
It’s a special time in the Islamic world, and in the Ignatian world, too.
For the last month, Muslims have been celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting, almsgiving, and praying over God’s revelation. For those at Jesuit institutions — schools, parishes, and organizations inhabiting the spirit of St. Ignatius of Loyola — this July is a celebration of the spirituality of the Jesuit founder, whose feast day is July 31.
This confluence of celebrations prompted me to reflect on the points of convergence between Islamic and Ignatian spirituality. As a student of Islam educated in Catholic Jesuit schools, I’ve discovered some profound similarities, or, as the late Trappist abbot Christian de Cherge would call them, “the notes that are in common” between the religions.
These similarities can be explained best by pointing to three Arabic mottos, central to the Islamic tradition, and their surprising Ignatian counterparts.
The phrase MashaAllah, or “what God wills,” is used to express appreciation, gratitude, reverence, and awe about the good and beautiful. As my friend Zainab put it, it’s about recognizing “a flicker of God’s divine character” in the created world. Muslims exclaim it when their friends get into college, when they spot a stunning sunset, or when their relatives post a picture of their new, healthy baby on Facebook. I like to think of this prompt acknowledgement of God’s blessings as an immediate, “in-the-moment” Examen, the daily prayer of gratitude developed by St. Ignatius.
The Daily Examen encourages us to reflect back on — or rummage through — our day, looking for the places where God made Godself known to us. Often, these ayat, or signs of God, can be found in creation. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, and the Muslim mystic Ali al-Khawas, both realized this. In his recent encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home,” Francis cites the Sufi writer, who wrote in the ninth century:
The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted.
Inspired by Ali’s poetic description, Francis writes:
Standing awestruck before a mountain, [the mystical person] cannot separate this experience from God, and perceives that the interior awe being lived has to be entrusted to the Lord.
What Francis and Ali are both describing is that “a-ha!” — or rather, MashaAllah — moment, when a person recognizes and acknowledges that it is ultimately God who is the giver of creation’s good gifts.
But it’s not just about seeing God in what appears to be beautiful and good, but finding Allah in all things. Both Christianity and Islam teach us that every experience — good or bad — is an opportunity to become closer to the divine. St. Ignatius talks about this as “finding God in all things,” a phrase which has become an important buzzword in Ignatian communities. Another Muslim mystic, the well-known Rumi, would have agreed with Ignatius. In his poem, “The Guest House,” he advises us to “be grateful for whoever comes, [because] each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
Another phrase of great significance in the Islamic tradition is InshaAllah, or “if God wills.” Muslims use it when talking about the future, to qualify their anticipated plans with the caveat that God is ultimately in control.
The frequent mention of God’s will in Muslims’ speech points to the core endeavor at the center of Islam: conforming one’s will to the will of God. The word Islam refers to the peace that comes with surrendering to God’s will, and a Muslim is a person who submits to that God-given peace.
That is a notion familiar to those acquainted with Ignatian spirituality. St. Ignatius taught that we must constantly ask ourselves, “What is God’s will for me?” and “How can I live out God’s desires for me, and for the world?” Ignatius wrote that we could come to these answers through prayerful discernment.
Junayd, another spiritual giant, said this handing over of one’s free will to God brings deep ”contentment.” But the process of discerning God’s will and living it out in practice is challenging. Matt McKibben, a student at a Jesuit high school in Kansas City, Mo., described this challenge as riding with God on a tandem bicycle. After steering the bike from the front seat and maintaining control over life, he asks God to metaphorically swap places, praying, “Let me pedal hard while you guide the way. Let me keep focus, and stay with you always.”
By uttering InshAllah, Muslims vocalize their inner trust, or tawakkul, in God’s plan for the future. I can imagine my Muslim friends offering this prayer by the late Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, renaming it “Patient Tawakkul”:
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Islamic and Ignatian spirituality also put a strong emphasis on God’s “greatness.” Each Islamic call to prayer begins with the invocation, Allahu Akbar, “God is the greatest.” It is used to praise and glorify God
who is transcendent, grander than we could ever imagine. This phrase of exultation is also used in ordinary life, to express “adulation and exuberance during a sermon or cultural performance, and conversely, even to [communicate] a sense of shock or distress upon learning of the death of a loved one.” Unfortunately, most non-Muslims will only associate this phrase with terrorists. They don’t know that NFL football star Husain Abdullah uses it to give credit to God when he picks off a pass from Tom Brady on the football field.
The motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, “For the greater glory of God,” was coined by St. Ignatius to remind us that every act we perform, big or small, can and should be dedicated to God. The motto vocalizes the common goal of Christians, Muslims and all people of faith, who endeavor to dedicate their lives to something greater than themselves.
Islam and Ignatian spirituality remind us that our existence is made meaningful by this: praising and glorifying God through a life of service to God and others. That’s why I was so thrilled with the title of Pope Francis’ encyclical. Laudato Si’ means “praise be to you” in the medieval Umbrian dialect of Italian spoken by St. Francis of Assisi, who had his own personal encounter with Islam through a meeting with the Muslim Sultan al-Kamil in Egypt. The title made me smile because it could have easily have been named Alhamdulillah — another ubiquitous Arabic term meaning “praise be to God,” the equivalent for ourHallelujah.
At a bare minimum, this time of celebration can be an opportunity for our communities to learn more about each other. But it holds much more potential. These days should call us to praise God, not just from the comfort of our own, respective communities, but together, as a diverse community, unified by our shared goals and our common Source.
April 7th, 2015 marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Father Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest who was murdered during Syria’s civil war after living there for over fifty years. I’ve already written much about Frans in the year since his death, but on this occasion, I’d like to reflect on his life in light of the great Easter mysteries that Christians continue to celebrate this week.
Frans lived Easter. It wasn’t something he simply remembered and celebrated; he embodied it.
“I want share in their suffering with them,” he said in a YouTube video as bombs echoed behind him through Homs’ ravaged Old City, “in their sadness, their fear, their suffering, and their death. I want to be in the hearts of the people, until I move with them from loss and hardship to a new horizon.”
Frans understood what many of us fail to realize: that Easter isn’t simply about what Jesus did, but what Christ calls us to do.
Substitution or participation?
Many Christians understand the events of Easter as “substitutionary” or “vicarious” atonement. They see Jesus’ Passion and death as something God accomplished long ago to save us from our own personal sins. But this view, which I grew up with, misses the point. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus summons his friends to walk the path to Calvary with him, to follow his example and participate in the world’s suffering.
During the Last Supper, Jesus does not tell his disciples that they will get off the hook. He does not promise them cushy lives won by his brutal death. He does not pass “get out of jail free” cards around the table, but rather hands them the bread that is his body, and the wine that is his blood. To truly save humanity from the sin and suffering that plague creation, he tells us, we must become his Body and mirror his self-sacrificing love.
This call to participation is most powerfully demonstrated when Jesus washes the feet of his apostles in John’s Gospel. After rubbing the dirt and sand off their feet—a task usually reserved for slaves—Jesus says,
“Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13: 12-15)
This view of Christ’s Passion, which is referred to as “participatory atonement” by theologians, recognizes that Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary is incomplete if we are not participants in it ourselves. This interpretation, which was developed by the early Church Fathers, says that our at-one-ment with God is accomplished if we, along with Jesus, radically give of ourselves to others by accepting the suffering of the most vulnerable, the most hated, and the most marginalized.
Frans’ motto: “Let’s move forward”
Frans must have understood Jesus’ Passion as something in which he was called to take part. Otherwise, he would have left Syria when he had the chance. But he refused to leave the besieged and blockaded city of Homs. Instead, he shared food with the starving, even though he was near starving himself. He visited those who were suffering and lent them a kind ear. He engaged with rival warring factions, and called everyone “brother,” even his masked murderer.
It seems appropriate, then, that we mark Frans’ death during our celebration of Easter, when we recall how death is somehow transformed into new life. In the wake of his murder, the Muslim and Christian communities he cared for have grown stronger and more connected. Cross-continental friendships that were forged over social media to memorialize his legacy are already producing bountiful fruit. I’m fortunate to have been a part of this international community, which emerged spontaneously last year and which continues spread Frans’ message of peace and musharika.
Mushaaraka, a word Frans used often to describe the relationships he saw in Syria, is hard to translate into English. “Sharing” and “partnership” get close; “communion” gets closer. Mushaaraka is about “participation in the life of another,” about stooping down and washing another’s feet.
As we enter into our Easter season, we thank God for the life and example of Frans, and stand up on our newly washed feet, ready to “move forward.”
For more about the life of Frans, check out the following links:
-My essay, “Why I Cried in Arabic Class,” which was republished at Millennial Journal.
-“Forty Days Later and Fr. Frans,” an article by Jesuit Paddy Gilger, which features my artwork.
-Reflections on Frans’s life by Fr. Louis Taoutel (Video in English)
-A compilation of interviews with Frans during the siege of Homs (Video in Arabic)
-A documentary on Frans’ important projects: the Ard Center and his interreligious hike (Video in Arabic)
-A slideshow of images of Frans with the people of Homs (Video in French)
19 years ago today, in the Atlas mountains of Algeria, seven Trappist monks where kidnapped from their rural monastery. Eventually murdered along with many thousands of Algerians and foreigners in the mid-1990s, the French monks had decided to stay in their African home despite the country’s civil war. The story of these men, and the two other monks who managed to avoid capture, is told in The Monks of Tibhirine and “Of Gods and Men,” a book and film which recount the monks’ common life of prayer, work, and service.
On this anniversary, I’d like to share a letter written by Fr. Christian de Cherge, the prior of the monastery and a scholar whose theological writings were deeply influenced by his lived experience among Muslims. Fr. Christian’s theology of dialogue has deeply impacted my own, and much of it comes through in this letter. Fr. Christian’s voice is one we desperately need to hear today–in a world which is still marred by violence, state terrorism, prejudice, and persistent inequality. I hope you find his words as powerful as I do.
The Last Testament of Christian de Cherge
“If it should happen one day—and it could be today—
that I become a victim of the terrorism
which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria,
I would like my community, my Church, my family,
to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept that the Sole Master of all life
was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I ask them to pray for me—
for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to be able to link this death with the many other deaths which were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value.
In any case it has not the innocence of childhood.
I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil
which seems, alas, to prevail in the world,
even in that which would strike me blindly.
I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
I could not desire such a death.
It seems important to state this.
I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice
if the people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder.
To owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be,
would be too high a price to pay for what will, perhaps, be called, the ‘grace of martyrdom,’
especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately.
I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages.
It is too easy to salve one’s conscience
by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists.
For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received from it,
finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel,
learnt at my mother’s knee, my very first Church,
already in Algeria itself, in the respect of believing Muslims.
My death, clearly, will appear to justify
those who hastily judged me naïve, or idealistic:
‘Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!’
But these people must realize that my avid curiosity will then be satisfied.
This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—
immerse my gaze in that of the Father,
and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them,
all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, and filled with the Gift of the Spirit,
whose secret joy will always be to establish communion
and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the differences.
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God who seems to have willed it entirely
for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything.
In this THANK YOU, which sums up my whole life to this moment,
I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today,
and you, my friends of this place,
along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing.
Yes, I also say this THANK YOU and this A-DIEU to you, in whom I see the face of God.
And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Ameen. In sha ‘Allah.”
-Christian de Cherge
Algiers, December 1, 1993 – Tibhirine, January 1, 1994.
An icon depicting the monks’ death
A piece of artwork of the monks, which uses phrases in different languages, including Arabic.
The Tibhirine cross, specially designed by Christian with his Muslim neighbors in mind.
The monks with a couple guests
Our Lady of the Atlas Mountains, in Tibhirine, Algeria