Ignatius and Islam: Uncovering interfaith intersections

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.

MashaAllah

MashaAllah in Arabic calligraphy.
MashaAllah in Arabic calligraphy.

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.

Rose at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.
Rose at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.

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.”

InshaAllah

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 2008_008671student 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.

Allahu Akbar

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

Allahu Akbar written in Arabic calligraphy.
Allahu Akbar written in Arabic calligraphy.

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.

St. Ignatius with the motto, For the Greater Glory of God.
For the Greater Glory of God.

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 our Hallelujah.

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.

Iraqi man holds up cross and Qur'an at interfaith solidarity event. Source: Buzzfeed
Iraqi man holds up cross and Qur’an at interfaith solidarity event.
Source: Buzzfeed

“The Father of us both”: Fr. Christian’s last testament

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.