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

Reflecting on Rahmah: Thoughts for Eid al-Adha

Written October 4, 2014.

This year’s Eid al-Adha, the Islamic feast of sacrifice[i], comes at a challenging time. Debates over Islam’s true nature rage like the battles fought in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. For many, the only images of Islam today are slender knives, black flags, and hooded faces. For me, these are daily images, too. But they aren’t the only ones.

In these recent months, I have encountered new ideas and truths in the religion of Islam which have enriched my own understanding of God, and that have provided me with new perspectives about what it means to be a believer. These “rays of Truth” in Islam have helped me reflect on my own tradition, and they point out similarities among the Abrahamic traditions. Given the tragedy of world events, it seems imperative that I now share them. I hope these brief reflections can not only shed light onto a religion that is still unknown to many, but also spark inward, personal conversations about humans’ relationship with the Divine.

God’s Greatest Attribute

Muslims begin prayer, meals, and most tasks by invoking God using the phrase, Bismillah ir-Rahman ar-Rahim, which means “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.” This invocation also introduces nearly every chapter of the Qur’an, and points to God’s chief attribute in Islamic theology: rahmah, mercy.

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

In the Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the revealed Word of God, God speaks constantly about His mercy for humanity. These are only a few examples:[ii]

-“Whoever does evil, or wrongs himself, then seeks the forgiveness of God, will find God Forgiving, Merciful.” (4:110)

-“Your Lord has prescribed mercy for Himself.” (6:12)

-“My Mercy encompasses all things.” (7:156)

-“God is of infinite grace.” (8:29)

As I grew more and more aware of the importance of God’s mercy in Islam, I began to notice its central place in Christianity. The theme of mercy is inescapable in the psalms for daily Mass, in the parables of Jesus on Sundays, and in Pope Francis’ homilies about the need for a “Church of mercy.” This belief in a merciful God is a core similarity between Christians and Muslims, and it was highlighted in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on other religions, which reads: “Together with us, [Muslims] adore the one, merciful God.”

A painting by me, featuring the word, "rahman" in the womb of Mary, Mother of Jesus.
A painting by me, featuring the word, “rahman” in the womb of Mary, Mother of Jesus.

This common conception of God became even clearer and more meaningful to me upon delving into the Arabic word, rahmah. Rahmah comes from the word “womb” (rahm), and its connection to motherhood is not lost to Arabic speakers. Rahmah is not a feeling of pity, or the disposition of a distant king who pardons prisoners. It is a visceral, gutsy parental love that creates and sustains. Scholars of comparative religion (both Christian and Muslim) have argued that rahmah should then not be translated as mercy, but as agape, the Greek word used by Christians to describe God’s unconditional and expansive love for humanity. When St. John writes in his epistle that “God is agape,” he could have as easily said, “God is rahmah.”

St. Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil.
St. Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil.

St. Francis of Assisi, the saint whose life Catholics celebrate on this day, recognized the value in Islam’s conception of God, too, and found in it similarities with his own Christian faith. Shortly after his days-long dialogue with the leader of Egypt, Sultan Malik al-Kamil, whom he initially sought to convert to end the fighting between the Crusaders and Muslims, Francis wrote a litany, celebrating God’s many attributes. Unsurprisingly, it resembles the Islamic litany of God’s 99 names. The first attribute in the Islamic litany, and the last in Francis’, is “merciful.” This is no coincidence, as scholars of Francis’ life have noted.

Today is also an important day in Judaism. This evening, Jews are concluding their celebration of Yom Kippur, a solemn celebration of God’s mercy on humanity, despite our constant failures. On this special day, Christians, Muslims and Jews invoke our common God in their own ways. But those of each tradition can confidently call to God using this moving description I encountered in a Melkite (Greek Catholic) service in Jordan last Holy Week: “You, You whose mercy has no measure.”

Worship as gratitude; Shukr v. Kufr

A second theme in Islamic theology that has prompted much reflection is the Qur’an’s surprising and “radical contrast” between shukr and kufr. Shukr is “gratitude” or “thanksgiving,” while kufr is often defined as “denial” or “unbelief.” This may seem like a strange, illogical set of opposites at first, so let’s dig deeper.

Over the centuries, Islamic scholars and ordinary Muslims have used the term kufr to describe the lack of belief in the Islamic truth claims. The term has been used to draw a line between the Muslim community and non-Muslims. But, as contemporary scholars have noted, this interpretation often does to acknowledge the full meaning of the word as its used in the Qur’an. Kufr at its most basic level means to “cover”—the word even sounds like the English translation! In the Qur’an, kufr is used not as an opposite to iman (belief) but to shukr. One of many examples is Qur’an 2: 152: “And be grateful to Me and do not deny (takfiruna) Me.”

One of the places I'm grateful for.
One of the places I’m grateful for.

Eminent Anglican scholar Kenneth Cragg describes kufr as the “willful concealment” of the blessings of God, who creates and sustains humanity and all of His creation. God has imbued the world with many signs (ayat) meant to “alert us to reverence and thanksgiving,”[iii] and when we ignore these blessings and our God-createdness—often by disregarding the dignity of God’s creatures—we become kuffar (ungrateful disbelievers).

Thus, the Qur’an speaks of gratitude as worship: “You must worship God and be among the thankful” (Q.39:66).[iv] The Catholic Mass echoes this idea when, at the beginning of the most important ritual, the priest says: “It is right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks…”

Being grateful and worshiping God don’t just mean saying thank you and acknowledging God’s existence, but in caring for humanity and working to establish social justice. God says in the Qur’an: “Worship is…(showing) kindness to parents and to the near of kin, and orphans, and the needy, and the neighbor who is a kinsman and the neighbor who is not kinsman, and the fellow traveler and the wayfarer.” (Q. 4:36) The Qur’an, like the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament, measures a person’s religiosity not only by their beliefs but by the way they respect all of God’s creation.

The center of my life

The last bit of Islamic theology I’d like to highlight is one that a new friend, Scott Alexander, a Catholic scholar of Muslim-Christian relations, brought up during a recent conversation. Islam, like Christianity, is a monotheistic religion. This monotheism, which is distinct from that of Christianity by its rejection of the Incarnation and the Trinity, is described by the Arabic word tawhid. This word is sort of an umbrella term for a larger theological discussion about the nature of God, but what I want to focus on is a bit different. Again, we look to the Arabic language.

"There is no god but God." Did you know this is the same phrase that is one the flags of many Muslim-majority countries? And the flag of ISIS?
“There is no god but God.” Did you know this is the same phrase that is one the flags of many Muslim-majority countries? And the flag of ISIS?

The Arabic root of tawhid, w-h-d, means “one,” or “single.” But when put in this construction, (with a ta- prefix and a long “e” sound between the last two root letters) the meaning is affected. This construction, which students of Arabic will recognize as a Form II masdar, means “making one” or “unifying.” It is not a passive state of “being one” but something we do to God— making God one.

"The One." One of God's 99 names in the Islamic tradition.
“The One.” One of God’s 99 names in the Islamic tradition.

Monotheism isn’t just about acknowledging God’s oneness, but about putting God at the center of our lives. It is about living out this popular Catholic hymn: “You Lord, are the center of my life/I will always praise you, I will always bless you/ I will always keep you in my sight.” Tawhid is not so much a belief but something we undertake. Yom Kippur, Judaism’s most important feast, is a celebration of the Hebrew people’s turning away from—repenting—the worship of the golden calf, and fixing their eyes again on God.

Coming closer

Today’s feast of celebration and sacrifice for Jews, Christians, and Muslims is an opportunity for us to put God back at the center of our lives, to live out our monotheism in a way that honors God and humanity.

An Orthodox priest showing me the qurban (Eucharist) at an ancient church in Al-Salt, Jordan.
An Orthodox priest showing me the qurban (Eucharist) at an ancient church in Al-Salt, Jordan.

Muslims often call this feast, Eid al-Qurban. Qurban is another Semitic word for sacrifice and is used by all three religions. It is used in Hebrew to describe the burnt sacrifices offered by Jews, and for Syriac- and Arabic-speaking Christians, it refers to the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. The term, from its root q-r-b, connotes “closeness,” “approaching,” and “nearness.” The ritual sacrifice of animals in the case of the ancient Jewish and contemporary Muslim traditions, and the sacrifice of Jesus—the Lamb of God—in the Christian tradition, all seek to atone for the sins of the community and bring the community closer to God.

Today’s world events seem defined by separation, alienation, and difference. Though charged with language about God, they make us feel distant from Him. So it is important today that we pray this prayer from the synagogue, from the monastery, and from Mecca:

“May this confluence of our feasts bring us together—closer to one another, and closer to You, You whose mercy has no measure.”

~~~

[i] To learn more about Eid al-Adha, check out my blog reflection from 2010.
[ii] To read more about God’s primary quality in Islam, check out My Mercy Encompasses All: The Koran’s Teachings on Compassion, Peace & Love.
[iii] Cragg, Kenneth. Christian Lives Given to the Study of Islam.
[iv] The famous Muslim feminist scholar, Amina Wudud, writes about gratitude here.