A non-archaeological retrieval of the eastern Christian tradition with a view to a renewed encounter with Muslims. This is the ideal that animates the monastic community of Mâr Mûsâ al-Habashî, in English of St. Moses the Abyssinian, located a hundred kilometres from Damascus.
Abandoned during the eighteenth century, the monastery began to be restored in the 1980s as a result of the initiative of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who, planning to study Arabic within the Society of Jesus, chose to stop and live in this uninhabited retreat in order to retrieve the Syriac heritage. But every retrieval is always a new creation.
Yours is certainly a special vocation. How was this decision born to link your life to a Syrian monastery?
When I encountered the Syriac tradition I was living in Damascus as a student of Arabic and Islam. In a very polarised situation in Italy (this was the 1970s), my joining the Society of Jesus had coincided in me with an opening to the depth of the relations between the Church and other religious cultures. In the capital of Syria I lived a great deal with Muslims, I spent evenings with their mystic brotherhoods, on Friday I went to the mosques to listen to the sermons, and I followed courses at the Faculty of Islamic Law. At the same time I realised that because of this strong exposure to a Muslim context I also had to try to root myself in the local Christian experience. On Sundays above all I went from church to church to meet the Byzantines, the Maronites (whom I had met in the Lebanon) and in particular the Orthodox Syriacs. Their liturgy oscillates between Syriac and Arabic without choosing either one of these two languages in a special way – an interesting approach of the dialectic dimension that is present to varying degrees in this community. I was especially fascinated by the sermons of the current Patriarch, Zakka I, who comes from a monastery in Iraq and who was at that time relatively young, given that he had just been elected head of his Church. His sermons struck me because they used an Arabic that was more Koran-based than the language that one could hear in the Catholic churches from the lips of priests and bishops who had for the most part been trained in the Lebanon or the West, and where, at times, their Arabic bore the imprint of translation. In his sermons his speech gurgled up from a local soul and was organised around a way of commenting on Holy Scripture that was very imaginative, very similar to the Jewish midrashim, with stories and tales. In essentials, a Semitic reading of Holy Scripture in which Biblical passages were commented on with reference to other texts and summarised in a strong way with certain paradoxical phrases. I thus rediscovered the wisdom and the styles of the fathers of the desert, the tastes of the great Syriac poets Efrem, James of Sarug and others. That man, in front of me, had in his hands a living tradition and showed me that this tradition of his, rooted in the ancient Semitic world, had been nourished by solidarity and by symbolic table-companionship with Muslims for fourteen centuries. This seemed to me to be a hermeneutic bridge and thence arose my decision to adhere to the Catholic Syrian rite.
However it is important to understand that in the monastery of Mâr Mûsâ we are not led by an archaeological or nostalgic feeling but, rather, and perhaps this is something that I say in an exaggerated way, by a prophetic approach. We want to share in giving anew a readiness of faith and commitment to this traditional Syriac root so that it can bear new fruit in our time.
Going back to the example of Patriarch Zakka, he was able to choose not to move to America even though most of his Christians are emigrants (from Turkey, from Iraq, from Syria…). For him the temptation could have been to go to Sweden or America, where most of his faithful now live. Instead, he made a choice in favour of local roots. His was a conscious taking on of a relational cultural identity between Christian Syriacs and Muslim Arabs.
Do you identify with this choice?
I fully take part in this choice of his, he knows this and we have very cordial relations. This man has been an authentic prophet of renewal in his Church and this is borne out by the fruits. His Church, although it is one of the smallest of the eastern communities, is experiencing a cultural and spiritual effervescence. For our part, the monastery that I refounded with my brothers and sisters of the community is conceived of in more radical (one might say ‘more Catholic’) terms in order to take on theological and spiritual responsibilities towards the Muslim world, a dimension that is not expressed in an identical way in our Orthodox counterparts.
For us, men and women consecrated to the love of Jesus for Muslims in the Islamic and (minority) Christian Arab context of contemporary Syria, this is a matter of living out a relationship with God and His Christ in a language that we want to be already ‘dialogic’, rooted in the eastern monastic experience and at the same time in a relationship with the Muslin mystic experience. When I say ‘Muslim mystic experience’ I do not mean a reality that is extraneous to the religious lives of the large majority of Muslims. It is not that we choose Sufism in opposition to the rest of Islam. For us, it is a matter of understanding the spiritual and mystic dimension of the normal lives of Muslims, their prayer, pilgrimages, the sacred atmosphere of their families, the neighbourhood mosques, all of this ‘daily life’ of the Islamic religion in its spiritual dimension. We want to make ourselves familiar through intimate spiritual empathy. Massignon said that it was a matter of wanting, through love, to place oneself in the axis of the destiny of a loved person.
How does the eastern tradition foster encounter with Muslims and what can it teach the West?
I believe that the eastern Churches, which have lived with Muslims, constitute a sacrament of good neighbourliness and table-companionship which should be analysed and taken on board by Catholic theology in order to make the same decisions, which are very urgent, in our relationship with Islam both in the East and in the West. The Church should not go to Islam passing over the heads of Christians who have lived with Muslims in the same cities and the same streets for fourteen centuries. Let us be clear, there are also many eastern Christians who will say to Westerners: ‘Do not do as we have done, separate yourselves from the Muslims, avoid them, because in the end they will devour you, as they have devoured us, welcome us and refuse them’. These are statements that one can hear from the mouths of certain eastern Christians. Naturally, this is not my idea, nor is it our idea as a monastic community. We believe that in these lands a true meaningful synthesis has been created, that relations between Christians and Muslims in the same neighbourhoods, with monks who for centuries have received the visits of Muslims to their monasteries, have a significant relevance to the theological status of Islam in Christian theology. A certain dogmatic stiffening has applied a brake to the courage that is necessary for hermeneutics of the Muslim fact as regards the history of salvation. From this point of view, eastern Christians need to take part in a catholic, universal, ecumenical analysis that overcomes the closures of an identity-based nature in order to take on again an apostolic, missionary and authentic responsibility towards the Muslim world.
To express this in other terms, eastern Christians constitute at the level of facts and practice a reality that has a theological relevance. One cannot live in the same apartment block with people destined for hell! Such a community of life is a sacrament that demonstrates and realises a reality of theological importance and relevance. But this theological analysis has not yet matured, despite the Copernican revolution achieved by the Second Vatican Council as regards other religions and, in particular, Islam.
On the basis of your practical experience, does there exist an ‘Islam of the people’ in Syria?
I understand your distinctions, which I like, and I will say: an Islam of the people exists and a Church of the people exists (the Syrian Church, which is ecumenical, made up of the majority Orthodox, the minority Catholics, and an appendix of Protestants). In Syria we have a plural Islam and a plural Church. There is also an ideological reality of plural Islam and there is also an ideological reality of the plural Church. I find that it is very healthy to distinguish between ideological religiosity and so to speak charismatic, pneumatic, religiosity. Inside this I would put the folkloric, the ‘of the people’. Here it is I who become curious… In the work carried out by Oasis we have observed this: there is a tendency to make a distinction between fundamentalist Islam and moderate Islam but inside moderate Islam one runs the risk of identifying figures who no longer have much in common with Islam…
‘Moderate’ often means ‘Westernised’.
It is though in the distinction between fundamentalist Islam and moderate Islam one did not manage to embrace the heart of the Muslim religious experience. So I ask you: how do you see this in your Syrian experience? Does an Islam of the people exist and how would you identify it? An Islam where concrete religious experience is not reduced to ideology…
I do not follow the reduction to an ideology because in criticising it one falls into ideology once again. Let us try to remain with the phenomenon and analyse it. The phenomenon is the following: a large mass of devout Muslims. Where Muslim devotion constructs a unification of personal, family and social existence in a series of rites, a style of life, an aesthetic and a social project, that is to say of values. Ritual life is very important, first of all prayer: for the most devout, this can be the five prayers; for others one prayer a day; for others who are less assiduous only prayer on Friday. Prayer, certainly has an enormous importance in giving rhythm and character to devotion. The same is true of pilgrimage, of course. Fasting on Ramadan has a fundamental function: it restores religious practice to all those who are sliding towards more secularised forms of behaviour. It is an opportunity for truly mass education in the faith. To this is added the fact that devout Muslims, speaking statistically, have a stronger morality compared to those who for one reason or another, to use a Roman expression, ‘could not care less’… Devotion involves a moral commitment and thus a thirst for democracy connected with the correction of corruption. We find schools that still, miraculously, function; offices which function more or less; a whole series of services that function, because of a religious aptitude for humanity in people’s place of work, both in the public and the private sector. One notices a certain paternalism, characterised, however, generally by true respect for the person as a religious person. The person in Islam is the religious person, he or she is not a person wrapped up in a relationship with God; the dignity of the person lies first of all in his or her being before God. At all levels of economic and social life devotion implies respect for the human person in his or her dignity.
Would you define this as ‘Islam of the people’?
I would say so…
This faith seems to have implications that are social, anthropological…
I constantly admire the fact that thanks to this Muslim devotion the social ship stays afloat and does not sink, because there are a thousand reasons why it should sink: political corruption, international clientelism based upon privileges and castes, an excess of repression by the regime provoked and justified by the negative tendencies of terrorism…
This ‘Islam of the people’ is not separate from what we can call Jihadist Islam, it cannot be separated by a clear border…it is contiguous. In university spheres there may be sympathy for the more extreme groups; when there is a crisis, such as the Gaza crisis, they feel more represented by those who are angrier. The contiguity becomes accentuated or, in contrary fashion, it grows less, to the extent to which people’s own Islamic dignity, their aspiration to emancipation, their desire for development are varyingly humiliated by the ‘moderates’ in power. And by international power.
Do you find ‘correspondence’ of this reality in Christianity? In Arab Middle-Eastern Christianity? Certainly! And in fact this Islam of the people is that which for centuries has gone arm in arm with the Christianity of the people. They achieve the practical theology of table-companionship, of community, of good neighbourliness.
And this is perhaps also the practical side of what we call ‘tradition’…
Certainly, but today tradition and community are consumed by global tensions. Global tensions run the risk of accentuating the crumbling of this space and when crises are grave, as in the case of Gaza, one can say that by now the space has crumbled…
Although for fourteen centuries the reality of contiguity between Islam of the people and Christianity of the people assured coexistence and was the history of every day, now this tradition is at risk.
Yes, that is right. There cannot remain simply an Islam of the people and a Christianity of the people. Both have to become aware Islam and aware Christianity, able to develop their own theoretical self-awareness because they have to resist the two extremes, that of the negative trend that you have called ideological, fundamentalist, Jihadist, and the temptations to use violence which correspond to the feelings of humiliation, to corruption, and to the negative trend towards authoritarianism which is typical of regimes.
In the past did this danger and need not exist or were they not as strong as they are today?
There were other dangers. In Syria they came from colonialism, from the Ottoman Empire… The culture of societies at a local level remained rather impermeable to the great questions. As was the case with us in Italy during the nineteenth century: the Savoias, Garibaldi, but then people remained what they were; deep society was not much affected by the surface storms. Now one can no longer think in this way. Islam rooted in rural or urban local areas is today in a full-blown storm because events act – because of the mass media as well – on the depths. And they accelerate processes, they accentuate them. Without a strongly conscious reaction it is clear that the weight of this traditional raft, with all its good features and defects, will be destroyed and we will fall prey to rapid, hurried, shallow and impoverished movements at a cultural level.
If the jump forward of awareness is not there, Jihadist awareness will jump forward or…
…things will be forgotten, oblivion...?
No, rather the mythologisation of the past in order to make it into an ideology as you say or a fundamentalist programme or a mythological basis for power aggregations…
A kind of nostalgia with a view to hegemony… Against the background that you have outlined, what is the situation as regards religious freedom in Syria according to your experience
To the extent that the victimist Islamic movements have become established (those that support the theory that Islam is constantly under attack), this justifies many reactions, even the most excessive ones. I would like to give an example of this: I was in fact refused a visa to go to Algeria as a pilgrim in the footsteps of Father Chares de Foucauld because I am a Catholic religious. Here I see an evident fusion between so-called moderate power and the negative trend of fundamentalism. In the name of what? Of social peace which must take on board the Islamic feeling of being under attack, including the attack of proselytism. And thus to conserve itself, the moderate political power yields to fundamentalist instincts.
Syria is rather immune to this, although at a local level there may arise fusions between the fears provoked by Islamist movements, the attraction that these can wield and the possibility that the political power will want to exploit them or exploit their repression according to the situation, the region, or the context.
Here, too, one finds a way out through a defence of tradition, but reworked and reacquired through the theoretical shift that you spoke about… …and which will fail if inter-religious dialogue fails in Europe and the South of the Mediterranean and in the South of the world (Nigeria, Chad, the Sudan, and so forth). Capital of hope has to be injected into the contemporary complex of conflict. We have to manage to activate avalanches, domino effects. This is a matter of operating with a logic of global justice and good neighbourliness. We will have the future that we manage to dream.