Muhammed Aksu and Dylan Esteban, Bluestar Intercultural Centre, 24 April 2018
HEIDI PRITCHARD: Well, hello everybody. How lovely to see you all. My name’s Heidi Pritchard, and I’m the manager of Community Outreach here at the National Museum of Australia. Before we start, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of our land. I acknowledge to the land in which we meet, I acknowledge their ancestors, past and their ongoing culture. Which is actually a really nice way to start talking about interfaith and cultural awareness.
This is the first in our lecture series for the So That You Might Know Each Other exhibition. In putting together this exhibition lecture series, we consulted really widely with the Islamic community. When this exhibition was first discussed at the Museum, it didn’t make a great deal of sense to us on paper. We’re asking, why does the Vatican have this incredible collection of objects of Islamic faith in their collection? It wasn’t until we understood the term, ‘so that you might know each other’ that the exhibition suddenly came into a really sharp focus for us. Suddenly we actually understood.
In putting together this series of programmes and events, we’ve tried to embrace the concept of interfaith and cross-cultural understanding. It’s really important at this time, right now – in who we are in Australia, with the way we’re communicating – this is an important conversation for us to have, and that has been the underpinning feature of all of the lectures in this series.
Now, from the very start when we first started going out into the community, Muhammed and Fethullah from the Bluestar Intercultural Centre were there with us. They’re answering our questions and are being incredibly generous with their time and their knowledge. For someone like me who hasn’t been raised in the Islamic faith – I know you find that hard to believe looking at me – it’s been an exceptional opportunity to learn and explore the beauty of this fascinating culture. I know that I’ve had so many of my – what I didn’t even realise were beliefs – I’ve had so many of them questioned. It’s been so exciting to constantly bump up the preconceptions I have and find that I’m wrong.
Now the Bluestar Intercultural Centre is a community-based non-profit organisation that was formed in 2006 by a group of Canberrans who wanted to find out more about people from other faiths and cultural backgrounds. Its ultimate goal is to establish a sound relationship with the many and varied groups of people in contemporary, multicultural Australia. The main activities are interfaith, so concentrating on the elements that unite people of faith. Intercultural activities, so celebrating diversity, and social awareness activities that aim to make people aware of the issues that are important to the various cultural and faith communities of Canberra and Australia.
Please join me in welcoming Muhammad Aksu and Dylan Esteban from the Bluestar Intercultural Centre to discuss more about So That You Might Know Each Other.
DYLAN ESTEBAN: Beautiful. Thank you all very much, so much, for coming. Firstly, I would like to begin by thanking the traditional custodians of the land, both past and present, and extend a very warm hand of thank you to all the hands and minds involved in organising this event and making this exposition possible. To begin, firstly, my following presentation will trace the origins of the phrase, ‘So you might come to know one another’, to the 49th chapter of the Holy Qur’an. In doing so, I will begin with a brief discussion contextualising the chapter and verse in question. Then I’ll be turning more attention to an in-depth analysis of the verse itself, and what we can, as a contemporary people, glean from this particular passage. Finally, I will finish by providing some anecdotes of the early Muslims interactions with their non-Muslim counterparts which continue to serve as exemplary attitudes to contemporary Muslims today.
When observing the title of the present exposition, one may naturally ask, where does this title come from? Where does this phrase actually come from? To the surprise of some, the statement’s origin is the 49th chapter and Verse 13 of the Holy Qur’an. While widely referred to as a chapter of the private apartments, in reference to the apartments or chambers of the Prophet’s wives, it is also commonly referred to by many commentators as the chapter of etiquettes or good morals. This is due to the nature and content of the chapter itself.
Now, Muslim scholars are in agreement that this chapter was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the late Medinan period, most likely following the conquest of Mecca, which was a period where much of the Arabian Peninsula was now under the Prophet’s direct control. Consequently, as Seyyid Hossein Nasr notes, this chapter addresses the complexities of ruling over a larger and more diverse community, and instructs more recent members’ improper conduct towards the Prophet.
Indeed, Amin Islahi – a very late, but well-respected 20th century Quran exegesis from the subcontinent – he likewise situates this particular chapter in the same context. Islahi states this surah, or this chapter, was revealed in circumstances when certain things emanated from converts that show that they were neither fully aware of the status or position of the Prophet, nor aware of their responsibilities in the Islamic society. Consequently, such directives were necessary for the circumstances of those times, and were revealed as a supplementary chapter. All of these directives relate to the mutual rights of the Prophet and the Muslim community.
As we can see, the circumstances necessitate a proper decorum to be reiterated and established amongst the faithful, hence the timing of this particular chapter. Our immediate concern, however, is with the 13th verse of this chapter, which reads as follows, and we can see it at the bottom of your screen now: ‘Oh mankind, we have created you after a single male and a single female that you may come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. Indeed God is all aware, well informed.’
Firstly, I want to draw your attention to something that many of the Qur’ani commentators have noted when studying this particular passages. If we look at the verses which precede 13, we noticed that there is a specific address in the first three of the four verses, all commencing with the statements, ‘Oh you who believe’, in the plural. In doing so, the growing community under the tutelage of Muhammad are specifically addressed, prior to a general address concerning humanity itself. Now, many commentators have noted that the transition from the specific to the universal, is because the previous verse seemed to foster a sense of brotherhood amongst the newly acquainted and growing body of people. As such, causing people to be cautious of how they interact with one another in order to avoid any ill feelings festering, which, while initially maybe private affairs between two individuals, can carry spillover effects into the family and public sphere if not adequately addressed.
The last verse, however, draws your attention to something more universal: the issue of racial superiority. In contrast to immediate social interactions, the issue of racial superiority is something that not only had permeated pre-Islamic Arabian society, but it is an element that is found universally wherever human beings reside. Hence the specific address from the believers, to the address of mankind, turns our attention to a universal ill or universal disease that we’re still coming to terms with in our day and age.
Regarding Verse 13 itself, one of the most famous commentaries called Tafsir al-Jalalayn. It tells us that the word Shu3oob in Arabic, which refers to nations, is the broadest category of lineage and that tribes or qabaa’il, are a subset or a smaller portion of those individuals or peoples. They further stated the verb, to know one another, ta3aarafu along with the preposition ‘le’, means actually to acquire knowledge of the customs of one another. And serves as an exhortation to not boast over ones’ lineage. All peoples, in fact, stand equally before God.
By adding the preposition ‘li’ to the beginning of the verb, ‘to know one another’, it indicates that the function of being made into distinct nations and tribes is for the very purpose of knowing and recognising humanity for what it is; diverse and different. On this point, many ancient and modern Muslim intellectuals, including Fethullah Gulen and TJ Winters, have noted that the diversity in creation, reflects in fact the diversity in God’s names and attributes. In essence, this world is, as TJ winters once described, a theatre for the enactment of the divine names. Consequently, human diversity is to be appreciated and adored as an expression of God’s action of creation, and not employed as a means of subjugating or depreciating one’s fellow human beings. In this respect, coming to know one another is also coming to know God through his divine names and attributes which move, shape and shake every fabric of reality and existence.
When looking at this particular verse, most commentators were concerned with the moral implications of it, and in their commentary, spilled much ink detailing how antithetical racism was to Islam. Consequently, the main source of intrigue for the mediaeval Muslim scholar, was in fact the statement, ‘The noblest of you in the sight of God, is the most righteous of you’, since in a single statement it uprooted any considerations of race as legitimate markers of social standing, and turned our attention to moral excellence.
Now, the English rendition of atqaakum or ‘the most righteous of you’, does not quite capture the entire expression that the richness of the Arabic language affords. The word used in the original, taqwa, originates and is derived from the word meaning parrying or to protect. Perhaps indicative of protecting oneself from vice or sin, wrong actions, reprehensible character, or the displeasure of one’s lord. Often mistranslated as fear, this word here must be appropriately conceived in a much broader sense, one which incorporates a concern for all the issues raised in the previous verses mentioned, and importantly, a recognition that racial differences are merely products of circumstance, and are not markers of physical, spiritual, moral or intellectual superiority.
The Qur’an does not call Muslims to insulate themselves, but as we have learned, human diversity is something that needs to be discovered, explored, appreciated, and importantly, to be known. Such an endeavour is impossible without basic interaction and face-to-face dialogue. Indeed the Qur’an exhorts Muslim to enter into dialogue with their non-Muslim counterparts in 3:64, ‘In order to come to a common word between us and you’. Again, in 16:125 stating, ‘Invite onto the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and reason with them in the best and most gracious of manners.’
We shall now look at how the early Muslim community dealt with such diversity in human experiences, and how particular episodes were addressed by the Prophet Muhammad himself, whom the Islamic tradition describes as the walking embodiment of the holy Qur’an.
In the Prophet’s home city of Mecca, Arab tribalism, sentiments, and racial superiority of Arabs over non-Arabs was rife. This was particularly pronounced among the Prophet’s own tribe, the Quraysh, who not only believed that the Arabs are inherently superior to other racial groups, but they themselves regarded themselves as the cream of the crop. The very pinnacle of, I suppose, existence in that regard.
In regards to this specific issue that was homegrown in the Prophet’s own town in Mecca, the Prophet directly addressed this himself. He confronted this attitude with quite some force. In his farewell sermon, it is reported that amongst many things the Prophet had said, some of which were, ‘No Arab is superior to a non-Arab, and no white person is superior to a black person.’ Moreover, when one’s asked about Arab tribalism, he simply stated, ‘Leave it. It is rotten.’ Practically speaking however, what was the Prophetic example of dealing with the racial differences between members of a newly found community? For one, Muhammad appointed a former black Abyssinian slave called Bilal as the caller to prayer. Now, in a society that was such, many people were not quite happy with such an arrangement. How could a recently emancipated black slave now be responsible for calling us to prayer five times a day? This was the concern that many had.
Such concerns did not grieve the Prophet himself, who in response spoke highly of Bilal’s outstanding character. On many occasions, he complimented his beautiful voice. Another emancipated slave, Zayd ibn Haritha, who was not only married to Zaynab Bint Jahsh, who was a very noble and respected woman from the clan of the Quraysh. She was also not a slave, and she was not black either. But that did not deter the Prophet from actually encouraging the marriage between her and Zayd to go ahead, contrary to the circumstances and cultural practises of the Arabs at the time. The Prophet also encourages Zayd to take leadership of the Muslim army, and instructed the Muslims to obey Zayd in his command after his passing. The prophet loves Zayd and adores Zayd as his own son, and in fact raised him in his own household.
By giving people of colour prominent and respectable positions, not only within society, but within the function of religion itself, the Prophet drew a clear red line through notions of Arab tribalism and racist sentiments which still have been present. Indeed on occasions, such sentiments manifested themselves amongst the Prophet’s followers. One report refers to the incident between Haritha and Bilal himself. Bilal was insulted by Haritha when he called him ‘the son of a black woman’. Bilal was understandably upset by this, and he took his complaints to the Prophet, and was met with the Prophet with tears. Muhammad subsequently approached Haritha and angrily asked him, ‘Do you still possess signs of pre-Islamic ignorance?’ Full of remorse, Haritha hurried to find Bilal. The report stated that he subsequently put his face on the earth, and declared that he would not lift his face from the ground until Bilal rubs his foot on top of his head. Bilal did no such thing, and in turn forgave Haritha for what he said to him, and they were thus reconciled.
Now, the impact of the Prophet’s uncompromising stance on racism and tribal tendencies amongst his followers, is reflected in the latest statement made by the Second Caliph and successor to the Prophet Umar, who once said: ‘Bilal is our master, and he was emancipated by our master, Abu Bakr.’ In regards to attitudes towards non-Muslims, the ethos of knowing one another is also embodied. The Prophetic model transcends worldly considerations.
There was once a coffin that was carried past in front of the Prophet while he was sitting with his companions. Seeing this, Muhammad stood up out of respect. Now some of the companions looked at each other and they said, ‘Oh, messenger of God. This man was a Jew.’ Upon hearing this, the Prophet retorted, ‘Is this not a human soul?’ Another widely reported episode from the Prophet’s biography, is when the Christians of Najran visited Medina to speak and meet with the Prophet. To the surprise of many, the Prophet hosted the Christians in their own mosque for several days, allowing them to use the mosque itself for their services and prayers. During this time, the Prophet engaged in extensive dialogue with them, debated with them, and was always hospitable to them at every single moment.
To take another example, one perhaps more political, we can look at the chart or constitution of Medina. This document was reportedly drawn up by the Prophet following his migration from Mecca to Medina, and establishes the mutual rights and obligations amongst the various groups that comprise the new Medinan society. Such a document set out to establish a relationship of peaceful coexistence and cooperation between the new Muslim polity, and its larger predominantly Jewish neighbours. Some of the points, which were enumerated in the document, was: security and safety of each member of Medina was secured and guaranteed from external threats; the religious communities were be given complete and autonomous freedom to practise their religion as they see fit; the life and property of all who dwell in Medina is considered sacred and invaluable, and it will be protected by law and order.
Another condition of the treaty was, ‘No signatory party will go forth to battle without the consent and support of the Prophet.’ No group within the society was to go out and make any military preparations without the consensus of all parties involved in the signatory, so that they can protect the peace of the city itself. This charter also described the signatories as one political unit, or one ummah or community, comprising of Muslims and non-Muslims. The non-Muslims living under a Muslim polity were called [Arabic word]. This translates from the Arabic as protected citizen. There’s a famous statement of the Prophet where he says, ‘Whoever wrongs a vimmi shall find me, the Prophet, to be the advocate on the Day of Judgement, against the Muslim who oppressed a non-Muslim citizen.’
Moving on, commenting on the Prophetic hadith that says, ‘None of you has achieved faith until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself,’ the 13th century scholar Imam al-Nawawi states, ‘When the prophet says ‘brother’, we should interpret this as universal brotherhood which includes Muslims and non-Muslims.’ He continues, ‘The word love here refers to a desire for good and for benefit to come to others.’ This love is celestial or spiritual love, however, and not earthly or human love. For human nature causes people to desire for harm before their enemies, and to discriminate against those who are unlike them in creed, colour, or character. As such, mankind must oppose their nature, and for pray for the Muslim and non-Muslim brothers and sisters and desire for others what they desire for themselves.
Now, returning to the centre of our discussion, knowing one another also implies a clear recognition of our differences as well. This will be apparent to all. The Islamic tradition, by and large, has been concerned with using these differences as points of identification. Of knowing where one came from, or one’s tribe, one’s cultural contexts, but not, as the Qur’an makes clear, as a point of superiority. Because such racial, cultural, and linguistic distinctions are something we have no agency or choice in, but rather it is something ultimately determined by God himself. Moreover, when we look historically, Islam has not been seen as a culturally predatory religion.
There were no forced imposition of the Arabic language, nor any linguistic genocide for that matter, when it encountered other peoples and civilisations. But rather, there was an enrichment. Notwithstanding the contribution of Arabic writers, those here familiar with Persian poetry will know very much that it was the Persian language, more so than Arabic, that became the central vehicle of poetic expression of one’s love and adoration for the divine as expressed in the endless list of Persian Sufi poets.
Importantly, what was considered sacred that appears to be of Arab origin, was due to it being from the person of the Prophet himself, and was loved and cherished by Muslims for his sake, not for the sake of it being inherently superior because of it originating in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Wherever Islamist people went, they elegantly wove the ethos of the religion within the fabric of the local and indigenous cultures and produced some of the most impressive and beautiful intellectual and cultural achievements of the pre-modern world.
In the words of Dr Umar Farooq Abdallah, ‘For centuries, Islamic civilisation harmonised indigenous forms of cultural expression, with the universal norms of its sacred law. It struck a balance between temporal beauty and ageless truth and fanned the brilliant peacock’s tail over unity and diversity, from the heart of China to the shores of the Atlantic. The fact that we have such an incredibly rich, vibrant and impeccably diverse array of artistic expressions of culture from the Islamic world on display today, is a testament to such matters.’
I’ve done my best to give you a small taste of what the verse, ‘So you might come to know each other’, has meant historically for the early Muslims, and how that ethos was embodied in the personhood of the Prophet himself. My colleague, Muhammed, actually will now explore such implications of these ideas in the contemporary world. Thank you very much.
MUHAMMED AKSU: Thank you Dylan. Don’t expect very much from now on academically or anything like that. The intellectual level will drop a little bit, sadly, from now on, now that I’ve taken up the lecture bit. I would also like to welcome everybody to be here with us. It’s a real honour and very exciting for us to be together with our friends at the National Museum, and to be able to do different activities and things surrounding the exhibition.
I’m going to talk a little bit more about the period following what Dylan started after the Prophet’s time. More about modern dialogue and how the verse, how the phrase that we’ve been considering is an important one, has been quite an important one today in to some extent getting Muslims – as a Muslim, I come into this area as a Muslim myself. Kind of getting us out of our comfort zones, or getting us out into the community to interact with others and taking part in dialogue that is really, really, enriching.
Dylan did set it out quite nicely, and as Muslims we have a little bit of an issue. We look at the Prophet’s time, and the people who lived during the Prophet’s time did it really, really well. Then sadly, after that time, a lot of us Muslims, we kind of petered off to some extent. The 20th and 21st century has been a time of us kind of returning back to that source. Reading it in our current lens and saying, ‘There’s a whole bunch of cultural baggage that you’ve brought into this with you over the past how many centuries? Is this really what was happening? Is this really what was at the essence of everything?’
We’ve kind of reimagined – I took another look at ourselves as a people, as a community, as a religion as well. I’m looking at during the mediaeval period when I was researching this, there are a couple of scholars who traced the history of intercultural, interfaith dialogue. There isn’t really too many standout examples of real intercultural, or interfaith dialogue happening at this time. Things like the Crusades, things like ultimate expansion. Though a lot of the people living in these empires were generally quite okay with each other. The Ottoman Empire had a system called a millet system, which was quite similar to the Medina charter constitution that Dylan was speaking about, where people were divided based on their religion, and they were given the ability, a sense of religious autonomy. They had their separate courts. They were judged based on – they had their own judges of their own religious background who would rule in their own cases.
A lot of scholars say that one of the biggest reasons why the Ottoman Empire fell apart was nationalism appeared. If you’ve got a system based on religion, and everybody’s worried about their own nation and wants the national autonomy, the people of the Ottoman Empire did not know how to deal with this. A person got up and said, ‘I’m Arab now. I’m Turk now.’ Whereas for 600 years, they were Christian, Muslim and Jew. It was really difficult for the Ottoman Empire to deal with these challenges.
There aren’t too many examples of interfaith dialogue happening. I’ve got two that I just briefly wanted to share with you guys. One was with St Francis of Assisi during the Crusades. He actually accompanied the crusading army to Egypt and during the siege of Damietta, Francis, who was very much about preaching true Christianity, asked for permission from his commander to go and meet with the Egyptian king of the time. He was going to preach to the king. That was his plan – to convert him and end the battle through conversion. Well, it didn’t really go in the manner that he had planned. They went and they met, and they actually shared a dialogue where they realised that there are many more commonalities between the two religions. They both left the interaction as better Christians, as better Muslims. This meeting actually played quite an important role in the end of that battle, and played a role in the end of the Crusades petering off as well.
There was a PBS documentary made last year called The Salt and The Sand, it’s based on a book I would highly recommend that if you’re interested in interfaith dialogue, or you want to find out more about that period. It’s a wonderful documentary that we screened a couple of weeks ago at Bluestar. It would be a wonderful thing to watch.
Besides that, another example of a late mediaeval figure was Akbar the Great, who was a Muslim emperor in India, and he was an interesting guy. He started off quite aggressively expanding his empire, and then I think he got satisfied after a while. Then he sat down and he started having a look at the religions of the people that he actually was interacting with, Hindus, Zoroastrians, etc. He started having a lot of tolerance for them, and he started passing laws saying that they can’t be harmed, or treated in a negative manner or anything like that. You read some of these things, and you start questioning his understanding of Islam and how he acted as a Muslim.
These are two examples of people who were looking for commonalities, interested in trying to find out more about the people that he ruled over, and interacted in. The people that I read, Swidler was saying that the appearance of the Enlightenment also played an important role in people understanding themselves and the concepts of rationality, of freedom. Because the central tenants of interfaith dialogue are about that respect, and we’ll see where I track this to, it’s about having respect and tolerance for difference. That comes with this understanding, these modern concepts of freedom, of reason, which leads into dialogue.
Swidler actually says something very interesting. He says that when the term, ‘All men are created equal’ was said in Philadelphia, he reminds us that ‘Philadelphia’ means ‘the place of brotherly, sisterly love’. He says that there was a soft whisper which said, ‘There for dialogue.’ For all created equal, and we all accept this. That none of us, one is not superior than the other in any manner. Well then, we need to have a chat, and we need to have some kind of interaction and figure out a way to exist with each other if we’re all created equal. Rather than subjugate, and hate, and hurt each other.
One of the first examples of this was in 1893. There was a parliament of the world’s religions in Chicago. It was the first where people from different faiths got together, and they began this notion of trying to figure out, well, how are we going to kind of exist together, in this respect?
Other things that we should keep in mind when we’re talking about this, especially with the 20th century. The movement of people, the movement of capital, unprecedented and never seen before in history, would obviously play a role. Access to information. Previously, a lot of scholars were engaging in polymathic debate with each other. Whereas, sound sources began changing how Christians viewed Muslims for an example, traditionally and similarly how Muslim started realising Christian scholarship and their understandings of each other. That’s a really important point. It’s only by the mid-20th century that we really start seeing some concrete movements towards a modern understanding of dialogue.
I’m going to talk about two religious figures in a little bit of detail, who are quite important in the modern notions of dialogue from a Muslim perspective. One of them is a man named Said Nursi, who grew up in the remnants of the late part of the Ottoman Empire, and then was part of the modern Turkish Republic. He, quite early, maybe 15, 20 years after that first parliament, almost half a century before the Catholics that were going to get to, he came together with a whole bunch of Muslims and he did a sermon at a mosque in Damascus where he spoke about what he believed was the problems of the Muslim world at that time and the future. He was quite influenced by philosophy.
You can imagine the 19th century being a time where a lot of different philosophies entering parts of the world. If anybody knows Russian history, they’ll know that the Russian Tsars tried to block as many books as they possibly could at this time because they were worried it was going to lead to revolution in philosophy.
So, he was quite influenced by it. He said, and he saw, that one of the biggest problems was greed and material philosophy. He saw that – And he grew up in difficult times. He grew up seeing a lot of abject poverty, war, destruction that he believed happened because of material greed. And he said that the problems aren’t East or West or Muslim or Christian, rather it’s materialist. He basically had two ideas of Europe of the west and of modernity. He said, one, he believed, followed the sciences which serve justice and the activities which were beneficial for the life of society. These got their inspiration from ‘true Christianity’, is the term that he used. The second one was what he believed ‘bad philosophy’ of naturalism which drove humankind to vice and misguidance. And maybe from our lens more than a century later, we can look back and say, well that second point might not be completely true, that it wasn’t all bad.
But there is some value to what he is saying. When you live in abject poverty and look at the society around you, he said, ‘Fellow Christians, true believers’ we need to come together as people of faith and we need to try to challenge this.’ So, he saw that the common enemies of Muslims and Christians at this time were; poverty, ignorance and enmity. He was not considered about religious doctrine and other things like that. He said these are the fundamental issues that we face.
Sometimes when I read Said Nursi, and I look at the world that I live in today, it’s still pretty true. Three of the biggest fundamental issues that we still have in society today are poverty, which can lead people to do God knows what; ignorance, same; and enmity, hatred that we have towards each other. He never really got a chance to act on any of this: the Ottoman Empire crumbled, he was not very welcomed in the New Turkish republic. He spent most of his life in exile seen as an enemy of the New Turkish State. And he wrote a lot, but he inspired in many ways, an understanding that there are universal values that people from different religions can come together around, or universal ideals that match with everybody that we can work together with to overcome, or go beyond, just our understandings of our faith.
He also wrote a letter to the Pope of the time in 1950 and got a response back. It’s really hard to find an English version of it, I really wanted to put it up but I couldn’t come across it. It’s generally in Turkish as he wrote in Turkish at that time. But yes, he was active in dialogue.
The big thing or probably the biggest thing or one of the biggest parts of this emergence of interfaith dialogue is Nostra Aetate which – It’s interesting, I don’t want to devalue it, but it’s almost like – Basically, it comes out after World War II, when the Christian people realise what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust. And they have to come face-to-face and realise, ‘It was our people, it was Christian people who caused this.’
So, the Holocaust spurred on the Church at that time to say, ‘We have to evaluate our relationship with non-religions. If we look at them as inferior and we regard ourselves to superior, well, these kinds of things are going to happen again.’ So, it started off as a way that Christianity, the Church is going to deal with Judaism. But it was great to see that there were some Arab Catholic, Maronite and Coptic bishops who said, ‘Wait, you’re doing this for the Jews. There should be a similar understanding for the Muslims because in the end these people to some extent have got a different religion than you.’
It began as this statement and it began as a change in philosophy about how these religions should see each other. And it forced, to some extent, the Church has to open up and rethink their attitudes about communities etc. And at the same time it was really important in this aspect, we have this massive Church, this massive tradition, Western Church and how it sees other religions.
I’m going to go back, I just wanted to include this which was: Pope John Paul II was an important champion of early interfaith dialogue. He was very open to it. If you’re able to read his statement, you’ll see that he understands the world that he is in the 1980s and this statement is a really profound one. So I’m just going to read from the bottom. ‘Too often in past, we have opposed each other in politics and wars. I believe that today God invites us to change our practises. We must respect each other and we must stimulate each other in good works on the path to righteousness.’ And after Nostra Aetate lots of different movements started appearing. This could be small church-based, different community-based. And it began this whole continuum of interfaith and intercultural dialogue.
I want to come back to the Muslim perspective and speak about another Turkish scholar who was inspired by Said Nursi, Fethullah Gulen, who currently resides in America. During the late ’80s and ’90s, he goes beyond the step that Said Nursi laid the foundation of only coming together with true believers. He much rather said, ‘No, it should be universal values, people who share our universal values no matter if they are atheists or whatever they believe in, we should look for ways to come together with these people.’ So, he regards interfaith corporation as compulsory for Muslims to support peace. And he sees it as an important part of reconciliation on a world scale, based on religious, legal and philosophical foundations. And he is also the inspiration to a worldwide movement called the Hizmet movement which is quite active in Australia as well.
The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the end of the Soviet Republic was also an important time for Gulen and the understanding of Muslims. There were a lot of places like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, these places are regarded as the ancestral homeland of the Turks. And after the Iron Curtain crumbled, many people in Turkey said, ‘We need to reach out to these people, who are under Communist repression for so long.’ And there was this movement that began at that time.
At that same time Fethullah Gulen also tried to break a lot of taboos. Meeting with the head of another faith group in Turkish culture at that time was seen as something that is quite negative. He was able to do this by visiting local leaders. For those who know Istanbul, very cosmopolitan, the head of the Orthodox Church is based in Istanbul and still continues to be at the same time with Jews as well. He went and met the Pope in 1998 and he had a plan to establish a joint school of divinity in Urfa. Urfa is supposedly the birthplace of Abraham. Abraham as you know, a lot of time these religions are called the Abrahamic faiths, the fact that Abraham is common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
It never actually got off the ground. The school never happened, the Vatican really didn’t really respond in a positive way. But at the same time, in the mid-’90s, he came across Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations. The theory – for those who know it – after the crumble of the Soviet Empire, who is going to stand against the West? Huntington said the next clash is going to be between the Muslim World and the Western world. Whereas Fethullah Gulen said, ‘Well, it shouldn’t be a clash. It should be a world where civilisations don’t clash.’ That’s what he wanted to put forward as his theory. So it’s about, and it goes back to what Dylan was saying, back to the verse. It is related to everything in the cosmos. To engage in dialogue with any other related beings is therefore part of a person’s human nature. So it’s not about faith, but about love and serving humanity, but about a way to find common ground to do good things.
I’m going to specifically just speak about the verse today, and what it means, and how it inspires the Muslims who are involved in the dialogue. All of these ideas would have some kind of role in naming of this exhibition that we have at the Museum now as well. So we look at it at the lens, Dylan was talking about race being an important part of it, but today it’s regarded through the lens of diversity. It’s seeing that diversity. And when taken with other verses in the Qur’an, it’s that diversity, and ethnicity, colour and faith and culture was intended. God intended to create us differently from each other, so that we have to figure this out. Figure it out in one way or the other. It is a comprehensive affirmation that different groups and individuals are enabled to know each other.
This next point at times can be hard as a person who believes in a faith. But it shouldn’t necessarily be limited to a faith. We have an ideological worldview, this encourages us and myself, and I hope that the verse would encourage all of us that we accept that some individuals and groups do not believe in your faith, however much you may desire them to. We’d love. Why can’t we all be the same? We love saying all these kinds of things. We want one magical cure to all of our problems.
To live with the resulting differences with compassion and acceptance, to be okay with that, to explore each other’s faith and religion with respect in an attempt to understand one another. Not to look down, to truly be involved in a dialogue and to truly empathise with the each other. To wait patiently until God explains what people have difference about and why. To understand that means to wait patiently throughout your whole life as a person who is faithful. When we pass away we believe in the Day of Judgement and that’s when everything is going to be known.
I’m not a Qur’anic scholar or anything like that but from what I have understood, knowing each other is not a one-off event, it is a constant, consistent struggle. We know some Jewish people, I know them now. No worries, I’m culturally aware. Everything’s amazing. I’ve got that down, let me tick that off. I’m going to visit some Hindus tomorrow and I’m going to be a little more culturally aware, things are going to be amazing when I know a little bit more about them.
And sometimes even as people involved in dialogue, we like doing that, ‘I feel good, I went to a seminar this week. I’m celebrating multiculturalism, well done Muhammed.’ You pat yourself on your back but it shouldn’t be about that. It should be your life, it should be your lifestyle. Everything to you should be dialogue. It should be that we’re constantly interacting and doing things together.
From the Australian perspective, Muslims in the West perspective, guys, we spoke about Turkey, we spoke about Rome. I probably have to say, sadly 9/11 was probably the thing that spurred Muslims on to some extent or forced us out of our comfort zones to some extent. Forced us to respond, to some extent, I must say, if we have to call a spade a spade and tell the truth about this. In the ’90s we were happy, living in our little suburbs, cool, going to the mosque etc. But things happening on the global scale, although very negative and horrible things, almost pushed us out into having to take part in dialogue more actively. And there are a lot of different things that happened. This dialogue isn’t really organised, it’s organic. A lot of the time in Muslim community people just reaching out to their neighbours, doing things with people in their community. Other people doing it quite structured etc.
I took this third sentence from one of the Mission Statements of the one of the organisations; I think it was from Affinity, which is an organisation that does dialogue. And they said that this was the reason behind it, to spread awareness, to deal with the curiosity of the greater public and in response to negative events and promote education about misconception. So, dealing with stereotypes.
Early examples of this dialogue were things like Mosque open days. It’s almost been 20 years that mosque open days have continued to be happening, they are happening again this year. Home encounters, visiting churches, iftar dinners, conferences, international trips, art exhibitions. I like being able to add that one in there, saying that it’s wonderful to see that this is another thing that’s happening. Recently, we started off doing a lot of interfaith, but it’s become more intercultural. We shouldn’t limit ourselves with people from other faith traditions. It should be about the wider community, pressing issues and things that are important.
[Points to slide] Next slide, I want to just do a little bit of promotion for something that happened. This is an example of what I call intercultural dialogue, not interfaith dialogue. But every year in Sydney and Melbourne, we’ve been hosting something called The International Festival of Language and Culture. And we’d love to have you if you’re available on that date, to come past. Basically, it’s students from about 30 different countries in the world coming together and singing in their own language. Sometimes singing in other languages as well, wearing traditional dresses. The idea is to bring the youth of the world together around the common idea that is celebrating music, celebrating unity etc. So, these are images from past years. I put this hijabi girl in because she sang, ‘You’re the Voice’ by John Farnham. And I love ‘You’re the Voice’ by John Farnham. It was a surreal moment when a young Muslim Australian girl sang, ‘You’re the Voice’ by John Farnham.
This is an example of a large-scale dialogue event that is currently happening in Australia. Last week we had the opening of the exhibition and Archbishop Prowse spoke about love and he almost made a prayer. He said that, ‘May we not only know each other. But may this lead to us loving each other.’ It was uncomfortable to hear because it’s true, but I just sat there and said, ‘How are we going to do that? How are we going to love each other?’ But if we do come together into these interactions. As a Muslim the verse says, ‘We’ve created you in different tribes so you may know each other.’ This is your challenge that you come through and try to make this successful.
The thing that we know, one of the things is that we need to do more in [inaudible] quotes, ‘Muslims and Christians need to establish joint institutions and social welfare organisations.’ I extend this to being, people from different cultural or religious backgrounds does not necessarily have to be Muslims and Christians but people have to come together and really lay concrete relationships. It’s nice just to have a dinner and interact every once in a while, but we’ve been doing that for about 15 years now. Its borne a lot of fruits, it’s done a lot of positive things, but the next step really needs to be, like the Divinity school, like Gulen was talking about, where people from different faiths come together and make a school. Where people who are Jewish, Christian and Muslim can come together and be very comfortable and debate issues and talk and interact and really make a community with each other.
That’s all I really had guys. Ramadan is coming up next month, it’s a pretty active time for the year for us. We do do something like home iftar dinners, we are going to hopefully have a large iftar dinner here. If you’re interested in possibly taking part in a dialogue and maybe visiting a Muslim home and having a meal to start off any intercultural or interfaith interaction, please you can come and speak to me. We can exchange details and I can put you on a list to see if that was something that you would be interested in and if you wanted to find a little bit more about our organisation and the kinds of things that we do.
Before I finish I’d like to thank Heidi, Luke, Sheona, Penny, everybody here at the NMA for helping out and being able to host us and all of you for listening to our ramblings for the past half an hour, so thank you very very much.
QUESTION: Thanks for that. Being there are both – Christianity, Islam – Abrahamic religions, they are very common beginning I suppose in some ways. I also understand that of course Jesus is an important figure in Christianity and I understand he is also a prophet, a significant prophet in Islam. I don’t know much detail about that. But it seems an extraordinarily close connection between two religions that have major figures like that in both religions. Would you like to comment about that and how that may help with the linkages between the two?
MUHAMMED AKSU: You’re right about that, Muslims regard Jesus as a prophet. And there is actually a chapter in the Qur’an which is named after the Virgin Mary and it’s called the ‘Mother Mary’. I’d like to say, there are so many things that are so common between our religions. I think it was about two years ago we did a prayer day with Thomas Moore up near the wall memorial, there is a Catholic church up there, we did a prayer day. Basically, we read some of the sections from the Qur’an that were regarded as prayers. Our Catholic friends read the Lord’s Prayer and sang some hymns. We walked from it saying, ‘Wow, I could read that hymn.’ I was saying ‘amen’ at the end of the hymn. I could say very confidently, ‘Oh God, please accept that hymn.’ That is the kind of prayer that I would make, very small.
Similarly, when we read passages from the Qur’an, you could see in the same way they saw that it was extremely really close in their understanding, in the revelation. The whole spirit of it is all the same it seems to me from my interactions with people from the Christian faith. Do you have anything to say?
DYLAN ESTEBAN: I would also like to add on what Mohammed was saying, that it’s very true that not only in terms of Jesus Christ, whom the Qur’an calls the Messiah as well, he is called the Masih in Arabic, which means he is the anointed one, the Messiah. So, there are a lot of similarities in terms of ‘Jesus is alive’ that’s reported in the Quran, and also in the Gospels, the four gospels in the New Testament.
But it’s not just limited to Jesus, there are many connections that can be looked at historically or even just comparatively with the two different religions. For example, if you take the rest of the prophets that I mentioned in the Old Testament, Islam respects Adam, respects Noah, Abraham and considers these people as the founding fathers of their particular communities.
So, there are certainly many things that we can look at once we learn about each other. And I think that’s the main issue of what we are trying to do with Bluestar, we don’t really know these differences or these similarities until we actually sit down and do what we are doing today and actually coming and discussing and learning about these things. There is certainly a lot there that can be explored there for those who are interested.
Are there any other questions?
QUESTION: Could you just briefly tell us what the link is between what you’ve been talking about and this exhibition?
MUHAMMED AKSU: Probably the biggest thing, and if you look at it from a dialogue perspective, is that there is not much difference culturally in a humanitarian way, or from all different aspects, that Muslim society loved the arts, they were interested in civilisation, they had had challenges, they respected beauty, they lived very much in a similar manner to what any other civilisation or people did.
So, visiting the exhibition you have a little bit more appreciation for that art, for the customs and the civilisation. I think that would probably be the ultimate goal of the whole thing. If you come from away, ‘Well, Muslims, they enjoyed doing arts, they were good builders, they were good weavers. This is important in their tradition.’ To me that is a huge success because sadly, a lot of the time, maybe not really same as the audience here because the people here seem to be educated. But a lot of people would find it hard to believe that Muslims or that part of the world were humane or were civilised or were contributing members of society in their time.
It’s hard sometimes. As I said, this audience is different but there are people who truly know so little about our faith and our tradition. So, to me, that would be at the most simplest form. I’m not really an art historian to be able to go into much detail about materials and concepts and stuff like that. But even at a simple level that would be something that’s really, really important.
Do you have anything to say?
DYLAN ESTEBAN: I would just like to say, just going on from what Muhammed was saying, that’s probably perhaps why we will come here to give the first introduction to the lecture. To unpack the title of the exhibition itself and to really explain what is the meaning of dialogue and coming to know each other. Because that’s how we have all this material that we have now that we can go outside and explore.
We wouldn’t know that as a Western culture and Western civilisation, we wouldn’t know that unless we had interactions with other people in other cultures and in this particular case with Muslims. So, the link here is what we are looking at historically, how that particular idea was looked at more or less in the pre-modern period, which is what I tried to do earlier and what Muhammed was trying to cover in the modern era, of how Muslims are continuing this tradition of exploring different cultures and civilisations. And how that can contribute to better understandings between not only Muslims but everybody in society.
CAROL COOPER: Thank you so much Dylan and Muhammed, your knowledge and interest in coming to the Museum is so much appreciated. My name is Carol Cooper and I was the lead curator for this exhibition. I found it fascinating during your talk, both your talks, but Muhammed you mentioned, I think it was Said Nursi, I’m not pronouncing that very well and his interactions with Pope Pius. But it was Pope Pius II who in 1925 invited all the Catholic missions throughout the world really to bring to Rome for the international exposition, or he created an exposition in Rome in 1925 where 100,000 objects were brought to Rome. 100,000, that’s an extraordinary number, brought to Rome, exhibited in Rome including the Islamic objects that come from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Southeast Asia, came to Rome, a lot of them at that time. 60,000 of them, were sent back at the end of the exposition but 40,000 were retained. The reason for having that exposition was so that the Pope could reach out and show especially at that time in the world where there was a lot of discord between the two World Wars that all people should be valued.
It’s really fascinating, 67 of those objects have come to the Museum from the Vatican. For anyone who has been in the exhibition yet, you might have noticed them or those who still have the opportunity to go, it’s free and open every weekday or every day of the week until the 22nd of July, but there is a beautiful pair of embodied boots. And they are actually mentioned in one of the accounts that is written at the time of people of the Pope actually coming to that exhibition and looking through and taking note of the amazing objects. And so those objects are actually here at the Museum today.
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Date published: 01 January 2018