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Muslim-Christian Dialogue in the Gulf

BRANDON VAIDYANATHAN

In mid-October 2011, I conducted the following interview with the Rev. Doug Leonard, Director of the Al Amana Center in Oman. Aimed at promoting Muslim-Christian understanding, the Al Amana Center began as an initiative of the Reformed Church in America and now operates under the auspices of the government of Oman. As far as is known, the Al Amana Center is the only Christian-initiated interfaith center in the world that formally partners with an Islamic government. 

What exactly is the Al Amana Center?

The Al Amana Center is an academic institute for Muslim-Christian Relations in the Sultanate of Oman. It offers intensive semester-long and two-week academic programs whose purpose is to facilitate mutual learning between Christians and Muslims.  We also publish academic articles about Muslim-Christian relations, and invite visiting scholars to speak and research in Oman.  The initiative started originally by the Reformed Church in America and is now ecumenical with participation from the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church, various Orthodox denominations, and mainline Protestant denominations. As far as we know, the Al Amana Center is the only Christian-initiated interfaith center that is partnering with an Islamic government.  Everything we do is in partnership with His Excellency, Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed al Salimi, who is the Minister of Awqaf and Religious Affairs.

How did this initiative come about?

The Center was formed in the late 1980s and is built upon the legacy of a relationship between the Reformed church in America and the Sultanate. The Reformed Church came to Oman in 1893 and formed hospitals and schools, for the purpose of providing humanitarian service in the country.  By 1960 the hospital network here had become the largest employer, second only to the Royal Army of Oman. The employees of the hospitals were predominantly Omani. The idea from the beginning was to start a medical college—to train Omanis to be doctors and hospital administrators and to eventually hand over the operation to Oman, which happened in 1973.

Can you say something about the work of the Center?

We partner with the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Oman, and with colleges in the US and Europe to provide experiential interfaith programs designed to aid students in their understanding of Muslim-Christian relations. In addition, we bring American and European seminary students to Oman who are training to be ministers, either Catholic priests, Orthodox priests, Protestant ministers, or Imams.  Our students learn about Islam in the context of an Arab country.

Religious leaders today need to have a global and multi-faith perspective.  This is the world that their congregants are encountering and as leaders they need to be equipped to help them make sense of this diversity and how it informs faith in action.

Oman is the only country where Ibadi Islam is practiced as the official religion. Ibadi doctrine preserves both an austere practice of piety combined with openness to engaging with other schools of thought within Islam and the doctrines of other faiths.  This combination makes Oman an ideal place in which to engage in interfaith learning.

It is amazing to see the transformations that students go through, especially the undergraduate students…. We have a relationship with Cambridge University in the UK, Tübingen University in Germany, Hartford Theological Seminary in the US and Northwestern College in Iowa.  Our undergraduate semester program is designed for small liberal arts Christian colleges in the US.  It is the smaller, liberal arts, Christian colleges that don’t necessarily have access to this kind of pluralism in their own context.

We also work with the Ministry of Religious Affairs to identify religious leaders in Oman whom we send on a tour of the US and the UK to provide an experiential education of religious pluralism.

We contribute articles to various academic journals including The Muslim World, an academic journal of Muslim-Christian relations published by Hartford Seminary. Al-Tasamoh (Tolerance) and Al-Tafahum (Understanding).  These journals showcase religious pluralism in the region. They are published in Arabic and have a wide distribution in the region.

Finally, we bring Christian and Muslim interfaith scholars to Oman to present at the Grand Mosque and at the Institute of Shari’a Studies, an Islamic seminary focusing on Ibadi theology. There are about a thousand students at the institute.  The students are from Oman and many of the surrounding Muslim countries, places like North Africa, East Africa, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan—mainly students who are interested in studying Ibadi Islam.

Do you have scholars in residence as well?

At the moment we don’t, but we are hoping to develop a program that will bring scholars for extended research and teaching.  Professor David Ford, Director of Cambridge University’s Interfaith Programme came to Oman in 2009 to deliver “A Muscat Manifesto” in the Grand Mosque.  Dr. John Caputo—the famous Catholic theologian came in 2010 and gave a fascinating talk at both the Grand Mosque and at the Institute for Shari’a Studies about the implications of deconstructionism and post-modern philosophy on the field of theology.  Professor Hans Küng of Tübingen University has spoken here.  Last year Dr. John Esposito visited Oman and spoke about the political implications of Muslim-Christian Relations. Each year we assist in bringing a couple of scholars to the region.

We’re also interested in going beyond the theory of interfaith relations to collaborative projects that center around our shared values and put faith into action.  We ask the question, “How can Islam and Christianity respond to some of the challenges of globalization together?  How can we collaborate to solve world problems?” Islam and Christianity are global religions.  They coexist in nearly every country in the world. Half of the world’s population is Muslim and Christian.  If we can figure out how to help religious leaders and people of faith from both groups to collaborate, there’s an enormous wealth of human resource…that could be mobilized to do good things, such as addressing the crisis of AIDS in Africa, crafting intelligent approaches to the problems of global warming, or responding to the world’s need for humane labor laws that govern the migrant work force.   There are all manner of global problems that need our collaboration.

What fueled the government’s interest in starting this Center?

I wasn’t here during its formation, so I don’t know the entire story, but I think there are three things that have led to Oman’s interest in interfaith education.  One, Oman has been a hub of trade and commerce for thousands of years.  Muscat has been a cosmopolitan city for a millennium.   Oman’s trade with the US began in 1790. The first Arab ambassador to the US was an Omani.  The trade with China, India, Africa and Persia date back thousands of years. So Oman has always been a sort of global hub.  The second is that pluralism is built into Ibadi doctrine. Ibadi theology is characterized by both an austere practice of Islam and  a willing to listen to and understand the faith of others.

The famous Ibadi scholar Nur al-Din al-Salimi (d. 1914) said, “You will find us accepting truth from whoever brings it even if he is a hated one.” And likewise, “We refuse the false from whoever brings it even if he is a beloved one” (Isam Al-Rawas, Oman in Early Islamic History, Reading, UK: Ithaca Press 2000, p. 78).  So the willingness to dialogue and seek understanding is built into Ibadi doctrine, which is why the title of the academic journal, Al-Tafahum¸ means “Understanding.”

The Ministry of Religious Affairs also offers conferences on inter-Islamic scholarship. They led a conference on fiqh or jurisprudence last year.  The presenters were top scholars of Shia Islam from Iran here, and top scholars from Saudi Arabia, from Sunni Islam. So Ibadism is interested in relating to all schools of thougth within Islam. The parallel in Christianity is the ecumenical movement. His Eminence Shaykh Ahmad b. Hamad al-Khalili, the Grand Mufti of Oman, said “the Ibadis have never dared to exclude anyone from the millah (community of Muslims)”(His Eminence Shaykh Ahmad b. Hamad al-Khalili, Grand Mufti of the Sultanate of Oman, The Overwhelming Truth: A Discussion of Some Key Concepts in Islamic Theology, Oman: Ministry of Awqaf & Religious Affairs 2002, p. 9.)

You can even see this unifying intent in the architecture of the Grand Mosque in Muscat. You see the arches with the black and white alternating bricks on the arches — a reflection from the Mosque in Cordoba; then there are the floral patterns in the mosaics, which are Persian; and Indian Muslim influence from Mughal art. The Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman is a visual statement of the Islamic inclusivity that Ibadism seeks to foster.

The third factor contributing to Oman’s interest in inter-faith relations is His Majesty Sultan Qaboos.  His Majesty is committed to interfaith peace and dialogue. The Sultan gave an endowment of 4 million dollars for a chair in the study of the Abrahamic Faiths at Cambridge University two years ago.  What is remarkable about the chair is that it includes Judaism. His Majesty was also involved in the peace process between Jordan and Israel, back in the mid-90s.  His Majesty has great vision for the need and importance of deepening interfaith understanding.

Is there much of a history of Muslim-Christian interaction in the country?

The church as it is currently structured has been here since the early 1900s. But of course, Christianity was here with the …Nestorian Church [in] the mid-fifth century C.E.] . …. [T]here is evidence of Omani bishops being members at synods of the Catholic Church….. There’s also a story about how Islam came to Oman. One [version] of [the story] is that Oman sent a Christian, an Omani, to go and consider this new movement that they had heard about.  This Christian returned to Oman after meeting with Mohammed, converted to Islam, and convinced his tribe that they also need to convert.  So perhaps the Christian community was the first to convert to Islam.

Muslim-Christian interaction has existed for hundreds of years in Oman.  The Portuguese came in 1507 and were conquered in 1651.  The tribes of Oman defeated the Portuguese and expelled them.  Oman was the first nation to gain independence from a European colonizing power. But of course, the Portuguese brought with them crosses on their flags and churches in the forts, so churches became associated with military and colonial power… Then in the 1890s, Christians arrived again in Oman through the Anglican Church.  A missionary named Bishop French, who’s buried here, in Sidab, came to open a church and a missionary station here for the Anglican Church.  That was in 1891, the same year that the first minister of the Reformed Church in America came to set up the hospitals. The good relationship between Oman and American and British Christians developed because Omanis saw that Christians were doing good things for society and the people.  That humanitarian relationship reframed the relationship with Protestant Christianity. Today there are Orthodox churches, Catholic churches, Protestant churches, all sharing the same plot of land and designated areas for Christian worship.  Christians are more ecumenical in the Gulf than just about anywhere else in the world.  It’s a beautiful thing.

Can you tell me about some of the issues that become focal points for dialogue? Do you talk about the impact of modernization and globalization here for instance?

I was asked to contribute an article dealing with the problems of globalization in the last issue of Al-Tasamoh. I wrote about the challenges of the breakdown of community that results from globalization, from mass communication, Internet, and social media.  We are connected technologically, but it’s a superficial connection, and we are experiencing a loss of local community and family systems. One of the points I make in the article is that Islam and Christianity are perfectly set up to provide an ethical correction to that kind of transformation.  Both faiths are global religions that have successfully learned how to be both global and local in their practice of faith and life.  Islam and Christianity have maintained an ethic that simultaneously prioritizes family connections, local community connections through a mosque or a church, and global presence and action.  That is not to say that these two monotheistic faiths have been immune from the emerging modern values of hyper-individualism and consumerism. But both traditions maintain that essential connection of nuclear family, extended family, wider community, as well as global engagement. And both faiths have within their respective traditions very strong critiques of individualist consumer society, and so they can demonstrate an alternative model of human relating for the world.

What do you think about the relationship between church and state here? 

Some people would say that in order to maintain religious pluralism you need a separation of church and state. But that’s not the case here. Ibadi Islam is the official religion, and yet, religious freedom and tolerance is protected in society. Even Hinduism, where a Muslim might say—and maybe incorrectly—that Hindus worship many gods. I don’t think Hindus would say that. Polytheism is the cardinal sin of Islam, the worship of anything other than one God. And yet, foreign workers who are practicing what many Muslims would consider to be a cardinal heresy are given land and money to build new temples in Oman. His Majesty just gave funding and land for a new Hindu temple.  Oman is like England in that there is an official state religion, the Anglican Church, and yet, freedom of religion is protected in society.  So I don’t think a nation needs to have a separation of church and state in order to have a progressive civil society that protects the freedom of religion.

What about the relationship between Islam and democracy: is that a topic of discussion here?

I hear that question often, especially when I give talks in colleges or churches in America. There’s an assumption in America that Islam and democracy are mutually exclusive. But in Ibadi Islam, the imam is elected; tribal elders are elected, and they elect the Imam. Ibadis resisted the idea of a caliphate—a religious authority as the head of the Islamic empire. They instead had regionally elected imams, in North Africa, East Africa, here in Oman—anywhere that Ibadis from Basra set out to establish Ibadism, imams were locally elected. So democracy is an essential part of Ibadi Islam.

I was surprised to learn in the documentary sponsored by the Ministry of Religious Affairs that even Muslims here are forbidden to proselytize.

Right. That ruling comes from a desire to keep peace among the religions in the country.  Oman wants to protect people from those of another religion who might desire to distribute pamphlets or aggressively push others to believe a certain way.  Such approaches are foolish, insensitive, and very upsetting to anyone.  This is the reason that Muslims are also not allowed to proselytize.  Oman wants to maintain harmony among groups.  To a Western mind, that feels controlling, but we need to understand the intent behind the ruling.

But what about conversion?

Our work at Al Amana Centre is in no way about conversion or proselytization.  Hopefully, what people are converted to is a deeper understanding and appreciation for one another’s faith. And there’s no apostasy law here. The goal of our work is certainly not that someone would change his or her religion.

What contribution do you see your Center making, and what do you hope to achieve?

It’s one thing to read about another faith, and it’s another to actually encounter and be in relationship with people of another faith.  We live in polemic times. Experiential and relational interfaith education is what it will take to transform people’s understanding of the other. That is what we provide at Al Amana Centre, programs that seek to foster inter-faith encounters and deepen understanding for both Muslims and Christians. We’re operating on a small scale now; one of my visions is to replicate this work in Oman and provide similar programs for interfaith learning in other parts of the world where Muslims and Christians coexist.  Today, every religious leader needs to have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, other faiths. People of faith look to their religious leaders for guidance and direction, and so they need to be educated to help people in their understanding of the “other.”

Do you have any examples of the impact this dialogue has had?

I have become friends with one of the students at the Institute of Shari’a Studies.  There was no question in his mind when we met that it was bad for him to interact with me as a Christian. He’s not Omani; Omanis generally wouldn’t say that. His Imam had taught him that it makes him an unclean Muslim to associate with anybody who is not Muslim, and that Christianity is corrupt.  It is through our friendship that he now comes and helps to lecture for our students who come from the US and the UK. He now is able to articulate the importance of Muslims learning about Christianity, for the purpose of being at peace with Christians. Someday he’s going to become an Imam in his country, and he’s now going to be a different kind of leader than he would have been without this interaction.  He told me recently that he wants to do his Ph.D. in Muslim-Christian relations.  So the most important contribution that we can make is to foster inter-faith understanding, especially as we become more mobile and inter-cultural and inter-religious in every country.

Brandon Vaidyanathan is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and a graduate research fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His dissertation examines how religious institutions and practices both shape and are shaped by new forms of capitalism in rapidly-globalizing cities such as Dubai and Bangalore. His previous research has been published in journals such as Social Forces, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Sociology of Religion.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ahmed al Mukhaini November 28, 2011, 2:10 pm

    Illuminating and inspiring. It is indeed an example of how much one can achieve if one has faith. I believe the people in al Amana have a lot of faith and passion about being true agents of God. Oman is also blessed with this connection, which is mutually appreciated too. I think this partnership can pave the way for great learning for Muslims and Christians alike.
    Blessings and Peace.