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Islamic-Christian dialogue deepens understanding of shared religious figures

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Many denominations have a lot in common, teaching “compassion, love, humility, service to the poor and needy” and “a sincere respect for God and a higher power,” the executive director of the Greater Milwaukee Interfaith Conference, Pardeep Kaleka, at an online hearing. Some also “share similar doctrines, traditions and key figures. There is nowhere where this is clearer than when we look at the religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Followers of these three religions are also called “people of the book”, he added, “because they share a common heritage and a belief in the same God”.

Kaleka made the remarks by presenting the second of four programs held at Marquette University this academic year that brings together humanities experts, religious leaders and community members to explore transformative teachings and practices within the Islam and Christianity.

Thursday’s discussion, Bridges or barriers? Figures shared in Islamic and Christian traditions, considered to be key common figures between Islam and Christianity: Hajar / Hagar, Miriam / Mary, Ibrahim / Abrahim and Isa / Jesus.

Panel members were Janan Najeeb, Founder and President of the Milwaukee Muslim Women‘s Coalition; Rhonda Hill, director and co-founder of Race and Faith; Kaitlyn Daly, a PhD from Duke University. student and co-editor of Interfaith engagement in Milwaukee; Irfan A. Omar, Associate Professor of Islamic and Interfaith Studies at MU, and author and editor of numerous academic books on Islam and interfaith engagement; Andrew Kim, director of the Center for the Advancement of the Humanities at MU and Associate Professor of Theology at MU and author of several research papers on the theology of addiction and recovery, the ethics of virtue, and the theory of just war; Sameer Ali, an Imam from the Shia Muslim community of Milwaukee, a Muslim chaplain from MU and a palliative care chaplain. Kaleka served as moderator.

Learn from shared religious figures

The topic “bridges or barriers” used in Thursday’s discussion is based on an investigative framework used by Dr. Rita George Tvrtkovic, a professor at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois, who was recently appointed by Pope Francis as consultant for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In his book, Christians, Muslims and Mary: a story (2018), “She compares Christian and Muslim views on Mary at different times and in different places,” said Dr Irfan Omar. “We thought that would be a good way to look at the other numbers we’re looking at.” (Tvrtkovic participated in August in an interreligious dialogue about Mary (Miriam) with a Muslim scholar.)

Two people, a Muslim and a Christian, discussed Hajar, Miriam and Ibrahim. Then the whole panel chatted about Isa.

Hajar / Hagar: a lesson in free will and faith

Dr Irfan Omar explained that although Hajar lived long before the time of the Prophet Muhammad, she is considered an important spiritual figure in Islamic tradition. The hadith recounting his experience of being taken by Ibrahim with their infant son Ismail to Mecca and left there is a story remembered by Muslims around the world. His account of his response to this situation is a “teaching story” that shows his “agency and faith,” he said. It is commemorated each year by every Muslim who goes to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Haj.

Quoting a translation by Father Thomas Michel, a Jesuit scholar of Islam, of the hadith of Hajar’s struggles, Omar continued: “At that time, there was no one in Mecca, and there was no no more water. Ibrahim made Hajar sit down and he started to walk away.

Hajar asked, “’Ibrahim, where are you going, leaving us in this valley with nothing?’ … Then she asked him: “Has God commanded you to do this?

“When Ibrahim replied, ‘Yes,’ Hajar said, ‘Then God will not neglect us.'”

Hajar had faith in God to take care of them and she also had free will, climbing the hills around them, hoping to find a passing caravan to give them water. His actions are imitated by the pilgrims to Mecca, who ascend and descend the hills seven times as part of their Haj. The angel Gabrielle comes and stamps her foot, then water gushes out, saving them.

“So what’s the moral of this story?” Omar asks. When Hajar learned that Ibrahim was acting in obedience to God, she responded with faith and trusted in divine wisdom, he said. “She didn’t just pray for a miracle and sit in one place … She animated her faith with action … to preserve life.”

She acted with humility, piety, free will and criticism, ”he said. “His questioning of Ibrahim was not a simple question. It was a criticism. Omar said he believed Hajar’s story deserved more prominence.

Kaitlyn Daly said the lesson from Hagar’s story in Genesis chapters 16-20 is that God sees us. He is the God who sees the oppressed. Quoting Presbyterian Minister Jacqui Lewis, she said: God sees the homeless, the degraded, the dying women. Accordingly, the love of God calls us to expand our own understanding of the in-group and the exo-group and to consider concerns of social justice.

Miriam / Mary: a central figure in both faiths

“Every Muslim learns from an early age to revere and love Mary and her son Jesus, and to believe in the miraculous virgin birth,” said Janan Najeeb. She noted that Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran and that her name is mentioned 34 times.

“Mary is venerated not only as the mother of Jesus, but as a full light. She is recognized as a “Muslim” with a lowercase “m,” meaning “one who submits her whole life to the will of God,” Najeeb explained.

Explaining the Catholic perspective, Dr Andrew Kim said Mary was also conceived as Jesus “without original sin” and “called to a purpose deep in the divine plan.

“One of the main teachings that Mary brings to those who suffer is the feeling of being divinely loved,” Kim said, quoting Luke chapter 1, verses 46-55.

Ibrahim / Abraham: A link

Rhonda Hill said that Abraham’s “radical yes” to God when he was called to leave Hagar and Ishmael and sacrifice his son Issac impressed her. But she was even more moved by God’s “radical yes” to us, she said.

She discussed the concept of being “saved by grace.” You cannot do enough good works to be accepted. We are accepted by the grace of God, ”she said. Abraham was able to enter into a covenant with God, “not because he did everything right, but because of God’s radical yes to establish a relationship with us.”

Chaplin Sameer Ali highlighted the “sacred land” and “sacred space” of Ibrahim’s story. “God gave us a common space to talk about the rights of all human beings.

“The end result should be an honor to what our fellow human beings believe and to build bridges to accept each other.”

Isa / Jesus: Barrier or Bridge

“Jesus takes the cake when it comes to the popularity of all of these people that we are discussing,” Omar said. “We need a separate program to discuss Jesus,” he joked.

And, indeed, an hour of stimulating and engaging discussion of the other figures was followed by 45 minutes of discussion of Isa (Jesus). Many points of agreement and disagreement emerged. All agree that there is a lot to learn and that sharing each other’s understanding is enriched.

About the series

Inspired by the original Islamic-Christian dialogues Held in Milwaukee over four decades ago, an interdisciplinary team from Marquette University won a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council to bring together humanities experts, religious leaders and community members to continue interfaith conversations in four programs hosted at MU. Each aims to deepen the community’s understanding of how to examine and use faith and knowledge to promote the common good.

“By exploring lessons learned from the group’s historic role, our conversations will reflect on new models of engagement between community and interfaith groups that pursue religious and social engagements during and after COVID 19,” Kim explained. “This project examines how the challenges faced by communities linked to the pandemic have been addressed by interfaith partners and aims to deepen understanding of how communities can promote non-violence, peacemaking, forgiveness and justice.

Future topics and tentative dates:

  • Hear stories of hope and resilience from activists and community leaders – Thursday 11/18/2021
  • Interfaith as Interdisciplinary: Reflections on Pedagogy – Thursday 02/24/2022


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