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2021 Beach Lecture: ‘Exploring faith and community through Christian-Muslim dialogue’

A report on the 2021 Beach Lecture in Bridgebuilding

The importance of ‘Exploring faith and community through Christian-Muslim dialogue’ was highlighted within three days of this year’s Beach Lecture.

British MP Sir David Amess MP, was murdered while holding his constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea – allegedly by a ‘British national of Somali heritage.’ A statement from his heartbroken family requested “people to set aside their differences and show kindness and love to all” as the “only way forward”, regardless “of one’s race, religious or political beliefs.” The tragic Essex murder was a timely but brutal example of the need for people of all faith communities and none to foster a greater mutual understanding.

Newbold’s annual Beach lecture was endowed in 1998 by Dr Bert & Mrs Eliane Beach who were committed to ‘bridgebuilding’ during their ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist church. This year’s lecture saw two inter-faith specialists share their stories – one Christian and one Muslim.

Dr. Lia Shimada, Senior Researcher for the Susanne Wesley Foundation and Associate Chaplain of Whitelands College, University of Roehampton, has dedicated her mediation work to bringing people to understand ‘the other’, for example, through peacebuilding with communities in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Shimada began the lecture by providing a framework of questions for dialogue between different faith communities to begin the ‘complex and sometimes messy’ conversation that leads towards understanding. “What is our understanding of the presence of God in the world? How do we believe that God speaks from and into the world? Can Jewish, Christian, Muslim communities find occasion to come together around the table to ‘marvel at the mystery of God’ with an attitude of ‘open-minded curiosity’? And then perhaps for individual reflection, does our relationship to the sacred text we hold dear and trust implicitly, change and mature over the years?

As 19.5 million refugees (2018-190 and 272 million migrants (UN figures), (1) move around the world, what happens as they take their faith and social traditions with them? These figures highlight a critical reason for the need to understand ‘the other’. Dr Shimada shared an evocative picture[i] of a small boat made of motorcycle mudguards, packed with bunches of matchsticks leaning together.  The tiny boats somehow suggest the fear and hope of migrants. They pose two questions: what does it mean to be in community? what does it mean to be held upright by those around you?

Dr. Shimada proposed a deeper conversation about how people of different social and faith traditions can live together in the same town, or even in the same street?  And the further question, “How do people understand God as they move?”. She suggested that while at one time, leading religious leaders (Archbishops, Chief Rabbis, and Secretary-General Imams) convened together for formal interfaith dialogue, perhaps every day grass-roots conversations could be the better and more effective way forward.

The evening’s second speaker, Imam Hassan Rabbani, is the Muslim chaplain at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh. He is a Scottish Muslim scholar with a deep commitment to inter-faith work.

When “Christian Muslim dialogue is often seen through a lens of animosity, tension, and crusades”, explained Iman Rabbani, “we fail to see the many more peaceful encounters that have taken place.” Sharing three pre-middle ages examples Rabbani emphasised the extent to which Muslim faith often affirmed Christian values, which many in his contemporary community seem reluctant to do today.  He believes that UK Muslims need to connect with their country’s Judeo-Christian heritage, particularly as Islam has ‘preserved’ much ‘about Christ’.

He recounted a story from the earliest Muslim community in Abyssinia where the Prophet Mohammed encouraged his people to recognise the Christian king Najashi, whom, he said, they would find ‘ very just’.  Rabbani offered evidence of the generosity of the Prophet Mohamed encouraging Christians to worship in their own unique way in the Muslim mosque. His third example was from 637, when Omar (Mohammed’s companion) went to Jerusalem and prayed respectfully at the Christian church of the Holy Sepulchre. Omar said that everything symbolic to Christianity must be maintained.

“Is it possible? suggested Imam Rabbani, “that today’s Muslim leaders and community living in the both the east and the west, can find the same kind of freedom as was the experience of some early Muslims?” He urged the example of his prophet, “Mohamed was generous”, he said. It was clear in descriptions of  both communities that ‘Christians’ and ‘Muslims’ are not uniform in their beliefs and values. Iman Rabbani described the effort it takes to look behind the usual stereotypes.

Rabbani recognised that encouraging inter-faith conversation inevitably leads among Christians and Muslims to fears of a ‘dilution of my own faith’ – a matter raised further in the subsequent Q & A section. “Is my faith so weak that the minute I step into a church, I lose everything I have ever believed?”, he questioned. “Far from it”, responded Dr. Shimada, “When I have been in inter-faith conversation…it has been an amplifying experience” and I ask myself, “what can I learn that might help me to grow?  What do I articulate more powerfully about my own understanding of God?” And perhaps most challenging of all, “what is the calling for me in being part of this dialogue?”

Dr Shimada offered a final encouragement to dialogue, “I would just like to see people giving it a go and having the courage to take an initiative.”

David Neal and Helen Pearson
A full recording of the Beach Lecture 2021 can be found here

[i]Dark Water, Burning World”, by Issam Kourbaj
The picture was from the book to which Imam Rabbani and Dr Shimada had both contributed. Shimada, Lia,(ed) “Mapping Faith: Theologies of Migration and Community, London, Jessica Kingsley, 2020