It’s now after the fact. My previous musings about intentions and hopes have been put to the test, and I have spent 3 days with a group of Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Open Mosque inaugural Interfaith Retreat at Oewerzicht, Greyton, Western Cape, South Africa.
Many have expressed interest as to the outcome of this bold experiment. Some have been encouraging, some cautious, and others disparaging. The idea of spiritual intimacy with those of faiths that are often portrayed as the “enemy” has been and remains a taboo in many circles. Non-monotheists or liberal pluralists will probably not appreciate the gravities of the situation, it is no trivial thing to “risk your faith” developing closer ties with the “other”.
In Friday’s introduction we heard a passionate and erudite message from Dr Taj Hargey, the Open Mosques founder, in which he appealed to Muslims to heed the Qur’an – the original text revealed to Muhammad, rather than the traditions based upon the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet which were gathered some 300 years after his passing.
Rev. Natalie and Dominee Alwyn then presented the “Mission of Christianity” to a receptive and intelligent audience who were somewhat bewildered by the notion of the Trinity. To be honest, the more I reflected on it from the Jewish / Muslim point of view, the more I empathised with them!
In the evening Rabbi Greg Alexander of Temple Israel and his contingent led us in the Shabbat service. This felt comfortable, despite it being in Hebrew, with the sung service with guitar and djembe. This form of worship revealed an inner cohesion, relevance and inclusivity, the famed “familyhood” of Jewish culture and religion.
In the cold of the evening we continued singing as a broad community around the fire, led by Rabbi Greg and his musicians, and introduced more improvisation with flutes and clarinets as well as the shofar (rams horn) and dumbek (Arabic drum).
I tried to complete the full daily cycle of 5 salat/prayers, (and scored a moderate 3). I also took part in a dawn Hatha yoga session. It was good to have this more eastern practice in our midst to remind us that even if we could unite our middle eastern faith families, they still formed only a part of the greater whole.
Day 2 started with views on food in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, covering the ideas Halal and Kosher, and the vision of Peter in the Christian tradition to eat without restriction.
Dr Taj gave an important and in depth talk on the notion of jihad, in which he categorically decried suicide and random killing on strict Qur’anic terms. He taught that the jihad refers first and foremost to the inner struggle of the believer to submit to God. Its meaning has been distorted by the teaching and traditions of Hadith and the culture of fear, blind conformity, and wilful ignorance too often perpetrated in the name of Islam.
Interfaith marriage was the next topic, with several such unions in attendance.
After dinner, closing Shabbat and Maghreb prayers, we settled down once again around a roaring fire, to do Christian worship. This come predominantly from the Taize tradition, with cheeky additions of Arabic and Hebrew translations to well-loved hymns like “Da Pacem” in which we sang Da Pacem Cordium/Give Peace to every heart/Salaam al Qaloob/Shalom la le vot.
At this time after 2 days of trust building and frank conversation, we were graced with an important moment when brother Ismael, somewhat overcome with the love of God, improvised a song on the guitar, and then began to sing a few verses from the Qur’an. I think this spontaneous use of the holy text in music making might have been quite novel to those who had been taught that it can only be recited by a qualified Imam or Muezzin and that instruments were not compatible with Islamic worship. At some point, with many taking part in its creation, a full “Alla-hu” chant, Sufi style “Zikr” (remembrance) emerged. People swayed and danced, and as the chanting subsided, an inspired, improvised song of sanctuary emerged from Rachel.
As a (post-)charismatic, I was really proud to have taken part in a Taize Christian worship session that liberated the Muslims to sing their Qur’an and then Sufi chants which gave way to a song out of the of the Old Testament tradition. Most agreed after this that music was to play a crucial role in this emerging integral spirituality.
Time for Church
On Sunday, we had an Anglican Eucharist led by Rev. Natalie and Lay preacher / stand-up comedian Brother Derek. Of course its “open” nature meant that the identifying in the work and message of Christ was freely given to all in the bread and “wine” (meaning grape juice, of course😉 ).
The rest of the day consisted of 3 workshops on the most challenging issues: gender and female participation, Zionism, and same sex unions.
The quality of input was astounding; Rabbi-in-training Sofia led with her exposition of the book of Genesis and explained the biblical background to the issues. Rev. Natalie and lay person Zanele spoke eloquently about the state of women in the Anglican and Catholic Churches, with some lamentation. Dominee Alwyn also illuminated from a Reformed point of view. Dr Taj’s partner Jackie Woodman topped it all with a clear perspective on the 14 rights afforded to women in the Qur’an, and an insightful and indeed scientific view on the experience of masculinity and femininity within all of us.
For most, the real test was Zionism, Israel and Palestine. Rabbi Greg was thrown to the lions, and his opening statement was “I am a Zionist and let me tell you what I mean”. Oy Vey!
What transpired was a grilling from some very sharp Islamic angles, where Greg managed to keep his cool, create a safe space, answer in humility, and retain the trust that had been building all weekend. Chutzpah meets al-Rahman. Mazel Tov to Rabbi Greg.
The retreat with those of other faiths was an unqualified success. It exceeded expectations and was every bit as spiritually inspiring as any other retreat I have experienced. I felt the same exhilaration and closeness to others as I did when I went away with fellow Christians over many decades to renew and reaffirm our faith and community.
Once again, we risked ourselves and pressed into new spaces that might have been difficult, but because of the sheer force of love and acceptance from all participants, was welcoming and bathed us in the light of the Divine. Jesus, Mohammed and Moses (and Buddha and Lao-Tzu not to mention a host of others) would I am quite sure, have found delight in these simple acts of sharing, learning and listening.
In retreating together, we have the potential of a revivified pluralistic spirituality that is deeply rooted in the world’s most enduring faith traditions. We have, as a diverse and outlying, bob-tag and rag-tail group of integral prophets, incarnated something with real potential, a foretaste of the messianic age of tawhid /unity. It was an honour and a rare privilege to have experienced this, long may it grow in our hearts, city, nation and world.