A 10-year-old interfaith dialogue between Mennonite and Muslim scholars – held in Canada and Iran over the years – continued in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada) in early June.
The dialogue, hosted by Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and co-hosted by Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) and Conrad Grebel University was the fifth of its kind and brought together Shi’a Muslim scholars from the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute (IKERI) in Qom, Iran and Mennonite scholars from Canada and the U.S.
“These dialogues provide a safe place for academics and theologians to speak frankly about their beliefs without ignoring important differences,” said David Shenk, a global consultant with Eastern Mennonite Missions, Salunga, Pennsylvania, who has participated in all of the conferences.
The primary goal, he said, is fostering dialogue and improving understanding, not finding consensus or agreement. “Islam is Islam and the gospel is the gospel, they are not the same,” he said. “The goal is to understand each other’s faith and to bear witness to our own faith.”
These academic conferences build on MCC’s work in Iran which began with relief efforts following the massive earthquake in the early 1990s. This was followed by peace-building programs, such as a student exchange program and learning tours.
Peter Dula, EMU professor of bible and religion, spoke on the “Theological Assessment of Human Rights Language.”
“The discussions were very illuminating because they sharpened distinctions and clarified differences,” said Dula. “It was fascinating to see how that results not just in increased knowledge of Islamic theology but also made us much more theologically articulate about what each of us really believes about Christ, about sin, about scripture.”
At the Winnipeg conference, seven scholars from Iran and seven scholars from Canada and the U.S. explored issues surrounding the theme of “Human Nature and Destiny: Explorations into Theological Anthropology.”
“In a global context, these dialogues are significant because it is very unusual for Muslim and Christian scholars to meet together like this in a collegial way,” said Shenk. “What makes these dialogues even more significant is that they have been happening for almost 10 years and there is interest for these conversations to continue.”
“A conference like this is in keeping with CMU’s mission statement which includes a commitment to peace and justice, generous hospitality and radical dialogue,” said CMU president Gerald Gerbrandt during the opening ceremony.
Mohammad Ali Shomali, head of the IKERI religious department, said he appreciates these conferences because both Mennonite and Shia scholars “take their faith seriously” and are deeply committed to putting their faith into action.
Shomali is hopeful that the mutual friendships and trust that has developed over the years between participants will lead to a sense of cooperation between faith communities.
“I personally believe that dialogue begins with tolerance and then goes on to respect and understanding,” he said. “The more I understand you, the more I respect you. This should lead to cooperation. I believe there is no limit to dialogue and when it comes to cooperation, it is the same.”
Shomali said it is too early to envisage how Christians and Muslims can work together but he added: “We can do a lot, if we do it together. My dream is to have a joint Muslim and Christian organization that works for peace and justice. We would work together, shoulder to shoulder, to establish peace and justice all over the world. This could happen as a result of these conversations. It is not impossible.”
Participation in the conference was limited to the scholars presenting papers and a number of invited academics and observers. The observers included nine female students from Iran who also participated in a special course arranged by CMU.
Maryam Esmaeili teaches history of Islam and the interpretation of the Quran at the al-Zahra University, an Islamic university for women in Qom that has 15,000 full-time and correspondence students.
She believes interfaith conversations and interactions can improve relationships between Muslims and Christians.
“If I don’t speak with you, my judgment about you might be wrong,” she said. “When we sit around the table and talk, my judgment about you is correct because I understand you and you understand me.”
Robin Penner Thiessen, a CMU student and observer at the conference, described the conference as kingdom living. “We are building relationships and breaking down walls,” she said. “Apart from everything else that is being accomplished, there is the willingness to be in relationship.”
Trevor Bechtel, an instructor of contemporary theology in Bluffton College, believes one of the long-term contributions of the interfaith dialogue will be the collection of academic papers that are being presented on Mennonite-Anabaptist theology.
The papers, he said, represent the careful thinking, arguments and analysis that are reminiscent of the writings of early leaders in Anabaptist church history.
“We understand ourselves better when we engage in dialogue like this,” he said. “This dialogue with Muslims has pushed us to examine what we believe and to write it down.”
Ed Martin, director for the Center for Interfaith Engagement, has participated in four of the past five conferences and moderated one of the sessions.
“All of the discussion sessions following presentation of papers were lively and could have extended longer,” said Martin. “I was pleased that the Iranians invited the North American Mennonites to participate in a sixth conference, scheduled for Qom, Iran in 2013.”