Canadian Mennonite
Volume 5, number 11
June 4, 2001

An interfaith introduction

It's usually not possible for me to participate in the local Mennonite ministerial gathering since it happens at times more suitable for congregational than for editorial ministers.

However, I felt I couldn't miss a recent meeting billed as an interfaith dialogue with a local Muslim leader and a Muslim theologian from Toronto. Even though I frequently drive by the local mosque or masjid, I had never met the imam, a leader in the community. Although we published an article last year (April 3) about two Islamic students from Iran studying theology in Toronto through a Mennonite Central Committee exchange, I had met neither of them.

Further, the meeting included a halal meal catered by an Egyptian restaurant. And the long list of possible discussion items prepared by the Mennonite ministerial was intriguing-for example, mutual understandings of the kingdom of God and of justice; how youth are shaping the faith group; response to inter-faith marriage; understandings of peace and nonviolence; role of Jesus' teachings in Islamic life and practice.

Not surprisingly, the list of questions was far too long, and the dialogue had to begin at a more basic level. As we shared the meal we went through two stages of introduction. We each talked about ourselves and our families; then we each talked about our work.

The role of imam, at least in the local mosque, does not seem to be as professionalized nor as centrally regulated as that of minister. The imam said he leads in prayers on Thursday evenings and on Fridays, and lectures occasionally; his full-time paid work is to give leadership to an Islamic service organization that provides practical help to a diverse cross-cultural group with many recent immigrants.

When asked who decides when someone is ready to be called an imam, he said those acknowledged as leaders within the community are those who give leadership. Sounded like an earlier Mennonite practice of calling leaders from within the community.

The tradition of halal prompted a variety of questions. The Muslim guests explained that halal is a term from the Koran meaning "allowed or lawful." They distributed a detailed guide of foods that are halal or haram (prohibited) or mushbooh (suspected or doubtful), emphasizing that halal does not apply only to matters of food or drink but also to behaviour and attitudes.

In response to the list of food regulations, a Mennonite minister asked whether this approach wasn't more restrictive than free. "You ask a 'western' question," commented the Muslim theologian. "Yes, it's obviously a restriction. In our tradition freedom as such is not a value. We think of freedom in relation to God; we're happy when we're among those who observe the restrictions based in instructions from the word of God."

The questions started to flow more quickly. How do you view the grace of God? I have trouble with the law and grace split, said the Muslim theologian. "In Islam, the grace of God comes through the law." He observed later: "In modernity, it seems God has to adjust to humans; in Islam, humans have to adjust themselves to the will of God."

Is salvation solely God's initiative, or does it also involve human effort? "Nothing happens without God's agency," said the Muslim theologian, "but at the same time, this doesn't exclude the human element." He turned the question back to the Mennonite inquirer who said his answer would be much the same, with perhaps a bit more emphasis on God's grace.

The time was too short. There was much more to talk about. And since the introductions were well done, the stage for further conversation was set.

-Ron Rempel, editor

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