Recently I was introduced to a very gifted man, a Jesuit priest, Father Herman Roborgh S.J., who is dedicated to creating understanding between people of different faiths and beliefs. He is now in Delhi, defending his 180,000 word PhD. thesis on interpreting the Qu'ran.
A few weeks before his departure for India, I decided to introduce him to Sheikh Taj el-Din alHilaly, the then Mufti of Australia, who, although considered by many Australians to be a controversial figure, he is also recognized by the majority of Australian Muslims as being the most knowledgeable Muslim cleric in this country about the Qu'ran.
I had explained to Father Herman, that having struggled to 'transcreate ' the work of Arab poets for my anthology of Arabic poetry, 'Feathers and the Horizon,' I am fully aware of how colorful the Arabic language can be and must, to a degree be toned down - 'transcreated' - to be fully understood and appreciated as poetry in English and that this is probably why the Sheikh has been so virulently criticized for using such 'colorful' language when discussing exposed female flesh.
I drove Father Herman out to Lakemba for this first meeting which had been arranged by Keysar Trad, President of the Muslim Friendship Association. He directed us to the home of Sheikh Hilaly, where the four of us sat in a delightful garden room for several hours. Sheikh Taj agreed with us that the reporting of the words he used in Arabic about female flesh was indeed made to sound bizarre when reported in English in the press. His intention was be protective by issuing a warning in Arabic to young men and women.
We introduced the word 'jihad' into the discussion and Father Herman told me later the that the Imam had confirmed his own understanding of the verses about 'jihad' in the Qu'ran and must be read in the historical context of the period of the period in which they were revealed. In fact the Imam made it clear that there is no general permission in these verses for 'jihad' in the sense of fighting. He stressed that 'for Muslims living in Australia this word means the struggle for a better education and moral life. Father Herman told me that he found it easy to agree with this. Later Father Herman made it clear to me that he had felt very welcome and comfortable during this meeting and that he considers it was remarkable how this exchange of views had shown such a similarity of understanding and vision. He said, 'This meeting brought home to me that in Australia there is so much misunderstanding and misinformation of what Islam teaches. I quickly became convinced that the best way for non-Muslims to form a true picture of Islam is by meeting Islamic religious leaders. I felt deeply enriched by this meeting.'
Father Herman seemed so delighted with this discussion that I quickly arranged another meeting for Tuesday June 5th. This took place at the Lakemba Mosque office, again with the Imam and Keysar Trad. On this occasion I told them how delighted I was that once again there were two senior Muslims, a Jesuit Priest and great-grand-daughter of the Rev. John Reid, Moderator of the first Scots Church in Australia, talking to each other in very friendly circumstances, (my great-grandfather, being a strict Presbyterian, would certainly not have approved of my friendship with Father Herman!). We all agreed we should encourage more dialogue within Australia between people of different beliefs. This second meeting again lasted for several hours, and we discussed many important issues. (I am depending on Father Herman's meticulous notes as well as my own notes for this article).
Ours was possibly was the last such in depth discussion to take place before the Sheikh Taj stepped down as Mufti of Australia. Indeed I believe such discussions as ours have perhaps never taken place before. We were all so completely open and frank with each other.
Sheikh Hilaly explained that here are two major orientations within Islam today. One is the very conservative Salafi orientation expressed by the Wahabi Muslims in Saudi Arabia and promoted by them world-wide.
The other orientation is the more open approach advocated by universities such as Al Azhar in Egypt. Sheikh Hilaly stated that he personally prefers this more open approach. He believes that all the people of the world are "passengers making the journey of life together in one boat. Hence there is indeed a great need to understand one another and to learn how to live together." He rejects absolutely Huntington's theory regarding the 'Clash of Civilizations.' He stressed that democracy is the only way forward in this world. He also made clear that he considers "the Muslim world could learn much about democracy from the West." He emphasized that much more effort should be made to bring about dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims, making clear to us that a large section of the Qu'ran consists of dialogue between God and the Prophets and many other people. "The troubles Muslims and non-Muslims experience in relating to one another arise from misinterpretation of what religion teaches. There is a very great need for a deeper understanding and this can only be achieved by dialogue between those of different faiths. As we have recently discussed, it is imperative that the verses on 'jihad' in the Qu'ran be understood correctly. They must be read in the context of the time they were written. References to fighting the 'People of the Book' (Jews and Christians) express a message for the Muslims in Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. These verses are not an invitation to fight Jews and Christians today. This interpretation is supported by the context as well as by the fact that many other verses affirm the revelations given to Jews and Christians. In fact the Qu'ran encourages Muslims to cultivate good relations with non-Muslims. There is no question of compelling people to believe in Islam. The Qu'ran makes clear that if God had so willed God could have created human beings into a single group. Instead God created a variety of peoples and nations , each with their own laws and preferred way of life. There is no need to eliminate this diversity but rather a need to become familiar with it and to affirm it (cf. Qu'ran, chapter 5, verse 48)."
Sheikh Taj further stated that in his view repressive governments such as those in many Muslim countries do not always welcome efforts for inter-religious dialogue because this could result in a loss of power for those presently in positions of power. He criticized the hypocrisy of policies of some Muslim countries, "where those in power are exempt from harsh punishments which their own governments enforce on its citizens. In my view some of these leaders certainly deserve punishment for their dishonesty and unjust policies."
The Sheikh most sincerely appeals for dialogue between religions in Australia, "So that the beauty and integrity of this multi-religious country would be come even more a reality. Here religion should not become involved in political intrigue and efforts at acquiring political power. Religion should play a role in promoting genuine and lasting peace within Australia, thereby making this country a role-model for other countries. But religion should also indicate certain limits or boundaries for the healthy growth of freedom and democracy. I believe young people have a special need for such boundaries to be made clear."
Finally we asked the Sheikh about his views on female circumcision. This question was proved by the recent visit to Sydney of Ayan Hirsi Ali, whose book 'Infidel' describes her terrible experience in this practice as a young girl in Somalia. The Sheikh insists that "Female circumcision was practiced in only a few Muslim countries and was a cultural practice rather than an Islamic practice it existed in these places before the arrival of Islam. Since the Prophet Muhammad's own daughters were not circumcised, the hadith (sayings of the Prophet ) which favors female circumcision must be a fabricated story. In the course of history some Muslim leaders my have permitted this practice but none of them would ever have recommended it."
Keysar Trad considers Ayan Hirsi Ali was perhaps being opportunistic and seeking media exposure for her book in Sydney.
Keysar told me after these two meetings that he thoroughly enjoyed meeting Father Herman, "It was exhilarating to have deep theological discussions that exercised the intellect and nourished the spirit."
Sheikh Taj also said he thoroughly enjoyed our meetings, "It was a delight and a privilege to meet Father Herman; it was especially refreshing to see a member of the catholic church approach the subject of the Qu'ran with an objective, academic open mind. This certainly paves the way for greater understanding between the two faiths. I am looking forward to maintaining friendship and co-operation with Father Herman."
My friend, an Egyptian-Australian engineer, Mustapha Muhammad, sat beside his friend, Sheikh Taj during the long flight to Saudi Arabia to attend the Hajj in 1989. He recently told me that "Sheikh Taj is a most knowledgeable man and understands every word of the Qu'ran, so he is certainly the very best person to be deeply involved in interfaith dialogue I am certain that 90 per cent of Muslims in Australia would agree with me about this. I completely respect him for stepping down from being the Mufti in Australia in the gracious way he did."
Having worked so hard for twenty-five years to endeavor to build understanding through poetry, I have no doubt that inter-faith dialogue is now the very best way of finding true peace and harmony in today's troubled world. Shakespeare was correct when he wrote these words in his play 'Julius Caesar' - (!V. iii. 217).
'There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in misery.'
We must indeed 'Take the current while it serves' and encourage dialogue or face possible failure.
There is a Tide in the Affairs of Men...
Anne Fairbairn AM