The Importance of Inter-Religious Scholarship
In the southern Spanish town of Seville, the narrow cobblestone streets are lined with orange trees and the relics of medieval society remain a testament to the culture of cohabitation between Jews, Christians and Muslims that flourished for some 800 years before the Spanish Inquisition. The religious leaders and scholars met to discuss how religions can increase tolerance and decrease hostility between their communities.
Academy for inter-religious sponsored by UNESCO
The four-day meeting was the first in the newly established Elijah Academy for inter-religious dialogue founded by Israeli Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein two years ago under the auspices of UNESCO. The Academy aims to facilitate ongoing interaction between scholars and religious leaders of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu faiths at an international level.
The initial meeting in Seville was attended by such prominent figures as the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shear Yashuv Cohen; Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Church in the United States; and Islamic teacher Dr. Wahiduddin Khan who has published over 200 books on Islamic thought in India and abroad. Other leaders hailed as far as Cameroon, Taiwan and Thailand.
Two days into the conference, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, made a ceremonial appearance at the Alcazar, a historic palace of Seville first built by Muslims in the 11th Century and added onto by Catholic Monarchs in the 13th Century.
In how far do religious traditions allow for cooperation?
The conference was designed for leaders and scholars to forge relationships, discuss the most pressing issues facing religions today and plan for the future work of the Academy. In preparation for the meeting, a think-tank of six academics each representing one major world religion, wrote a paper explaining how his tradition allows for religious co-operation. These papers served as a backdrop for the gathering in Seville titled "Religion, Society and the Other: Hospitality, Hostility and the Hope of Human Flourishing".
"Apparently the global interfaith scene is lacking serious academic materials and we think we have the expertise to bring scholars together and to come up with new ideas and new directions," said Goshen-Gottstein one day after the conference. He plans to put the Academy to work on launching an educational network which will provide materials to existing interfaith institutions that aim to develop curricular study programs and dialogues, Mr Goshen-Gottstein said.
Freedom to voice criticism within academic realm
"Scholarship is important because very often religious leaders are in a position where they are not free to voice criticism of their own tradition, whereas scholars have this liberty," said Goshen-Gottstein. "Apart from that, scholarship uncovers various things that are hidden in the tradition that people are often not even aware of."
This idea was echoed by David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland and president of the world conference of religions for peace, the largest existing interfaith body incorporating over 15 religions. "There is no shortage of interfaith programs in the world that work for social justice and there is no need for us to re-invent the wheel," he said. "What there is a need for is a world interfaith body that draws on scholarship and the wisdom of different traditions with regards to contemporary issues of science and society. For example, the contemporary concern for the environment could have the benefit of world religions and needs input from proper scholarship."
"No peace among religions without peace among nations"
Rosen also stressed that if the Academy is to be successful it must involve public policy makers and politics, especial regarding conflict in the Middle East. "Without peace among religions, there is no peace among different nations of the world," said Rosen.
"In my opinion, one of the reasons that the peace process in the Middle East broke down was the failure to take religions seriously. I understand that politicians have taken the attitude ‘let’s keep religions away’ because religion has been part of the problem. But if the leaders in the region really want peace then they must make religious dialogue a handmaiden to political development."
Yet of the nearly 30 religious leaders, no Muslim Arabs directly from the Middle East attended. Many were either too busy or ill to attend, said Goshen-Gottstein, "But we’re still open to it for the future."
Jewish identity plays no role in the project
"We cannot avoid the political implications of those who attended and those who did not," said Vincent Cornell, professor of history, director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas, U.S.A, and the Muslim representative in the academic think-tank. "This project was the product and inspiration of an Israeli. Under current political circumstances any interaction with an Israeli is toxic for people from the Arab world. People with political agendas don’t want to do something that might cause embarrassment to their constituencies. Muslims who do things with Israelis are making a political statement just as those who refuse to attend are also making a political statement."
Goshen-Gottstein said his Israeli, Jewish identity plays no role in his vision for the Academy. "I don’t teach Judaism I teach interfaith," he said. "At the end of the day, I’m Jewish but the institution is not."
The image of Islam portrayed by media is simplistic and distorted
Cornell, who was raised Episcopalian and converted to Islam at the age of 20 said that the conference gave him the chance to represent Islam to other religious leaders with more depth than it is typically given in the media today.
"With the interpretation of Islam that is all too prevalent with either the fundamentalist or political trend, it comes off as a rather cruel religion that is more concerned with violence than with mercy. I think that is far from what Islam has been historically. If I’ve succeeded in anything I hope it is to show there is far more than meets the eye in the contemporary scene."
Mary Fowles, © Qantara.de 2003
The Elijah Institue was established in Jerusalem in 1996. It has initiated various interfaith projects, carried out between scholars and practitioners of different world religions.
Homepage of the Academy
Website for the inter-religious conference in Seville