x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Quest for interfaith dialogue spans 40 years

Izzedin Ibrahim Mustafa was urged by Sheikh Zayed to open dialogues with Shiite Muslims and Christians at every opportunity.

Izzedin Ibrahim Mustafa insists that Muslim-Christian dialogue must continue with a focus on coexistence and stopping terrorism.
Izzedin Ibrahim Mustafa insists that Muslim-Christian dialogue must continue with a focus on coexistence and stopping terrorism.

MADRID // When a man walked up to Izzedin Ibrahim Mustafa and proclaimed him the "star" of last week's Saudi-sponsored interfaith conference in the Spanish capital, the 79-year-old scholar and Government adviser was taken aback.

"I don't care if I'm a star or not," Mr Mustafa, who was hand-picked to represent the UAE at the landmark conference, told his admirer. "Some people support me, and some people are against me." Yet stardom, if not notoriety, is what engulfed Mr Mustafa after he took to the podium last week. Instead of offering more sugar-coated phrases about the underlying unity of all religions, he called for an examination of the intellectual assumptions underlying interfaith dialogue. In particular, he challenged Jews keen on dialogue with Muslims to clarify their scriptural mandate for it.

What especially angered some Jewish delegates, who rushed to rebut the 40-year veteran of interfaith initiatives, was his suggestion that genuine Jewish-Muslim dialogue had not yet begun. "All we've been having is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue," countered Rabbi Mark Shneier of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. As high-minded debate gave way to a Tower of Babel, answers to some quandaries seemed more elusive than ever to Mustafa Ceric, the Sarajevo-based grand mufti of Bosnia.

"We Abrahamic faiths look bad because we cannot solve the problem of Palestine and Israel," he said. Reflecting on the uproar a day later, Ibrahim Mustafa said he was both happy and sad, but not sorry. "I don't like 'blah, blah, blah' at conferences; 'how good that we love each other'; 'we all pray to the same God in heaven'; 'all of us are going to paradise' - it's rubbish," he said, his cheeks flushed with mirth. "I awakened those who were sleepy on both sides."

By his own description, Mr Mustafa has enjoyed rousing the drowsy from their intellectual languor his entire life. Among the many who have taken note was the late Sheikh Zayed, founder of the nation. Sheikh Zayed twice asked the Egypt-born Mr Mustafa to give up the education posts he held in Qatar and Saudi Arabia to settle in Abu Dhabi. Eager to lay the foundations of a new nation, the UAE's founder and first President was persistent, Mr Mustafa said.

"I told him, 'Your Highness, I don't want to. I love university life, and I am a teacher by nature. I like to talk to young people. I will stay here in Saudi Arabia. They treat me well'. Sheikh Zayed's reply? 'University? We'll need a university. Why don't you come and set up one for us?' How could I refuse?" Mr Mustafa went on to establish the UAE University and served as its president for four years, after which he became an adviser to the Sheikh Zayed Charitable Foundation. His portfolio from Sheikh Zayed included an unusual assignment.

"One day Sheikh Zayed said to me, 'I educated the children of this country. Who will look after the education of my children?' I answered 'yes' in a Bedouin way; I touched my nose." Mr Mustafa's proteges included Sheikh Mohammed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, Sheikh Zayed noticed Mr Mustafa's interest in the ecumenical movement, which had begun to flourish in the late 1960s. Noting that he seemed to win acceptance easily among the followers of different faiths and factions, the UAE leader told him to open dialogue with Shiite Muslims and Christians at every opportunity. "I've been on assignment from Sheikh Zayed ever since," Mr Mustafa said.

Four decades later, Mr Mustafa acknowledges the peaks of optimism and valleys of despair that interfaith dialogue has taken him through, as well as the vagaries of age. "When one becomes old but is still mentally active, they call him an 'adviser'," he said, joking about his title as cultural adviser to the UAE Government. Asked why he labours on from his house on Istiqlal Street, just off the Corniche, where he has lived for 25 years with his wife, Layla, Mr Mustafa cites an unlikely inspiration: Pope John XXIII.

It was this pope who, shortly after he was elected pontiff 50 years ago, declared it time to "open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air". It was this pope who reshaped the face of Roman Catholicism by offering a new approach to the world and reaching out to non-Catholics and non-Christians alike. Mr Mustafa, then aged 30, was not particularly impressionable; he had already been forced into exile in Libya after writing papers critical of Egypt's King Farouk. Nevertheless, the new pontiff enthralled him.

"I never met him except in a dream, but I loved the man: a kind bon vivant, enjoying his spaghetti and his afternoon nap, and thinking of the people, in a charitable sense," Mr Mustafa said. "I was preoccupied with the man. I read his statements about Christianity and Islam in Africa. I dreamed about him, and in my dreams we spoke with each other." Spurred on partly by his Catholic muse, Mr Mustafa shows no signs of flagging in his determination to sow some semblance of comprehension, if not tolerance, across the religious divide.

Bounding from his overstuffed chair to fetch a copy of the Quran to illustrate his point, he insisted that Muslim-Christian dialogue must continue with a focus on coexistence and on stopping terrorism. Fatwas condemning military attacks on civilians must be issued at every opportunity, he said. Furthermore, since "no dialogue is complete without dialogue with the Jews", serious Muslim-Jewish dialogue must "start as soon as possible". However, he said, it will not go far unless Judaism is distinguished from Zionism and rival definitions of what it means to be the "chosen people" are openly discussed.

As Mr Mustafa presses ahead, even his friends are impressed. "Izzedin, you are as enthusiastic now as you were when you were young," someone told him in Madrid. His reply belied any lingering suggestion that he is a curmudgeon: "I am interested in people loving each other." @Email:cnelson@thenational.ae