TCS Daily


An Islamic Opus Dei?

By Stephen Schwartz - July 12, 2005 12:00 AM

The horror of the London attacks reinforces, if any new evidence were necessary, the need for moderate Muslims, in the West as well as in the Muslim lands, to act decisively in opposition to Islamist ideology. But what message, what means, what example would best mobilize the Muslim believers who want to save the religion from the bloody stain cast upon it by Wahhabi terrorism?

I do not believe moderate Muslims, repelled by crimes like that in London, Madrid, Istanbul, Casablanca, Bali, and, of course, New York and Washington, can be called to action in support of the war against terror by appeals to radical reform or the imposition of secularism. Rather, I believe that Muslims should look to the conservative Christians, especially Catholics, and to Orthodox Jews, for lessons in how to reaffirm faith in a tormented world -- a global society in which Islam itself is now at the center of the storm.

As a Sufi adherent of Islamic spirituality, and as Executive Director of the Washington-based Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP), I have long been accustomed to "living an interfaith life," by cultivating close relations with Christian and Jewish believers, and their religious leaders. In recent weeks, I have published a new book on Jewish spiritual traditions in the Balkans (Sarajevo Rose, distributed in the U.S. by Palgrave Macmillan); worked closely with forward-looking Greek Orthodox Christians who support the establishment of CIP; have published essays on the tragic life of the American Catholic mystical poet, Philip Lamantia, who was influenced by Sufism; and was interviewed by the Christian Broadcasting Network regarding the new alliance of radical Islamists and the radical left.

But my interfaith commitment is not something I need to advertise constantly; it is a matter I have taken for granted since breaking with the radical left more than 20 years ago, and toward which I began gravitating with my first Sufi encounters almost as many years before then. I believe in a dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians that will bring all believers closer to God. I also believe fervently in a Muslim defense of Judeo-Christian society against the extremist assault.

On Sunday, June 26, an "interfaith" experience in Washington stimulated some thoughts in me about the future of Islam. I attended a Solemn Mass (without taking communion) for the Feast of Saint Josemaría Escrivá, founder of the Catholic personal prelature, Opus Dei. The service was held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Walking up the steps of the sacred structure I was reminded of the Muslim influence on Mediterranean Christian culture: the bell tower is a classic Italianate modification of the Giralda tower in Sevilla, Spain, the original example of the square campanile that became a major element of Western European architecture. The Giralda was built in 1198 as the minaret of a Moroccan-style mosque.

I went to the mass for Saint Josemaría out of respect and admiration for him and for the organization he created. Escrivá was born in the Spanish region of Aragón in 1902 and was ordained in Zaragoza in 1925. He founded Opus Dei in 1928, and suffered through the Spanish civil war, before moving to Rome in 1946. He died in 1975 and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

When I first read Escrivá's book The Way (Camino), 20 years ago, I was reminded of some lines from the work of the great Catholic mystic Raimon Llull, who like Escrivá, represents the heritage of the Catalan people of western Spain. Llull, in the 13th century, prefaced his short spiritual masterpiece, The Book of the Lover and the Beloved, with an explicit reference to the influence of Islamic habits in its composition. In the words of Llull's imaginary philosophical hero, Blanquerna: "a Saracen [i.e. Muslim] once told him that the Muslims have various holy men. The most esteemed among these or any others are some people called Sufis. They offer words of love and brief examples that inspire a person to great devotion. Their words require exposition, and thanks to the exposition the Intellect rises higher, which develops it and spurs the Will to devotion. After considering this, Blanquerna proposed to make a book in this manner."

Like Llull and other Spanish Christian mystics, Escrivá in The Way offered abbreviated counsels, designed for meditation by believers seeking personal tranquility and oneness with the divine. Other great Iberian Catholic authors, including the Valencian poet Ausias March (1397-1459) and Saint John of the Cross (1549-1591), a Doctor of the Church, show unmistakable Muslim influence. Escrivá's text, after almost five centuries (he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s), still has an Islamic feeling. In one of his most characteristic phrases, he asked, "Do you remember? Night was falling as you and I began our prayer. From close by came the murmur of water. And through the stillness of the Castilian city, we also seemed to hear the voices of people from many lands, crying to us in anguish..." Such dicta as "Silence is the doorkeeper of the interior life" could be taken from the Sufi classics, as could the most famous statement of Saint Josemaría, "I'll tell you a secret, an open secret: these world crises are crises of saints. God wants a handful of 'his own' in every human activity."

The project of spiritual activism in ordinary human affairs is familiar in the Sufi tradition; it is reflected in the role of many Sufi spiritual orders in public welfare networks across the Islamic world, from Morocco to Malaysia. Opus Dei is an entity within the Catholic fold serving to encourage piety as well as responsibility in public life. Today, among the Christian churches, the Roman Church often seems to stand alone in its understanding of the great challenges facing humanity. For example, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, reported in its English language weekly edition of June 8 that a Papal diplomat, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, addressed a meeting of the Council of Europe in Warsaw in May. On that occasion, the eminent representative of the pontiff pointed out the continuing threats to minority rights in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo, areas the rest of the European political and social establishment appear intent on ignoring.

During the mass for Saint Josemaría, I pondered an idea I have long considered. Opus Dei is well known for its positive role in reforming the economy of Spain, late in the Franco era, when it acted to energize entrepreneurs as well as to promote transparency and accountability in the Iberian business environment. This modernization was predicated on defense, rather than destruction, of traditional and conservative Spanish Catholic religious culture. Escrivá incited his acolytes to ridicule leftists and secularists for their attachment to 19th century ideas, comparing belief in them to insistence on traveling by stagecoach. Similarly, Opus Dei has become associated with the improvement of Catholic university education, especially schooling in management, in Latin America as well as in Spain.

How would a Muslim equivalent of Opus Dei -- reinforcing a conservative and traditional view of faith while embodying contemporary capitalist principles, modernizing education, and fostering the common good -- affect the world of Islam? The more one examines Opus Dei the more it resembles, in a broad way, a Sufi order; it is a voluntary association of fervent believers who have come together with a common dedication to refinement of their spiritual understanding and strengthening of religious ideals in the public square. Any number of Sufi bodies in countries like Turkey could furnish the basis for such an influential development among Muslims. The largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, possesses multimillion-member organizations like Nadhlatul Ulama that serve community needs while also nurturing a moderate form of Islam.

While the vision of modernization through traditional Islam may seem counter-intuitive to many Westerners, transformation of the Muslim world by spiritual revitalization has already been a principle visible, if little understood, in the liberation of Iraq. In the 1950s, Shia theologians defined their interpretation of Islam explicitly as a struggle between "terrorist" usurpers and proponents of "religious democracy" represented by the Shia martyr Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. With the Bush-led handover to the sect of the Shia holy sites, Karbala and Najaf, a regime is emerging in Baghdad that seeks to harmonize religious devotion and governance without transgressing pluralism and popular sovereignty. To impel the new Iraq into artificially imposed and extreme secularism would vitiate the first achievement of the liberation strategy in the Muslim world.

One might argue that Islam already has its Opus Dei in the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, which is powerful in many Arab countries, especially Egypt. But the Muslim Brotherhood remains committed to conceptions that are radical, not conservative; these include violent hatred of the West and non-Muslims; takfir or excommunication from Islam of those who do not share the Brotherhood's ideology; and the goal of exclusive governance by religious law. Opus Dei propounds no such extreme notions: it accepts the need for peace and order in existing political systems, it does not preach against those outside its ranks, and it does not embrace theocratic politics. But above all, the dedication of Opus Dei to a healthy Catholic criterion in commercial affairs offers a new model for Muslims, absent in the Sufi tradition and enormously beneficial for the progress of the Islamic countries. For too long, the Muslim world seems to have forgotten that the Prophet Muhammad was a caravan merchant, and the traditional Islamic axiom, "Allah loves the merchant."

I do not believe the transformation of the Muslim world in a democratic direction can be achieved through compulsory secularization. Opus Dei showed in Spain that a modern and prosperous society, which would become the seedbed of legitimacy and stability, could be constructed without surrendering the essential values of traditional and conservative religiosity. I believe that is what moderate Muslims seek today; it is perhaps no paradox that a useful example for participants in this effort should come from Spain, the West European country with the most authentic and resilient Muslim heritage. The rest of Europe learning from Spain is old news; but for those with influence in London, no less than Washington, Spanish spirituality, in its Islamic, Jewish, and Christian forms, as well as the cries of pain from Madrid last year, offer significant lessons.

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