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Link to the mandala of Brother Nicholas of the Flueli
Andreas Renz, Hansjörg Schmid and Jutta Sperber

In the Name of God

Under Way to a Theology of Prayer
in Islam and Christianity

Ten Theses

German Version

 

From the series: Theologisches Forum Christentum - Islam, Volume 1,
Im Namen Gottes...Theologie und Praxis des Gebets in Christentum und Islam,
Würzburg 2005 (248 pages, 19,90 Euro)Echter-Verlag,
webmaster's own, not authorized translation-->

 

    If one speaks of theology, very different things can be meant within Christianity, but all the more in the context of the world religions. For some years the "Theological Forum Christianity - Islam" is striving to build - within the horizon of a scientifically answered theology - a bridge between Islam and Christianity. So far three conferences took place, on which one also succeeded in giving competent Islamic theologians a hearing. The first reports, which were published as "Hohenheimer Records" of the Diocesan Academy Rottenburg-Stuttgart, are now continued by a new book series in the publishing house Friedrich Pustet, Regensburg. It took up the title 'Theological Forum Christianity - Islam'. Publishers and initiators of the Forum are Hansjörg Schmid, Andreas Renz and Jutta Sperber. The first volume gives the lectures of a symposium that took place in March 2005: "In the name of God ... Theology and Practice of Prayer in Christianity and Islam" (248 p., 19.90 euro). Fifteen essays of Evangelic, Catholic and (four) Islamic theologians - an Anglican and an Orthodox theologian supplement the 'multi-religious' panorama - revolve in five main sections round the topics: Basic questions, prayer of supplication, bodily prayer, secularism, common prayer. Topics which lead certainly into the core of a religious existence that seeks theologically to answer for itself. The publishers conclude the volume with "Recapitulating Reflections and Theses" - reprinted here with their friendly permission. Redaction Christ in der Gegenwart, Nr. 34/06, S. 277f.

 

According to our expectations the topic 'prayer' proved to be an extremely suitable starting point for the theological reflection between Christians and Muslims, since it is here about the core of any theology and religious practice. Thus on the one hand the connecting and common things become clear with this topic. And on the other hand at the same time also that necessary attitude arises - out of the spirit of prayer - that enables us to acknowledge the distinctive and dividing things with respect, appreciation and humility - without holding back or even giving up the own riches. In the following some results will be recorded in form of theses, but also some questions that remained open:

 

1. The Common Basis

A first fundamental conviction, common to Christians and Muslims, could be found in the fact that God is close to those who are praying, and that they experience this proximity and presence of God. Christians are certain of this proximity because it is promised to them by Christ, and because they know that it is ultimately Christ's spirit who is praying in them (Rom 8:26; see Lk 11:9-13 parallels). Muslims know about it because it is promised to them by the Koran - as for instance by the words 'I am close. I answer to the call of the calling, if he calls to me' (Sura 2:186) - and because each reciting of the Koran in prayer represents God's word and makes it topical. Hence prayer always presupposes already a conception of God and in reverse prayer also determines the conception of God. Just this is expressed by the principle 'lex orandi, lex credendi' ('The law of praying is the law of faith').

God must be the exclusive aim of prayer. This may be applied as a criterion, if not as the crucial one, for an authentic prayer. The exclusive God-tie in prayer, so the common experience of Christians and Muslims, makes human beings free of all worldly connections and powers by which they are limited and burdened. In this sense prayer is just also in its regularity and formality an "interruption", at the same time it id an arrangement of everyday life and creates space and time for God.

 

2. Individual and Common Prayer

Christians and Muslims are aware of the fact that God can neither be get by them while they are praying, nor can he be somehow magically influenced by them, but that God gives itself, respectively its assistance ('I am there for you') in free grace to those who pray. In the act and in the attitude of prayer faithful Christians and Muslims realize their turning to God, and thus from the view of both religions their actual human nature, as it is intended and created by God. As expression and realization of faith prayer is - in the view of both religions - necessary for one's salvation. This turn to God includes man as a whole. It is a comprehensive personal act that is expressed in both traditions by prayer gestures and - actions. While in Islam, particularly in the Islamic compulsory prayer (probably best comparable with the Christian Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), the human body is - by common gestures - obviously more integrated into prayer than in the usual Christian prayer traditions, in Christianity the aspect of community seems partly to be more distinct yet, and of greater theological importance. True, in the Islamic tradition common prayer is substantially more highly valued than individual prayer, but the Islamic prayer remains always the prayer of the individual, while at least the Catholic and Orthodox Church know prayer also as "prayer of the (whole) church" - in the sense of a collective act -, and realize it within their divine liturgies. In those traditions even the private prayer of the individual Christian has always an ecclesiastical character, because it is - in awareness of the community of the faithful - said in the same spirit (i.e. in the Holy Spirit). At the same time even the liturgical public prayer in Christianity obviously admits - with gradual differences between confessional coinages - a wider variability and liberty of contents and forms than the Islamic ritual prayer.

 

3. Praise, Adoration, Thanks, Request, Complaint

As the personal nature of human beings - as well in its body-spirit-structure as in its social dimension - is formally expressed by prayer gestures and common prayer, so the different circumstances and attitudes of human life, such as joy, gratitude, complaint, etc. find their topical expression in prayer. By this becomes clear that - as well in the Biblical-Christian as in the Islamic prayer tradition - the different forms of prayer, such as praise, adoration, thanks, request, complaint ... can be distinguished, it is true, but they can actually never be separated from each other. Usually they will rather merge into each other, which is owed in the last analysis to our view of God: God as the All-powerful, All-wise, All-kind-hearted deserves praise and thanks for its entire doings for us, particularly in difficult circumstances. Already before man dares to express its requests, God knows about them and will act - orientating itself by the salvation of this person. For any true request in prayer is asking for the salvation of the whole human being, hence it is, in the last analysis, a request for God as such, i.e. for its "communion", resp. communication. But more strongly than the Islamic the Jewish-Christian tradition knows and emphasizes God's empathy, which can go up to God's compassion with its people and with us. This is probably the reason why the aspect of complaint is more pronounced in the prayer of the Biblical tradition than in the Koran and in the Islamic tradition.

 

4. The Problem: Prayer of Supplication

A further characteristic of prayer was likewise mentioned by both sides: Prayer, particularly the prayer of supplication, is a means of (transforming) self-knowledge. People recognize their true nature before God, they interpret their lives and the world in the light of God and his will. Life is brought up before God, and thus God too is brought up. Prayer becomes so also a place of examination of one's conscience, and at the same time of transcending one's own self.

Therefore also the connection, yes, the imbedding of prayer into the responsibility for our fellow men, yes, for the entire creation, is common to both religions. A genuine prayer is neither in Christianity nor in Islam possible without the solidarity in the spirit, which becomes apparent in the intercessory prayer, and in helping the needy and distressed. Also on this (horizontal) level of relations our heart, our reason and our actions are united by prayer.

 


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The transcending of borders may therefore be taken as a further common criterion for an authentic prayer, resp. prayer life. Confession of faith, prayer and conduct of life are so internally united. Man realizes its highest destination by praying - and so the "Incarnation of Man".

 

5. 'For Us'

Thus from the outward doing as well as from the contents of Christian and Islamic prayer, aspects of the relation between God and man can be read: While they are praying human beings face their Creator and Redeemer in their double nature: they are creatures - but endowed with dignity (which originates in their likeness to God). The infinite abyss between Creator and creature is bridged by the Creator - but not lifted. Got does not want to be and to remain simply God-for-itself but God-for-us. Thus the act of praying proves to be in the present time a salvation event, and at the same time an anticipation of the hoped for final and perfect communion between man and God at the end of time.

 

Praying with Muhammad - Praying through Christ

As to prayer Muhammad plays also an important role for Muslims: Above all he is the model of the ideal worshiper and has to be imitated. Numerous handed down prayers are directly attributed to him. But in the Islamic prayer tradition Muhammad's importance goes far beyond that: According to theology and popular piety there is - with reference to places within the Koran, such as Sura 43:86, and prophetic traditions - given to Muhammad (and to some extent also to other prophets and saints) God's permission to intercede with God for the community of the faithful. In their turn Muslims make sure of Muhammad's intercession by calling down God's blessing upon him and his family.

Christians however know that the community with God has been opened for them by and in Jesus Christ - hence they are to follow him in his special relationship to God. Christian praying is therefore, explicitly or implicitly, always a triune praying: In the Holy Spirit it is directed through Jesus Christ to God the Father. God became accessible for Christians in the person of Jesus Christ, and it is his Holy Spirit who teaches us to pray and who is praying in us. This original faith- and prayer experience of the Christians is the reason for talking of God's Trinity, and not reversely. Thus already in early Christianity the prayer to Jesus Christ became church practice ... here is a clear dividing line between the two religions.

 

7. How is Community Possible?

This difference in prayer practice and -theology between Christianity and Islam makes the question of possibility and concrete form of common prayer a serious theological problem. The spectrum both of Christian and of Muslim positions and practices reaches from "inter-religious" (together spoken prayers) over "multi-religious" prayers (prayers in the presence of members of the respective other religion) up to the refusal of any form of common prayer. The large majority of Christian and Muslim theologians holds however a "multi-religious" prayer, where one prays according to the respective own tradition, for theologically answerable: Christians and Muslims acknowledge in this way that they stand together as creatures before God, but that they - with all the common ground - have also different conceptions of God and of prayer practices that serve their inner identity.

 

8. Publicly - Privately

Add to that an asymmetry resulting from the different religious and socio-cultural contexts: While the Islamic prayer has fundamentally a public and so also a proclamation character (that becomes already clear in the call of the Muezzin), Christian prayer was - at least in the West and Central European context (under the influence of Reformation, Enlightenment and secularization) - increasingly limited to the intimate private sphere, resp. to the publicity of the religious community. However the churches in Central and Western Europe - perhaps not least due to the multi-religious situation - seem to rediscover more and more the public dimension of the liturgical prayer (Church congresses, World Youth Days). But just the public presence of the religious practice challenges the secular western civil society to clarify its relationship to religion and to define borders: How much of public religious proclamation does the secular society want to bear? At this point it becomes clear that Christians and Muslims are always at least in a triangle relationship.

 

9. How to Learn to Pray Again?

Thus both religious communities stand, in the context of modern societies, also before the same or at least comparable challenges and tasks: how can people be introduced to individual and common prayer practices? Here too exists without doubt a fundamental consent that is supported by a practice lasting for centuries: Prayer cannot be taught in an abstract cognitive way. One can only set an example of it. This can be imitated then and learned by practice. But the mere imitation of handed down forms and contents will probable not be sufficient and satisfying in the long run. True, for Muslims in the western Diaspora this challenge arises - in view of the changing socialization conditions and the changing life, and thus of the world of thoughts and language - in a special way, but not only for them: How can people be enabled today to verbalize their own experiences, and creatively to arrange their individual praying? How can prayer traditions and the importance of common prayer be opened for them? How can false forms of prayer (magic understanding particularly in prayer of supplication, ritualism, performance piety etc.) be corrected? ...

 

10. Mystic Movements

A deepened occupation with the mystic movements in both religions could also be of particular interest and productive for the Christian-Islamic relationship. As hardly any other mystic Galal-ad-Din Rumi was able to word that experience of human longing for God that probably unites Christians and Muslims. Not without reason the Swedish archbishop and religion scientist Nathan Söderblom recognized in the following text from the Mathnawi {*} the Christian experience of the grace prayer, according to which it is God who is active when people are praying and who will give itself to them:

'Oh God!' someone called many nights long,
and his mouth became sweet by this song,
'True, you are calling a lot', Satan said filled with sport.
But where is the reply? 'Here I am' from God?
No, no answer comes down from the throne!
How long will you cry yet, 'O God'? - Leave him alone!'

When he, worried and with lowered head, was silent,
he saw in a dream how Chidr {**} down went
and said:
'Why then do you no longer call his name?
Which you desired - do you repent to this extreme?'
He said, 'the answer never comes: 'Here
I am.' 'Hence I am afraid he's turned me out there!'

Your call 'O God' is my call: 'I am here!'
Your pain and wail are messages from me,
and all your striving to reach me -
Is a sign that I am pulling you to me!
My grace for you is lover's pain -
Thy call 'O God!' holds hundred answers, 'Here I am!'

 

{*} Galal-ad-Din Rumi, Das Mathnawi, Ausgewählte Geschichten. Aus dem Pers. von Annemarie Schimmel, Basel 1994, 108 und 110.

{**} Chidr is a figure from the Islamic tradition and mysticism. There is no consent about his existence and identity among the Islamic scholars. Some identify him with Elijah or St George.

 

Link to 'Public Con-Spiracy for-with-of the Poor'

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