God is Greater than Anything – Christians and Muslims as Co-Pilgrims
Prof. Patrick J. Ryan writes that Muslims have taught him a lesson over and over again whenever he hears them exclaim the first words of the call to worship: Allahu akbar!
By Victor Edwin SJ
Prof. Patrick J. Ryan, a Jesuit priest and Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University (New York), lived and worked in Muslim settings in West Africa for 26 years, studying and teaching Islam and Christian-Muslim relations. In an article titled “Called to Prayer: What I Learned from Muslims About God”, published in an American magazine, he affirms that the first two words of the Islamic call to worship (adhan), Allahu Akbar, that issues five times a day from every mosque, evoke an approach to God from which he as a Catholic and a Jesuit has learned a great deal over the past five decades.
What can we learn from Ryan’s knowledge and wisdom for engaging in promoting Christian-Muslim relations?
The phrase Allahu Akbar occurs several times in the adhan. Ryan writes: ‘these two words in Arabic are usually referred to as the takbir, the magnifying of God […] The phrase is commonly translated as “God is greatest” or even (incorrectly) as “God is great”, but I prefer the translation “God is greater than anything!”
God is Greater
Calling upon his readers to enter into the linguistic nuance of the words, Ryan writes: “Akbar and takbir as words in Arabic both derive from the tri-consonantal root K-B-R, signifying greatness; in these forms they imply more than ordinary greatness, in fact the most exalted greatness, an attribute of God alone”.
The first two words of the adhan, Ryan tells, invite Muslims to proclaim “God’s unsurpassable transcendence and God’s utter differentness from anyone merely human or anything that is only created”.
Ryan writes that Muslims have taught him a lesson over and over again whenever he hears them exclaim the first words of the call to worship: Allahu akbar! The First Epistle of John, in the Bible, puts it almost as succinctly: “God is greater than our hearts” (1 Jn 3:20). Ryan indicates that this attitude of surrender will help us to grow in ‘God-consciousness’ and ‘patience’. These two virtues are a common ground for Christians and Muslims. In that common ground, they neither compromise nor confront the other. In such attitude of surrender, Christians and Muslims are called to become co-pilgrims.
Kenneth Cracknell’s in his book, Considering Dialogue writes that Christians and Muslims are fellow pilgrims to the truth that none of us have yet grasped in its immensity. I think that Ryan’s translation of “God is greater than anything” points to that immensity that Cracknell indicates.
Commenting on Cracknell, Hugh Goddard writes in his book A History of Christian Muslim Relations: “The Truth is always beyond us. Our appreciation of it is always provisional, but in seeking to further and develop that appreciation, both Christians and Muslims can bring valid insights, not least since on many issues they share common understandings. Even on those topics on which they differ, however, mutual benefit can be derived from dialogue and constructive engagement”.
Perception of Truth
The constructive engagement advances the perception of truth. Christians and Muslims therefore, he says, “along with others, are fellow pilgrims on the route towards the perception of the truth, rather than either of them being, as some Christians and Muslims seem to like to think, already proud possessors of the truth”.
As Goddard says, our differences can bring valuable insights. Insights cannot be manufactured. They emerge from the depth of knowing the other and feeling with the other. Insights help both religious believers to learn from one another, without dismissing the other as irrelevant. Mutual learning is spiritually beneficial for both groups of believers. Asserting one’s own religion as absolute is the fruit of prejudice. No religion is absolute in claiming complete comprehension of the divine mystery. Therefore, both Muslims and Christians could learn humility and cultivate intuitive perception in which a ‘learned ignorance’ will enlighten the minds of both. Thus they can learn to be co-pilgrims towards our destiny, God.
(The author teaches at Vidyajyothi, a Catholic seminary in New Delhi)