//How can an academic education contribute to a better live together and to an interfaith dialogue among different religions and denominations
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How can an academic education contribute to a better live together and to an interfaith dialogue among different religions and denominations

كيف يمكن للتكوين الأكاديمي أن يساهم في تعزيز الحوار والعيش المشترك بين الديانات والطوائف المختلفة؟

دراسة حالة كلية مقارنة الأديان والأنسنة بأنفرس في بلجيكا أنموذجا

د. كريس فونك

عميد  كلية مقارنة الأديان والأنسنة بأنفرس  ببلجيكا

How can an academic education  contribute to a better live together and to an interfaith dialogue  among  different religions and denominations

FVG ( Faculty for comparative study of religions ad humanism ) in Antwerp  as case study

Historians[1] know when  speaking about Islam and it’s scriptures in North West Europe in the Sixteenth century to turn to Flemish-Belgium. In particular to Antwerp which in that period would be called the Manhatten of the world: business flourished. Scholars from all over Europe settled in this town.

From Lille (French-Flanders) Franciscus I Raphelengius (1539-1597) who studied in Paris  Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Chaldean, Syriac, Persian, Ethiopian, and Arabic became corrector at the printing house of Christophe Plantin in down town Antwerp. His master and friend, Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609) had said: “To learn Hebrew you need the Bible and to learn Arabic you need the Quran”.

When trouble started in Antwerp between  Catholic Christians and  Protestant Christians  (the Reformation 1517) Raphelengius had decided to  become Protestant and  left for Leiden in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands he would become the first professor on Middle Eastern languages. Raphelengius disigned his own types for the Arabic language but mentioned taken his model from the Typograhia Medicea in Rome. In doing so Leiden became the first place after Rome where Arabic could be printed.

History tells us that especially  in the Protestant countries (Bible reading Calvinists and Lutherans)  the study of Arabic  and  the reading of the Quran was more obvious than in  “Latin” Europe[2].

While Arabic studies continued in Northern Europe, and certainly in academic circles as Paris and London, little of nothing is know  of such studies in the Roman Catholic South.  

Fact is few or no Muslims lived in Northern regions. Those who were Muslim (business men) came and left.

Only in 1829, one year before the independence of Belgium in 1830 , a  Consul of Turkey mentioned some thousand ( 5400 ) Muslims  had settled in  this region.  

It would take centuries before an active interest in Islam  was observed in Belgium. Only in 2006 Ghent University started with a department of Islamic Sciences[3]. Some High Schools and universities  have right now  Arabic language  in their curriculum. When Islam was recognized in 1974 things changed. Many things happened in the 60ies and the 70ies.   For Roman Catholic Christians also the Bible – the Vulgate – which before was only to be read in Latin since The Council of Trent in 1564  –   became a book to be read in the local language (mother tongue).

Bible translators – within the Church of Rome – are called reformers: some main translators are John Wycliffe (1336-1384) who did translations even before the “official reformation in 1517”!  We may not forget Martin Luther (1510-1581). Many others followed.  

Of course the original text remains the most objective. But the Bible, much  older than the Quran,  remains  a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. Rare are possible original texts.

When the Faculty for Comparative Study  Religions (FVG) was founded and recognized by Royal Decree in 1980 professors from the Ghent University advised students to be enrolled at the FVG. Reason is simple.  In the beginning  FVG insists that religions should be taught  by scholars who themselves belong to the religion they are teaching and not just teach a faith what books have to offer.

In that way we, both scholars and students,  have seen in the past years the richness of the different faiths. When  a Muslim scholar (with a PhD)  was not available in the country, a local company assisted in inviting a professor from an other country, for example an Flemish airline company paid the trip both ways for a Muslim scholar from Birmingham, UK to Antwerp. Other scholars came from Germany and France. Many a time courses were done in cooperation with a University  (the Antwerp University UA – and the Free University of Brussels – VUB).  In the academic year 2020/2021   the FVG Will celebrate its 40th anniversary and beside the many academics and universities from Belgium and abroad  we will invite and  be honored with the opening speech of the  king Filip and  representatives of  different Belgian governments and politicians.

Besides the FVG signed bilateral agreements with Islamic Universities and Associations[4] . I myself visited the University of Jordan, the Université Cadi Ayad and lectured at the Ferdowsi University in Mashhad. Scholars from these universities in return visited the FVG. In the 80ies an agreement was signed with the Union  of Arab Historians in Baghdad. All these agreements and academic exchanges contributed to a positive image about the Islam and the Muslim world.

So far the FVG stands for truly academic education on the phenomenon of religion in its ways and traditions, and try to foster a pluralistic view of all religions and convictions  in a broader spectrum.

We have experienced – and may-be thanks to the secular society – an answer to the fact, a fact know in every culture and religion, that respect results in tolerance. Certainly tolerance has many insights. Numerous are the reflections about tolerance. I just name three:

  1. Tolerance as the consensus of accepting a person with his or her shortages and rudeness.
  2. Tolerance of opportunism: some groups which claim tolerance for themselves but can not (always) accept it from others.
  3. Tolerance of indifference: persons who do not “care” what the other one says or does as long he or she is actually not confronted with it.

There are at least three motives in order to be tolerant which can be put into practice:

  1. A person or a group should not use any compulsion on a person or a group which is different. He leaves him or her completely free in a matter to other wants to express by means of words. To stop – or to try to stop –  and to inter fear the other the other one in his or her conviction may look as self denying. It be so! But it is and remains an act of mental richness. He should even try to assist the other in his mission, knowing that that mission is introvert.
  1. You leave the other free but you try to deal with him. You care about him and try to persuade him to your own philosophy which you presume is better. You do this  in an honest and reasonable way and you use arguments. But you are no fanatic. This “method” of tolerance is profounder than the 1st one in which you actually do not care about the mission. Here you are engaged. You care about him. You love him. You want him to be on your side. You do this in a careful manner which we call parliamentary democracy. Much is based on “trust”. The other one is not neglected neither left to his own capacities. The power of reasonable arguments is limited but here – as many times – we deal with deep convictions, and convictions are important in life.

The person himself and his conviction are not to be separated (a person doe not only belong for example to the Roman Catholic Church – he also IS a Roman Catholic, or a Humanist, or a Pacifist…

  1. You not only keep your own conviction but you also listen. You want to know how your partner has reason to believe otherwise. Your conviction is based on “willingness” and not on “argument”. This willingness is an open will to listen and to absorb if necessary. You are listening and you hear an other voice from an other culture, an other experience. If you receive answer(s) to your own subjective-realistic needs, you may want to learn. Besides you love to learn. You accept him… and his world view. This form of tolerance is based on the concept to better and to add to your own conviction.
  1. You do dialogue. You do this nit only to know about the other but you are open minded in order to accept his possessions of his truth. This dialogue was started to know him better. An open dialogue. No discussion. You know and you may realize and experience a truth. Some may call this conversion. But it is your philosophy that is ready to accept. This points out that indeed no church or group keeps the plain truth. Monopoly of the truth?! I was Albert Schweitzer (1965) who tried to give answers about religions and truths, saying: Buddhism stands for ‘respect for life’, Judaism stands for ‘righteousness’, , Christianity stands for ‘love’, Hinduism stands for ‘purity’, Taoism stads for ‘do not influence’, Existentialism ’to chose’, Shinto stands for ‘tradition’, Zen stands for ‘actualization’, Humanism stands for ‘humanity’, and Islam stands for ‘submission.’

Certainly there are religions and movements who consider themselves as infallible. An important part of Europe is Roman Catholic (RC). The RC church has put in her creed the infallibility of its head, the Pope (Bishop of Rome) and outside her there is no salvation (Ecclesiam nulla salus).

When the question of truth is being discussed Protestant churches, or churches of the Reformation, will not refer to their own church but will point to Jesus Christ when He said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light” in John 14:6. And leave the personal view for what it is.

The acts of tolerance between churches and groups in the past but also until this day – even so politically: the American Declaration of Independence, and the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, the today’s parlementary democracy, can be seen as a ‘sign’ on the way to a completion yet to come. Many of these acts are not “in religiosis”. Also Marxism and other ‘systems’ have had their heretics (L. Trotsky – 1940).

Tolerance. An easy saying but just impossible to apply. Be honest – Can Men and women accept each other and vis-à-versa. Can white people tolerate black people and vis-à-versa. Can hetero sexual tolerate homo sexual and vis-à-versa. Can believers tolerate one another and vis-à-versa. Can tolerate people accept non tolerate people and vis-à-versa…

Tolerance means Dialogue

Dialogue has always existed and most of the time in a negative way. When reading the Bible (Genesis 4) I already see two brothers – Cain and Abel – who do certainly had no dialogue and the result was murder. How do we learn. Dialogue  in the Quran is one of the most widespread and oft-repeated words when he commends the Muslims to be in relation with the other. Therefore dialogue “ Hiwaar “  means in Arabic , to exchange speech, and to talk in a balanced manner  , to discuss without that the one seeks to control the other , involving, address and response.

Dialogue is a process and starts from childhood “mother’s love”. Love is from the heart. Not of the mind5. Love is the result of respect. Respect is not always easy, especially if people disagree on important topics as religion and culture. Religion and culture are synonyms. The so called monotheistic religions were all founded in desert areas and it is obvious people dress in accordance with the environment. About the Prospects and Promises of Dialogue I which to quote Dr. Mustafa Gökçek5 “Dialogue has been caning place as long as the human history. Every generation of human beings, as they are born into and they grow up in small communities, need to establish dialogue to learn more about others in the world. It is the way societies are designed. Small communities develop in faraway areas and carry distinct linguistic, cultural, and ethnic traits. The Quranic verse 49/13  refers to this fact and reveals the divine wisdom behind diversity: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may  know one another.” Thus there will always be diversity within humanity and therefore the need for dialogue will never cease to exist. There are various ways to acquire knowledge about another group. Especially at the age of globalization when technology has brought an abundance of knowledge to the  service of humanity, the main challenge is not to access knowledge but to identify the best method to access knowledge. The media, with its vast print and visual options, provide many opportunities to learn about others. When it comes to learning about other groups of people, however, the most effective means to gain knowledge is direct contact.  Participant observation within a community over an extended amount of time is the ultimate and most fruitful way to learn about the other culture, nation, ethnic or religious community. In order to learn about a specific group of people, their religion and culture one would need to learn their language, visit them and stay with them for an extended period of time. Since this method requires many logistic arrangements (time, funds, linguistic skills, gaining access and trust, etc.) it is not available to the majority of people. Through dialogue we not only learn about another group, but we also gain first-hand knowledge about them and ward off stereotypes and biases that cause enmity and much destruction… We only hate another person or community when we do not know enough about them.  Especially lack of direct contact seriously increases the potential for hatred  and stereotype. Survey’s reveal that people who know Muslim personally are significantly less biased against Muslims or Islam.Especially  following the September 11 events, an increasing mistrust grew towards Muslims, as a result of active propagation and Islamophobia and the negative role of the media.

A personal connection to a Muslim, even if it is a simple acquaintance makes a significant difference in the non-Muslims’ perception of threat from Islam as a religion and Muslims as a community. Personal connection helps to distinguish the marginal more correctly from the mainstream… Quite often people are afraid of dialogue. It may stem out of the stereotypes about the other or weak self-identification. However, dialogue almost  always increases self-awareness of the person. Getting in touch with the other helps us to understand where we stand… We get to learn more about our own identity when we face the challenge of understanding a different identity. Dialogue leads its practitioners to search for answers about themselves such that their identity gets stronger with research rather than merely depending on imitation of ancestors. Therefore fear from dialogue is baseless and dialogue only benefits those who engage in it.

The Role of FVG AND its objectives

Former President Prof. em. dr. Jeremy Rosen:

“The FVG is the only institution in Belgium, and according to the late Rector of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Dr. Jan Sperna Weiland, maybe even in Europe7, where one can study all the great religions and philosophies on a scientific and pluralistic basis: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Baha’I, African-American religions, Humanism and all their different sects and movements.

In today’s world, religion and culture are in constant contact. The FVG aims to introduce students to the world of religions and their ideas, taught by people who are committed to their own religions, but without any attempt to proselytize.

That’s FVG’s  definition of comparative study of religions. We encourage students to actively participate in comparative study themselves, by choosing courses that offer a range of different religious paradigms. That is also one of the best and most efficient  methods to respond to the upcoming radicalization of the Muslim youth  in Belgium and Europe.

As an independent, pluralistic institution, we do not belong to any movement, ideology or philosophy. Because of this act bilateral agreements have been signed with other religious motivated Universities as The University of Jordan, The Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran and the Department of Sociology of the University of Marrakesh etc….

Our aim is to encourage the students to get to know the other, in order to, better understand and put into perspective their own values and lifestyles.

Apart from being an educational and religious center for comparative religion, the FVG also aims to be a forum for effective inter-religious encounter”.

We should not forget that these days religions (all of them) are confronted with secularism. And the integration of the many Muslims challenges Europe in this never ending debate.  

It’s important to stress the today’s decisions of the government. Recently the government declared Subsidies for Culture should only be guaranteed for projects  launched by autochthon or settled immigrants  The Flemish government without doubt will also put this into practice for the recognized religions or world views. Cooperation ONLY will be the focus.

A bilateral agreement is signed with the University of Jordan. The Deutsche Fernsehnachrichten (SDF) interviews our students. At Christmas Eve 1996 these interviews are broadcast.

In the past dr. Arkoun (France) delivers a lecture and is interviewed by the media.

A bilateral agreement is signed with the Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran. Signed by Dr. Hojatol Islam AbdolkarimDr. Abdollahi Nejad and our Chairman Rabbi Dr. Jeremy Rosen. In 2000 three scholars from Mashhad vit the FVG. Besides students also present are Dr. J. KnappertDr. A. Alsuleiman and Dr. R. El. HassanProf. dr. F. Gharaei publishes articles on comparative religion in Acta Comparanda.

A visit of Dr. J. Van Ess (Germany). In the meantime Dr. David Thomas, reader in Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham is happy to announce that the University will complete matters should it not go well with the FVG.

Students pay a visit to the Ahmadiyya mosque in Merksem-Antwerp.

In 2011 – Opening of the Exhibition at the FVG: Religious Tolerance – Islam in the Sultanate of Oman. In 2013 the rector delivers a speech at the Commission General for Refugees ans Stateless Persons (CGRS-Belgium) on “Reflections on Islamic scholars vis-à-vis Iranian Refugees”.

The Rector attend and delivers a speech at the Festival Twiza in Tanger, Marocco.

The Rector is delegate “Dialogue and its role in defending Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) Conference, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ministry of Higher Education – al-imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamique University – Riyadh.

The Rector receives in Muscat, Oman, an award as a token of friendship. He becomes partner of baraza.ngo

In 2016 a bilateral agreement is signed with the Université Cadi Ayyad in Marocco.  Dr. Brahim Laytouss  (Ghent) delivers the Academich oration at the official opening of the Academic year 2016-2017. Dr. Br. Laytouss joins the FVG, both as professor and member of the Daily Board.

The testimony from one of our muslim students confirms  the added value of the academic approach in preventing  extremism and how these insights can promote the living together.  As  example in one of those speeches of these students  we read the following  :

I also with heart and soul thank all my dear teachers who have opened my horizons more widely, have allowed me to discover other aspects of the truth and have prevented the hostile perception and prejudices about other believers or non-believers with all their expertise and dedication.

When I turned as a student to the FVG for the first time very early in 1997, after having to face serious socio-economic obstacles in Antwerp as a foreign student and citizen, and because of this I had to stop my studies as a PhD student at the formerly called RUCA in economic sciences. At that time I had not been able to offer the following thesis: ‘la propriété privée est elle réhabilitée après le declin du Marxisme?’ or ‘Is private property rehabilitated after the defeat of Marxism?’. I came here with a developed vision where man, every person, as a person, is central regardless of his origin, religion, political, cultural or ideological preferences. Man as such is my occupation and his happiness is the goal of my existential movement. In first instance, the concept of God however, in my view, comes second, because this is the person who recognizes or denies God. Man here is subject while God is the object!

And as by chance, I stepped into the right place, although I also had to stop my studies at the FVG for the same reasons. But one must persist in his existence, as Spinoza says. I have been able to fight against time and despair to improve my material condition. In the meantime I have completed other studies (Master in Islamic studies from ICIS in London via distance learning), the Dutch language, the certificate of pedagogical competence or the G.P.B. I have also managed to legally regularize my permanent residence permit, to acquire the Belgian nationality, to become an Islamic teacher in the SO, to become an Arabic teacher in a number of cvo’s and to become an Islam teacher in a starting Islam faculty in Ghent (IFEG), and of course to found a family. All this to return later to the right place in 2011, namely the FVG.
I have discovered in this human faculty that my faith is not an obstacle to getting to know another faith with all openness, respect for each other’s individuality, friendship and even love. That is what the FVG really offers for the students.

Specifically and broadly, I have been able to learn many wise manners and valuable information at the FVG, I who come from a culture that says: The Muslim must find out the wisdom and appropriate it wherever its origin may be, and also: “Acquire knowledge from the cradle to the grave“.

With such teachings I could immediately recognize certain parallels in the Islamic way of thinking.
By way of example in this short specification, they have became acquainted with:

  • the beautiful concept of “Ahimsa” or the absolute nonviolent philosophy of Jainism as an exemplary and general application of “Assalâm al-motlaq” or the absolute peace in our philosophy, because the absolute is God, God is peace itself and the pursuit of the Muslim is to achieve peace on earth and also to return to “dâr as-salâm” or the house of peace, namely Paradise and of course the final movement of man is to God, as the Quran mentions.
  • the Nirvana and the eightfold path to the perfection of Buddhism, as another way of talking about the concept of “Al-kashf wattadjallie al-ilâhie” or the lifting of material curtains so that the soul embraces the truth and comes into contact with the divine, in the context of the Islamic Al’irfân or the knowledge of God or Sufism. About the concepts of “at-tachliyah” or the removal of the vices and “At-ta7hliyah” or the acquisition of the virtues in addition to the context of Islamic ethics.
  • the Sufi parable of the elephant and the blind with its relativity message that is not far from the problem of conception and its relation to the mind as it is dealt with in Islamic philosophy. In short, it is said about it that there is a difference between reasoning and conception. Reasoning is the pure function of the mind, therefore abstracting is possible as well as generalizing, inducing and deducing, etc. But the absolute imagination, independent of the already existing things, is impossible. We always get images of an unknown object compared – so relatively – with something that we have already experienced in our lives. For example, if someone is born blind, he can never imagine the things we experience with our vision. If at some point he would get his sight back with which he would only see one thing (suppose it is a radio) and then he would be blind again. This person will never be able to appropriate the image of another thing that he has not seen (eg: a TV). And if he did try to get that image, he would just have a relative image depending on that single thing already seen, namely the radio in our example. The mind recognizes this fact, which is why it is normal not to discover the true image of gravity, for example, after its existence was scientifically proven at the time of a Newton or an Einstein. For the same reason the mind is incapable of imagining the absolute images of the extremely distant components of the universe or those of the invisible world, let alone those of God.
  • Biblical criticism as the opposite of the “hadith science” and “ossôl al-fiqh” or the foundations of Islamic jurisprudence.
  • the rationalistic and scientific methodology of the philosophy of science that is totally consistent with Islamic rationalism.
  • Even Sri Shankara’s “Advaita Vedānta” in Hindu philosophy where only Brahman is reality, while creation (jagat) and universe (jagatbimba) are false or illusory, is more or less comparable to “Assalat al-vodjoed wa I3tibariyyat al-mahiyyah” or the originality of existence and the relativity of the essence in the transcendent philosophy of the great Islamic philosopher Sadreddin As-shierâzi or Mollasadra, and the like.

[1]   Hamilton, Alastair: page XCIV. Arabic Studies in the Netherlands in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth CenturiesPhilologia Arabica. Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp 1986.

[2]  Waardenburg, Jacques (red.): Islam. Norm, Ideaal en Werkelijkheid. Het Wereldvenster. Weesp. The Netherlands 1984.

[4] 4) http://www.antwerpfvg.org/over-fvg-antwerpen/bilaterale-akkoorden.html

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