With Rachel Friedman
‘Why study other religions if you do not expect them to yield theological truth?’ Our professor asked this question in all seriousness, giving words to the thought at the forefront of the minds of many students in the classroom. Immediately, the students were abuzz with reactions. Their level of nervous excitement was palpable, adding heat to the already sweltering June day in Rabat. For many of the Muslim students sitting on the edges of their seats, so to speak, this was their first face-to-face confrontation with real live Christian and Jewish people. Their lifelong preparation to defend their religion bubbled forth, undermining the professor’s question rather than giving positive answers.
The location was a religion classroom at the Mohammed V University of Rabat, Morocco, and the professor was Paul Heck of Georgetown University. The students – Muslim, Christian, Jew, all graduate students in theology and religion – were embarking on a course that constituted a venture into suhba ‘ilmiyya, the Arabic term for scholarly companionship. The class was a mosaic composed of Moroccan Muslims sitting for the first time in their lives with Western-educated Jews and Christians – an eclectic group whose nationalities were American, German, Hungarian-French, South-African – counterparts in a new and experimental programme of religious study. All of the Moroccan students in the course were Sunni Muslims of various stripes: currents of Sufi, Wahhabi, and Salafi ideologies came together in the students, not always harmoniously. There was significant diversity among their brands of religious conviction, but all had enrolled in the religious studies graduate programme out of a strong religious commitment. We were part of the small group of ‘Western’ graduate students at US universities, equally diverse in our religious convictions, yet also united as children of our secular societies. We were engaged in study with the graduate students in the Rabat religious studies programme as part of an initiative called ‘The Study of Religions across Civilizations’ (SORAC). For three hours each day, we convened to study excerpts of the Gospel of Matthew, an ethical treatise by the Andalusi Jewish scholar Yaḥyā ibn Paquda, and texts by Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley. Moroccan students took the lead in giving lectures on hadith (Prophetic traditions) that included lexical explanations and interpretations of the hadith’s importance to Islamic doctrine. Heck instructed the course on Christian and Jewish texts, eloquently leading the class in Standard Arabic sometimes punctuated by pointed uses of colloquial Moroccan Arabic, and was one of the co-organisers of SORAC along with the Rabat programme’s head, Muḥammad Amīn al-Ismā‘ilī.
Morocco’s still-palpable Christian colonial history and challenge of combating Christian missionary activities made Heck’s personal relationship of trust with Moroccan university administrators, professors, and students essential to his credibility as a scholar. Against the backdrop of post-colonial society, it was important for him to reassure them that he would not proselytise in any way. Missionary activity in Morocco is no peccadillo; it is a crime punishable by law. Only shortly before we arrived in Rabat, a group of Christians alleged to be evangelisers had been expelled from Morocco. The history of French colonial and post-colonial impositions in Morocco, in which Christian missionaries played their part, echoes in the active fear of proselytisers. Heck’s goal was to create a scholarly dialogue across religious boundaries, without challenging the religious identity of any of the participants. But he knew his project would pose challenges. Whatever images the term ‘interreligious dialogue’ might bring to mind, of willing participants longing to bridge their differences and tell others about how they participated in prayer and ritual – this scene was the opposite. These Moroccan students were not interested in sharing personal stories that would lead to sympathetic responses or find common ground. There was common ground to be shared, but it became clear that the boundaries of this common ground were often imagined antithetically by the participants. Many of the Muslim students were studying religion with the intention of becoming imams, murshidat (female religious leaders), and other public religious figures. Some saw themselves as defenders of their religion and its history against mainstream urban Moroccan society, which they saw as too Westernised and too secular. Islam, for many of our Moroccan classmates, was a righteous refuge from the decay of Western culture and its permeation into Islamic life. As our course started, we got the feeling that our Muslim peers considered this course to be an opportunity to tell us their own Islamic narratives and perhaps even convince us of their truth-value. This included handing out pamphlets of da’wa, the propagating call to Islam.