In an increasingly multireligious world, this is the very kind of book that is needed and timely. The 15 articles arose out of a series of meetings where Catholic monks and nuns and Shi’a Muslims engaged in dialogue.
The Monastic Interreligious Dialogue is an international organization that promotes and supports dialogue, especially dialogue at the level of religious experience and practice, between Christian monastics and adherents of other religions. For the meetings, beginning in 2003, that gave rise to this book, the Christian monks and nuns came from Africa, Europe, and North America. The Muslim participants were Iranian and British Shi’a. Authors are balanced between scholars, monks, nuns, and laity.
The book’s seven chapters are devoted to revelation, lectio divina, prayer, public prayer, witness within the community, witness for the world, and dialogue. Each chapter has two articles, one giving a Christian monastic perspective and one giving a Shi’ite perspective. (The chapter on prayer contains two Shi’ite perspectives, one on prayer and one on ritual prayer.)
Impetus for the book and some of the meetings came from a remark by Frithjof Schuon: “Why is monasticism excluded from a religion which nevertheless possesses mysticism, ascetic discipline, and a cult of saints?” He goes on to suggest that Islam raises “the possibility of a ‘monastery-society,’ if the expression is allowable; that is to say that Islam aims to carry the contemplative life into the very framework of society as a whole …” (in an article, “The Universality of Monasticism and Its Relevance in the Modern World, in Rob Baker and Gray Henry, Merton and Sufism [Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2005], appendix C).
As with most collections, some articles are stronger than others. In this case, most of the articles are very well done. I suspect there was excellent direction from the co-editors.
My one mild complaint about the book is that, except for the last chapter, entitled “Dialogue,” the collection contains too little explicit dialogue between the traditions. Christian monastic and Shi’a Islam perspectives are set side-by-side on the various topics. I found myself wanting the authors to engage with each other more directly.
Explicit dialogue could have been accomplished in at least two ways. Each author could have provided a short response to their “partner.” Or, each chapter could have included a third author giving a brief reflection on the chapter’s topic, with particular regard to the monastic and Muslim contributions. This structure, fostering explicit dialogue, would have made the book more difficult to write and edit, but the effort could have borne much additional fruit. I offer this mild criticism, however, in the context of great appreciation for the book.