On most days, if we’re realistic, the idea of religious tolerance serves only to usher a person just inside the other’s front door. It might, in the end, provide a sort-of, kind-of knowledge, but it still leaves something more palpable to be desired in the hungry or thirsty spirit. For this reason, in Oman, Dr. AbdulRahman al-Salimi decided to re-name his academic journal.
In the modern and still modernizing Sultanate of Oman, the al-Salimi name is a venerable religious brand. Nur al-Din al-Salimi (d. 1914) was a distinguished Muslim scholar in the Ibadi tradition, the prevailing expression of Islam in Oman. The current Minister of Awqaf and Religious Affairs is His Excellency Sheikh Abdullah al-Salimi. And the minister’s nephew, AbdulRahman, a tall man with warm eyes whom I met in Muscat in January, serves as editor of the influential Al Tafahom (“Understanding”).
In his office at the Ministry, AbdulRahman explained that the journal’s former name, Al Tasamoh (“Tolerance”), did not take inter-religious dialogue or interfaith education far enough. Or close enough, from his perspective. With tolerance, he said, “There is still a distance.” With understanding—here he leaned in to pour me yet another cup of Omani coffee—we come closer.
Only two days earlier, on my journey from Frankfurt to Muscat, I had landed in Riyadh on December 31st. As the plane touched down, I remember absorbing a serene dusk from the partial vision of the plane’s windows. It was—indeed—the last evening of the year, according to the Western calendar, and the last evening this American evangelical could say: I have not come close enough to the Arab Muslim world.
This Arabian moment marked a first trip for me to the Peninsula—into the cradle of Islam, which, it is recounted, the Kings of Oman accepted peacefully in 629. With the blessing of Virginia Baptists, whose executive director is also serving a term as president of the Baptist World Alliance, I was embarking on a two-week graduate-level travel seminar through Hartford Seminary’s partnership with Al Amana Centre, a Christian ecumenical center in Muscat fostering "understanding, acceptance, trust and peace between Christian and Muslim communities in Oman, the Persian Gulf and the world."
Tolerance is, of course, an ideological flashpoint for some evangelical Christians along the cultural landscape where I work—Virginia Commonwealth University. A stunningly diverse university, with over 32,000 students representing over 100 nationalities, it is mostly true: it can be deemed an unforgivable sin to sound, or to smell, even the slightest bit intolerant. It is also true that many Baptists or evangelical variations eschew the term “tolerance” as deriving from, at best, an imposed liberalism surfacing as political correctness, or, at worst, an outright devilish scheme automatically opposing Jesus Christ himself.
While I don’t entirely share my clansmen’s trumped-up edginess about the word or ideology, I do share AbdulRahman’s emboldened pragmatism, a much-observed Ibadi characteristic. I agree with him: as it is presented and often prescribed in the multicultural milieu, tolerance lacks a real potency or sustained capacity to relieve some of the greatest human distances. For all its academic bluster and university buzz, it cannot necessarily get us on the inside—where understanding tends to arrive alongside knowledge that is most crucially coming via proximity.
On one highly memorable day in Oman, proximity begged for my attention in the most unique way. In the morning it came in the form of a guided tour of Sur Al-Lawatia, the historic walled Shia quarter in Mutrah near old Muscat; in the evening it showed itself happily at a village wedding near Samail.
In Mutrah we walked leisurely through the Shia community tucked behind Al-Rasul Al-Aadam Mosque. The somberness was striking: Shias were marking the liturgical days of mourning for Husayn’s martyrdom in 680. A large, black drape was hung over the backside of the mosque, symbolizing the cascading spiritual mood. Small sections of cloth representing individual prayers for healing were tied to a pole, which asserted itself at one intersection of the maze-like neighborhood. And the shoes of elderly women rested in the walkway outside a husayniyah, a small room unable to contain the chanted laments.
Near Samail, in contrast, the joy was irrepressible. As guests of a friend of the groom, we had been invited into someone else’s grand celebration—which turned out to be an outdoor multi-family wedding in which several different grooms were engaging the traditional religious and cultural rites. Standing in a typical village in the interior of Oman, the sunset came and went as we waited in a receiving line with approximately 200 Arab men. We shook hands with the grooms and offered our blessings in broken Arabic. We observed the proper protocol where each groom receives a set of terms from his bride (mediated by officiates). We ate with our right hands as we sat in small groups on the covered ground, encircling a platter of beef and rice. Later, we accepted the intimate hospitality of an exuberant father: fruits, halwa and coffee, out on his terrace and under the moon.
Eboo Patel, who directs the Interfaith Youth Core, persistently envisions a world where interfaith cooperation is the normative value. He calls the leadership of faith communities to move us beyond the fear, the ignorance and a plethora of other barriers. In Acts of Faith he passionately champions “a deep religious pluralism”—“neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus”—that embraces differences even as people of strong faith attempt to achieve a common life.
In Oman, it was exactly these close-up experiences-in-difference, in Mutrah and Samail, which for this particular American evangelical contributed much in the way of envisioning and achieving a common life for Muslims and Christians. Not to mention the flourishing of that common life. In A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor, Miroslav Volf urges us: "When Christians and Muslims commit themselves to practicing the dual command of love, they are not satisfying some private religious fancy. They are making possible the constructive collaboration of people of different faiths in the common public space and for the common good."
Ultimately, as Al Amana Centre's director Doug Leonard says, “Experiential and relational interfaith education is what it will take to transform people’s understanding of the other.”
In the assertive imagination of AbdulRahman: with understanding, we come closer. Anything less, well, we might as well call it tolerance from a distance.
Photo: A walkway within the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman