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President Brenneman and Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt
I WONDER sometimes if this world is destined to “go out in a blaze of glory,” as rocker Bon Jovi sings? I wonder, does the expression “nature, red in tooth and claw” describe or prescribe life’s struggle for survival of the fittest? I wonder, does the question posed by Samuel P. Huntington in the title of his essay, “Clash of Civilizations?,” about the 1,300-year-old fault line between Christianity and Islam, assume such a clash to be inevitable or preventable?
A recent trip to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates by a delegation of Goshen College supporters and board members, hosted by prominent Egyptian Muslim businessman, Moustapha Sarhank, helped to put in proper perspective some myths about the predictability and necessity of violent clashes between people of differing faith traditions.
Mr. Sarhank opened doors of conversation for us, from Sheik Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, to other significant Christian and Muslim business, political, educational and religious leaders. Common stereotypes about Muslims being extremists or the inevitability of war between people of faith were diminished by our pilgrimage. Our Dubai guide, a young Muslim man, expressed his deep fear of being killed if he came to America. His stereotypes of war-mongering Christian Americans were lessened by our visit. To hear the grand mufti of Egypt off era subtle interpretation of how the violence expressed in the Koran is historically contextualized and undermined by other peace-oriented statements of the prophet Mohammed in the Koran, reminded us of how we also believe that Jesus’ statements about “loving our enemies” puts in context and undermines some very violent passages in our Scriptures, as well.
We were humbled by the piety of Mr. Sarhank, his gracious assistant Hanan Lofti, and our Egyptian guide, Egyptologist Heba Seoudi. Five times a day they stopped to offer prayers to God, prayers of thanksgiving and petitions of forgiveness. To see Mr. Sarhank, a very busy businessman, pray so regularly and to be invited to participate in those moments of prayer was a transforming experience. At the conclusion of one prayer time, we sang the prayer hymn, “Great God the Giver of All Good,” in four-part harmony, as the muezzin’s call to prayer echoed behind us. It was a holy moment of deepest connection with our hosts. Previously, in responding to a question of mine about his prayer life, Moustapha asked back rhetorically, “How can I not stop a mere five times a day to recognize the one God who created the world and my life, who gives me forgiveness and blesses me so much? To do less is unthinkable.” For all of us who too regularly take our Christian faith, our lives, our blessings for granted, such a response of profound faith is humbling, indeed.
I deeply believe that one of the great callings of Goshen College, a calling not often undertaken by many Christian colleges and universities, is to educate our students and others that when all is said and done about those religious and cultural differences we may have, about our doctrinal incompatibilities, our justified hatreds, that still, we believe that Jesus probably meant it when he said, “Love your enemies.” Radical, simple, and, impossible, without God’s help. Yet, as a Christ-centered college, whose core values include compassionate peacemaking, servant leadership, global citizenship and passionate learning, we promise no less an education than that.
Leadership by the college and alumni helps prove, by example, that it is possible to bridge gaps between nations and denominations, that reconciles clashes between civilizations and cultures half as old as time, that promotes a way of living that is consensual, cooperative, communitarian and cross-cultural. In so living, we are helping to fulfill a different prophecy of mutual co-existence and helping to create a flourishing future for all. Survival of the fittest will remain a truism, but now, ‘the fittest’ will have become those who labor for a world at peace in which real or imagined enemies have become friends.
Dr. James E. Brenneman President of Goshen College