Wednesday, 13 May 2009

FATHER FRANK’S RANTS - The Pope and the Muslim Smile

Rant Number 349 12 May 2009

Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage through the Holy Land. I bet he was briefed about dos and don’ts. Pitfalls to avoid, how to build bridges with other faiths, all that tripe. Well, the poor priest has a single, heartfelt piece of advice: Holy Father, you must look for that special, pure Muslim smile.

Yes, the Muslim smile. Writer Fyodor Dostoevsky knew all about that. A prisoner of conscience, he got ten years of hard labour in Siberia. In the tremendous, autobiographical Memories from the House of the Dead, the Russian intellectual confesses how he found the company of many of his brutish fellow inmates quite unbearable. Until he came across Ali. And his pure Muslim smile.

Ali was a lad from Dagestan, in the Caucasus. The youngest of three brothers. His older siblings one day had ordered him to accompany them on a raid. Meekly, without asking why, he had obeyed. The robbery and murder of a rich Armenian merchant and his escort followed. Arrested, they were flogged and sentenced to Siberia. His fierce brothers adored innocent Ali. Gradually, Dostoevsky and the boy became friends. The writer tells of Ali’s open, pure, delightful countenance. ‘His soul shone in his handsome face’, he writes. ‘His smile reflected the trust and the simplicity of youth; his great, dark eyes were infused with such sweetness, they were enough to relieve my sadness…he was at the same time modest, delicate and with a good, intelligent mind…Ali, yes, in him I beheld a being above the ordinary run of men. I consider my meeting him one of the best events of my life.’

Ali could hardly read and write Russian, so Dostoevsky set about teaching him. A copy of the New Testament served as text book. Ali learnt quickly. He took particular pleasure in reading the Sermon on the Mount, the most sublime teaching of Jesus. His face excited and flushed, Ali told his friend: ‘Issa…Jesus is a holy prophet! He speaks the language of God. It’s beautiful.’ ‘What do you like best?’ Dostoevsky asked. ‘Forgive, love, do not hurt, love your enemy…Ah, how well Jesus speaks!’

Ali shared his joyful discovery with his brothers. Excited, they held council together. ‘Smiling a smile at once grave and gracious – that pure Muslim smile, the gravity of which I love so much - they confirmed that Jesus was one of God’s Prophets.’ And they told the writer, sure to please him, of Jesus’ great miracles, such as having breathed life into birds of clay. ‘It is written in our Book.’ So Dostoevsky became the object of much help and kindness from the three Dagestanis. When they were moved on to another prison, Ali cried. Tearful, embracing his friend Ali said: ‘You have done so much for me. More even than my parents. God will reward you and I will never forget you!’

‘Where are you now, my good, my sweet, my dear Ali?’ sighed the writer many years later. The Russian and the Tatar, alas, never met again but I like to imagine that God may have reunited the two loving friends in the life beyond the grave. In an admittedly improbable Muslim-Christian Heaven. Sentimental? Absurd? Heretical? Maybe. But why put limits to God’s compassion and mercy? To God’s grace? To divine omnipotence? I’d rather be soppy and sentimental, even stray from orthodoxy a little, than restrict the Creator’s infinite bounty.

The pure, lovely, special Islamic smile. Not every single Muslim person’s smile, of course. Not every Muslim is like sweet Ali, any more than every baptised Christian acts like Jesus. Years ago I attended a meeting at London’s SOAS on ‘Fatwa, War and Peace’. I remember well the two speakers, both a’alim from Saudi Arabia. Impressive figures. Dressed in flowing white robes, their appearance conveyed both dignified elegance and scholarship. The younger Mufti was from Medina. A dark, lean fellow, with a razor-sharp beard. Quite stern looking. The older chap was Mufti Abdullah. He too wore a beard, white and well trimmed. Abdullah seemed more the authoritative of the two. His answers in Arabic to questions, through an interpreter, sounded sensible and moderate. However, what struck me the most about him was not his speech but…his smile. Say what you like, there is a lot to a smile. Some smiles are really smirks. Sardonic, small, superficial, forced, phoney, you name it. My Mufti’s smile was none of those. It was a genuine, simple, effortless, natural but lovely smile. It enchanted me. ‘Here is a truly kind man’ I thought. I cared not a jot whether the idea of a fatwa in the West conjures up the wrong picture. For all I knew, the old gentleman’s judicial rulings could be quite severe. But I felt in my bones that someone with a smile like Mufti Abdullah was fundamentally a decent, pleasant, kind human being.

But what about the other guy? The unsmiling Medina Mufti. Look, I could ask the same question about a few Christian leaders. ABC Bob Runcie’s smirk made you cringe. Ditto for York’s ‘Big Grin’ John Sentamu. And many others. So why pick on Muslims? Christians have their own grim-faced hamair. It is the genuinely smiling ones that matter.

If you wish for a Christian model, Padre Pio, the famous Italian Franciscan and stigmatist, is my favourite. He smiled a smile which radiated goodness, kindliness and true love of neighbour. His face…I’ll never forget it. The face of a man of God. And he was not at all wishy-washy on sin, believe you me. Al Hamdulillah for Padre Pio!

The pure, special Muslim smile. It is real. It exists. It goes beyond the hatred, the wars, and the violence that have marred and still mar the relations between the two great faiths. Christians must look for that smile. Must learn to see it. To value and appreciate it. To be seduced, to be enchanted by it, as that great Christian mind, Dostoevsky, did. Jesus may have smiled that way, too.

May the pilgrim Pope learn to recognise that special, holy Muslim smile. Then his pilgrimage will bear great fruit, insh’allah.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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