Current Issue
December, 2018
Volume 44, Number 4
2 November 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Embed from Getty Images
A Yazidi man prays in Lalish, Iraq, near Kurdistan. (photo: Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Most people in the west had never heard of the Yazidis before ISIS attacked them with genocidal fury in August 2014. Thousands of Yazidi men were captured and killed. Yazidi women and young girls were sold as sex slaves in the market place of Mosul. Many Yazidis took refuge on Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq and were threatened with starvation and lack of water. The world watched in horror as entire families faced starvation and death at the hands of ISIS. (There were even accounts of desperate mothers throwing their children from the mountain to keep them from being slaughtered by the Islamic militants.) Thus, the Yazidis entered the consciousness of the West as people of great tragedy and even greater mystery.

The Yazidi religion is not well understood. It tends to be very inward looking and secretive. The five daily prayers — an echo of Islam — are not said when outsiders are present. It is an endogamous faith that allows marriage only between a Yazidi man and Yazidi woman. Anyone marrying outside the faith is automatically considered to have converted to the other religion — and is effectively excommunicated.

Scholars refer to Yazidi belief as being syncretistic — that is, one faith taking over elements of another. This is common among almost all the religions of the world to some extent. (Christians, for example, took over the Roman pagan feast of Saturnalia, “baptized” it and made it into Christmas, despite the fact that the Bible is totally silent on what time of year Jesus was born.) In the Yazidi religion we see elements of Islam (the five daily prayers), Judaism (Saturday as a day of rest and the names of the seven “angels”) and other ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia.

Similarly, their beliefs contain echoes of other faiths. Yazidis believe in one God who is the creator of all. However, their God is a remote deity that has little to do with creation. Rather there are seven “angels” who are emanations of this God; this is a characteristic found in Gnosticism, another ancient religion of the region. Of these angels, the head is Melek Ta’us or the Peacock Angel. Melek Ta’us is responsible for the world and its inhabitants. Two beliefs about Melek Ta’us have proven fateful for Yazidis. Because he is responsible for everything that happens in creation, Melek Ta’us is the source of both good and evil. Even in the earliest parts of the Bible we see a struggle as to who or what the source of evil is (see 2 Samuel 17:14 God overturns the advice of Ahitophel because God wanted “to bring evil on Absalom.”)

In addition, Yazidis have a story about God creating humanity and asking the angels to bow down to Adam. A similar story appears in the Qur’an (2:35 and elsewhere). In Yazidi faith, Melek Ta’us refused to bow; in Islam, Iblis refused to bow. For Yazidis this was a sign of Melek Ta’us’ loyalty; for Muslims Iblis becomes identified with the Shaytan, “Satan.” Because of this, ISIS considers Yazidis devil worshippers worthy of death. While ISIS offers Christians a choice between conversion, paying the jizya tax, exile or death, the choice for the Yazidis is much starker: conversion to Islam or death.

Yazidis also have the interesting belief that, while they are descended from Adam, they are not descended from Eve but through a special creation. Thus they see themselves as unrelated to those tainted beings who are descendants of Adam through Eve.

The origins of the Yazidis and even their name are not clear. While they hold the second Umayyad Caliph, Yazid I (647-683) in high regard, it is not clear what role that plays in either their practice of the faith or their name. The Sufi leader ?Adi ibn Musafir (died 1162) also plays an important role in Yazidism and his tomb not far from Mosul is an important place of pilgrimage.

Yazidis have lived for centuries in the Kurdish parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. For the most part, they were ignored and left alone by the Muslim majority. In recent times, however, there has been increasing hostility towards them. It is estimated that there are between 200,000 and one million Yazidis in the world. Many have left the Middle East for Europe, Australia and parts of North America. With the brutal attacks by ISIS, the number of Yazidi refugees has understandably increased greatly.

The Yazidis are very much a part of CNEWA’s world — and we number many of them among those we serve. CNEWA is active in northern Iraq and has a clinic in the city of Dahuk in the Iraqi Province of Dahuk. Many Yazidis make use of the clinic as they try to get their lives back together and face a future that is not only uncertain, but possibly very bleak. If it is true that Christians face the possibility of extinction in the Middle East, Yazidis face the possibility of extinction in the entire world.


Religious Minorities in the East — Introduction

25 October 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Embed from Getty Images
This image from last summer shows some of the thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority persecuted by ISIS, who live in Lalish, Iraq, near Kurdistan.
(photo: Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

With the chaos prevalent in the Middle East — and especially with the violence of ISIS against all those who are not allied with it — there is much talk about religious minorities in the Middle East. Now seems a good time to take stock of the challenges these minorities are facing — and what those challenges mean to the rest of the world, particularly the world that CNEWA serves.

In the West, the major portion of the discussion revolves around Christians and whether Christian communities which date back to apostolic times will survive in the places of their origin. The focus on the Christian minority in the Middle East is understandable. Numbering over 18 million in the region, Christians form the largest minority population in the Middle East. Christianity, including its nominal adherents, is the largest religious group in Europe and the Western Hemisphere.

However, Christians are not the only or even the oldest minority in the Middle East. The land mass going eastwards from the Mediterranean to India has been the birthplace of most of the great religions of the world. The western part was the birthplace of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Iranian-Indian subcontinent saw the birth of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism.

From the most ancient times, explorers, adventurers and merchants risked the perils of the huge Eurasian continent, bringing with them trade goods, inventions, ideas and religions. Contacts between the two areas were relatively constant and a type of cross-pollination was inevitable. Many of the large religions saw groups break off and form traditions of their own, some of which were considered acceptable, most of which were considered “heretical.”

Although relatively well known to Christians in the Middle East and to the people of CNEWA who work with them, many of these smaller religions are, for all practical purposes, unknown in the West except to scholars. Some of these religions are very limited geographically and have very few adherents in comparison with the major religions of the world. While Christianity and its continuance in the Middle East are under severe stress — and its viability there is open to question — there is no question of Christianity disappearing from the face of the earth. But that is not the case with some of region’s other minority religions. Groups such as the Yazidis are not threatened with extinction in merely the Middle East; they are faced with total extinction from the planet.

In the next several weeks, we will be looking at some of these religious minorities. Some are related loosely to Islam, such as the Alawis and the Shabak; others are related to Christianity and Middle Eastern gnostic theosophy like the Mandaeans; still others like the Yazidis have roots that antedate the present religions in the region. While many of these religions are monotheistic, i.e. believing in one God, they are not all monotheistic in the way that Judaism and Islam are. Some of them are ahl ul-kitb, “People of the Book” in Muslim dominated countries. Thus Jews, Christians and Mandaeans in Muslim countries are “protected” and enjoy some rights. They are, however, second class “citizens.” Other groups such as Yazidis, however, which are not “People of the Book,” enjoy no such protection. As a result, they often seek out remote regions in the area where they are at best ignored by the dominant religions. Often, however, they are objects of violent persecution — as was the case with the Yazidis in Sinjar, an Iraqi mountain town, which was fiercely attacked by ISIS. ISIS gave Christians the choice: convert to Islam; pay the jizya or poll tax; go into exile; or face certain death. Yazidis were given a much harsher choice: convert or be killed.

In the past, I have compared the religious and cultural situation in the Middle East to an extraordinarily beautiful and complex carpet, for which the region is justifiably famous. The carpets are woven from many colors and involve incredibly complex patterns. It is precisely the variety of the colors and the complexity of the patterns that make the carpets “magical.” With that in mind, it seems to me that for centuries the people of the Middle East formed a type of oriental carpet. Although the relations between the religions were sometimes tense and at times even violent, the carpet held together. Now in the 21st century, that carpet is quickly becoming unraveled. A synthesis which existed in some shape or form for thousands of years is now coming undone.

What are we to make of this? In the days ahead, we will look at some of the non-Christian minority religious “colors and patterns” in this “carpet.” In particular, we will explore religious minorities mostly in the area of Syria and Iraq where, for a variety of reasons, their very existence is threatened.

It is our hope that this will help us realize a fundamental truth: the world will be poorer if these ancient traditions are lost. We need to treasure the many threads binding together the Middle East and, indeed, our planet.

19 October 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

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A young woman in Bangalore, India puts the finishing touches to a rangoli, a colored powder decoration, to celebrate Diwali at her home. Diwali begins today, 19 October.
(photo: Idranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

Issues of light and darkness, evil and goodness are prevalent in all the great religions of the world. These are concerns that everyone grapples with in life — and we are reminded of this once again today, as Hindus begin the festival of Diwali, the Festival of Lights.

There are many different spellings of the word and many variations of the festival in different places in India and elsewhere. In southern India, where CNEWA works with the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches, Diwali is celebrated by our Hindu neighbors.

As is the case with some holidays in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the date of Diwali depends upon the moon. It is a five-day festival which begins with the new moon between the Hindu months of Asvin and Kartika, which translates into sometime between the middle of October and middle of November on the Gregorian calendar. This year Diwali begins on 19 October.

Diwali celebrates the victory of the god Rama. His story is found in the epic poem Ramayana, which is well over two thousand years old and contains over 240,000 verses, making it one of the longest poems in the world. In it Rama with his wife Sita and half-brother Lakshmana is exiled from his kingdom. While in exile in the forest, Rama’s wife, Sita, is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. A battle ensues, Rama is victorious and all return in glory to Ayodha, where Rama is king.

Diwali is a joyful and extravagant feast, with an emphasis on sweet foods, exchanging of gifts and decorating of houses. Since it is the festival of lights, lamps, fireworks and wonderful decorations called rangoli abound. Each area and even each family will have its own tradition of how the rangoli is designed. It is a complicated piece of art composed of colorful symbols and complicated patterns. It is often surrounded by burning lamps. In some places floating candles are launched onto lakes and rivers or colorful paper lanterns released into the sky by the thousands.

During Diwali prayer and services (pujas) are offered. Some Hindus direct special prayers to Lashsimi, who is the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and to Lord Ganesha, the elephant deity, who is the remover of obstacles.

As the world becomes smaller and religions must learn to interact with respect and peace, it was good to hear that in southern India Christians send Diwali cards and greetings to their Hindu neighbors. Even in some parts of the U.S. and Canada, Diwali is becoming a festival that is familiar to non-Hindus.

Read the Vatican’s message for Diwali 2017 here.

12 October 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Sheikh Ahmen al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the oldest Muslim university in the world, greets Pope Francis during the pontiff’s visit to Egypt in May 2017. A decade after the landmark document, “A Common Word,” efforts at improving relations between Muslims and Christians continue.
(photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

Ten years ago, on 13 October 2007 a document entitled “A Common Word” was signed and published by a group of 138 Muslim scholars. Its name was taken from the Quran 3:65 and it appeared three years before the so-called “Arab Spring,” four years before the beginning of the civil war in Syria and seven years before ISIS declared the restoration of the caliphate. Since its publication, governments have fallen in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, a war has started in Yemen and almost a half million Syrians have been killed in internal violence in the country and millions of people — Christian and Muslim — driven from their homes.

From the outset, “A Common Word” was unique. It is a letter addressed to Christians. It manifests a surprising grasp of the complexity of Christianity and its inner divisions. Using the appropriate ecclesiastical titles, the letter is addressed to the Pope and the Patriarchs of the other four ancient churches — Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. In addition, thirteen other patriarchs, seven major archbishops, including Canterbury, and the leaders of the Lutheran World Federation, World Methodist Council, Baptist World Alliance, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches and “Leaders of Christian Churches everywhere...” are addressed.

Using monotheism as a starting point, the document carefully examines the sacred writings of the Jews, Christians and Muslims to see points of convergence. The methodology used is familiar to theologians in all three traditions.

While the entire document is important, its conclusions were extraordinary — and I might say underestimated — ten years ago and are perhaps more important now than ever. Moving from the level of exegesis to application, the scholars declare:

Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.

Lest anyone think that this is merely a recognition of self-interest and survival, the document stresses the religious component of its argument in a striking way: “...we say that our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.”

What is happening here is that a large and diverse body of Islamic scholars (ulamā) are basically re-evaluating the notion of jihād. In both Muslim and non-Muslim literature jihād is seen as the constant state between the Dar ul-Salām, “the realm of peace,” where Islam and Muslims are in charge, and the Dar ul-Ḥarb, “the realm of war” where they are not.

In Islam, the only legally permitted war is jihād, i.e. extending the realm of peace, i.e. submission (islām) to the one God, to the entire world. Muslim scholars placed numerous conditions and restrictions on conducting jihād, many of which seem enlightened even in the 21st century. However, the very concept of jihād as a permanent state of at very least possible aggression seems foreign — and is understandably disturbing to many, if not all, non-Muslims.

The Muslim scholars in “A Common Word” clearly state that “no side can unilaterally win” this conflict. This is a major new direction in Muslim thinking. No longer is détente between the two “realms” an unfortunate and temporary necessity while waiting for the winds of fortune to change. It is now a required goal to be achieved. The document recognizes that not everyone agrees with this and speaks of “those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them....” The rise of jihadi groups in the last decades, especially but not exclusively ISIS, underlines the importance of this document. The letter offers the beginning of a religious solution to the problem of religious extremism which can be definitively eradicated only by religious means Using the strongest religious language possible, “A Common Word” recognizes that “our very eternal souls are also at stake” in finding a solution to violent, religious extremism.

If the document is extraordinary in its addressees, it is no less extraordinary in its signatories. Originally it was signed by 138 scholars. What might understandably be overlooked by non-Muslims is the amazing variety of the signatories. Islam is divided — sometimes bitterly — between different groups. It is extraordinary that so diverse a group of Muslims could come together at least temporarily to sign this document.

In a world where Christianity in the Middle East is struggling for its very existence, where xenophobia, racism and “Islamophobia” are raising their ugly heads, perhaps the 10th anniversary of “A Common Word” might provide an opportunity to re-envision a new type of dār ul-salām — a “realm of peace” — in which Christians, Muslims and others work together for a world of peace, justice and security.

5 October 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

This statue of St. Francis of Assisi stands outside Assisi’s basilica and shows Francis returning from the battlefield — obedient to God but a disgrace to his fellow citizens. It is emblematic of the saint’s profound commitment to non-violence in imitation of Christ. (photo: Elias D. Mallon)

On 4 October Christians around the world remember Giovanni di Bernadone — the earliest saint I know of with a last name.

But countless people know him better by his nickname, Francesco, and his home town, Assisi.

Francis of Assisi was born in 1182 and died on 3 October 1226. He is arguably the best known, most beloved and most frequently portrayed of any saint in the Catholic Church.

Francis is known and admired for many things, his love for nature being high on the list. But he also merits attention for a quality many easily overlook: he was profoundly committed to non-violence in imitation of Christ. This is more radical than it may sound. Francis lived in violent times and for a while was a knight — a warrior for his home town in the never-ending battles with the Umbrian villages surrounding Assisi. God revealed to him in a dream that he was to leave the battlefield — a disgrace for a knight — and follow a path of non-violence. A marvelous statue in front the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi portrays that pivotal event: Francis returning from the battlefield, obedient to God but in disgrace to his fellow citizens.

The world in which Francis lived was the world of the Crusades. Pope Urban II had called for the First Crusade on 17 November 1095, slightly less than ninety years before Francis was born. There were several different crusader expeditions until they came to an end in 1291. The Crusaders were a mixed lot, composed of high-minded idealists and low-minded soldiers of fortune. When Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders in 1099, there was a horrible massacre of Muslims, Jews and Eastern Christians.

The time of Francis was not a time of dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Nonetheless, some extraordinary people did some extraordinary things. Pope Gregory VII (1020-1085), for example, wrote a letter to al-Nasir, a Muslim governor in North Africa. The tone of the letter is remarkable and ends with Pope Gregory saying he “prays from (his) heart that God may receive you, after a long stay here below, into the bosom of ... Abraham.”

Another extraordinary gesture was one by Francis of Assisi himself He accompanied the soldiers of the Fifth Crusade (1213-1221) and went to Damietta in Egypt in 1219. While living in the Crusader battle camp, Francis was shocked by the un-Christian life of the Crusaders. He took it upon himself to visit Sultan Malik al-Kamil, the local governor and leader of the Muslim troops. The sultan was an open man and in times of peace had encouraged encounters between Christians and Muslims. This, however, was no time of peace. His meeting with Francis, then, was truly out of the ordinary.

Though little is known in detail about the encounter between Francis and Malik al-Kamil — and there is no first-hand report — a Google search will show that it has generated a cottage industry of books and stories. However, even stripping it down to its barest essentials, the meeting remains a high point in Catholic history. We know that Francis chose dialogue over violence and respect over hatred.

It was an act of tremendous faith and courage for Francis, the poor man of Assisi, to visit the sophisticated and cultured sultan. At least initially the sultan must have found him very odd and perhaps even a bit insane. Despite the legends, we have no idea what they talked about. However, we do know that Francis returned alive — no small accomplishment — and with gifts from the sultan.

In all its bare-boned simplicity, this act of respect and non-violence — exemplifying beautifully the Gospel teaching of loving one’s enemy — would not be repeated to Muslims or vice versa for centuries.

It was an event that clearly had a profound impact on the future saint. After meeting the sultan, Francis showed little enthusiasm for the Crusades; in fact, he spoke to the brothers of his admiration for the Muslim’s dedication to prayer. The encounter, it seems, made a lasting and positive impression on him.

Perhaps that is part of the uniqueness of Francis — a medieval man who speaks to us today in a way that is compelling and surprisingly contemporary.

28 September 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The Shrine of Hussein in Karbela, Iraq, stands above the tomb of Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib.
(photo: Tasnim News Agency [CC BY 4.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons)

Muslims will be commemorating a significant event this weekend — and it’s one that has ramifications for our world today.

On Saturday 30 September Shi’ite Muslims observe Ashura, the martyrdom of Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib. In the Muslim calendar Hussein died on the tenth (‘ašara) day of the month of Muharram in the year 61. This translates to 10 October 680 AD. The death of Hussein is a pivotal event in the history of Shi’ite Islam.

When the Prophet Muhammad died in June 632, he left behind no instructions about a successor. As the “Seal (i.e. “last”) of the Prophets,” there was no one who could succeed him. However, his role as Commander of the Faithful (amīr al-mu’minîn) — the religious and political leader of the Muslim community — required a successor.

From the very beginning, Muslims were divided about who should succeed Muhammad as leader of the faithful. One group held that Ali bin Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet, should take leadership — and that leadership should remain in the family of the prophet. This group was known as the “party/faction” (Arabic: šî‘ah, hence Shi’ite). Another group held that anyone of the prophet’s tribe could be elected to fulfill the office. This group acted immediately after the death of Muhammad to elect Abu Bakr as the first caliph. This pre-empted the candidacy of Ali.

Three caliphs followed each other in succession until the assassination of Uthman, the third caliph, in 656. At this point, Ali was elected the fourth caliph. His election was contested by the Umayyad clan, the clan of the assassinated Uthman. Mu‘awiya, of the Umayyad clan was also elected Caliph and conflict ensued. Ali was ultimately assassinated in 651 by one of his disaffected followers. Ali’s first son, Hassan, made a treaty with Mu‘awiya agreeing not to pursue his (rightful) claim the to caliphate during Mu‘awiya’s lifetime.

Hassan died before Mu‘awiyah and, for the party of Ali, the caliphate should rightfully have passed to Ali’s second son Hussein. Once again this led to conflict. Hussein had a strong following in Kufa in what is now modern Iraq and attempted to go there to be with his supporters. Yazid, the son of Mu‘awiya, intercepted Hussein and his small caravan at a place called Karbala, just north of Kufa. Hussein’s retinue consisted not just of fighters but also women and children, among whom was Hussein’s 6-month-old son.

Hussein was betrayed by the people of Kufa. Hussein and his entourage faced the much larger army of the Kufan followers of Yazid. The forces prevented Hussein’s followers from obtaining water and they suffered greatly from thirst. The forces attacked; most of Hussein’s followers — including his infant son — were killed. Lastly, Hussein himself was killed and his head taken to Damascus, the seat of Yazid.

For Shi’ite Muslims, Hussein is the martyr par excellence. His martyrdom galvanized the followers of Ali into a clear movement in opposition to the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus.

Over the centuries, Shi’ite Muslims have developed a piety of martyrdom surrounding the events at Karbala. Every year on 10 Muharram, Shi’ite Muslims stage commemorations of Hussein’s death. The ta‘ziya (literally: “consolation”) reenacts the martyrdom of Hussein and is accompanied by great mourning, loud wailing and self-flagellation. The emotional intensity of the ceremonies is extremely high; some of the mourners in an almost ecstatic state strike themselves to the point of drawing of blood.

Although strange to most Westerners, similar rituals can be found in some cultures on Good Friday. Indeed, there are some striking parallels here to Christianity. One of the unique characteristics of Shi’ite Islam is their belief in the sanctifying power of Hussein’s death. Some Shi’ite scholars would speak of redemptive suffering, a concept not acknowledged in Sunni Islam and considered heretical by Wahhabi Muslims. Nevertheless, in both his righteousness and his suffering, Hussein becomes the ideal of the Shi’ite community.

Shi’ite Muslims comprise about 15 percent of the Muslim community. As a result even people in the West familiar with Islam are likely more familiar with Sunni Muslims.

Nevertheless, Christians can easily see points of comparison and between the death of Jesus and the Shi’ite observances of Ashura — and from that, perhaps, there may even be a possibility for understanding and dialogue.

Tags: Islam

21 September 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Jews around the world mark their holiest day of the year next week, Yom Kippur. The painting above, dating from 1878, is entitled ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur’
by Maurycy Gottleib. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Our Jewish friends and neighbors are marking Rosh Hashanah today, but another great holy day comes just next week.

Starting on Friday evening, 29 September, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. In the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews take stock of their spiritual and moral lives and begin the process of asking God for forgiveness.

What does this entail?

The ritual for the duties of the High Priest (hakkohen haggadôl) for the Day of Atonement is laid out in detail in chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus. On the Day of Atonement the high priest is to purify himself and the people through animal sacrifices and ablutions. On the Day of Atonement the high priests enters into the Holy of Holies in the Temple and intercedes for the people asking God for forgiveness. It the chapter there is instruction about the Scape Goat. A goat is chosen and “Aaron must lay his hands on its head and confess all the faults of the Sons of Israel, all their transgressions and sins, and lay them to its charge. Having thus laid them on the goat’s head, he shall send it into the desert…and the goat will bear all their faults away with it into a desert place.” (Leviticus 16:21-22).

For modern Jews, the Day of Atonement is a day of prayer and fasting. The number of services in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement is five instead of the normal three. Synagogue attendance is usually very high on this day. Jewish tradition suggests a festive meal before sundown on the day before Yom Kippur. Since the day for Jews begins and ends at sunset, from the beginning of the Day of Atonement Jews begin a period of abstinence: no eating and drinking, no bathing, no using perfume or make up and no sexual activity.

At the end of the services for Yom Kippur comes a prayer for the High Priest. Jews recall the Temple of Jerusalem, the first of which was destroyed in 587 BC and the second of which was destroyed in 70 AD. Even in the absence of a temple, Jews throughout the world fast and pray for God’s forgiveness and for the same purification which was once achieved through the ministry of the High Priest in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem.

More than just another holy day, the Day of Atonement is a day for profound prayer and reflection — a time for taking stock. It is the day when Jews reflect on their lives, their commitment to God and the Covenant and, in seeking forgiveness from God, renew that covenant for the year to come.

14 September 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

In this video from 2010, the shofar, or ram's horn, is blown in Jerusalem for Rosh Hashanah.
(video: Torah Channel/YouTube)

Over the next few weeks, our Jewish friends and neighbors will be marking some of the most important days on their calendar. These holidays have deep, complicated Biblical roots — and help us understand our common heritage.

On Saturday 30 September Jews throughout the world welcome in the year 5777. Rosh Hashanah, Hebrew for “the head/beginning of the year,” issues in the “Days of Awe,” the “High Holidays.”

In Exodus 12, God gives Moses the instructions for observing the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In verse 2, God commands Moses, “This month is to be the first of all others for you, the first month of your year....” Yet we know that Passover takes place on the full moon of the month of Nisan, which is in the spring. However, in Leviticus 23 we note that there is an unnamed “great day of rest (shabatōn)” which takes place on the first day of the seventh month, which is Tishri. This day is sacred and is characterized by remembrance (zikrōn), a blast (trû ’ah) — presumably of the shofar — and a sacred assembly (miqrā’ qodeš).

In contemporary Judaism all of these are connected with Rosh Hashanah.

More significantly, Leviticus prescribes a further holiday. “The tenth day of the seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement (yôm hakkippurîm).” Clearly the unnamed holiday in Leviticus 23:24, ten days before the Day of the Atonement, is the Rosh Hashanah celebrated by Jews today. In the post exilic (586 BC) book of the prophet Ezekiel, the prophet speaks of “...the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month” (Ezekiel 40:1), which most scholars hold to be month of Tishri (September-October).

According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah is calculated from the creation of the world. On this day, tradition has it that all creation passes by God who determines its fate for the coming year. It is the day when God reasserts his sovereignty over the world. As with Christians and Muslims, the day starts not at midnight, but sunset. For Jews, it is a day of celebrating with special foods — with an emphasis on sweets.

It is also a day of prayer and visiting the synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah one of the most important ceremonies — as one would expect from Leviticus 23:24 — is the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn. It is sounded on the two mornings of Rosh Hashanah (unless one is the Sabbath, as it is this year). The shofar is blown 30 times after the readings from the Bible during the morning worship service. It may be blown up to 70 more times during the day. There are three different “notes” to the shofar each with its own significance. The blast of the shofar is reminiscent of the coronation of the king and is also connected with Abraham’s sacrifice on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22).

This helps lead up to the next big holiday after Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur. The days between these two are the most sacred for Jews around the world. Rosh Hashanah, as is to be expected, is a joyful celebration — while, as we shall see next week, Yom Kippur is a solemn day of fast and penance. While it is perfectly good to wish Jewish friends, neighbors and colleagues Hashanah tova, “Good/Happy New Year,” it is not appropriate to wish them a happy Yom Kippur.

7 September 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Displaced Iraqis flee their homes in January as Iraqi forces battle with ISIS militants near Mosul, Iraq. (photo: CNS/Khalid al Mousily, Reuters)

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS; or dā’iš from its Arabic name) came forcefully to the attention of the world on 29 June 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi introduced himself as the new caliph of Islam. This followed a series of military victories which gave ISIS control over several Iraqi cities; on 10 June 2014, it seized Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. It was not long before ISIS controlled much of northern Syria and large sections of Iraq.

Where did ISIS originate? How did it begin? There are many differing theories. While some consider it a purely political movement with a religious veneer, others see it as a purely religious movement with political goals. While I personally believe the neither position is correct, I think it is helpful to look at some of the ideologies and theological underpinnings which helped bring it about, since it casts such a long shadow over so much of the world CNEWA serves.

Two concepts are crucial to understand ISIS: jihād and takfīr. Jihād is a complex concept but involves the struggle (Arabic jahada) to bring the entire world to submission to God and to God’s rule. Those parts of the world that have submitted form the dār ul-salām, “the House/Realm of Peace” and those which have not form the dār ul-ḥarb, “the House/Realm of war.” Classical Islam saw itself at least potentially in a state of permanent conflict with the Realm of War. Although distinctions were drawn between the “greater jihād,” which was similar to asceticism in Christianity, i.e. the struggle to overcome one’s baser tendencies, and the “lesser jihād,” it was clearly the lesser or military jihād that has continued to be of concern to the non-Muslim world.

Takfīr, on the other hand, is the declaration that someone is a kāfir, “an infidel, non-believer, apostate” and, hence, deserving of death and damnation. Very soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, Muslims struggled with what rendered someone a non-believer. This question became acute when it dealt with declaring other Muslims to be infidels/apostates. The question arose over whether Ali, the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the prophet, was responsible for the assassination of Uthman, the third Caliph, and hence and infidel/apostate, or whether Uthman was deserving of death and hence an apostate.

One group, the Kharijites, was very clear on this: everyone who didn’t agree with them was an infidel and apostate. Being an infidel made one the object of jihād, while being an apostate made one worthy of death. The Murji’ites (from Arabic ’irjā’ “to put off {judgement}”), on the other hand, held that judgment should be left to God. Although this was in the context of very specific historical circumstances, the question remained as to what, if anything (other than outright rejection of Islam) could render a Muslim an infidel. With a great deal of oversimplification, the question was: could an external act alone render a Muslim an infidel and apostate or did there have to be a concomitant internal intention?

Taqī al-Dīn ibn Taymīya (1263-1393), a major Muslim thinker, held the opinion that an external act can render a Muslim an apostate. But this was not the predominant Muslim opinion at the time.

With the emergence in the 18th century of what is called the Wahhabi movement (in in what would become Saudi Arabia), ibn Taymīya’s thought took on a new prominence. In the 20th century Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), after studying and traveling developed an extremely negative stance towards the West. This resulted in him judging very harshly those Muslim societies which he saw as abandoning Islam for Western values. He deemed these Muslim countries to be in a state of jāhilīyya, which means “foolishness” but is also used to refer to the time before the arrival of Muhammad. Relying on an idiosyncratic interpretation of Qur’an 5:44, Qutb came to the conclusion that all Muslim nations which do not “govern by what has been revealed by God” are infidels/apostates.

Although Qutb was not well received in Saudi Arabia — because he did not use classical, Islamic sources — some of his ideas found a home in the kingdom. Muslim thinkers over the centuries were extremely reticent to apply the concept of takfīr — fully aware of the forces it could unleash. But ISIS has not shown any reticence at all: it has been unusually careful to provide religious justification for its atrocities, which are more often directed against Muslims than non-Muslims.

While there are indications ISIS has been at least driven from the areas of Syria and Iraq it conquered, it is important to realize that its roots run very deep. It did not begin overnight — and it will not end overnight, either.

Military solutions are not enough. The ultimate solution must be religious.

31 August 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, celebrated this year on 1 September, comes at the end of the Hajj and commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. (photo: Abraham’s sacrifice, from a fresco in Bulgaria/Wikimedia Commons)

This year, Friday 1 September marks the Muslim feast of Eid ul-Aḍḥā, the Feast of Sacrifice, one of the most significant feasts in the Muslim calendar. It comes at the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which Muslims are obliged to make at least once in their lives during the Month of the Hajj.

To understand its significance, it helps to understand the story of Abraham and his two sons.

Muslims trace their religious lineage back to the patriarch Abraham, as do Jews and Christians, though in different ways. For Jews, Muslims and Christians, Abraham had two sons. Ishmael, Abraham’s first born, was the son of Hagar, Sarah’s servant. Sarah was childless, so Abraham, following the customs of the time, had a son through Hagar to carry on the line. Later, when Sarah miraculously conceived and gave birth to Isaac, the Bible sees Isaac as the main heir of Abraham and, therefore, of God’s promise (Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-21). After the birth of her own son, Sarah convinced Abraham to send away Hagar and their son Ishmael. In Genesis 22 there is the familiar story of Abraham expressing willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son Isaac; the Lord intervenes and provides, instead, a ram (Genesis 22:13).

For Muslims, Ishmael — not Isaac — is the child of the promise. The Bible and the Quran differ on the story. If in the Bible Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, the account in the Quran 37:103 ff. presents Ishmael as the intended sacrifice. Both the Bible and the Qur’an agree that Ishmael was sent away, but they differ greatly in the details. In the Muslim telling, Abraham and Ishmael traveled to Mecca and set up the House of God there.

Much of the ritual of the Hajj revolves around Abraham and Ishmael’s time in Mecca. At the end of the Hajj, commemorating the “sacrifice” of Ishmael, Muslims recall that sacrifice by slaughtering (or having someone slaughter) a sheep or some other acceptable animal and giving the meat to the poor.

Interestingly, there are similarities between the two major Muslim holy days, the Feast of Sacrifice and the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast (of Ramadan), and two major Christian holy days, Christmas and Easter.

For Muslims, the Feast of Sacrifice is more important theologically — as Easter is theologically more important for Christians. However, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast for Muslims and Christmas for Christians have somehow captured the hearts and imaginations of believers. There are many more popular traditions around the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast than of the Feast of Sacrifice. Greetings, visits and family events are often closely related to the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast. Nevertheless, theologically, if not emotionally, the Feast of Sacrifice remains, al-‘eid al-akbar, “the greater feast.”

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