People of the Murid and Mennonite faiths gathered at the Islamic Center of Taverny, west of Paris, France, for a first-of-its-kind encounter Nov. 25. The event was the fruit of three years of planning by Murid and Mennonite leaders after many years of relationship-building between the two peace-seeking faith traditions.
Murids trace their history to 1883, when Shaykh Amadu Bamba Mbakke (Amadu Bamba) founded the Muridiyya, a renewal movement of Islam with a Sufi tendency, in Senegal. It has spread throughout the world.
In addition to following the five pillars of Islam — declaration of faith, prayer, giving to the poor, fasting and pilgrimage — Murids are committed to living in peace. They follow the example of their founder, whose childhood experience with violent jihad (struggle) turned him toward nonviolence.
“While others bear weapons to be feared, my sole ‘arms’ are knowledge and worship. The true warrior in God’s path is not he who kills his enemies, but he who combats his ego to achieve spiritual perfection,” Bamba wrote in a 1903 poem, addressed to Christians, “O ye People of the Trinity.”
According to Jonathan Bornman, one of the organizers of the Murid- Mennonite encounter, Bamba was also influenced by the ancient Suwarian pacifist traditions of West Africa.
Bornman previously worked in Senegal through Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor of Mennonite Mission Network, and now leads the Christian-Muslim Relations Team of Eastern Mennonite Missions, affiliated with LMC, the Lancaster, Pa.-based Anabaptist conference.
Participants in the Murid-Mennonite encounter came from seven countries: France, Italy, Morocco, Senegal, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Three MMN scholars and members of the local Murid community and the French Mennonite Church were present.
The event brought together peacemakers from the two religions so that, as neighbors, they could take the first step in overcoming global animosity between Muslims and Christians.
“We believe that both [Murids and Mennonites] have a lot in common and that their peacemaking traditions have much to contribute to the societies in which they find themselves,” said Matthew Krabill, one of the organizers. Krabill and his wife, Toni, serve with MMN and represented the Paris Mennonite Center at the gathering.
Bornman had a dream about this kind of a Murid-Mennonite encounter three years ago, when animosity and violence between Muslims and Christians in France made global news. He shared his vision with Krabill, and they laid the groundwork for the meeting.
Bornman and Krabill named some of the commonalities between Murids and Mennonites. Both:
— Practice nonviolence, which grows out of a belief that all people are children of God and are called to forgive their enemies rather than take revenge.
— Have histories of migration and establishing self-supporting faith communities wherever they go.
— Tend to be inwardly focused on sustaining religious life and practice yet have made positive contributions to the societies in which they have settled. For example, Infinity Mennonite Church and the Murid Islamic Community in America — each unaware of the other’s work — both contributed to the revitalization of Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City, in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Other conference organizers included Mame Gora Diop, a leader at the Islamic Center of Taverny; Djiby Diagne, of the Murid Islamic Community in America; and Max Wiedmer, who represented Swiss Mennonites and the French Mennonite Mission Committee.
Diop, who embraced the Murid Sufi order when he came to France from Senegal more than 30 years ago, add-ed to Bornman’s and Krabill’s list of Murid and Mennonite commonalities:
— The importance of community.
— Love for all, including enemies.
— Respecting the value of each life.
The most compelling shared belief, Diop believes, is that peace is the best way to address disputes.
“We are in a world that is shaken by conflicts and violence on all sides, so peace is of the utmost importance,” he said. “We learned a lot [in conversation with the Mennonites] that gave us new tools with which we can dig more deeply into our own understanding of peace.”
Romain Ehrismann, pastor of Châtenay-Malabry Mennonite Church in Paris, participated in the meeting because of the focus on peace and because he wanted to know more about his Murid neighbors.
“Dialogue and openness are important, so we aren’t limited to our own tunnel vision,” Ehrismann said. “Listening to each other is essential in our fragmented and polarized society. However, just because we are talking together doesn’t mean we agree on everything. I think it is important to not confuse listening attentively to others with endorsing what is being said.”
Ehrismann cautioned against centering interreligious conversations on polite commonalities.
“We must also talk respectfully about what separates us, otherwise we risk falling into squishy dialogue that isn’t fruitful,” he said. “In an atmosphere of confidence and trust, we build something wholesome and solid that we can offer our religious communities and the societies in which we live.”
Diop said Islam is poorly understood and often intentionally deformed.
“How can we become known by our virtues, our principles?” he asked. “When our neighbors learn to know us and we are respected locally, then the media stereotypes will be seen as false depictions.”
He described Islam as a growing force in France and an integral part of societies around the world.
“When I arrived in France 30 years ago, we prayed in basements. Now, there are more than 2,000 mosques in France,” Diop said. “People are becoming more aware of who we really are.”
He suggested the next step would be a conference on practical aspects of living together in solidarity and respect.
“When we have strong and beautiful values, it is necessary to share them,” he said.
He suggested ways to promote the values Murids and Mennonites share: creating alliances, organizing public demonstrations, presenting university conferences, being present and ready to speak where decisions are made.
Diop encouraged Mennonites to engage in self-examination. Where are practices inconsistent with beliefs? What historic wrongs need to be righted?
Bornman knows, from a lifetime of experience, that building trust between Christians and Muslims is a slow process that must overcome centuries of violence. He hopes future gatherings will involve even more people.
Diop said the Murid-Mennonite encounter was “beyond what I had hoped for. I arrived with a smile, and I left with so much joy.”