Welcoming Nottingham's new Lord Mayor
Muslim/Christian relations in Nottingham
A sermon for Pentecost Sunday, 15th May 2005, in the context of a Welcome to the Lord Mayor of Nottingham, Councillor Mohammed Munir
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
This introductory prayer will, to most Christians, have seemed unusual, unfamiliar and even strange. It contains three phrases, like the traditional Christian introductory prayer – In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – but it is different – In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. It is not Trinitarian (three persons in one God), but rather Unitarian (One God, with two of His most important attributes (or characteristics), the Merciful, the Compassionate).
It is therefore a different introductory prayer from the usual one, but it is, I hope an acceptable one, and it is certainly a carefully chosen one since the service today, as well as being a Eucharist, the traditional act of Christian worship, is also a service of welcome to the new Lord Mayor of the City of Nottingham, Councillor Mohammad Munir, who is a Muslim. The introductory prayer is therefore the English version of a phrase which will be very familiar to him, bismillah al-rahman al-rahim, In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
This phrase is the first line of almost every chapter of the Muslim scripture, the Qur’an; it is often used in the context of Muslim prayer; and it is also often used in the context of everyday Muslim life, for example as a grace before meals or as a prayer before setting off on a journey – In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
It is, certainly, different from the traditional Christian prayer before a sermon, which is Trinitarian. It may not be absolutely different, however, because on a historical level, there is some archaeological evidence from South Arabia (Yemen) from the fifth century (i.e. before the coming of Islam) of an inscription (in Arabic) which read “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”, and because it is a pre-Islamic inscription it is probably a Christian inscription, an expression, in other words, in the local Arabian context, of Christian belief in the Trinity. But that is not what it became in the context of the Qur’an and the Islamic Tradition: there it became an expression of a Unitarian understanding – One God and two of His attributes, and not one God in three persons).
It is still, I hope, acceptable to use the phrase in the context of Christian worship, especially today, because today, in the Christian calendar, is Pentecost, the day on which Christians remember the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is therefore a day on which Christians think of things which are radically new, as is clear from the reading which we have just heard from the Book of Acts, which describes the events of that first Christian Pentecost. Jesus’ disciples, fifty days after (according to Christian belief) his resurrection from the dead, are gathered together in a small room in Jerusalem. Suddenly there is a strong wind, and tongues of fire appear over the heads of each disciple. However the detail is understood, this is a dramatic event, for wind and fire are two of the signs of divine activity in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. Then all of the disciples begin to speak in other languages, the languages of every nation under heaven which happens to be present in Jerusalem at the time, and because Pentecost was not a Christian invention but a traditional Jewish festival, commemorating the passing of fifty days since the Passover, the list of nations represented in the city is a pretty formidable one.
There were people from Parthia, Media, and Elam (modern Iran); from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq); Judaea (the locals); Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia (modern Turkey), Egypt; Cyrene (modern Libya); Rome; Crete; and Arabia (probably corresponding to modern-day Jordan). The languages of all of these areas were suddenly spoken by the disciples. Why? Because the Holy Spirit has come; the young Christian community (so young is has not even got a name yet, as the term ‘Christian’ is only invented later, in Acts 11) realises that it has a universal message, for all people, and that it is to be spoken in their language. This is radically new, and Pentecost, therefore, is surely an appropriate day to make use of a new introductory prayer – In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, bismillah al-rahman al-rahim.
There is an interesting use of language in the Gospel reading too: in it the disciples are in a small room on Easter Day, the day on which Christians believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Jesus appears to them, and sends them out into the world, giving them the Holy Spirit and the power to forgive sins. The greeting which he uses, however, is very interesting, and he uses it twice: “Peace be with you”, he says, a greeting which is not much used by Christians today, and which would appear rather quaint if used in everyday language. These very words, however, are almost the standard greeting in the Muslim community across all its many countries, continents and languages, even today: “Peace be with you”, al-salam ‘alaykum, is a phrase frequently on Muslim lips, therefore.
The Holy Spirit is not only referred to in the Christian and Jewish scriptures either: there are in fact four references to the Holy Spirit, al-ruh al-quddus, in the Qur’an, the Muslim scripture, three referring to Jesus being strengthened by the Holy Spirit, and one, the most interesting, referring to the Holy Spirit bringing down the message of the Qur’an, a phrase which has provoked much discussion among interpreters and commentators, both inside and outside the Muslim community, as to what exactly it means.
Just as Jesus, therefore, is not a holy figure only for Christians, since Muslims too regard him as a prophet sent by God, so too the Holy Spirit is not significant only for Christians, since she is also significant for Muslims and Jews. The Holy Spirit is therefore God’s universal agent, and Pentecost is a very appropriate day for the Christian community to welcome the new Lord Mayor the city of Nottingham.
The Lord Mayor, of course, is not the Lord Mayor only of the Christians of the city, or of the Muslims. He is the Lord Mayor of all citizens, and thanks to the 2001 census we now have some fairly accurate figures for the religious convictions of the citizens of Nottingham: in round figures we are 58% Christian, 5% Muslim, 1% Sikh, 1% Hindu, 0.5% Buddhist, 0.25% Jewish, 25% of no religion (i.e. secular), and 10% not stated. The city is thus increasingly religiously mixed, and it is therefore very appropriate that there should be a multi-faith welcome and service of installation such as that which took place for the Lord Mayor at the Council House last week, with representatives of all the faith communities present here in Nottingham in attendance. Such an event symbolises our shared citizenship despite our different religious affiliations. It is also appropriate, however, for the Christian community, as the largest religious community present in Nottingham to offer its own welcome, and that is what we are doing today.
On a worldwide level Christians and Muslims are the world’s two largest religious communities. It is hard to be confident about the figures, but certainly a third, and possibly a half, of the world’s population is either Christian or Muslim, and in different contexts Christians and Muslims in recent years have done some interesting things together.
Here in Nottingham, for example, Christians and Muslims have prayed together for peace in a context where war has been looming, for example in Iraq. This prayer took the form of a procession from the Central Mosque on Curzon Street to St Peter’s Church, with prayers being said in both places. In addition, through the Rainbow Project in Hyson Green, which is based at St Stephen’s Church, Christians and Muslims have worked closely together on issues of local concern, in the fields of health, education, racial justice and inter-faith understanding. And in the aftermath of the tsunami in South-East Asia on December 26th organisations such as Christian Aid and Muslim Hands (also based in Hyson Green) have collaborated in providing help for the victims of natural disasters. There are plenty of local examples, therefore, of Christian-Muslim collaboration and co-operation.
On a global level too Christians and Muslims have often, over the last few years, met together to discuss different subjects of common interest, including their scriptures and their meaning for today. During this coming week, for example, under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of Canterbury, a group of thirty Christian and Muslim scholars will be meeting together to discuss “Christians, Muslims and the Common Good” in Sarajevo, Bosnia, one of the countries in Europe where Muslims are the majority of the population, and the Chief Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, will be the host for the group. In different parts of the world, therefore, both locally and globally, Christians and Muslims are doing interesting things together.
It is thoroughly appropriate, therefore, on Pentecost Sunday, the day when Christians remember and celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, bringing new things with wind, fire, and many languages, for the Christian community of Nottingham to welcome the city’s new Muslim Lord Mayor: In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, Peace be with you.