Where Islam & Christianity Meet

Saint Moses in the Syrian desert

To reach the Monastery of Saint Moses (Mar Musa in Arabic), you’ll need determination, patience, and a good pair of walking shoes. Yet while it may not be easy to get there, many people find it even more difficult to leave.

I first heard about Mar Musa from a Jesuit friend living in Jordan, who had never visited but had heard of this mixed- gender, ecumenical community recently founded at the site of an ancient monastery. My instructor in Islamic studies at Yale (also a Jesuit) encouraged me to head out to visit the monastery, not only for a retreat but also to report on the monastery’s interest in dialogue with Muslims. He too had never visited. So I set out from the comfortable surroundings of the Jesuit community in Beirut for the Syrian desert, on a hot August day, prepared only with a map that a friend had jotted down on a piece of notebook paper.

From Beirut, my first obstacle was getting into Syria. The border guards told me they would be happy to renew my expired visa, but that their boss was having a nap. After waiting several hours for him to wake up, I crossed the border on foot (my taxi gave up waiting for me) and found a bus that took me to the city of Homs. Unfortunately, all of the buses leaving from Homs to Nebek (my destination) had left. "No problem," a newfound friend told me, "catch a bus to Damascus and ask them to slow down when you pass Nebek." The bus slowed just enough so that I did not seriously injure myself on the black asphalt highway.

From Nebek, an old Christian town (although today there are few Christians left), there’s little hope of finding the monastery without a guide, and little hope of getting a guide to take you at night. So I spent the night on the stone floor of a church and climbed into the back of a pickup truck in the morning. Rumbling outside of town through the barren wilderness, I began to doubt that a vibrant community could exist in such a setting. Yet as our truck pulled up at the foot of a great ravine between two jagged red mountains, Mar Musa came into view.

The small stone monastery, nestled into the crevice for protection against the elements (and bandits), formed a stark contrast to the desolate landscape. Cries of visiting children, clanging bells of the community’s goats, colorful laundry flapping in the breeze, and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee all brought my senses to life. Then after a steep and treacherous climb from the ravine’s floor, the wide smile and deep voice of the community’s founder, Father Paolo, greeted me. I knew I would like it here.

In August 1982, Paolo Dall’Oglio of the Society of Jesus had arrived at the ruins of the ancient monastery. He was moved by its potential to be not only a center for the reinvigoration of Christian life, but also one of Christian-Islamic interaction. Restoration of the monastery commenced in 1984. In 1989, restoration of the church itself began, and after running youth camps at the site for several summers, the monastery of Mar Musa officially became active again in 1991, with a community of two.

The community has grown slowly and today includes three women and four men, housed in separate buildings. Their work is ceaseless. Besides running the farm around the monastery, they welcome thousands of guests a year in half a dozen languages. In fact, the consecrated members take a pledge of hospitality. Every visitor is sure to receive delicious food, a warm cup of tea, and an even warmer smile. The sisters and brothers consider this their missionary work. Instead of going into the world, the world comes out to them.

As the monastery has grown, Dall’Oglio and the Syrian Catholic diocese have made sure it is firmly grounded in and informed by its past. The goal of the consecrated members of the community is the same as that of their predecessors a thousand years earlier: to seek spiritual growth and perform ecclesiastical service through lives of prayer, chastity, and retreats of solitude.

Yet Dall’Oglio’s concern for the future of Arab churches (he himself joined the Syrian Catholic rite) led to the development of a monastic life that would be quite foreign to the original monks. For Mar Musa seeks to edify these churches by encouraging ecumenism and interreligious association. Accordingly, the community is open to members of all Christian denominations who feel themselves in accord with the community’s theology. Moreover, they are convinced that the Arab churches must not confront or even compete with their Muslim neighbors, but rather serve Muslims, learn from them, and take on sacrifice for their sake.

This ideology, or in fact this theology, is represented by the term "inculturation" (Arabic inthaqaf), which was first popularized by the French Islamicist Louis Massignon and later by the Egyptian Mary Kahil. The demand of inculturation is for Christians to realize both their spiritual and historical kinship with Muslims and to exemplify the Christian vocation of voluntary sacrifice, so as to find meaning and identity in the Islamic context.

The desire for inculturation with Muslims, however, is not something novel in the Syrian church. In fact, Syrian Christians have historically maintained a relatively harmonious relationship with their Muslim neighbors, who at times protected the church from Greek Orthodox persecution. Evidence of this amity is literally carved into the walls of the church at Mar Musa, where the oldest inscription opens with the Muslim formula "Bi-ism Allah al-Rahmtin al-Rahim" ("In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Benevolent"), and dates the construction of the church to the Islamic year 450 a.h. (Christian year 1058).

The relatively good relationship between the Syrian church and Islam has allowed Mar Musa to emphasize, or at times reinstate, those liturgical practices that coincide with Islamic practices. Thus, the church floor of Mar Musa is not lined with pews but is covered with carpets as in a mosque. As at mosques, worshippers always remove their shoes before entering the sanctuary. The prayer itself often includes a series of four full bows (sujud in Islamic terminology), where each individual touches his or her forehead to the floor. However, instead of facing Mecca as Muslims do, worshippers align themselves to the East as the earliest Christians had done. Moreover, crucifixes are nowhere prominent inside or outside the sanctuary, and Syriac (the liturgical language of the Syrian Catholic church) is generally dispensed with in favor of Arabic.

In these ways, the Mar Musa community seeks to make the monastery environment familiar and comfortable to Muslim visitors. Nevertheless, they emphatically affirm that such practices are not innovations aimed at appeasing or attracting Muslims. Rather, they are expressions of a Semitic spirituality common to eastern Muslims, Christians, and Jews. In the words of Dall’Oglio, the monastery seeks "a cultural incarnation of the depths of the project of the saving God for the good of Islam and Muslims."

In addition to the current dynamism of the monastery, the visitor (particularly an American) is struck by the long history of Mar Musa. A Roman tower once stood on the present site of the monastery, from which the road below and passing trade were monitored. The monastery itself was likely built no later than a.d. 575. This is the date of the British Museum manuscript, a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew by Saint John Chrysostom, that identifies itself as belonging to the monastery of Mar Musa.

The earliest evidence within the monastery itself is a clearly visible inscription which dates the building of the church of "Saint Moses the Prophet" to a.d. 1058. Thereafter, the monastery flourished for several hundred years and became the seat of the Syrian Orthodox bishopric. During this time, Saint Moses and the surrounding caves overflowed with monks who were known for their brilliant illumination of manuscripts. If you search the caves you can find traces of the monks, in the inscriptions and memorials they left behind.

Through the centuries, the monastery fell into disrepair. In 1831, it was abandoned and it remained empty for over one hundred and fifty years. During this time, it was repeatedly the victim of theft and the very roof of the church was removed for building materials. Finally, in 1983, a fire struck the church, destroying many of its frescoes and the iconostasis.

The history of Mar Musa matches the ups and downs of its patron saint. According to the traditional account, Saint Moses led a long and lucrative career as a thief in Ethiopia, before being pursued by the authorities and forced to seek refuge among hermits in the wilderness. There he was converted to Christianity, and his piety became as intense as his impiety had been. Still a wanted man, Moses headed north from Ethiopia to Egypt, where he was ordained and retired as a hermit. He died in 395 and was buried at the monastery of al-Baramus in Egypt, where his body is still venerated. Today, the Syrian church often represents Moses in a manner close to that of Saint George: a knight riding a horse and slaying a dreadful beast that is the incarnation of evil.

Today, the fledgling community at Mar Musa is intensely aware of its troubled past and its fragile future. For the Christian churches of the Arab lands are endangered today, split into scores of sects and divided by a bitter legacy of contention that traces back to the Council of Chalcedon (a.d. 451). Meanwhile, each year Christians become a smaller minority as a result of a lower birth rate and higher rate of emigration than Muslims. Those Christians who do remain stand in a precarious social position, being fully integrated neither with their Islamic neighbors nor with Western culture, which has shown little interest in the fate of Eastern Christianity. Yet Mar Musa does not look west for guidance. Rather, it embraces its minority status, emphasizes its Semitic heritage in the roots of the Syrian church, and believes that these will allow Christianity to be more fully alive in the Islamic context.

While its effect on the church worldwide is the subject of debate, the theology of inculturation is crucial to Mar Musa. It affirms the uniqueness of Eastern Christians and their deep and authentic roots in the Arab world. It also provides a channel for Christians to better understand Islam, and affirm their own rights in Islamic society. And finally, it suggests that Eastern Christianity must engage Islam, not merely as a question of style, but as a matter of survival.

Leaving the monastery behind at the end of the month, with my spirit refreshed and my head spinning with ideas, I reflected on the venture of Mar Musa. I don’t know if it will succeed; the obstacles are great, but I know that I will be back, and many like me. For the abundance of life in the midst of the wilderness gives hope in the persevering human spirit and in the enduring grace of God, "which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast..." (Hebrews 6:19).

Published in the 1999-03-12 issue: 

Gabriel Said Reynolds is professor of Islamic Studies and Theology in the World Religions World Church program, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame. Find him on twitter @GabrielSaidR.

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