March 20: A Day for Questioning Faith

By Tasneem Nashrulla

March 20—

The sheer complexity and diversity of religion often invites uncomfortable questions with inconclusive solutions. Our meetings on Wednesday perfectly demonstrated why religion, in all of its incorporeal glory, is such a challenging journalistic pursuit.

Abdel Latif Chalikandi, a scholar of Islamic studies, spoke to Religio  writers during a tour of Italy's largest mosque. Wednesday morning. David Palacio / Religio.

Abdel Latif Chalikandi, a scholar of Islamic studies, spoke to Religio writers during a tour of Italy’s largest mosque. Wednesday morning. David Palacio / Religio.

Abdel Latif Chalikandi, an Islamic scholar who served as our guide, fielded tough questions from the Religio group as we sat barefoot on the plush blue carpet under the towering white arches of the Mosque of Rome. The elegantly simply façade of Italy’s largest mosque revealed Islam’s place in the country – it was vast (able to sit 2,000 worshippers) but nonetheless somewhat  inconspicuous in that it was designed to blend into the landscape a blatant contrast from the opulent grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica.

When Religio staffer Jesse Marx questioned Chalikandi about the volatile sectarian divide between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, Chalikandi attributed it to political and economic reasons. Chalikandi, who was born in India, is married to an Italian woman and now lives in Rome. The controversial subject of fatwas was brought up in relation to certain ayatollahs and sheiks issuing the controversial fatwas. Chalikandi said the notion of fatwas was grossly misinterpreted because of what he referred to as “a crisis of knowledge in Islam.”

“You have to spend 10 to 15 years of study to become an expert in Islam,” said Chalikandi. “But people who don’t know much about fatwas are issuing it. They are the Google Sheiks.” Chalikandi called many of the fatwas an “opinion and a superstition” adding that some Islamic leaders falsely believed that they were as infallible as the pope.

Delving into the early history of Islam, Chalikandi tried to purge some of the cultural and social misrepresentations of Islam such as the reasons for separation of men and women in the mosque and the historical context of the burkha. Chalikandi then urged us to opine on the First Amendment law in the U.S. in terms of freedom of religion. What followed was an insightful conversation on where to draw the line when it comes to the freedom of expressing opinions on religion.

Being an indifferent Muslim for most of my life, this was a thought-provoking if somewhat disconcerting discussion, because I realized when it comes to religion there are never any right answers, just the right questions.

Next, we visited the beautiful quarters of La Civilttà Cattolica – the Catholic Civilization – the oldest Italian periodical written and published by Italian Jesuits. Its editor, Antonio Spadaro, candidly acknowledged the controversial nature of the Jesuits saying, “We are either loved or hated.”

Spadaro described his shock and excitement at discovering the new pope was a Jesuit: “I needed three minutes,” he said with a laugh. Most Jesuits, while delighted with the affinity they share with the new Pope, have expressed surprise at his election considering the rocky relationship Jesuits have historically had with the Church.

“We are used to serving the pope,” said Spadaro. “Not being the pope.”

Another complicated religious relationship was in the spotlight later in the day when we visited the Foyer Unitas University where our group heard a talk by Zion Evrony, the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See. Over a delicious dinner organized by the Lay Center – an organization promoting inter-religious faith and dialogue, Evrony insisted on speaking “off the record.” While I am bound not to reveal what he said, Professor Goldman assured us that it was largely diplomatic boilerplate and did not break any new ground. Even if his talk had been on the record, it would not be much of a story, certainly not when compared what we were covering at the Vatican.