Like the Teeth of the Comb: Leaders in Inter-Religious Tolerance in Lebanon and Syria, By Trelawney Grenfell-Muir

Posted on May 2nd, 2009 | Filed under Faith and Politics, On Campus

When I tell people that I study “Religion and Conflict,” they usually respond by condemning religion as the cause of numerous conflicts in the world today.  It is easy to blame religion for causing or exacerbating conflict, especially when communities living in conflict zones use religious labels to differentiate their identities. However, religion contains great potential for peacebuilding, especially when religious leaders influence their communities to prioritize broadminded messages within their traditions. 

Scholars of religious peacebuilding increasingly emphasize the vital importance of openness to the religious 'other' and the need to move beyond exclusionary dogmas (Volf 1996, 125-131; Cilliers 2002, 47-60). This work is particularly critical in Lebanon and Syria, where I participated in the Boston Theological Institute field study on “Lebanon: A Test of Multicultural Pluralism, Religious Identity, and National Recovery.” According to Aram I, Armenian Apostolic Patriarch, the need for tolerance and religious dialogue is so integral to Lebanese daily life that it is “a reality, not a choice.” Aram is one of several courageous Christian and Muslim leaders who promotes embracing the religious ‘other.’ 

The following are excerpts from interviews taken during the field study, which illustrate the role that religious leaders in Lebanon are playing in peacebuilding efforts. 

  • Patriarch Aram I asserts that Christian theology must concentrate on interreligious dialogue, rather than focus on being “alone as Christians… There are also ‘other’ [religious communities]; we need to develop the kind of theology where the otherness of the others [is] fully included, respected, challenged …interactive dialogical theology.” He advocates creative theology and resists dogmatic, traditional formulas, so Christianity can form new ideas of what it means to be church, and make theology relevant to contemporary society.  
  • Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, professor at St. Joseph’s University and expert on the Middle East and Islam, states, “[Dialogue] is not the most important thing: the most important thing is living together. …Like it or not, [Christians] have to live with Muslims.” Samir also promotes the need to dialogue with everyone, not exclusively liberals or progressives.  He works hard with fundamentalist Muslim and Christian students to help them understand a less fundamentalist reading of the Bible and the Qur’an.  Samir even quotes the Hadith to his students in order to promote theological openness. For example, “‘people are equal (sawâsiyah) like the teeth of the comb: Arabs are not superior to non-Arabs.’ …They belong [like fingers] to a hand. So we are together, but no one is the same as the other.” 
  • Melkite Patriarch Gregory III asserts that Christians must “be Emmanuel” (‘God with us’) for others.  In this way, Christians can act as the conscience of the Arab world for democracy and liberty. Arab Christians can also prevent the world from dividing into Arab/Muslim/Palestine/Middle East vs. Christian/Jewish/Israel/West, as a presence of true community linking the two.  Gregory refuses to restrict access to the Eucharist, which he defines as a mystery beyond understanding. He also makes a careful distinction between peaceful relations with Jews and political problems he sees with Israel, which allows significantly more openness to Jews than is commonly found. 
  • Father Paolo Dall’oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest, oversees Deir Mar Musa monastery in Syria. Dall’oglio espouses a highly inclusivist approach, which includes encouraging his community to meditate in mosques, inviting female Muslim leaders to teach spirituality, and organizing Christian-Muslim meetings that involve mutual teaching and joint worship. Dall’oglio believes living with Muslims is a gift, and his theology mandates “saying ‘yes’ to Islam,” because “Islam is not an accident in the world,” and “Christians have much to learn from Islam.” In this way, Christians must “seek the ongoing incarnation of God/Jesus by recognizing the work of the Spirit in other religious traditions.  For a Christian to become Muslim, Chinese, or Hindu because of love of Jesus is not losing h/er identity, but deepening it; we are called to plumb the deepness of God, the mystery of incarnation.” 
  • Hussein Husseini, co-founder of the Shi’a AMAL Movement of the Deprived and father of the 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended the Lebanese Civil War, expresses, “To us, the most basic manifestation of peace is to extend an open hand with nothing behind it to intend hurting the other; in other words, opening the hand and extending it to the other is asking for relationship with the other, and not turning your back on the other and asking to be saved from the other.” 
  • Muhammad Ra’d, a Hizballah MP, expressed impressive openness in light of Hizballah’s previous dedication to imposing Shari’a law in Lebanon.  Ra’d claims, “We don’t believe Islam is enclosed on itself – it is open-minded to other beliefs; it is our belief that an Islamic system would provide the justice that the people need; but we also believe that an Islamic system cannot be applied unless it is supported by the people who are going to be governed by it; it is not enough that we adopt Islam; in Lebanon, Islam has to be adopted by Maronites, Catholics, Druze – and this is impossible, or quite difficult; so logic states that we need to look for common factors that we share with all these groups.” 
  • Druze Sheikh Sami Abu al-Mona says Druze theology seeks the Unitarian truth of all religions: to know God and self.  For Druze, “humankind is the real image of God, the representative of God on earth.  All religions are manifestations of God in history; all religions meet in the point of the third path” (to knowledge and truth). Al-Mona believes in the importance of helping new generations understand each other: “…when you know the other, you shouldn’t be in a conflict with [him or her], …but if you ignore the other, you fight [him or her].”  

The above profiles depict individuals with the capability to influence their communities, who are drawing upon the wisdom within their distinct faith traditions to promote peaceful relations with their religious neighbors. While it is difficult to quantify the exact effect specific doctrines have in the hands of talented leaders, the situation would surely be worse without the admirable efforts of all who teach and model embracing the ‘other.’ We can only hope that others will learn from their example and continue to build a lasting peace. 




All interviews were conducted in May-June 2005 as part of the Boston Theological Institute field study. AMAL is an Arabic acronym for أفواج المقاومة اللبنانية  transliterated: Afwâj al-Muqâwmat al-Lubnâniyya, lit. 

“Lebanese Resistance Detachments,” sometimes called حركة أمل transliterated: Harakat Amal, lit. “Amal movement.” AMAL is thus an acronym and also an Arabic word, "amal", meaning "hope."


Cilliers, J. (2002). Building Bridges for Interfaith Dialogue. Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding. D. R. Smock. Washington, DC, United States Institute of Peace Press. 

Volf, M. (1996). Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville, Abingdon Press. 



Trelawney Grenfell-Muir is a graduate student at Boston University, working toward a Ph.D. in International Relations through the University Professors Program.

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