The Cross and the Crescent-An Alliance Inspired By Arba’een: Shafaqna Interview With Father Frank Gelli

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Shafaqna: An alliance of justice committed Muslims and Christians must be one of the goals of Shia Muslims in Britain according to Father Frank Gelli.

The Anglican Priest says an alliance of the Cross and the Crescent to strive and struggle for justice would be a fitting goal for the Hussaini movement in the West; and what better platform to launch such an initiative than the London Arbaeen March, attended annually by thousands of people from many diverse backgrounds.

As more and more people declare themselves to be non-believers in God there certainly seems to be a scope for increased Muslim-Christian unity to help stem the tide of atheism, and arguably the even more dangerous socio-cultural phenomena arising out of secular neoliberal values, with their overt and covert anti-religion bias. Ordinary grassroots Christian Muslim engagement rather than top down institutional endeavour to this end may be more effective.

Father Frank Gelli is one of those rare Western individuals who has genuinely enquired into Islam in some depth with a particular inquisitiveness about Shia islam in particular. He has even authored a now published book called Forever Karbala. Having gone past mere theoretical academic understanding he has gone further into many experiential engagements with Muslims too. The Arbaeen march has been one such experience and he describes his first attendance in the London Arbaeen March as ‘extraordinary’ adding ‘what I felt in myself and the participants of the sacred march was a profound sense of nobility – a holy enthusiasm and exaltation.

I knew that I was in no ordinary political kind of gathering but rather part of something bigger, something that went beyond even a protest for justice. Indeed, the gathering seemed to touch upon the roots of Reality, Being of God himself.” For Father Gelli ” the nobility of the human soul shines through on the faces of those at the Arbaeen gathering” and he saw them as being “driven by the will of God and possessed by God and obeying the will of God.” As a Christian this is, he says, what he is committed to despite his self-confessed imperfection the actions of the Arbaeen pilgrims resonated with him through his own Christian perception of faith.

Father Gelli went on to give a speech, at the end of last year’s march, in which he focused on a saying of Imam Ali (AS) which he says declares that ‘God is The One who knocks down tyrants’ – something Father Frank recognizes is what Imam Hussain (AS) himself clearly did on the Day of Ashura in the land of Karbala around 1400 years ago – an act which echoes into our millennium and beyond. The seasoned Anglican Priest also asserts that Imam Hussain’s fight against the tyrant Yazid was primarily against the rulers perversion of the message of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH); and this theme of tyranny and its perversion of truth, he says is very pertinent even today as we see many Arab monarchies are behaving in the same way as Yazid.

Father Gelli argues that in his own religious tradition the great Christian theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, himself argues in his Summa Theologica for the ‘right of rebellion if it’s for the establishment of the common good’ , and also that Christianity has a strong justice tradition that links its true followers, even today, to the moral movements and struggles of the Saints of the past. Devout Christians, he says, even today make pilgrimages to Holy wells and burial sites or Cathedrals in much the same spirit as the Arbaeen pilgrims show for Karbala, Imam Hussain (AS) and the other martyrs.

Father Gelli also recalls the moment when the penny dropped for him regarding the universal message of Imam Hussain (AS). “It happened at a Taziya play about the tragedy of Karbala which was being performed in Leicester and which I was kindly invited to’ by Shia Muslim friends. He remembers that ‘the play focused on the story of Wahhab Al-Qalby, a Christian, who sacrificed himself in Karbala” for Al-Hussain (AS), the Doyen of Martyrs, and his just cause. Father Frank found the dramatic presentation immensely inspiring and in Wahhab he also saw an emblematic figure who reflected what he himself is committed to – the alliance of the Cross and the Crescent.

A very vivid and powerful metaphor, it has to be said, and Father Gelli has also looked into the Islamic eschatological references about the return of Al Mahdi (AJ) being synchronized with the return of Hazrat Isa ( Prophet Jesus (AS)). The Islamic hadith literature certainly indicates an inevitable ‘pious’ Christian-Muslim alliance emerging to bring peace and justice to the world. The hadith of the Ahlulbayt (AS) are also said to affirm that true Christians would come under the banner of Al Qaem (AJ) upon his call to them – all of which should provide Muslims with a strong incentive to reach out to pious Christians in Britain and beyond too, perhaps to prepare the grounds for the fulfilment of the prophecies or simply in the interests of peace and societal harmony.

This powerful reflection upon Cross and Crescent led Father Frank to question whether the British Shia Muslim communities could do more to broaden the appeal of Arbaeen and indeed present Imam Hussain’s (AS) message to an even wider audience than has been possible so far especially given the tragedy of Karbala’s naturally broad appeal as a very human tragedy.

Arts and Media ( social media posts, films, animations, graphics, posters, memes, arts exhibitions, poetry, plays, museum exhibits) would be the obvious means of doing this outreach, but there must be grassroots human contact too; and occasions like Arbaeen, the various anniversaries and commemorations of Ahlulbayt (AS), Eid and Ramadhan are just some religious-cultural spaces that could be utilized alongside traditional Shia Muslim hospitality and generosity at the fore to introduce the great human story of Imam Hussain (AS) and his virtues as well as moral values.

This is a hugely necessary action, given moral relativism is rapidly corrupting and confusing many minds – both Muslim and non Muslim. This heartfelt practical interfaith engagement would have to have its own clearly thought out respectful truth seeking agenda; unlike the politicized interfaith industry that is currently doing the rounds – something Father Frank himself has spoken out vehemently against calling it a waste of time over tea and biscuits .

Father Gelli also suggested that there was not enough focus on the women of Karbala and given that in today’s climate of fear about Covid 19, and the subsequent global lockdowns, there has been a sharp rise in domestic violence especially against women its important we project support for women from religious platforms. The powerful and exemplary character of Hazrate Zaynab (SA), Frank Gelli says, could be used as a role model for abused women to look up to – given her brave courageous and eloquent stand against Yazid inspite of the threat of further torture and indeed death.

Despite the violence inflicted upon herself and the rest of the survivors of the Holy Household from the tragedy of Karbala, who were indeed overwhelmingly women, Bibi Zaynab (SA) and the brave ladies faced their tyrannical oppressors with nobility and fortitude. So much so that Yazid was forced to desist from his plan to put all of the survivors to death, for fear of further alienating the Muslim public who had been moved and swayed by Hazrat Zaynab (SA)’s eloquent presentation of what transpired in Karbala and her account of Yazids crimes. Father Frank urged Shia Muslims to find ways to better project the universally good characters such as Hazrate Fatima Zahra (SA) too – an iconic figure who could transcend any religious- cultural boundaries if presented in the correct way.

In conclusion Father Gelli reasserted his vivid metaphor of an alliance of the Cross and the Crescent to emphasize the possibility of creating a Muslim Christian cooperation in the struggle against tyranny of every kind, whether domestic violence, child abuse, hyper-materialism, drug trafficking, greedy corporatism, slavery, or enforced poverty – to name but a few. He uses the ‘struggle and striving for social good’, to describe the purpose of this alliance of Cross and Crescent adding that ‘a justice-oriented man’s got to do what a man’s got to do’. Father Frank Gelli will be signing his book ‘Forever Karbala’ at this year’s London Arbaeen March again where, he says, he will build and expand on his previous year’s address on challenging tyranny in society.

Shafaqna English/ Syed Mohsen Abbas

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