Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Ameen Rihani and the Unity of Religion: The Politics of Time and the Politics of Eternity

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Ameen Rihani and the Unity of Religion: The Politics of Time and the Politics of Eternity

Article excerpt

In a world that is shaken daily by violence, hatred, and destruction, we are drawn to reflect on the urgent need for reconciliation and mutual understanding between nations if such atrocities are to be avoided in the future. It is sobering to reflect that Tomás Masaryk's words, written in The Making of a State (1925), remain as pertinent as ever over seventy-five years later: "Chauvinism, racial or national intolerance, not love of one's own people, is the foe of nations and humanity. Love of one's own nation does not entail non-love of other nations (435)."

Masaryk, the first president of a country that was later split into its components-Czechs and Slovaks- after a little more than eighty years, had much in common with Ameen Rihani, one of the strongest and subtlest advocates of understanding between religions and between peoples, especially those of different traditions who share a common homeland. Rihani's messages of tolerance, spiritual quests leading members of various faiths toward one God, and loving respect for one's fellow humans are more important now than ever, as the potential for destructiveness increases with the proliferation of new and terrifying weapons.

Rihani was modest and unassuming by nature. This remarkable man- poet, essayist, novelist, and philosopher-believed implicitly in the truth of the Arabic motto, "say your word and go away," placing his considerable gifts at the service of mankind without differentiating between Christian, Jew, or Muslim. He was a passionate believer in the oneness of the world's religions and the brotherhood of all nations, devoting his entire life to promoting the cause of East-West understanding.

Virtually able to claim dual nationality, Rihani assimilated two widely differing cultures to an unprecedented extent, retaining, despite his links with the West, a deep attachment to the rich cultural heritage of his homeland of Lebanon and of the wider Arab civilization. Politically, he was a dedicated liberal, but his idealism was tempered with a highly practical recognition of the need for an ordered, disciplined society; and while firmly opposed to blind fanaticism, extremism, and bigotry, Rihani always retained a healthy respect for tradition.

Ameen Rihani was born to Maronite Christian parents on 24 November 1876 in Freike, Lebanon, a few miles northeast of the country's capital, Beirut. He died sixty-four years later in his native village on 13 September 1940, after long periods of moving between East and West, especially between Lebanon and his second home, New York, traveling widely throughout the Arab world.

Like his contemporaries Kahlil Gibran and Mikhail Naimy, Rihani was indebted throughout his life to Lebanon for an abiding love of her nature and landscapes, typified by the sacred cedar groves and snowcapped mountains. He had a profound appreciation of the richness of a land in which three languages and cultures- Arabic, French, and English-existed side by side, and he also had a powerful apprehension of the dangers likely to arise, should such coexistence become imperiled.

All three men were Christians. Gibran and Rihani were Maronites, and Naimy was a member of the Greek Orthodox Church and was educated in a Russian seminary. All three felt they understood Lebanon's mission-the shaping of a model interreligious society, a multi-faith community in which diversity of belief would be celebrated and respected by all alike, irrespective of individual affiliations. They also had no difficulty in proclaiming their new perspective: a belief in the spiritual unity and recognition that no religion represents God's final word to mankind and that divine revelation is continuous, that religious experience is progressive, and that all religions are, essentially, one.

Gibran stated, "If we were to do away with the [non-essentials of the[ various religions, we would find ourselves united and enjoying one great faith and religion, abounding in brotherhood" (Secrets of the Heart 135). …

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