Laudatory speech for prize winner Nayla Tabbara held by Prof. Elizabeth Kassab, University of Doha


Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to start my laudatory speech by inviting you on a drone tour over the countries from where our laureates hail: Iraq and Lebanon. I am sure you all have seen such drone films showing the extensive destruction of cities and towns across these two countries. Massive explosions, massive environmental damage, mass killings, crimes against humanity, destruction, displacement, disappearance, torture and poverty have scarred them indelibly. And in between the two countries lies another devasted country bearing witness to even more atrocities. Of course, I’m speaking about Syria. This is today a disaster area ruled by killers and thieves. The descent to the abyss has been long and has accelerated lately:  a bit of a Berlin “Stunde Null,” however not with 12 years of Nazi rule, but rather with many decades of brutal rule, and without a zero point to start from, as there seems to be no end to the series of horrors. People’s yearning is to reach the bottom of the abyss and to see that “Stunde Null.”

In such total devastation it is difficult to uphold faith in anyone or for anything. And where faith in humanity is severely shaken, it is difficult to sustain faith in God – especially that oftentimes evil is done in the name of God. Indeed, religion in all three countries has been instrumentalized to stoke conflict and nurture hatred, fear and violence. The area appears like a God-forsaken and more so a Man-Woman-forsaken one. Yet, we celebrate this evening two young people, a woman from Lebanon and a man from Iraq, who have managed to keep faith in humanity and faith in God alive. How have they sustained their humanity and religious faith in the midst of so much annihilation and nihilism? How have they overcome sectarian cleavages and fears and built chains of spiritual and civil bridges? How have they elaborated humane contextual theologies and practiced collective spiritual solidarity?

Allow me to speak about Professor Nayla Tabbara, a Muslim theologian from Beirut and based in Beirut, co-founder and now President of Adyan and co-president and member of the World Council of Religions for Peace. Professor Tabbara grew up in the midst of the Lebanese civil war, in a divided city torn apart between politico-religious communities. Nayla hails from a Sunni tradition and developed early on a curiosity in religious questions, including Sufism, ancient religions, and Egyptology. Her school and university years in Beirut, Rome and Paris exposed her to Muslim as well as Christian traditions and this nurtured further her interest in comparative studies of religion. Questions of diversity, of ambiguity interested her, so did the question of the sacrality of the of the Qur’an, for instance. Meandering through Salafism, Sufism and Liberalism, Nayla’s journey took her to stations of reflection on beliefs, scarred memories of politico-religious conflicts and issues of gender. The first fruits of this rich journey appeared in her 2018 book entitled L’islam pensé par une femme (A Woman’s Interpretation of Islam). It received many awards in France, and was followed by L’itinéraire spirituel d’après les commentaires soufis du Coran (The Spiritual Path According to Sufi Commentaries of the Quran) in 2018. These are only two titles from a rich publication record, from which I will mention one more title, namely her book with Father Fadi Daou published in 2014, L’hospitalité divine: l’autre dans le dialogue des théologies chrétienne et musulmane, translated into English as Divine Hospitality: A Christian-Muslim Conversation, and into German as Göttliche Gastfreundschaft. Der Andere – Christliche und muslimische Theologien im Dialog; also translated into Arabic.

The encounter with Catholic Maronite Father Fadi Daou did not only produce this book but a whole organization named “Adyan,” meaning “Religions,” which they co-founded in 2006 to address in a concrete way issues of religious diversity and difference in a place like Lebanon. Theirs was not merely a discourse of tolerance and co-existence, but one of “spiritual solidarity,” in which the other’s faith and religious practice were seen as a support and nourishment for one’s own faith and religious practice, not a source of threat and fear. Against all odds, Adyan developed hands-on programs in inclusive citizenship and pluralist teachers’ manuals on religious diversity education in agreement with established religious institutions and government ministries. Despite all the recent turmoil of the Arab World, Adyan stretched out its activities across many a country, including Iraq, and established cooperation ties with organizations like Dr Saad Salloum’s Massarat, whom we celebrate today as well. Offering the Ibn Rushd Prize jointly to the two journeys or the two “massarat,” in Arabic “pathways,” and honoring their champions, Professor Tabbara and Professor Salloum, was our way here of celebrating these salutary networks of “spiritual solidarity” in the midst of unspeakable brutality.  

Conflictual regions like ours have posed daunting challenges to faith from all religions. Keeping sight of the face of God when humans are trampled over, at times without even a second glance or thought, is difficult. From these challenges have emerged beautiful theologies of liberation and conviviality. I think of Kairos Palestine of 2009, which articulated the meaning of upholding faith under occupation and the more recent document “We choose abundant life” released in 2021 in Beirut and which called for a life-affirming prophetic stand in the face of abysmal despair and suffering. Religious voices of conviviality have also come from Baghdad, even in its darkest hours, in the works of Abdel Jabbar al Rifai, whose achievements we in the jury recognized as well. Women have made their own contributions to these calls. We acknowledged Professor Omezine Ben Cheikha’s work in this regard. It is on their voices and those of many others that we bet today to engage the atrocities of our world with prophetic voices anchored in multiple traditions.

It is a privilege let alone a pleasure to invite Dr Nayla Tabbara, as well as Dr Saad Salloum, into our orbit of recognition at Ibn Rushd. Thank You.

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