Don Bosco and Qur'an
I have worked in North West England as a Chaplain for many years. As part of my familiarisation with the local area I walked through the streets around the school. I discovered that many of the local people were Muslim. In the school yard however, I found that few of the young people had any meaningful contact with their Muslim neighbours. It seems that both white Christians and ethnic Muslims are living parallel lives. Being a native of Leicester, where integration is much more developed, I was surprised. I was also concerned about the tabloid stereotypes that can create artificial boundaries within the minds of young people.
In ministering to young people in a multi-ethnic setting I have begun to think about the partnerships I need to establish as a Christian youth worker with those who work with youth in the Muslim community. I was interested especially in exploring how far I might be able to share common spiritual ground with a Muslim youth worker. What kind of motivation and meaning would a Muslim youth worker draw from the Islamic tradition? Would it have any connection to the meaning and motivation a Christian youth worker could draw from Don Bosco? I know that many Salesian schools in Asia are populated almost entirely by Muslim students. With this in mind, I set out to make some early connections between Don Bosco's style of education and the Qur’an. What follows is the beginning of my exploration into the common humanity of these two great religious traditions.
The Qur'an is a beautiful book that needs to be heard rather than read It is set out in rhyming prose that lends itself to memorisation. The book is given a central place in Islam as the inspired word of God to Mohammed, the final seal of the prophets. The Qur’an's 114 chapters were committed to writing within twenty years of the Prophet's death in the year 632. Reading the text in translation I was amazed at how much of its wisdom found echoes in the words of Don Bosco and in the Salesian style of working with the young. I am not qualified to comment on the text of the Qur'an, but simply place the text alongside key Salesian themes and invite the reader to make their own connections. In making their own links the reader might then find some bridges being built in their mind and heart between the Christian and Muslim world in general as well as the world of youth work.
Reason, Religion and Kindness
One of the most common expressions of Don Bosco's style of work is 'Reason Religion and Kindness' in dealing with young people. In Don Bosco's mind they are vital pieces of any relationship that leads to life. The Qur'an sets out a similar challenge in working with other people:
"Call others to the way of your Lord with wisdom and kindly encouragement. Reason with them in a gentle way."
The underlying motivation for this Salesian way of working springs from a sense of the mystery of God's presence in each person. We are all sons and daughters of God and have an infinite dignity and worth. That same sense of the individual's dignity and worth is expressed in the Qur'an in the following way:
"God shaped man and breathed his own life into him."
It is because we are so close to God that we deserve to be treated with reason and kindness. That awareness of the closeness of God was something Don Bosco urged his helpers to cultivate so that they could meet God in their relationship with young people. That same closeness is expressed in a very physical way by the Arabic text of the Qur'an,
"God is nearer than the jugular vein.
Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.
God is all embracing, all knowing."
The Preventive System
When asked to put his way of working into words, Don Bosco wrote a brief paper entitled 'The Preventive System'. It outlined a basic optimism at the heart of his work that young people, given a chance, will grow up happy and close to God. It was the task of the educator to create the right environment, a place where they were faced only with challenges that would not damage them. That meant that the leaders would need to be aware of potential problems. Then they could distract, divert or intervene to prevent destructive activity rather than wait for mistakes and punish children for them. It was a real surprise to me when I found similar sentiments in the Qur'an written over a thousand years before Don Bosco's birth:
"Repel the evil deed with one that is better, good deeds annul evil deeds.
How does one help a troublemaker?
By hindering him in doing wrong."
Part of the wisdom of the preventive system is the encouragement to overlook small faults in young people, as due mainly to thoughtlessness. It is far more important to sustain a warm and supportive relationship than to be constantly nagging young people about small details. The most important thing for Don Bosco was that their inner life, their soul, was not damaged. The Qur'an offers similar advice:
"If you overlook faults and forgive, God will be merciful and forgiving."
"The one who is successful is the one who causes the soul to grow and the one who fails stunts the growth of the soul.
No burden do we place on any soul but that which it can bear."
The adult, dealing with young people, therefore needs huge patience as young people acquire maturity and consistency. Don Bosco said that only mature adults could make this system work and they also needed a spiritual motivation to do it well. The Qur'an would agree entirely:
"True constancy before God lies in forgiveness and patient forbearance. The believer who joins in with life and its sufferings is worth more than the one who distances himself from human suffering."
"The strong man is the one who controls himself 'when he is angry."
Not all faiths are the same. Not everything in Islam sits easily with a Christian approach to life. But there is common ground. There is a shared humanity, a concern for spirit and soul, a realisation of people's frailty and the importance of the young. This is a good foundation to begin in working together with another culture. The words of another Muslim text provide the last word on this common concern for the gentle quality of education and faith.
"All human beings are God's children, and those dearest to God are the ones who treat His children kindly."