The Unorthodox Sheikh of Milan

A Muslim cleric here for a conference at the Shalom Hartman Institute calls for fresh thinking

"The Christian-Jewish dialogue and the Christian-Muslim dialogue did not work to bring about peace in the Middle East. Perhaps the Islamic-Jewish dialogue will," says the grey-bearded patriarch in the long galabia, the traditional dress of the pious Muslim, while watching the rain drip from the roof of his West Jerusalem Hotel.

Sheikh Abd al Wahid Pallavicini is one of more remarkable of the 70 distinguished scholars - Jews, Muslims and Christians - who gathered last week at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for the 10th International Theology Conference on the theme of "Beyond the Pale: Sin and Exclusion among Jews, Christians and Muslims."

"We came together not to see who is right. If there is one thing sure, it is that all of us are in total ignorance of what God really wants," joked the founder and chair of the Institute, Rabbi David Hartman, in his keynote speech, and set the tone for a very open week of discussion and study.

Taking advantage of this mood of toleration, the Italian-born Sheikh Pallavicini hopes to kick-start a dialogue between Islam and Judaism, which may help to find a way of living together in peace.

"We as Muslims but non-Arabs can act as a bridge between the parties of the conflict. Here in Jerusalem we can show that we can get along together," says the 77-year-old sheikh, whose Milan community with several hundred followers is one of the largest non-immigrant Muslim communities in Europe.

"It is up to us to achieve peaceful coexistence, not only by accepting the beliefs of our faith, but also the validity of other dogmas. Especially in this country, this is a question of life and death," he says while walking through the grounds of the Hartman Institute.

To reach to a deeper understanding of other faiths, the sheikh came to Israel accompanied by six of his followers - although not by his wife Nuria, a convert from Japan. His community center in northern Italy will also host a wide spectrum of lectures and courses on inter-faith dialog from June 2003 to December 2004. "The present international situation requires an ever-increasing effort of European intellectuals, in particular Muslim ones, to find a common root," reads the program of his project realized by the CO.RE.IS, the Islamic Community in Italy, founded in 1993.

Being the most prominent member of the CO.RE.IS and the most interviewed Muslim in Catholic newspapers exposes the sheikh not only to a broad public interest in is homeland but also to harsh criticism from fellow Muslims, who are suspicious of his unorthodox views on conversion to Islam. "Conversion is not necessary, as we all, Jews, Muslims and Christians, are waiting for the same Messiah," Sheikh Pallavicini declares - a position seen by many as too liberal for an Islamic leader in Italy, where the first mosque was built a mere 10 years ago and only over strong objections by the Vatican.

The sheikh remains oblivious to such criticism. "All religions lead to salvation. They are just different expressions of the same archetypical principles," says Pallavicini. "On the other hand, confessional exclusivism leads to religious fanaticism and eventually terrorism."

Being involved in a permanent dialogue with the Vatican, he hopes to receive support for this view from the Catholic Church. He calls on the Pope as one of the major authorities among the three religions "to set the example and declare there is salvation also in the other confessions."

While, on the one hand, he will not question essential dogma, he is flexible enough to cite Tertullian when asked what lies behind his personal faith: "I believe because it is absurd."

But Sheikh Pallavicini strongly opposes the "the reign of reason and the pseudo-spirituality of modern times," as he calls it. "People today want a bit of every religion. They practice yoga in the gym and read about Kabbala in their fashion magazine. These cocktails are very poisonous."

Born into the noble Pallavicini family of Milan, a family so bound to the Catholic faith that there have been cardinals sharing this surname, the young Pallavicini was studying medicine at the University of Milan when he felt "the urge to find the reason of life." He became interested in Islam and converted in 1951, taking the name of Abd al Wahid. Expelled by his family ("I was the traitor, the one who betrayed the patrimony"), he then was among the first Italian Muslims.

"We could not even get seven people together for the communal prayer," he recalls on this afternoon, interrupting himself from time to time to put his hand on his chest and respond cheeringly when offered a "Salaam Aleikum" [peace to you] by another Muslim participant of the conference.

The sheikh makes a point out of wearing the traditional galabia when strolling through the streets of Jerusalem ("It helps not to forget to behave and think in a traditional way"), and he revels in the attention he gets for his dress - and his thinking.

"The biggest compliment I received so far at this gathering was when an Orthodox Jew came to me and told me that when I was defending the necessity of following the rituals, I was talking like an Orthodox Rabbi."