Identity, Otherness and Intentions

An interview with Imam Massimo Abdullah Cozzolino

I arrived a few minutes early. After getting lost in the alleys of Piazza Mercato, I recognize the association’s banner. I enter and ask for Massimo. The person I speak to looks at me with curious eyes and shows me a ladder, perhaps he noticed the small wooden cross I wear around my neck. As I go upstairs, I think: “Of course it is not usual to see Christians in a mosque, but how nice it is to meet in the places most dear to us, those where our knees bend and our voices stutter prayers and timid invocations.โ€ I take off my shoes, walk barefoot, like friends who attend the mosque, like our Christian brothers in Egypt, and other Eastern churches when they enter the monasteries, and in the ancient Coptic churches. Massimo Abdullah Cozzolino warmly welcomes me, we spoke on the phone, it’s the first time we meet. Before starting our chat, he informs me that at 4:00 pm we will have to interrupt our interview for the afternoon prayer. He introduces me to his friends as a Catholic brother, with everyone exchanging a smile and a few words of encouragement. He is the Imam of the Zayd ibn Thabit association of Naples and is also the general secretary of the Italian Islamic Confederation. A good Muslim who does not disdain to mention Saint Francis, Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori and Leonardo Boff, along with the great mystics of Islamic tradition.


In recent years, in Europe too, many have converted to Islam. What reasons motivate an Italian to embrace the Islamic faith?

In recent years, several sociological studies have been published, but I would say that there are three main reasons: marriage motivations, people wishing to marry with Muslim men and women and who approach the faith because of marriage; relational motivations, we come into contact with our faith through friendships, community experiences, the desire to belong to a group; and a third group is made up of people in search. It is a minimal percentage, which belong to different classes, with different degrees of scholastic and intellectual formation, people who often come from other religious journeys.

In this searching journey you realize the consistency of the choice not so much for an outward manifestation of religious affiliation (veil, beard, observance of eating rules), but rather by the depth and understanding of what is at the heart of faith.

In this sense, the teacher โ€“ disciple relationship is fundamental. If the transmission does not take place through a shared path, but happens through the web, this can generate a distorted view of the faith. The attitude of a new convert can risk the development of an intransigent Salafist, but risks turning out to be weak with respect to the core of the experience of faith.


Today, Islam is called to reform itself. Every religion is called to a spiritual conversion, a decentralization that puts God and human fraternity at the centre of their religious experience. What steps do you think must be taken by Muslim communities in Europe today?

There is an urgency in Europe: to conjugate the spiritual and cultural tradition of Islam with the values of Western culture, we must create a bridge. I can be European and Muslim, there is no contradiction in this twofold belonging. We must reinterpret our tradition in the light of a multireligious society, considering the legitimacy of other religious paths, and shaking hands in a path of mercy. We certainly need people with theological and spiritual skills, but above all we need people who know how to find ways to reinterpret this heritage in our context. We must find the forms and the languages to make ourselves understood by our faithful, we need a simple language, we must go back to the example, to the hadith, to the spiritual story to transmit certain principles.


When visiting the University of Al-Azhar, Pope Francis addressed the great Imam Ahmed al Tayyb with the nickname “my brother”, and during his lectio magistralis spoke of three fundamental guidelines for dialogue between believers: the duty of identity, the courage of otherness and the sincerity of intentions. What do you think of the Pope’s words?

These three aspects are fundamental for developing a profound and sincere dialogue. First of all, when he says “brothers” he recognizes legitimacy. I am reminded of an image of Alfonso Maria de ‘Liguori when he speaks of that attitude of sweetness that leads you to the recognition of the other and to mercy. We are brothers, but at the same time we abhor all forms of religious syncretism, spiritual exoticism. Linked to our identity, we have the opportunity to continue this journey on a path of sincerity. Not only to respond to a social need for security, but to rediscover the deeper meaning of our faiths, and for the common attention we must have towards all those forms of oppression and injustice that divide humanity. We must be brothers, and together we must face the great problems of the present, we can not lose ourselves in sterile discussions. Faced with the great themes of hunger, poverty, war, respect for the environment, the reception of migrants, we should be able to speak a common word and tend towards the same end.


The Imam al Tayyeb said: “We believe that only through true knowledge of Islam and its values can fundamentalism be fought in Europe.” What do you think he has in mind, when he talks about a true knowledge of Islam?

Islam is essentially a faith, it is a path of life that has a necessary condition: abandonment to God. It is above all knowledge, not an erudite knowledge โ€“ that too – but above all the maturation of that love of God in us, a knowledge of the heart. On the day of judgment Allah will look at our heart, our behaviour, He will not be interested in beards and ritualisms. If a person asks me: “What attitude should I have towards a Christian?” I answer them: “There you must show your faith, your friendship”. If you prostrate yourself to Allah to ask for forgiveness and then think to harm your brother, all this is useless. Knowledge is the transformation of the heart, that is where the spark of an authentic religious life starts.


What can Christians learn from Muslims, and what can Muslims learn from Christians?

I believe that Christians can appreciate a faith which is more participated in Muslims, not a simple belonging, but a faith that is searching, a journey. On the other hand, Muslims can learn a more free approach to faith: unfortunately, in many countries of Islamic tradition, the concept of free choice has not been used. Many of our faithful return to the practice of faith because they find themselves living in a context of religious freedom that motivates a free and constructive belonging.

Time is running out, I still have a lot of questions to ask, but I risk being late for Mass. Before greeting Massimo Abdullah and thanking him for his time, a lady shows up at the door. She is a Moroccan woman, veiled and in the traditional way. When the Imam introduces me, the lady lights up, and tells me how well she was received by a Neapolitan priest, an exceptional priest who took care of her and her children. After a brief dialogue we greet each other, and with love we mutually trust the Lord. As I leave the mosque, amid the smiles of young Africans who exchange a few words before going to the evening prayer, I think back to a prayer I heard many years ago: “To those who are not afraid to experience paths of fraternity, and beyond all belonging , look at the neighbour with the eyes of God, peace be with you ยป.

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