During a Bediuzzaman International Symposium on Prophethood in Istanbul, Turkey news broke about members of the Somali Islamic group al-Shabaab violently attacking a mall in Kenya.
Denny Clark recalled the reaction from attendees, most of whom were Muslim. "They were horrified," he said. "They were saying this has nothing to do with Islam. This is not what Muhammad taught." At least 67 people were killed in the attack.
Clark said the news was devastating because much of the discussion at the symposium was about people of different beliefs respecting one another. Clark, 66, who lives in Fort Mitchell, Ala., is a retired professor of religion and philosophy at the College of Idaho. He is an adjunct professor of religion for Saint Leo University and is a part-time staff member of Chattahoochee Valley Episcopal Ministry.
Clark was one of 96 presenters selected from more than 500 proposals to speak at the event sponsored by the Istanbul Foundation of Science and Culture on Sept. 22-24. He read a previously published paper.
Clark said approximately 400 scholars from more than 40 countries were involved. "About 600 lay people attended the various sessions each day," he said. Of the 400 scholars, 10, including Clark, were Christian. The rest were Muslim.
The four-hour opening ceremony was held in a sports arena, with 20,000 people in attendance. It was televised in Turkey.
"That was exciting," Clark said. The symposium's goal was to answer the question of what role and place Prophethood holds in humanity's journey to the truth. But, he said, that portion of the symposium consisted primarily of politicians making speeches.
All of the papers presented by scholars dealt in some way with the thoughts of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a Turkish Muslim reformer who died in 1960. The title Bediuzzaman means "The Wonder of the Age."
Nursi advocated teaching both the natural sciences and Islamic studies in Turkey's educational system. Clark said Nursi opposed the program of aggressive secularization brought by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. For this, Nursi consequently spent much of his life in prison or enforced isolation. Nursi encouraged peaceful, respectful engagement with those of other religious traditions.
Clark said the Nur Movement now has about 9 million members who believe in Nursi's teachings. Nur is Arabic for light. Clark first became interested in it when he became friends with a Muslim during a sabbatical in Connecticut at the Hartford Seminary's Center for Christian and Muslim Relations.
Clark said that the Christian faith and Islam have a lot in common. He said important figures of the Christian Bible are also found in the Quran. David, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus are all considered prophets. "Jesus plays an important role," Clark said. He said Muslims don't use the "language of divinity," not gasping the idea of a son of God, the central point of Christianity.
Clark said Muslims consider Muhammad the last prophet, the one delivering the decisive interpretation of God's message to humanity, a message of compassion and justice for people as well as honoring just one god.
Much of the discussion at the symposium was about how religion does not have to be seen as a contradiction to science. "The two can work together," Clark said. He believes the paper he delivered was well received, with many people asking him questions following its delivery and striking even more conversation at dinner.
He enjoyed the trip. It was not his first time in Turkey but his first to Istanbul. "It was a wonderful trip," he said. "I was honored to be there. The people were marvelously friendly."