Monks of Tibhirine (John Kiser)

“First, realize that it is necessary for an intelligent person to reflect on the words that are spoken, not the person who says them.  If the words are true, he will accept them whether he who says them is known as a truth teller or a liar.  One can extract gold from a clump of dirt, a beautiful narcissus comes from an ordinary bulb, medication from the venom of a snake

An intelligent man gets to know others through what is trustworthy and authentic in him, not through words.  For an intelligent person, wisdom is like a lost sheep which is to be sought, and can be found anywhere and in any individual.”

Abd-el-Kader, Algerian Muslim Statesman, in 1858

The true story of The Monks of Tibhirine, by John W. Kiser, is resoundingly relevant for Muslims seeking a perspective on their relationship to people of other faiths.  The book itself is based on a tragedy that occurred in a setting where tragedies have been commonplace.  The deplorable humanitarian conditions and unfortunate political climate in Tibhirine, Algeria during the 1990Œs brought to life in this account, however, in the end serve as a backdrop.  The focus instead is an inspiring and captivating narrative of the understanding, brotherhood, and iman that develop between nine French Trappist monks and their Muslim neighbors.

Algerian living conditions approached their worst by 1994, as the French government warned its citizens to leave in the face of the countrys increasingly terrorist political clashes.  The monks of Notre Dame de lҒAtlas monastery were among the very few who disregarded the warning, even though it was becoming increasingly clear that even members of clergy were not immune.  Two nuns were shot from behind while exiting a building; over 50 imams were targeted and killed for denouncing the violence, by groups who claimed to speak for Islam.  In March of 1996, seven of these nine monks were kidnapped.  Their remains were found two months later.

The monks funeral was held in Tibhirine, among their Muslim friends, and their families, who had come from France.  That afternoon, a violent rainstorm was dramatically interrupted by warm sunlight.  At this time, in the words of the author, ғThe dam of emotion broke.  The neighbors from the area, the Sufis from (the neighboring town of) Medea and beyond, local imams and mayors who had come to say good-bye, all plunged forward.  One of the monks sisters recalled, as they all started shoveling, ғThere was a mad, almost violent intensity as they threw dirt in the holes.  It was as if they were venting anger, shame, and love all at once.

The authorԒs objective is to uncover and explain the relationship that existed between the monks and the Muslims of Tibhirine that would result in so moving a tribute.  Each of the monks had been drawn to Algeria over a period of 25 years, by the humility and simplicity of the land and its people.  Most notable among them is the elected Prior of the group, Christian de Cherge, whose life was saved by a Muslim many years earlier during his service in the French military, and thus developed a deeply rooted desire to understand the common threads between Islam and Christianity.

The other monks, each of whom are also described in fascinating detail, come with varying opinions of Islam, but are ultimately moved to admiration of the local Muslim population.  They are struck by how synonymous the Muslims deep spirituality is to the devotion they themselves strive to maintain, and conclude that they ғsing the same song (as Christians), only in a different key.  The Muslims who come in contact with them, meanwhile, form their own opinion of the monks as well: with their routine of prayer, emphasis on community, and dutiful commitment to hospitality, the monks are considered exemplary Muslims, and are widely respected as brothers and elders. 

As the political climate grows increasingly hostile, the monks reach a decision: they will not desert their unspoken commitment to the village, fully aware of their vulnerability.  The musings of the monks in the face of the danger is further evidence of commonality with Islam.  Says de Cherge, ԓEach person must ask, Have I eradicated all forms of hatred from my heart?ђ We cannot live (here) wishing for peace, if we dont go to this extreme of removing hatred from ourselves, and no one can say he has done this.Ҕ  In this way, from a Christian, we are instructed on the true meaning of jihad.

Mr. Kisers work is beautifully researched, and very, very difficult to put down.  It serves a dual purpose, each one worthy of a book on its own.  The first is to provide a contrast between the terrorist factions who abuse Islam as a tool, and the people of Tibhirine, who practice Islam as brotherhood.

The second is to highlight how different people actually reach an understanding of God in different ways.  Writes Abd-el-Kader: ғNone of Gods creatures worship Him in His entirety.  No one is an infidel in all the ways of relating to God.  No one knows all GodҒs facets.  Each of His creatures worships and knows him in a certain way, and is ignorant of Him in others.  In light of such thinking, Mr. KiserԒs account of the lives and thoughts of a group of individuals sincerely dedicated to Islam in the truest sense of the word is an invaluable read for any Muslim.