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Celebrating King Abdullah II’s call for Muslims — and others — to enact their love of God and neighbor

Cathedrals don’t just happen overnight — they require of their planners, funders, and craftsmen a time horizon better suited for institutions than individuals, and a willingness to do one’s work without the guarantee of ever seeing the end result. The first proposal for the church that became the Washington National Cathedral was made in 1791, but it was more than a century before the builders laid the foundation stone. Its main sanctuary opened to the public in 1932. In 1990, nearly 200 years after its conception, workers finished erecting the cathedral’s tower. Even before its completion, the Cathedral served as both the seat of the U.S. Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop and as the “great church for national purposes” envisioned by city planner Pierre L’Enfant.

Over the past two decades, His Majesty King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein, the ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, has been laying the foundations for a great (if metaphorical) religious structure of his own — using the power of his office to gather religious leaders to articulate shared goals and extend a hand of friendship across deeply held differences, resulting in landmark proclamations that have already helped open new spaces for cooperation between representatives of Sunni and Shia, Muslim and Christian, and religious and secular perspectives.

This past Tuesday several hundred attendees — including religious leaders, scholars, ambassadors, members of Congress and the UN’s Secretary General — braved a chilly night to come to the National Cathedral to see King Abdullah receive the 2018 Templeton Prize for his work in calling Muslims — and all people — to identify and pursue common purposes.

Designed to be larger than the Nobel Prize, the Templeton Prize was established in 1972 to honor those who affirm life’s spiritual dimension through insight, discovery, or practical works. Laureates have included religious leaders like Mother Teresa (1973), the 14th Dalai Lama (2012) and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (2016); philosophers including Charles Taylor (2007) and Tomáš Halík (2014) and scientists such as John Polkinghorne (2002) and Martin Rees (2011). King Abdullah is the second Muslim to receive the prize (Inamullah Khan, the Pakistani founder of the World Muslim Congress, was awarded the prize in 1988), and the first sitting head of state to do so.

The 2018 Templeton Prize serves to recognize King Abdullah’s work strengthening areas of vital common ground within the Muslim community and between Islam and Christianity in order to reduce tensions and to reinforce common values of peace.

‘THE COURTESIES OF DIFFERING’

Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, began the evening with remarks that highlighted the King’s profound respect for the power of faith and “the enduring significance of religion and the values that it promotes.”

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a leading American Muslim theologian and public intellectual, focused on King Abdullah’s work in the 2013 Amman Message, an important reforming document highlighting shared convictions of hundreds of scholars from Islam’s leading schools of jurisprudence, affirming common tenets, and encouraging, as Yusuf put it, “Islam’s great tradition of religious pluralism, compassion, and tolerance, and its science of ‘the courtesies of differing.’”

Yusuf was followed by Miroslav Volf, a Croatian-American theologian who has written extensively on forgiveness and reconciliation, especially between those with competing understandings of God. Volf spoke about a second, equally influential initiative that King Abdullah spearheaded, the 2007 open letter A Common Word between Us and You, directed from Muslim leaders to their Christian counterparts. The letter came in response to several years of escalation in public condemnations of Islamic beliefs that had come in forms ranging from political cartoons to a quotation in papal remarks. When he first read A Common Word, Volf recalled, he was moved to organize his divinity school colleagues to compose a “Yale Response” to the letter, which was eventually signed by hundreds of Christian theologians and leaders.

The genius of A Common Word, Volf said, was its insistence on paired and deeply held central values — love of God and love of neighbor — held by both Islam and Christianity. “A Common Word, with its stress on the love of God and neighbor, has acquired new relevance today,” Volf said. “First, to make love of God and love of neighbor one’s highest value is to embrace a pan-human creed. By definition, the one God is the God of the whole of humanity; and the neighbor can be any human being anywhere.”

The King’s willingness to act on this love for neighbor, even the distant neighbor, received commendation from the the third speaker, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. Before his took his current role in 2017, Guterres was the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, a role that put him in frequent contact with King Abdullah, whose nation has extended hospitality to millions of refugees over the years, including more than a million people displaced by the ongoing conflict in Syria. “For those like me who know him, this honor comes as no surprise,” Guterres noted. During his years as high commissioner, Guterres recounted how he often felt he had to ask the government of Jordan to do the impossible in its care for refugees. But often, after a word with King Abdullah, “the impossible would become reality,” Guterres said.

King Abdullah was also a driving force behind the creation of the UN’s World Interfaith Harmony Week in 2010 — emphasizing the universal call for “love of God or love of the good” (an addition intended to welcome non-believers), as well as love of neighbor. “King Abdullah calls on us to do far more than tolerate each other,” Guterres said. “His message is one of respect, solidarity, and love.”

EXEUNT, WITH SINGING

After a video highlighting his achievements, King Abdullah stood to receive the award. Heather Templeton Dill then presented King Abdullah with the Prize, consisting of a Tree of Life medallion, an award parchment decorated with Jordanian iconography, and £1.1 million pounds sterling. He then took the podium for his own remarks.

“Everything you honor me for simply carries onward what Jordanians have always done, and how Jordanians have always lived — in mutual kindness, harmony, and brotherhood,” King Abdullah said. “It’s been said that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing. But together,” he continued, “we can create the future of coexistence that humanity so desperately needs.”

The celebration closed with a series of musical performances, woven together by Jordanian composer Talal Abu Al Ragheb. The singer Zain Awad offered tightly turned Arabic melodies, while the 10-year-old Jordanian-American prodigy Emanne Beasha sang new music in timbres that ranged from childlike purity to full operatic depth, backed by a choir and an orchestra of western and Arabic instruments. And then, as colored lights shone upward on the fluted columns of the cathedral nave, the king made his exit.

Watch the full video of the Templeton Prize ceremony: