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K.N. Islam: Interreligious Dialogue: Some Rules and Assumptions

Essay published in Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2011

Though all the religions of the world teach love, preach sympathy for others and encourage man to exercise utmost self-restraint and have most profoundly been a source of inspiration for the highest good of mankind, the world today is torn by conflicts, enmity, and religious hatred. In this predicament, a lasting and peaceful society is impossible unless different faiths are understood in their proper perspectives. Therefore, it is necessary that people belonging to different faiths understand each other better. This necessitates a constant dialogue and effort to generate moral and hearty religious thinking. The advocates of all the religions of the world emphasize the importance of certain virtues and moral values. Only these can foster unity and cohesion of mankind. But the moral and religious values cannot be invoked by force. This can be achieved through the exchange of words and dialogues.

It is unfortunate that the present methods to resolve differences tend to be more militant and martial than ever before. These methods often shed oceans of blood but cannot conquer a single heart. As a result, peace seems only to be apparent, but not real. Thus, in the present world it has become imperative for man to accept as an article of faith that if, in resolving conflicts, one at all needs any armament then this armament should not be made of gunpowder or nuclear fission. It should be made of words and dialogues that can reach the deepest fathoms of the heart.

In fact, not war but dialogues can solve most of the problems the world is facing. Dialogues of different kinds from the family level to the UN have very often failed. But these have failed because of the lack of warm hearts. Parties or persons concerned lack proper knowledge, sincerity, honesty, and an unbiased attitude to the problem. They pretend but do not intend. Indeed, a warm heart can never shed blood. But unfortunately, the worms of hypocrisy, hatred, enmity, malice, jealousy, selfishness, mistrust, etc., have been eating into our individual as well as national character. In order to get rid of this, we must, through words and dialogues, do our best to form public opinion and awaken pubic conscience to take a firm stand against the illusory hope of peace through military victory.

There is no religion without peace. In fact, religions are meant for peace. We must admit that peace and religion are complementary to each other. When the good of all is desired with an undivided mind, peace will definitely be ours. But people belonging to different faiths, in most cases, have betrayed religious ideals and commitment to peace. The time has come when this betrayal must be corrected. And this can be and should be done through knowledge, dialogue, and demonstration of the fact that love, compassion, selflessness, and the inner force of truthfulness have ultimately greater power than hatred, enmity, and self-interest.

There was a time when various religions, precisely because of their own convictions, were unable to cooperate and were even antagonistic to each other. But the time has changed to a great extent. Improvement in the means of transportation has made the earth smaller. Now religions, in spite of historic differences, must seek to unite all men for the attainment of world peace. Unless the people of faith come closer to each other, the irreligious and anti-religious forces will gain the upper hand. And this may lead to the further breaking up of the moral fiber of society. But at all cost we must preserve the moral aspect of the texture of human society and transform the planet Earth from a house to a home.

Religious people represent a vast majority of the peoples of the world.[1] But unfortunately, we are a confused, divided, and silent majority. The religious people of the world have been quite silent for long, and their silence has worked against human welfare. That is why Ralph David Abernathy remarks,

Our division, our timidity, and our silence left the mighty forces of racism, poverty, and war unchallenged. Our silence has been paid for by the suffering of millions, for whom we should have been the advocates, the friend, and the spokesman.[2]

The time has come when religionists, instead of antagonizing each other because of what we once thought was a religious conviction, should cooperate with each other in order to contribute to the cause of peace for mankind. Because, as Rev. Nikkyo Niwano rightly remarks, “in the final analysis all sectors of religion can be bound together by the common aspiration for human happiness and salvation.”[3]

In the past, we could live in isolation, but now, we are forced to live in one world. We are increasingly living in a Global Village. Until the edge of the present era, humans lived in the Age of Monologue. That age is now passing and we are now poised at the entrance to the Age of Dialogue.[4] Quite a huge number of people travel all over the globe, and large elements of the entire globe come to us. There is hardly any big city in the world that does not echo with foreign accents and languages. Our homes are filled with foreign products and through our television sets, we invite into our living rooms myriads of people of strange nations and religions. Thus, we can no longer ignore the ‘other.’ We cannot look at them with fears and misunderstanding or hate them. This way of encounter can easily lead to hostility and eventually war and death. In this connection Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojes, two pioneers and living legends of interreligious dialogue in the western world, remark:

Today nuclear, ecological, or other catastrophic devastation lies just a little farther down the path of monologue. It is only by struggling out of self-centered monologic mindset into dialogue with the other as she or he really is, and not as we have projected her or him in our monologues, that we can avoid such cataclysmic disasters. In brief we must move quickly from the Age of Monologue to the Age of Dialogue.[5]

Now comes the question: what is meant by dialogue. Dialogue is a conversation between two or more persons with differing views. We enter into any dialogue so that we can learn, change, and grow. Dialogue is not any kind of debate. In dialogue each partner listens to the other as sincerely, sympathetically, and respectfully as possible with an end in view to understand the other’s point of view. Interreligious dialogue is not simply a series of conversations; it is the whole way of thinking, seeing, feeling, and reflecting on the religious traditions of the partners concerned. Swidler and Mojes want to go one step further and give emphasis to ‘Deep Dialogue,’[6] which means to stand on our own position and at the same time seek self-transformation through opening ourselves to those who think differently. If we want socially beneficial, peace-fostering, and Earth-friendly ways of life, there is no alternative to this Deep Dialogue.

However, interreligious dialogue means neither analysis of analysis nor synthesis of analysis. Through these dialogues we have unity without unanimity, diversity without division, and inner change without conversion. Our goal in a dialogue is not unity but understanding, not dominance but development — to create in the heart of every individual a place for every other. Raimundo Panikkar, who is considered the ‘apostle of interreligious dialogue,’ rightly remarks:

The aim of the interreligious dialogue is understanding. It is not win over the other or to come to a total agreement or a universal religion. The ideal is communication in order to bridge the gulfs of mutual ignorance and misunderstanding between the different cultures of the world, letting them speak and speak out their own insights in their own languages.[7]

Panikkar further contends that the aim of an interreligious dialogue is not a unity or a reduction of all the pluralistic variety of man into one single religion, system, ideology, or tradition.[8]The purpose of the dialogue is not to settle abstruse philosophical questions about God. Rather it is to show the kinds of considerations — the reasons which are relevant in religious discussions and to make an honest effort to see every religion at its best.[9]

Interreligious dialogue is not an end in itself but can result in interreligious cooperation at many levels. These dialogues are necessary and helpful in creating an atmosphere of better understanding between the believers of different religions and different codes of conduct and create an ‘aura of peace and understanding.’ Adherents of all religions should dialogue and cooperate with one another if they are to make any genuine contribution to society. Interreligious dialogue is necessary for the revision, development, refinement, and correct interpretation of different religions. We must know others in order to know who and what we are. To know others is a necessary condition to know ourselves and vice versa. Therefore, F. Max Muller, who is one of the founders of comparative religious studies, rightly remarks, “What our great poet once said almost prophetically of languages, may also be said of religions — He who knows only one knows none.”[10] Joachim Wach also holds that the proper attitude in religious studies is that we can claim to know one only if we know all religions, however superficially. [11]

To make interreligious dialogues meaningful and effective partners must follow certain rules.[12] Some of these rules are as follows:

1.   In dialogue one must be ready to learn from partners. The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn. Through learning the participants will change and grow in their perception and understanding of reality and then work accordingly.

2.   Dialogue cannot be one-sided; it has to be both-sided. As interreligious dialogue is cooperative and as its primary goal is for all the partners to learn and change themselves, it is essential that all the participants enter into dialogue not only with their partners across the faith-line but also with their coreligionists, to share the fruits of interreligious dialogue.

3.   Participants must be true to the ideals of dialogue. All participants must come to the dialogue (whether it is interreligious, intra-religious, or inter-ideological dialogue) with complete sincerity and honesty. If the participants come with certain ulterior motives, the purpose of the dialogue will be vitiated. In other words, lack of sincerity will prevent dialogue from happening. We must remember that ‘false fronts’ have no place in dialogue.’

4.   Participants must come with open mind. Each participant must come without any preconceived idea. For example, if a Muslim views Hinduism as inferior, or a Hindu views Islam as inferior, there cannot be any genuine dialogue between them. Participants should come to dialogue with no fixed assumption as to where the points of differences lie. Both the partners must listen to one another with total openness and sympathy and must try to agree as far as possible, while maintaining integrity with their own tradition.

5.    Dialogue must take place only between equals. Participants must come to learn from one another. If we learn only from one, that will be a monologue, not dialogue. For example, there cannot be any meaningful, fruitful, and authentic dialogue between a learned scholar and an uninformed person. In order to have a genuine and authentic dialogue between Muslims and Hindus, for instance, both partners must come primarily to learn. Then and only then will they speak equal with equal. There can be no such thing as a one-way dialogue.

6.    Dialogue should take place only on the basis of mutual trust. The first pre-supposition of any dialogue is mutual trust among the partners .Each partner must remember that if there is no trust, there is no dialogue. It is fundamentally true that only persons have the right to enter into dialogue and any dialogue among persons can be built only on personal trust.

7.    Participants must be ready to be self-critical and accept genuine criticisms from others. Any lack of such self-criticism will imply that our own tradition has all the correct answers. This kind of attitude is bound to make dialogue unnecessary and even impossible. Participants in an ideal interreligious dialogue should stand within a religious tradition with integrity and conviction, but their integrity and conviction should include healthy self-criticism.

There are some other important assumptions and preconditions for interreligious dialogues. As partners in interreligious dialogue, we must come as persons who significantly identify with a religious community. For example, if I were neither a Muslim nor a Sikh, I could not participate as a partner in a Muslim-Sikh dialogue even if I listen attentively, ask intelligent questions, and make helpful observations.

We should not make hasty value judgments on our own religions or other religions. We should not make any hasty distinction nor indulge in any kind of over-simplification and illicit generalization. Rather, we should recognize both differences and similarities. Giving emphasis to similarities alone will lead to an empty universalism which ignores all uniqueness of every religion. Again, emphasizing only the differences will lead to a narrow provincialism which ignores all common elements of all religions. Philip H. Hwang points out:

A genuine meeting between religions should to go beyond a comparison between systems, such as realism and nominalism, intellectualism and intuitionism. For religion is a total activity including all these different modes of actions. No general conceptualizations alone can bring about a genuine dialogue as far as religions are concerned.[13]

We must set the houses of religions in order; i.e., we must practice what we preach, and we must preach what we practice, for the blind cannot lead the blind and the lame cannot help others walk. We must avoid thinking that our religion alone is true and the rest are false. Any sincere study of other religions will show that they are as true as our own. Therefore, it is a must that we entertain the same respect for people all faiths.

Anthony K. Chirepannath opines that when such an attitude becomes the law of life, the conflicts based on the differences will disappear from the face of the earth. We must be aware of the fact that truth is like the fire at the heart of a many-faceted jewel, each angle of which shows a different color and due to our imperfection we can see truth only in figments and act according to our limited vision.[14]

We must feel that we are all members of one great family of great beings, having different forms of working. We must remember that we are all marching towards the spiritual realization of truth and love. Ramakrishna’s views in this regard deserve special attention:

People partition off their lands by means of boundaries, but no one can partition off the all embracing sky overhead. The invisible sky surrounds all and includes all. So, common man in ignorance says: ‘My religion is the only one, my religion is the best’. But when his heart is illumined by true knowledge, he knows that above all these wars of sects and sectarians presides the one indivisible, eternal all-knowing bliss.[15]

In fact, the different faiths are like spokes of a wheel in which God forms the hub. Therefore, let us all radiate towards that hub and find peace and solace.

The Sikh Gurus perceived that there was lack of real love among the people and, therefore, they always laid great stress upon spiritual practices and preached the philosophy of one God, the supreme Reality. They realized very well that differences in conventions and customs and modes of worship made religion lose its vital character. They understood that a new strength and vigor had to be imported into the field of religion and religious practices; it had to be brought home to the minds of the people that there really existed no differences in the places where people of different faiths went to worship. That is why Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and the last Guru, states:

The temple and the mosque are the same, the Hindu worship and the Muslim prayer are the same, all men are the same; it is through erroneous judgment that they appear different…. All men have the same eyes, the same ears, the same build, a compound of earth, air, fire and water…let no man, even by mistake suppose there is a difference.[16]

Thus the need for unity in the family of mankind is being brought home with an increased sense of urgency. And indeed, religion in the truest sense of the term can provide the motive power to create a peaceful world, not through war-armaments, but through word-armaments, i.e., through dialogues. For the resolution of disputes and maintenance of peace among various sections of people irrespective of caste and creed we should agree to use word-armaments or dialogues in assuaging all fears, dispelling all doubts, and even agreeing to disagree on some points. The crying need of the hour is to give a clarion call to all to lay utmost importance on moral development and heart-felt religious thinking as dialogues to establish peace in the world.


[1] “Mankind is incurably religious. Wherever on the face of the earth man is found and at whatever level of civilization he may happen to be, he commonly has his religious beliefs and practices.” G. Watts Cunningham, Problems of Philosophy: An Introductory Survey (London, England: Henry Holt and Company, 1924), p. 399.

[2] Ralph David Abernathy, “An Appeal to the Religious Peoples of the World and to All Men of Goodwill,” Religion for Peace. Proceedings of the Kyoto Conference on Religion and Peace, Homer A. Jack, ed. (New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1993), p. 124. Abernathy also remarks, “It is religion that can overcome our barriers, that can cause our timid tongues to speak. That can give new hope to our painting hearts and fresh ideas to our tired and confused minds.” Ibid., p. 127.

[3] Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, “The Will of God and the Spirit of Buddha,” Religion and Peace, p. 31.

[4] Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojes, The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), p. 145.

[5] Ibid.

[6][6] Ibid., p. 151.

[7] Raimundo Panikkar, The Interreligious Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. XIV.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cf. Pritibhusan Chatterjee, Studies in Comparative Religion (Calcutta: Das Gupta and Co Private Ltd., 1971), p. 426.

[10][10] Max Muller, Studies in Buddhism (Susil Gupta (India) Ltd., Calcutta, 1953), p. 50.

[11] Joachim Wach, “Introduction: The Meaning and Task of the History of Religions,” Joseph Kitagwawa, ed., The History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), pp. 7-8. Also cf. Philip H. Hwang, “An Interreligious Dialogue: Its Reasons, Attitudes and Necessary Assumptions,’’ Henry. O. Thompson, ed. Proceedings of the Global Congress of the World’s Religions (New York: The Rose of Sharon Press, 1982), p. 74.

[12] Leonard Swidler has put forward ten rules of dialogue. See, After the Absolute: The Dialogical Reflection (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 42-46.

[13] Philip H. Hwang, Op. Cit., p. 80. Cf. P.T. Raju, Introduction to Comparative Philosophy (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962), pp. 82-83.

[14] Anthony K. Chirapannath, “Gandhi’s Approach for World Unity through Religion,” The Proceedings of the Global Congress of World’s Religions, p. 167.

[15] “The devotee who has seen God in one aspect only, knows Him in that aspect alone. But he who has seen Him manifold aspects is alone in a position to say: All these forms are of one God and God is multiform. He is formless with form, and many are His forms which no one knows,” Ramakrishna. Cf. Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (New York: Perennial Library, Harper and Row, 1965), p. 87.

[16] Ibid.